Papers of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow open for research at UChicago Library

Materials provide look into author's life, creative process

Andrew Bauld
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesNews Office

The largest collection of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow’s personal papers is now open for research at the University of Chicago Library, documenting his creative process and literary fame, as well as his wide-ranging professional relationships.

Bellow, X’39, who spent three decades as a professor at UChicago, left a collection that extends 141 linear feet filling 254 boxes. It includes correspondence with writers such as Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth, manuscripts that reveal his writing process including a series of drafts of The Adventures of Augie March, and personal items such as a Rolodex and letters from U.S. presidents.

The opening of the archives is the culmination of an extensive effort by the Library’s Special Collections Research Center to organize the documents and catalogue them in a Guide to the Saul Bellow Papers, 1926-2015. The archival work, which was supported by a gift from Robert Nelson, AM’64, and Carolyn Nelson, AM’64, PhD’67, greatly increases scholars’ ability to discover materials in the collection online.

“Opening up the Bellow papers will provide generations of scholars with the materials they need to develop new insights into Saul Bellow and 20th-century American history and culture,” said Brenda Johnson, Library director and University librarian. “We are deeply grateful to Robert Nelson and Carolyn Nelson for their generous support of the processing and preservation of this collection.”

A prolific writer, Bellow’s extensive revision process is manifest in the collection in numerous drafts of each of his best-known novels, including Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift and The Adventures of Augie March. Bellow’s long list of literary accolades include the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal of Arts and the National Book Award for Fiction.

“The Saul Bellow Papers offer a compelling view of modern American literature,” said Daniel Meyer, director of the Special Collections Research Center and University archivist. “The collection offers scholars, students and other researchers fresh perspectives on Bellow’s impact on the 20th-century novel and his distinctive voice in literary criticism and cultural commentary.”

An educator and intellectual with broad ranging interests in art and culture, Bellow found a home for his pursuits at the University of Chicago. He taught in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought from 1962 to 1993, serving as chair from 1970 to 1976, and his experiences in Chicago and at the University are at the heart of much of his writing.

Equally important to the collection is the extraordinary range of his correspondence, which includes thousands of letters Bellow received or sent to fellow writers such as Samuel Beckett, Allen Ginsberg, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Joyce Carol Oates. The Special Collections Research Center’s wide array of related materials—from the archives of Bellow’s faculty colleagues to collections documenting 20th-century literary and cultural life in Chicago—also will help scholars to uncover vital connections between Bellow and his contemporaries and his city.       

“Bellow was someone who thought deeply about current events and politics, the state of culture and the arts in the 20th century, and the role of the writer,” said Processing Archivist Ashley Gosselar, who reviewed and organized the collection and created the guide to its contents. “The correspondence demonstrates the way he sought to keep his finger on the pulse of America in the mid-20th century.”

Additional items in the Saul Bellow papers include personal ephemera, writings by others given to or collected by Bellow, writings about Bellow's life and work, administrative and teaching materials from the University of Chicago and Boston University, awards, photographs and audio recordings, artwork, broadsides and posters. Materials date between 1926 and 2015, with the majority produced between 1940 and 2004.