How Maxie Pinsker Got His Name


Anybody who cares a fig about American literature was saddened to learn that Saul Bellow passed away, at age 89, on April 6th. He was a writer in the great tradition of William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway—and the last important member of what was once known as the New York Jewish intellectuals. True, Bellow’s fiction centered around Chicago rather than New York but Bellow, especially at the beginning of his career, published his first stories and his novella, Seize the Day, in the pages of Partisan Review, the independently minded “small magazine” that changed the very parameters of American intellectual life during the l940’s and ‘50’s.

Bellow was the last member of the literary crowd that once included the likes of Philip Rahv and William Phillips (editors of Partisan Review), Isaac Rosenfeld, Delmore Schwartz, Lionel Trilling, and Irving Howe. We now settle for decidedly lesser lights as our cultural landscape moved from the gravitas of High Modernism through stages of postmodern innovation to what now insists on calling itself post-postmodernism. And poor Bellow, as untaught by assistant professors as he is unread by fledgling fiction writers, is now largely known for a remark he allegedly made about Tolstoy and the Zulus and for introducing heavy strains of misogyny and racism into his fiction. Bellow’s best defense against such baseless charges is nothing more nor less than his work but I’m afraid that the PC crowd prefers dishing the dirt to close reading.

As I made my way through the generous remarks about Bellow printed in our leading newspapers I was reminded of how irritated he could get when certain critics insisted on calling him a “Jewish-American novelist.” He was an American novelist, thank you very much, with no need to stick on an adjective designed to make him a niche writer. Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth felt the same way but Bellow, being the cranky New York intellectual he surely was, knew how to fire off devastating quips designed to show just how “made-up,” how foolish, the whole racket of Jewish-American literature was.

Unfortunately, what might have been funny to somebody else gave me the willies. I was, after all, numbered among the Jewish-American critics Bellow thought so witless and/or crass that they couldn’t see imaginative writing for what it was—namely, serious art rather than so much sociological comment about immigrant Jews making their way in America. Pushed hard enough Bellow would, of course, admit that he was Jewish (how could he deny it?), but he would go on to make it clear that he was much more familiar with the Chicago Realists than he was with Talmud or Torah. More important, what he hoped to add to American letters was a new style, a way of joining brainy dreams with street smarts. Bellow’s most enduring characters convince us that they could set our sorry culture a’right if only they weren’t so distracted—by marrying the wrong women or plunging their money into the wrong get-rich-quick scheme. Small wonder, then, that I used Moses Herzog as Exhibit A in my dissertation about the schlemiel as the architect of his own misfortune, and that, in Herzog’s case, the fact that he’s cuckolded by his best friend him makes him very template of the contemporary schlemiel.

By most measures, I did well enough with my investigations into Jewish-American fiction, but I could never quite escape certain night sweats. What if Bellow, Malamud, and Roth were right, and I had wasted my professional life chasing so many made-up phantoms? How, then, was I different from the luftmentchenI studied in Yiddish folklore, people who lived on air rather than with their feet firmly planted on the ground? In a word, I had “doubts.”

I got a chance to test out some of these worries in the spring of l972, when Saul Bellow agreed to give a public lecture at the college where I was teaching, and to visit my class in (what else?) Jewish-American literature Widely known as a cranky guest, Bellow proved to be just the opposite. He was as charming as any charmer in his fiction. True enough, he found ways to chide me for trying to label him a “Jewish-American writer,” and used a small moment from Herzog to make his case: “Moses Herzog is a great hockey fan and we even see him attending a Blackhawks game. How come none of my critics mention that?

“True enough,” I replied, and then added this: “But Moses Herzog does a great deal more than attend hockey games, and it is hardly fair to fault critics for responding to the themes that get the largest amount of space. I see your point, of course, and if your next three novels revolve around hockey I can assure you that the books will be reviewed in Sports Illustrated rather than Commentary.

It was, as they say, a moment. I suspect that Bellow was not much moved by what I regarded as my best shot, but I can report that my night sweats about teaching Jewish-American fiction went away. Later in the afternoon, after he fielded questions in class, I had a chance to ask him something I’d been thinking about for the past few months—namely, the poet Delmore Schwartz. I noticed that his poetry had been dropped in the latest editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature and I told Bellow that I thought that it was a shame. In fact, I’d been thinking of doing a scholarly article on Schwartz and wondered if he had any memories of the man that might help me. Bellow noticeably winced, admitted that he knew Schwartz, and quickly changed the subject.

“Wince,” as any writer will tell you, is a used-up, usually corny word, but nothing else will quite do to describe the flash of pain that skidded across Bellow’s brow. It was the same look that followed my innocent but unwelcome question about “what he was writing now.” “Sorry,” he said, “I don’t want to spook the muse.”

Imagine my surprise when Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s novel about the tempestuous poet clearly modeled on Schwartz, appeared in l975, and imagine my even greater surprise when a minor character shows up with the moniker Maxie Pinsker. He was not (thank God!) an annoying English professor; he was a standard fixture in the Bellow canon: a sleazy lawyer representing an ex-wife. Bellow had had lots of experience with the type, all of it bad.

My hunch is that Bellow carried away the sound of my last name from l972 and found a way to wrinkle it into his novel. From time to time Bellow scholars point out my brief appearance in Humboldt’s Gift and wonder if I’m as nasty as Bellow suggests. I’m not, but as I reflect about Bellow’s central importance in the making of serious Jewish-American fiction, I figure that to be brushed by Bellow’s pen, however so slightly, is a blessing.