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 1968 recommended 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 years 1968 and 1969 were a time of immense sadness and upheaval mixed with a desire for fundamental change in the U.S.
The Report surprised everyone in politics, including President Lyndon Johnson, who had established the Commission and named its members (and did not include “radicals” from the civil rights movement). LBJ attempted to bury the efforts of the commissioners, but to no avail. It became a publishing sensation, with Bantam selling 1 million paperbacks in the first few weeks. Americans awoke to the Report’s conclusions that “white racism” was in fact the prime cause of the social unrest that had reached a flashpoint in cities across the U.S. “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” having created and maintained it.
The Report singled out police brutality, and unfair and discriminatory policies and practices, targeting Afro-American citizens as major provocations of the ongoing rebellions and riots. Government officials applied laws to minorities, especially the black minority, in a discriminatory way, creating fear and a complete lack of trust.
Thus in 1968 and 1969, in the time of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the country was teetering on the edge. It could engage in fundamental reform, or it could react with a stringent doubling down of the “law and order” agenda. As we know, Richard Nixon took office as the next president in 1969, having successfully campaigned as the ideal “law and order president.” Soon after, the Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, implemented a series of draconian drug enforcement laws and other criminal laws that contributed to a noticeable rise in the prison population.
For Bellow, the latter part of the Sixties was a period of unmitigated breakdown and disgrace. Bellow’s 70-year-old protagonist, Artur Sammler is a white Jewish survivor of the obscene horrors of the Nazi regime. In so creating him, the author provides a sardonic and challenging examination of the worrisome path both city and country have careened down.
Despite Mr. Sammler’s Planet being generally well-received by critics, … some condemned it as being outright racist.
In the opening chapter, Sammler takes us with him through the New York transportation system. Sammler is a lanky man who generally stands, arm suspended from a strap to secure his place on the crowded bus. He describes the city as lacking pride and any sense of order, passing broken down phone booths (used as urinals) and debris. Sammler describes New York as getting worse than Naples or Salonika. Further, crime appears to be on the rise. On several trips, Sammler has spied a black pickpocket who has determined to make the “Columbus Circle” route his place of regular business. On each trip, Sammler peers out of his one good eye at the arrogance and ease at which the unnamed, powerfully-built thief goes about lifting wallets and items from purses.
While Sammler is of course troubled by the series of thefts, him and other family members exhibit a strange fascination with the debonair, immaculately-dressed “Prince” of thieves. The overall treatment of the sole black character – who never speaks in the novel and who is called “silent as a puma” – is problematic on several levels. Despite Mr. Sammler’s Planet being generally well-received by critics, and indeed winning Bellow’s third National Book Award for fiction, some condemned it as being outright racist. It is also deeply sexist, with a number of feminist critics unpacking Bellow’s condescending treatment of the women in the novel. I will not comment further on the sexism except to say that the decade of the 1970s saw several reforms in the law. Many were initiated by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other activist-lawyers, who challenged discriminatory laws at the Supreme Court and in other courts.
The issue of race has proved harder to deal with. Racism and discriminatory and punitive policing practices have arguably worsened since the novel’s release. Considering this reality, Bellow surely has something to answer for. At a minimum, he made such an unfortunate choice to include scenes in which the sole black character goes about his activities as a pickpocket as well as one vividly-described encounter of threatening the aged protagonist. The silent character, who Bellow describes at various points as a “beast,” with references to his imagined sexual prowess, forces Sammler against a wall in his apartment and exposes himself. On my reading, there is certainly a racist dimension to this depiction.
The Kerner Commission Report of 1968 recommended new laws and policies to reduce the diverse causes of alienation and anger expressed by black Americans …
Unfortunately, that is not all. Sammler later discusses these encounters with a relative. The latter describes his own encounter with black youths, having observed them surround a victim and move in to assault him. Another character confesses to Sammler his fascination with “dark” women, generally Puerto Ricans, and describes them in a highly sexualized manner. A final encounter between Sammler’s family members and the pickpocket, and eventually Sammler and the pickpocket, has its own troubling aspect. I will leave it to readers to decide what significance they place on this last encounter, which closes Bellow’s theme of “law and disorder”.
I do emphasize that there is much in Mr. Sammler’s Planet that works well. And I hope lovers of Bellow’s work are not dissuaded from reading the novel, despite its flaws. It also contains interesting descriptions of Gruner’s lawyer, as he advises on the dying man’s will and the manipulations of the legal system by insurance lawyers to limit the reach of potential lawsuits.
Aside from its literary qualities, the novel serves as an early warning sign of the conservative reaction to the upheavals and the sometimes-disorderly calls for social justice that marked the decade. At the same time Bellow published his novelistic critique of the country’s direction, Ronald Reagan embarked on a series of actions as governor and aspiring presidential candidate that eventually took him to the White House.
While Sammler’s encounters with the black pickpocket do not possess the same political significance of the urban legend that Reagan generated, nonetheless they do capture the tenor of the times. They can be said to represent a repudiation, in fictional terms, of the conclusions in the Kerner Commission. The novel itself is silent on the underlying harm that racism against blacks was perpetuating. The denial of any black voice in the novel is indeed symptomatic of the lost opportunity represented by the premature ending of the era of idealism and protest.
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