Saul Bellow’s most recent publication, The Actual, brings his literary production—in a publishing career now spanning more than half a century—to some eighteen volumes of prose fiction, criticism, travel writing, and reminiscence. In his longevity, at least, he has rivaled William Dean Howells, and it may turn out that Bellow will have done best, for our time, what Howells did well for nineteenth-century America—that is, to have provided a reasonably realistic and representative portrait of the moral and social tendencies of his time. Hippolyte Taine called Howells “a precious painter and a sovereign witness,” and a like tribute may be voiced in respect to Bellow. In any case, both men in old age earned the “distinction” of being called “the Dean of American Letters.” In Bellow’s case, its literal relevance may lie in his having poured himself, so fully, into The Dean’s December (1982).

 

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