I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent
Saul Bellow, "The Adventures of Augie March"
Saul Bellow arrived with his family in Chicago on July 4, 1924, smuggled by bootleggers across the border from Canada. He was nine years old. He would remain an “illegal alien”—we would now say, “undocumented immigrant”—until the age of 27.
Bellow was born in 1915 in Lachine, Quebec. His parents were Russian Jews. They had originally come to Canada to flee anti-Semitic violence and political persecution in their home city of St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Bellow family arrived on American soil two short months after the U. S. Congress passed the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act, a drastic and sweeping revision of federal immigration policy. The new law slammed the door on a mass of humanity that had been flowing to America since the late 19th-century, ending the greatest era of unrestricted migration to the United States in its history. From 1880 to 1924, waves of newcomers, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. powered the rapid growth of Chicago. The city’s population quadrupled in thirty years’ time, growing from 500,000 residents in 1880 to over 2 million in 1910. By 1924, when Bellow took up residence with his family in the Russian Jewish enclave of Humboldt Park, 70% of Chicago residents were foreign-born or the children of foreign-born parents.
His whole life, Bellow retained a vivid impression of the first day he spent in America: July 4, 1924. He recalled his nine-year-old self thinking the fireworks, flags, bunting and parades of Independence Day were for him, meant to hail the promise of his new life in America.
But the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act told a less welcoming story. The law was informed by the burgeoning eugenics movement, which maintained that peoples from Southern and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa were genetically inferior to those from Northern and Western Europe. The 1924 Act accordingly slashed immigration rates from targeted nations by 98%, barring admission to Russian Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Italians, Greeks, Mexicans, Chinese, Turks, Armenians, Lithuanians and Africans, among many others. Conspicuously, the 1924 Act left the door open to migrants from Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway.
Eugenicists celebrated the 1924 Act as a measure that would “preserve the purity of American stock” by welcoming immigrants only “of higher intelligence,” who thus presented “the best material for American citizenship”. The now-excluded categories of people, it was believed, had “made an excessive contribution to our insane, criminal and other socially inadequate classes.” A related federal act prohibited entry to “epileptics and insane persons; paupers; professional beggars; persons likely to become a public charge; persons afflicted with a loathsome or dangerous disease; and persons who have committed a felony or other crime involving moral turpitude.” Polygamists, prostitutes and those with “mental or physical defects which might affect their ability to earn a living” were also banned.
A natural reading of The Adventures of Augie March views it as Bellow’s artistic response to the contradictions inherent in the historical moment of his arrival in this country. The story Bellow scrawled, beginning in 1947, in a succession of battered notebooks—notebooks now housed in the Special Collections Research Center—charts the coming of age of a young undocumented immigrant amidst the foreign-born multitudes of Chicago. Augie, Bellow’s narrator, struggles amongst the plenty and poverty of the city toward self-knowledge. He achieves it at last in discovering his identity as an American writer.
Bellow’s novel offers a rejoinder to the premise that a person’s country of origin, physical form or natural endowments determine their fitness for American life. The characters peopling The Adventures of Augie March hail from the countries of origin marked for exclusion by the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act: they are Russian Jews, they are Mexican, they are Hungarian and Polish, they are Czech and Italian. They may be paralyzed, blind, physically disabled, or “insane.” They are relegated to the poverty-stricken and criminal margins of the city’s teeming social world. Invariably they are the “socially inferior.” But they are unmistakably American, and they contribute to the vibrant day-to-day of an unmistakably American city.
Augie is not quite Bellow’s alter ego. But his life echoes aspects of Bellow’s life, and his impressions and experiences are often artful silhouettes of Bellow’s own. Above all, the language Bellow uses to recount Augie’s adventures bears the unique and unmistakable stamp of the city that shaped him.
As a child coming of age on the streets of Chicago, Bellow absorbed a rich inheritance. His earliest spoken languages were Russian and Yiddish. He picked up English on Chicago’s West Side, where he played alongside the children of recently-arrived Poles, Italians, Swedes, Greeks, Hungarians, Czechs and Romanians. Bellow remembered these immigrant youths being as eager as he was to talk about distinctly American things: “baseball, prizefights, speakeasies, graft, jazz, crap games, gang wars.” As an adolescent, Bellow drew inspiration from soapbox preachers on Division Street, vendors hawking wares in the Maxwell Street Market, and speeches by orators, labor leaders and poets who assembled for debates in Bughouse Square, the park beside the Newberry Library. He haunted the stacks of multiple branches of the Chicago Public Library, where classic texts of world literature were freely available to him, the son of a low-wage employee at a kosher bakery on Augusta Avenue.
These multitudinous influences are evident in the language Augie March uses to tell his story. Inflected with Yiddish rhythms, salted with slang and idiomatic speech, packed with interludes of heightened poetic phrasing and allusions to high culture, Augie’s narrative voice immerses readers in the colloquial language of the Chicago streets. One of the signal achievements of The Adventures of Augie March, according to the writer Philip Roth, was how the novel raised “the language you spoke, the American argot you heard on the street,” to the level of high literature. Augie’s narrative voice even keeps pace with the evolution of Chicago street speech over three decades. As the chapters proceed the music of the language shifts from the rhythms of the Prohibition-era vernacular, to the minor key changes of the Great Depression in the 1930s, to the grander tones of the 1940s heralding the post-war economic boom.
The idea for a novel that channeled the music of Chicago vernacular speech came to Bellow when he was living in Paris in 1947. One morning, watching city workers opening the valves of hydrants to allow the gushing water to sweep clean the pavements, he asked himself, “why not have as much freedom of movement as this running water?” The flowing hydrants conjured the sudden memory, Bellow said, of “a handsome, free-wheeling kid from childhood whose surname was August, and who used to yell when we were playing, ‘I got a scheme!’” Recreating the energy and brio of his long-ago Chicago friend was the start of Augie March: “Subject and language appeared at the same moment—I was enriched with words,” Bellow recalled. “I found myself with magical suddenness writing the first paragraph. It rushed out of me.” The novel’s language came to his mind so swiftly, he remembered, “All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it.”
While Bellow transmuted the phrasings and cadences of Chicago’s immigrant residents into a new kind of heightened literary language, he also likened their personhood to figures of myth and history. The cast of characters populating Augie’s street-level world are compared to gods and heroes of Greek mythology, or heroes from the annals of world history.
Simon, Augie’s body-building older brother, is afflicted with bouts of insanity like his mythological correlate, Hercules. The orating, wheelchair-using real estate broker William Einhorn is at once equated with Hephaestus, the blacksmith God of Invention, and President Franklin Roosevelt. Grandma Lausch, physically infirm but ruthlessly tyrannical, is compared to Emperor Timur, the 14th-century conqueror of Asia and heir to Genghis Khan. Rebecca March, Augie’s blind, incapacitated mother stands with the many mortal women in Greek mythology who, seduced and abandoned by Zeus, give birth to demigods. Augie himself is likened to Alcibiades, legendary orator of 5th-century B.C.E. Athens, beloved by the gods for his charisma and gift of self-expression. Bellow suggests gods and geniuses walk the streets of Chicago, reincarnated as immigrants and workers. With immigrants from the “old world” no longer free to enter America, this promise is forestalled. Bellow begins the novel with a quote from Heraclitus, the 5th-century B.C.E. philosopher: Heraclitus says that “a man’s character is his fate”— not race, ethnicity or physical endowments.
The publication of The Adventures of Augie March in 1953, when he was 38 years old, launched Saul Bellow’s reputation as a novelist and established the future Nobel Laureate’s literary renown. Congress, meanwhile, would not end the exclusionary quota system imposed by the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act until 1965. The opening lines of Augie March --I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent—stand as Bellow’s testament to the liberating potential of the American immigrant experience.