LAW & LITERATURE | Just Who Are the Real Criminals of New York: Reflections on Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet.

AuthorNormey, Rob

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Mr. Sammler's Planet follows its one-eyed protagonist's travels around New York City and comments on American society circa 1969.

Alice Munro is not the only Canadian-born writer who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. So too did Saul Bellow, born in 1915 in Lachine (then a town outside Montreal but now part of it). Bellow moved with his family to Chicago at a young age. His biographer rightly refers to him as a Canadian-American writer.

Bellow is known for his picaresque masterpieces, such as The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King. He received even wider acclaim in 1964 with Herzog. I recently finished his 1970 novel Mr. Sammler's Planet. The novel narrates the relationship between the protagonist, Artur Sammler, and his family, including Dr. Elya Gruner--his American sponsor, benefactor and nephew. Beyond that, the third-person narration focusses tightly on one-eyed Sammler's travels around New York City. To a higher degree than earlier novels, Bellow investigates American society circa 1969. It was a time of socioeconomic change and of rebellion and potential social breakdown. Indeed, the novel can be viewed as Bellow's critique of Sixties culture in its deepest manifestations.

Before commenting on some of writer's provocative choices in portraying New York on the edge, I will first consider the legal and political backdrop of the novel. The years 1968 and 1969 were a time of immense sadness and upheaval mixed with a desire for fundamental change in the U.S. Issues of poverty and the potentially unbridgeable racial divide boiled over. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other black leaders in the civil rights movement, were gunned down in shocking acts of violence. Malcolm X had been slain. Fred Hampton, many believe, had been assassinated through a joint FBI and police operation. A bomb set off in a Birmingham church killed four young girls. Other deaths would follow.

At the same time, the country had an opportunity to confront the problem of "white racism" in a meaningful way. The Kerner Commission Report of 1968recommended new laws and policies to reduce the diverse causes of alienation and anger expressed by black Americans in the ghettos and poorer neighborhoods. These same areas had erupted in full-scale riots in the late 60s.

The Report surprised everyone in politics, including President Lyndon Johnson, who had established the Commission and named its members (and did not include...

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