Published in 1953, The Adventures of Augie March was Saul Bellow’s third novel. It was also the book that cemented his reputation as a singular and exciting writer and won him his first National Book Award. Bellow went on to win the NBA two more times (in 1964 for Herzog and in 1970 for Mr. Sammler’s Planet), as well as a Pulitzer (for Humboldt’s Gift) and, in 1976, the Nobel Prize for Literature. Only two other Americans have won the Nobel since – Isaac Singer and Toni Morrison – lending credence to the claim that Bellow is a lion - perhaps the lion – of 20th century American letters. Whatever his influence, The Adventures of Augie March in an indisputably American take on the picaresque, and insofar as the picaresque novel can be read as social critique, The Adventures of Augie March can be read as a playful gibe at free-market capitalism. It can also be read as a celebration of the complex web that gives structure to our lives: our relationships.
Augie March, our roguish anti-hero, grows up poor and fatherless in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago in the early 20th century . Augie’s mother is half-blind and meek, and it’s hard to imagine her as a lustful woman, as one of “those women who Zeus got the better of in animal form”, as the type of woman capable of a passion powerful enough to produce three sons out of wedlock. But the March boys, like the demigods fathered by Zeus, are uncommonly handsome. Simon is shrewd and ambitious, Georgie, sweet and innocent – and mentally-challenged. In order to make ends meet, Augie’s mother takes in a boarder, the imperious Mrs. Lausch, who, “representing the main body of married womankind” inflicts a “punishment in drudgery”, treating Augie’s docile mother like a servant in her own house.
But this isn’t a Dickensian tale of soul-destroying poverty or heartbreaking disenfranchisement. What Augie lacks in social status and material advantages, he makes up for in intelligence, good looks and artless charm. He gets his first taste of the finer things when outfitted for a job in an Evanston tack shop, and it’s here that he discovers his ease among the rich and privileged. In fact, the store’s owners, the Renlings, are so taken with him they offer to adopt him, to write him into their will, to leave him their fortune. This easy affability has the potential to take Augie far, and more than once he finds himself in the delicate role of personal assistant; first to a crippled and corrupt business man, William Einhorn whom Augie piggybanks in and out of brothels, and later to Robey, an eccentric housebound millionaire who fancies himself a philosopher.
But what makes Augie so eminently likable is also exactly the thing that keeps him from capitalizing on the many opportunities fortune favors him with: despite Grandma Lausch’s attempt to plant the seeds of ambition, Augie isn’t a striver. Unlike Simon, Augie doesn’t hanker after money or prestige. Augie’s neither prideful nor avaricious, and his easy charm and self-assured intelligence disarms rather than threatens. Augie just drifts through his life, collecting an unlikely network of people – and adventures.
For better or worse, the only thing that seems to move Augie is love. For Augie, family is for keeps; one of the reasons he turns down the Renlings’ offer is his loyalty to his mother, and when Simon’s wealth turns him into an unbearable bully, Augie never holds it against him. In a similar fashion, when Augie discovers that the two loves of his life – Thea, a married heiress he follows to Mexico, and Stella, the woman he saves and later marries – aren’t exactly as they seem, he forgives them their faults because Augie can never give up on someone he loves.
Quoting Heraclitus, Augie equates a man’s character with his fate. That is true only in so much as a man’s character affects the quality and nature of his relationships. What Augie lacks in ambition and resolve, he makes up for in decency and loyalty, and it's the people Augie knows, the relationships he cultivates, that give shape and meaning to his adventures. This is the true worth of our lives: not the things we own or the money we make, not the degrees we collect or the positions we hold, but the people we meet, the people with which we all share our own personal adventures.