Letter Writing as a Method of Discovery: On Herzog’s Epistolary Power

Blog Post #4, Revised

Kate Spies

Letter Writing as a Method of Discovery: On Herzog’s Epistolary Power

What does the letter do for an epistolary novel? What is an example of a letter’s role in this form of literature?

In the third selection of Herzog by Saul Bellow, the protagonist Moses Herzog—middle-aged college professor—is writing to an old tutor, Harris Pulver, about “the inspired condition.” Herzog elucidates this as a state of heightened human self-awareness and artistic freedom; he ties it to the ideals of Romanticism—of obtaining beauty, integrity and a oneness with nature by pushing one’s self to question and to create, and to appreciate the natural world and the artistic self. At this point in the text, ruminating on his current relationships and the state of his society, Herzog has been considering the notion of freedom and the advancement of the modern American man—“The goal, however, is freedom”—and how this relates to an increased sense of self-awareness, and self-expression (Herzog, 203). In gathering his thoughts about the contemporary American man, he explores the idea of “the inspired condition” as a nearly ultimate version of this modern liberty: he writes, “Finally, Pulver, to live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness … is no longer a rarefied project” (Bellow, 205). To that end, Herzog argues that the Romantic goals of knowing one’s self, of searching actively for truth through expression and creation, of building relationships on love (all ideals that I extract from this quote to Pulver) are no longer reserved for poets and spiritual figures—as they may have been outlined in earlier times, when self-exploration was restricted to those who had money and time to create, and indulge in expression (“The gods, kings, poets” as Herzog writes). Rather, in obtaining “the ultimate goal” of modern freedom, Herzog argues that the path to “the inspired condition” ought to be followed by the common man.

The conclusion itself is fascinating—I don’t often tie my definition of freedom to the idea of artistic expression—but beyond its intrigue, this moment in Herzog illuminates a powerful instance of the role of letter writing in self-expression and discovery. Within these few pages, composed intermittently of Herzog’s fictional letters (in italics) and the third-person narration, Herzog sits in his room and ruminates on his relationship with Ramona, then transitions into reflecting on modern society and the ideal of freedom, segues into the notion of “the inspired condition” and the importance of creativity, and then concludes by unfastening this ideal from its historic parameters (as a condition reserved for poets, gods, kings) and allocating it to the modern citizen. It is Herzog’s letter writing that allows for this cascade of thoughts and expressive writing: in composing for Pulver, and establishing a fixed, receptive reader to direct his thoughts (Herzog describes Pulver’s “whole-souled blue eyes,” and how he loves him in “his own immoderate, heart-flooded way”), Herzog immediately becomes engaged in the subject he has been considering, intensely processing. Writing for a subject he knows will listen, he takes time to introduce and explore the idea of the “inspired condition,” and to ask Pulver questions, and to circle back with his own answers, and to provide his own evidence for the conclusions that he draws. Even if these letters are never sent, the process that Herzog engages in to construct them delineates an intricate path to understanding, elucidating his thoughts from initial musings on current society, to the notion of freedom, to conclusions about how freedom can be obtained and who can obtain it. This instance solidifies the consequential presence that letters can have in novels; in Herzog’s case, letter writing allows readers to engage with the protagonist’s intimate thoughts and an inner path to discovery.


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