A striking detail from Zachary Leader's Saul Bellow biography is the Nobel Prize winning novelist's close friendship to the poets Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman.
Bellow first met Schwartz and Berrryman in their days as New York intellectuals connected with the Partisan Review circle. Later, Bellow, Schwartz and Berryman were colleagues at Princeton, before Berryman grew his defining beard. Berryman and Bellow also taught at Minnesota, where Bellow visited Berryman in his frequent hospital stays seeking to overcome the alcoholism that led to Berryman's suicide.
Schwartz, and his tragic mental and physical decline, provided the model for Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift." The figure of Humboldt also had characteristics of Berryman.
Berryman and Bellow were close to each other at Princeton as Bellow was writing his breakthrough novel "The Adventures of Augie March," and Berryman his breakthrough "Dream Songs." The two influenced each other in fashioning a a fresh American idiom that broke from a more academic mandarin language.
The novelist's friendship with Schwartz and Berryman seems unusual when compared with today's literary world. My impression from attending several literary conferences is that poets and fiction writers now pretty much stay in their own respective worlds. While known as a poet, Schwartz, of course, was also a celebrated fiction writer whose best remembered work is the short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. Berryman also wrote fiction, including novels, and all three wrote criticism. They were connected by a shared love of literature and culture, including Shakespeare and the English poetic tradition. Today's young writers appear to lack such broad knowledge.
The three were among the first generation of American writers who also had university careers as creative writing teachers. That's been common for years, but before World War II, poets and fiction writers weren't so attached to academia. Bellow later moved beyond teaching to join the University of Chicago's prestigious Committee on Social Thought.
Bellow, known for his frequent affairs and several marriages, enjoyed a long, successful life, while Schwartz and Berryman's lives were tragically cut short. The Chicago novelist also turned conservative in his later years, with his later novels expressing right wing views counter to the 1960s' new left. His last novel's hero was modeled on Allan Bloom, whose "Closing of the American Mind" was a triumph for conservative thought.