By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

4. The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow (in Novels 1944-1953), pp. 525-554

Chapter VIII

Both Simon and Augie attend the city college, partly because there are no jobs to be had, and there they mix with the "children of immigrants from all parts, coming up from Hell's Kitchen, Little Sicily, the Black Belt, the mass of Polonia, the Jewish streets of Humboldt Park."
They filled the factory-length corridors and giant classrooms with every human character and germ, to undergo consolidation and become, the idea was, American. In the mixture there was beauty -- a good proportion -- and pimple-insolence, and parricide faces, gum-chew innocence, labor fodder and secretarial forces, Danish stability, Dago inspiration, catarrh-hampered mathematical genius; there were waxed-eared shovelers' children, sex-promising businessmen's daughters -- an immense sampling of a tremendous host, the multitudes of holy writ, begotten by West-moving, factor-shoved parents. Or me, the by-blow of a traveling man.
Actually, the March brothers are lucky enough to find jobs, both of them in a downtown clothing store. Simon has the better job, in men's suits, where he is expected to dress well, and exceeds expectations: He "was not just natty but hot stuff, in a double-breasted striped suit, with a tape measure around his neck." Augie begins in the basement, "a bargain department under the sidewalk, seeing and hearing the shoppers pass over the green circles of glass set in concrete." But he does well enough that he's soon promoted to the main floor. Simon is earning fifteen dollars a week, and Augie thirteen-fifty.

They hire a woman named Molly Simms, a "mulatto, ... a strong lean woman, about thirty-five," who sleeps on a cot in the kitchen. But on New Year's Day she doesn't show up and Simon doesn't come home until the evening of the next day, bruised, filthy, and scratched. He had gone out with Molly and got into a sequence of fights. So Molly is fired and replaced by "an old Polish woman who disliked us, a slow-climbing, muttering, mob-faced, fat, mean, pious widow who was a bad cook besides."

But Augie doesn't have to put up with her for long because he drops out of school and takes a job in Evanston, "selling things, a specialized salesman in luxury lines and dealing with aristocrats" in the wealthy Chicago suburbs. He had been recommended for the job by the shoe buyer. His new employer is a man named Renling, who owns a sporting goods store. Renling admits to Augie that "out there on the North Shore they don't like Jews. But ... who makes them happy? They like hardly anybody. Anyway, they'll probably never know." So he and Mrs. Renling take on the project of "glamorizing" Augie.

He is put to work in the saddle shop, selling "riding habits, boots, dude ranch stuff, fancy articles." And the Renlings make a "clotheshorse" out of him, dressing him "in the right taste for waiting on a smooth trade of mostly British inclination."
I have to marvel at my social passes, that I was suddenly sure and efficacious in this business, could talk firmly and knowingly to rich young girls, to country-club sports and university students, presenting things with one hand and carrying a cigarette in a long holder in the other. So that Renling had to grant that I had beat all the foreseen handicaps. I had to take riding lessons -- not too many, they were expensive.
It is Mrs. Renling who vows to make Augie "completely perfect," even to the extent of enrolling him in evening classes at Northwestern. Mrs. Renling is "pushing fifty-five," and "couldn't be interrupted or stopped, in her pale-fire concentration." Mr. Renling is all business, so he leaves the remaking of Augie in his wife's hands. He focuses his attention on competitiveness: "He was an obstacle-eater. He rushed over roads. He loved feats and worshiped endurance, and he took between his teeth all objections, difficulties, hindrances, and chewed and swallowed them down."

Augie has no clear ambition where business is concerned. "It was social enthusiasm that moved in me, smartness, clotheshorseyness." For a while, he dates a waitress, Willa Steiner, but Mrs. Renling disapproves, and even offers him money to go to brothels if he's looking for sex. She fears that he'll get Willa pregnant and marry her, which would put a crimp in her Pygmalion attempts to groom him. She even has him drive her to Benton Harbor, "where she took mineral baths for her arthritis," to get him away from Willa. There, he has breakfast with her every day because she doesn't like to eat alone. And he is forced to listen to her fierce analysis of the other people at the spa.

On the other hand, he enjoys living the life of a rich young man, and he falls in love with Esther Fenchel. He has everything that might attract a wealthy young woman: "good looks, excellent wardrobe, mighty fine manners, social ease, wittiness, handsome-devil smiles, neat dancing and address with women -- all in the freshest gold-leaf. And the trouble was that I had what you might call forged credentials. It was my worry that Esther Fenchel would find this out."

He approaches Esther by making friends with her uncle, who "drove a Packard, the same model and color as the Renlings'." He makes sure he parks near the uncle's car, so that they strike up a conversation about which car is which. He doesn't tell the uncle "that I earned twenty-five dollars a week and didn't own the car." Mrs. Renling notices that Augie is cultivating both the uncle and the aunt, who is "sickly, timid, and silent, with the mood of rich people whose health lets them down." But Mrs. Renling thinks that it's Esther's older sister, Thea, whom Augie has his eye on. She warns him that "the girl is not a waitress" and that he hasn't got a chance with her. But Augie, who really is in love with Esther, decides not to clue her in that it isn't Thea that he's pursuing.

Finally he makes the move and asks Esther to go dancing with him one evening. She replies, "With you? I should say not. I certainly won't." The rebuff is such a shock that he faints.
I got my back against a sofa, where I felt I had got trampled all over my body by a thing some way connected by weight with my mother and my brother George, who perhaps this very minute was working on a broom, or putting it down to shamble in to supper; or with Grandma Lausch in the Nelson Home -- somehow as though run over by the beast that kept them steady company and that I thought I was safely away from. 
At dinner Mrs. Renling notices something is wrong, and guesses at its cause, though she attributes it to the wrong sister. He is dreading Esther's entrance into the dining room, but her sister, Thea, arrives alone. Mrs. Renling observes, "the girl hasn't had her eyes off you since she came in." And she warns him, "You're too attractive to women for your own good, and you'll end up in trouble. So will she; she's got hot pants, that little miss." He leaves the dining room and goes out to the children's playground, where he sits on the garden swing to brood over his misfortune. And before long he is joined there by Thea Fenchel: "Disappointed that it isn't Esther, aren't you, Mr. March? I guess you must be having a terrible time. You looked pretty white in the dining room." She asks if he has recovered from his faint, which Esther thought might have been an epileptic seizure.

He tells her that he asked Esther for a date, and she tells him why Esther refused: "She thinks that you service the lady you're with." He jumps up in surprise so that that he bumps his head. Thea tells him that it doesn't bother her: "she's a European" -- Mrs. Renling was born in Luxembourg -- "and they don't think it's so terrible for a woman to have a much younger lover." Esther, her "deadhead of a sister," does object. Then Thea makes her move: "You've been in love with my sister and following her around, so you haven't noticed that I've done exactly the same to you.... Why don't you change to me?"

Augie makes a hasty escape. The next morning, there is a note for him from Thea: "Esther told her uncle about you, and we are going to Waukesha for a few days and then East. You were foolish last night. Think about it. It's true I love you. You'll see me again." Augie begins
to remember what very seldom mattered with me, namely, where I came from, parentage, and other history, things I had never much thought of as difficulties, being democratic in temperament, available to everybody and assuming about others what I assumed about myself.
Simon comes to see him with a girlfriend. "Taller than most, blond and brown, there was my Germanic-looking brother." His girlfriend, Cissy Flexner, is from the old neighborhood, and when they leave after the end of the day, Simon says, "Well, sport, we may be married in the next few months.... You envy me? I bet you do."

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