Saul Bellow’s College English Professor Called Him A ‘Dud’

Saul Bellow may be considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but he apparently didn’t show much potential until well into his college career.

While in high school, Bellow worked on the school newspaper as a sports editor, but rarely wrote articles. “He seldom spoke out. I doubt whether anyone could have detected anything special about him,” the paper’s editor Dave Schwab said later, according to James Atlas’s definitive biography of Bellow. Even though he didn’t write much, Bellow apparently still viewed himself as a writer of great promise. His high school girlfriend later said: “He thought he was a great writer when he was writing for the high-school newspaper.” But Bellow was generally overshadowed in high school by another classmate, Ike Rosenfeld, who was three years younger but widely considered to be the school’s “literary star.”

The situation didn’t improve much when he got to the University of Chicago. Walter Blair, a renowned scholar of American writing, later praised Bellow for being a strong student, but only gave him an S for “satisfactory” at the end of the class. Other teachers were even harsher: Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It, said that Bellow showed no signs of literary greatness and labeled the young writer a “dud.”

The mixed feedback of his teachers left a mark on Bellow, according to Atlas’s biography:

Bellow was discouraged by his teachers’ failure to recognize his promise. “I suppose I wanted attention.” Their neglect compounded his own fears about the futility of the enterprise on which he had embarked. It was hard at times not to wonder — if only to himself — whether his family might be right: Where did he get the idea that he could become a writer?

As it happened, Bellow left the University of Chicago early — his family could no longer afford the tuition — and he later enrolled at Northwestern instead, which allowed him to live at home. While he was embarrassed to attend a less prestigious school, the teachers there proved more supportive of his literary pursuits and he even won third prize in a short story contest on campus.

The story, “The Hell It Can’t,” was a retort to Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, which had appeared the year before. It’s atmosphere is heavily Kafkaesque: A man is awakened in the middle of the night and led away by a faceless gang of nameless thugs, who march him off to a room and administer a brutal whipping.

Perhaps more important than the story was the byline: For the first time, Bellow decided to abbreviate his name from Solomon to Saul. Saul Bellow was born.

Image courtesy of MDCarchives

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