On June 11, 2012, a day after Saul Bellow’s 97th birthday, the 2600-hundred block of West Augusta Boulevard was designated “Honorary Saul Bellow Way,” to honor his great literary contributions to the Humboldt Park community and all of Chicago. Alderman Roberto Maldonado, with whom I worked with many years ago in Chicago city government, was the city official that made this happen. I had the honor of speaking at the ceremony along with the Alderman and Chicago Library Commissioner Brian Bannon. Alderman Maldonado represents the 26th ward, the area that Bellow spent many of his formative years in Chicago from 1924 to 1934, mainly at 2629 West Augusta.
Bellow attended Lafayette and Columbus elementary schools, Sabin Junior High and Tuley High School. The name of the protagonist in possibly his greatest novel, The Adventures of Augie March, was a nickname derived from Augusta Boulevard. Many of his other novels, novellas and short stories had Humboldt Park settings.
In 1976, Bellow became only the Chicago writer ever to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He is the only writer to win the National Book Award for fiction three times. He also was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.
After a short time at Crane Junior College (now Malcolm X College), Bellow studied at the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University majoring in anthropology. But writing fiction was his passion, and he soon abandoned his anthropological studies. He had a number of adjunct faculty positions including those at the University of Minnesota, Bard College and the University of Puerto Rico to supplement his income as he pursued his writing career. Eventually Bellow returned to Chicago where he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago’s Committee of Social Thought. At age eighty, he accepted a faculty position at Boston University. Bellow died in Brookline, Massachusetts April 5, 2005, two months shy of his ninetieth birthday.
Bellow never forgot his humble Humboldt Park neighborhood roots. Then it was a community of working class immigrants, mostly Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Scandinavians who struggled to create better lives for their children in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Humboldt Park neighborhood was an emotional anchor for his writing. As Bellow wrote in a letter to a friend “Division Street seems to have made us of iron, and we survive it all.”
These words of Bellow ring as true today, as they did then.