Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Poet Laureate of Humboldt Park

In the past year I've become a big fan of Saul Bellow. I feel bad that it took me that long to read him, but as I often say about important bands I missed when I was younger: There's only so much time and money. With books it's even more of a time commitment.

I consider Bellow America's greatest post-WW2 novelist. For me, it's also a bonus that he grew up in Humboldt Park — the neighborhood where I lived when I first moved to Chicago and now very close to my current home.

If we're to believe Charlie Citrine in "Humboldt's Gift" (my favorite Bellow novel) is a stand-in for the author himself, then Bellow lived near Kedzie and Division. Erika and I often take the kids on a jog to this intersection because there's a nice playground there.

In the book, Citrine says that by the mid-70s his old house had been torn down. Today there's a very conspicuous vacant lot on Kedzie just north of Division between two brownstones.When I'm at the playground, I like to look at that lot and think it was where Bellow's childhood home stood. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't.

The park itself makes appearances from time to time in his books — often as a symbol of the rough but uncomplicated nature of youth. Over five years of living about four blocks away, we've grown to really love the park as well: as the backdrop for a run, a kids' pumpkin-picking or a late-night drive down the boulevard, the moon on the lagoon and the skyline in the distance.

Right now I'm reading "Dangling Man," Bellow's first novel. At one point the main character, Joseph, visits the old neighborhood. And there he remembers a bit of his childhood doings in the park. This is in 1943, but I was happy to read it was much the same then as it is now:
Sunday was warm, hinting at spring. We visited the Almstads. In the evening I walked in Humboldt Park, around the lagoon, across the bridge to the boathouse where we used to discuss Man and Superman and where, even earlier, with John Pearl, I pelted the lovers on the benches below the balcony with crab apples. The air had a brackish smell of wet twigs and moldering brown seed pods, but it was soft, and through it rose, with indistinct but thrilling reality, meadows and masses of trees, blue and rufous stone and reflecting puddles. After dark, as I was returning, a warm, thick rain began to fall with no more warning than a gasp. I ran.

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