Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog
(1964) provides a portrait of Moses Herzog, a middle-aged man searching for meaning in the apprehensive society of 1960s America. The story is told in a series of fragmented contemplations, often presented in letter format. Moses becomes fixated on writing letters to several people, living and dead, including family members, friends, and even historical figures. Moses suffers an emotional and spiritual crisis due to his marriage ending and his meditation on the wasteland of modern society and life. Throughout the novel, Moses must learn to cope with his feelings of alienation, resulting in a renewal of faith in himself and society.
Moses Herzog is facing hard times. He lives in New York and spends most of his time writing letters, sometimes on paper and other times only in his mind. He writes letters to people he knows, those he has never met, and individuals who died a long time before he was born. He writes letters to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Friedrich Nietzsche, his deceased mother, his intellectual opponents, and even God. In the letters, Moses argues about intellectual ideas held by the individuals or about the things he himself has said or failed to say.
As the novel opens, Moses’s girlfriend, Ramona, tells him he should rest for a while at her place. Instead, he leaves the city by train, going to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to visit a friend. As he travels, Moses continues to write letters. When he reaches Martha’s Vineyard, he retreats to the room prepared for him by his hosts. Then, leaving a letter to explain his actions, he sneaks out of the house. He returns to New York by plane, and back in his apartment, he begins writing letters once more.
Moses spends most of the following day writing letters. He goes to Ramona’s apartment for dinner and spends the night. The next morning, Moses calls Harvey Simkin, his lawyer, to discuss whether it is possible for him to gain custody of his daughter, June, from his former wife, Madeleine, and her lover, Valentine Gersbach. Harvey is due in court that morning, but he agrees to leave Herzog a message at the courthouse.
As he waits for Harvey’s message, Moses goes to several trials. One involves an unmarried couple accused of beating the woman’s son to death. Moses exits the courtroom and flies to Chicago later that day. While there, he visits his father’s old house, which is now inhabited by his stepmother, and retrieves a pistol owned by his father. The gun has two bullets in it. Moses means to use one on his wife and the other on her lover.
By now, it has grown dark. Moses heads to the house where he, Madeleine, and June used to live. In the kitchen window, he can see Madeleine washing the dishes. He walks around the house and looks through the bathroom window, where he sees Valentine giving June a bath. He watches as Valentine bathes June with evident love, and June sincerely enjoys being bathed. This sight causes Moses to realize he cannot murder anyone.
Moses goes to the house of Valentine and Phoebe Gersbach. Phoebe will not acknowledge that her husband is having an affair with Madeleine, and she does not agree to help him gain custody of June. He leaves and goes to his old friend Lucas Asphalter, who has recently been in the news for having given his tubercular pet monkey mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The monkey died anyway. Lucas arranges for Moses to visit June the following day.
The following afternoon, Moses is driving in his rented car with June when a truck collides with their vehicle. Although June is not hurt, Moses is knocked unconscious. The police investigate and recognize that Moses was not to blame for the accident. However, they arrest him for possessing a loaded gun. He and June are brought to the police station, and when Madeleine arrives to get June, she ensures that Moses knows she hates him.
Moses’s brother, William, pays his bail and agrees to accompany Moses to his house in Ludeyville, Massachusetts. Moses used the money he had inherited from his father to purchase the home for Madeleine, who had wished to live in the country at the time. Moses spent the entirety of his inheritance buying and fixing up the house. He very much enjoyed living in the house and working on it, but Madeleine grew tired of the country, and they moved to Chicago. The house has long been deserted.
William compliments the house, telling Moses he could probably sell it as a summer home, but he informs him that he will likely not get all the money that he put into the house back because it is not near the usual tourist locations.
William takes Moses into town, where Moses arranges to have his electricity turned back on and to have a woman come to clean his house. Moses discovers that Ramona has been trying to get in touch with him. He calls her, and William drives Moses to Ramona. Moses asks her to dinner that evening at his home. She agrees, and William takes Moses back to Ludeyville. Moses picks up the cleaning woman, who begins working on the kitchen. Moses decides to stop writing the letters and to stay in Ludeyville for a while. He also wishes to bring Marco, his child by his first wife, to Ludeyville for a visit after his summer camp ends.
Throughout the course of these experiences, Moses recollects events from his childhood, including his father’s failures, his family’s suffering during his first failed marriage, his awful marriage to Madeleine, and her affair. He also focuses on his love for his children and siblings, and meditates on his relationship with Madeleine, wondering why she hates him so intensely.