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Wednesday, July 24

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"'Don't be a sap, Augie, and fall into the first trap life digs for you. Young fellows brought up in bad luck, like you, are naturals to keep the jails filled—the reformatories, all the institutions. What the state orders bread and beans long in advance for. ... It's practically determined. And if you're going to let it be determined for you too, you're a sucker. Just what's predicted. Those sad and tragic things are waiting to take you in—the clinks and clinics and soup lines know who's a natural to be beat up and squashed, made old, pooped, farted away, no-purposed away. If it should happen to you, who'd be surprised? You're a set-up for it.'"
--words of wisdom from Mr. Einhorn in The Adventures of Augie March

Don't be a sucker. That's Mr. Einhorn's advice to Augie March in his speech excerpted above. Mr. Einhorn, the crippled property-broker, is just one of the many mentors Augie encounters in Saul Bellow's novel, The Adventures of Augie March.

The book is an episodic adventure story in the same tradition as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and it features a dynamic cast of larger-than-life characters that would make Charles Dickens proud.

First published in 1953, the novel tells the story of Augie March, a poor boy growing up in Depression-era Chicago, who searches throughout the story for his place in the world. Although born into poverty, with a mentally disabled younger brother and a "weak minded" mother, Augie is no sucker. He refuses to be shaped by his circumstances or environment, trying on and casting off a wild variety of occupations in his quest for identity and freedom.

In an article for The Guardian in 1995, British writer Martin Amis summed up Augie's vocational adventures by writing, "During the course of the novel Augie becomes (in order) a handbill-distributor, a paperboy, a dimestore packer, a news-vendor, a Christmas extra in a toy department, a flower-deliverer, a butler, a shoe-salesman, a saddle-shop floorwalker, a hawker of rubberised paint, a dog-washer, a book-swiper, a coal-yard helper, a housing surveyor, a union organiser, an animal-trainer, a gambler, a literary researcher, a salesman of business machines, a sailor, and a middleman of a war profiteer."

All that in just 600 pages.

The Adventures of Augie March won the National Book Award in 1954, and it is hailed by some, including Martin Amis, as the Great American Novel for its ability to capture both the pluralism and inclusiveness of the country.

But, in the end, does Augie succeed in realizing his identity, or does he continue to reject life through to the last page?

About the Author

Saul Bellow was born in 1915 in Lachine, Quebec, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. The family moved to Chicago when Bellow was nine years old, settling in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. He briefly attended the University of Chicago, but transferred and graduated from Northwestern University in 1937 with honors in anthropology and sociology.

During the next decade Bellow held a number of jobs. He worked as a writer for the Works Project Administration and taught at the Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College in Chicago from 1938-42. He was also a member of the editorial department of the "Great Books" project at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. and served as a U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.

The Adventures of Augie March was Bellow's third novel, but the first of three of his works to win the National Book Award, a rare achievement. His novel Herzog won the award in 1965, and Mr. Sammler's Planet earned the honor in 1971. Bellow also the received the Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt's Gift in 1975. And, in 1976, Bellow earned a Nobel Prize for Literature.

His last novel, Ravelstein, was published in 2000 to general critical acclaim. Bellow was then 84 years old. Earlier this year, however, on April 5, 2005, Saul Bellow passed away at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, at the age of 89.

Now read The Adventures of Augie March, and then tell us what you think by joining the Gapers Block Book Club on Monday, January 9, 2006 to discuss the book at The Book Cellar, located at 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm, and new members are always welcome. Be sure to sign up for the book club mailing list for special news, announcements and more.

Additional Resources

Atlas, James. Bellow: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2000.
The acclaimed biography of the writer. Fascinating reading.

Saul Bellow Society
The website includes an annotated bibliography and research guide to the works of Saul Bellow. You can also download back issues of the Society's newsletter, and read critical overviews of Bellow's novels, including Augie March.

The Adventures of Augie March Reading Guide
This is the official reading guide from publisher Penguin Books. It includes an introduction to the novel and discussion questions.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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