Forget that Packers-Bears rivalry. The greatest grudge match in history was waged by Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald over the proper way to write fiction.
In a letter to Fitzgerald, Wolfe called himself a “putter-inner.” He tried to cram life — big, rollicking, loud, sloppy life — onto the page. Fitzgerald, Wolfe said, was a “leaver-outer.” He distilled life's unruly swarm of sensations and experiences into simple, elegant sentences.
With Wednesday's announcement that the new pick for the Chicago Public Library's One Book, One Chicago program is Saul Bellow's gorgeous grab bag of a novel, “The Adventures of Augie March” (1953), the score is:
Putter-inners 1, Leaver-outers 0.
“Augie March” is a noisy, overgrown, beautiful mess of a book. It's filled with rascals and roustabouts, chiselers and cheats, lovers and losers — and dirt. Behold the narrator's spot-on description of a Chicago winter: “The weather stayed black, undispersed soot sitting on the snow. Like the interior of something that should be closed.”
It's a Chicago book, from its famous first words — “I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style …” — right down to its dirty fingernails. And its big dreams.
“It explores Chicago, warts and all,” says Mary Dempsey, Chicago Public Library commissioner. “It's the Chicago of the hustlers, those people who have less-than-perfect pasts — but who are survivors. As much of a scam artist and slide-by guy that Augie is, you root for him.
“We know it's a long book, we know it's ambitious, but we think it really speaks to Chicago and its people.”
And it speaks in a voice that is fast, jittery and irresistible. Augie is a kid on the make, a kid ravenous for life. The book comes at the reader the way Augie goes at life: in a great, long, brash, headlong rush, bristling with equal parts mayhem and fun.
“It's a truly American story,” Dempsey adds.
Annie Tully, coordinator of the One Book, One Chicago program for the past four years, says that “Augie March” will never be mistaken for a haiku.
“It's a much longer novel than we've ever chosen,” she says. Indeed, the Penguin paperback edition runs to 536 densely packed pages. “But this is our 10th anniversary and we wanted to do something grand.”
You won't be reading alone. The library will offer dozens of Augie-inspired public programs in September and October, from staged readings of the novel by actors associated with Victory Gardens and other Chicago theater companies; a talk by British writer and Bellow enthusiast Martin Amis, who has called Bellow “the greatest American author, ever” and “a force of nature”; and an appearance by Bellow's widow, Janis Freedman-Bellow, and scholars Benjamin Taylor and Jonathan Wilson.
One of the most intriguing events will occur at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 11 and 12 in Millennium Park when, Tully says, the first chapter will be read aloud over the public address system.
“Sentence by sentence,” she says, “nobody writes like Bellow anymore.”
Few authors have been as closely identified with Chicago as Bellow, who lived and worked here, between brief stints elsewhere, for almost eight decades. Bellow was born in Canada, the son of Russian parents — the family name originally was Belo — but the family moved to Chicago when the author was 9, settling in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.
In 1933, the same year his mother died of breast cancer, Bellow enrolled in theUniversity of Chicago, living in a Hyde Park boardinghouse. His father, however, fell behind on the tuition, and so Bellow transferred to Northwestern. He graduated in 1937 with a degree in anthropology.
And then came the novels, novels that danced and roiled with life — although not right away, perhaps. As critic Norman Podhoretz once noted, Bellow's first two novels, “Dangling Man” (1944) and “The Victim” (1947), were orderly and subdued. “Augie March” was the breakthrough, the novel that was so lusty, so filled with verbal fireworks, that it probably made readers sit up and grasp the arms of their chairs.
“One senses,” Podhoretz wrote in his 1953 review of the novel in Commentary magazine, “the joy with which Mr. Bellow breathes the freer air; he writes likes a man set loose from prison.”
Bellow's career was the kind that required the periodic purchase of umbrellas — the better to protect his head from the constant shower of awards, accolades, fancy medals and shiny trophies. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, the Pulitzer Prize the same year. But as his letters — published by Viking in 2010 — reveal, he remained an earnest, funny, generous man and a good friend.
Now his third novel joins the 20 books chosen by the library in the 10 years of its One Book, One Chicago program. They are short and long, famous and obscure, realistic and whimsical. Each one has, in its own way, “helped communities come together around a book,” Dempsey says.
And in a time of great economic uncertainty — this means you, 2011 — a book can be both beacon and salve, she adds. “It's a very frightening time, and nurturing one's mind is more important than ever before. It's how we survive. A book inspires you to look forward.”
Augie can relate. His story starts during the Great Depression and recounts how he improvised his way past traps and snares.
“I touched all sides,” Augie says, “and nobody knew where I belonged.”
Except that he really does belong somewhere: Chicago, a place that Augie embraces with love and zest and occasional exasperation.
Now the city is returning the favor.