This famous quote repeated in his New York Times obituary was off-putting even at the time it was uttered:
"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?" The remark caused a furor and was taken as proof, he said, ""that I was at best insensitive and at worst an elitist, a chauvinist, a reactionary and a racist - in a word, a monster." He later said the controversy was "the result of a misunderstanding that occurred (they always do occur) during an interview."Who is the Pushkin of Chicagoans? The Dumas of Bostonians? one might respond.
Then, I found one book I really liked: Ravelstein, based on real-life University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom.
I couldn't put that one down, it was just fascinating. Perhaps because I had been around so many neo-conservatives and "Great Books" types. Most fascinating of all was the hostility Bellow generated from certain neo-conservative circles. For example, I attended a panel at the Hudson Institute where Bellow was condemned for writing explicitly about Ravelstein's homosexuality, among other things (Ravelstein also took money from his students, and lounged about all day in a bathrobe). I had the feeling that those present would have banned the book, had they been able to do so. It was really kind of scary and depressing. Practically Soviet-style denunciations for deviationism, from a very dour and drab set of panelists, who didn't like the idea that a neo-conservative was being "outed" as a complicated human being, even as a fictional character. After all, it's a novel. But the panelists seemed to have no appreciation of Ravelstein as literature, only an instrumental view that it didn't serve "the cause."
That Bellow could provoke such a reaction, forcing certain people to reveal how they really thought (or didn't, more accurately put), was a tribute to his power as a novelist.