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Saul Bellow\u27s novels, The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and Humboldt\u27s Gift, have all been labeled picaresque and/or their protagonists called picaros by various critics. This study investigates the possible reasons for grouping such diverse novels within a category that is often inappropriate both for the form and the protagonist of each novel. The problem is approached from four different critical perspectives: historical, generic, modal and mythic. Historical critics generally conclude that the picaresque tradition should be limited to the 16th century and to Spain. Generic criticism, while less rigid than historical criticism, demands certain formal requirements of the novels that are placed within the picaresque genre; Bellow\u27s Herzog and Humboldt\u27s Gift do not fullfill these requirements. Modal criticism is well suited to 20th century works that combine multiple literary traditions. However, because the modal approach is so expansive, it more readily distinguishes novelistic similarities, than differences: it tends to homogenize novels into one unbounded category. Myth criticism and, in particular, the myth of the picaro most effectively provide a common denominator for Bellow\u27s four novels. Rather than forcing the novels into formal, structural patterns, myth criticism distinguishes a psychological pattern that can be developed within a diversity of plot structures and novelistic subgenres. Bellow refashions the traditional myth of the picaro to suit the demands of his 20th century protagonists who find the world mysteriously, yet destructively, overwhelming. Bellow\u27s creative myth acts as a substructure for his novels, patterning the picaros\u27 intellectual and emotional development. In trying to cope with urban chaos, the picaros confront their excessive emotions, their egocentricity, their intellectualizing, and, finally, their own deaths. This process, usually internalized, leads to a more balanced perception of their social responsibilities and their personal identities, culminating in a renewed appreciation of the mystery of existence and a recognition of the endless possibilities for manifesting inherent human nobility. It is, therefore, this mythic substructure that is responsible for critics ascribing Bellow\u27s novels to the picaresque tradition

Topics: American literature
Publisher: DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Year: 1984
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