Saul Bellow wrote Herzog in 1964, although parts of it had been published in magazines prior to completion of the novel. It earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, confirming his place among great American writers. Since Bellow is a Chicago native, the characters in his novels react to modern life in the city.

Like most modern novels of the 20th century, Herzog is an exploration of the self. The story is essentially an existential journey by the main character, Moses Herzog, through the disruption of his world when his wife betrays him by having a relationship with his best friend. He begins to constantly question his own sanity as well as assumptions about life as he tries to come to terms with his identity, ego and happiness.

Like many writers, Bellow consciously utilized his real-life relationships for characters in his novels, although he did change the names. However, some characters were so obvious to those who knew Bellow, that he garnered some animosity from friends and critics for cannibalizing their personalities and sometimes showing them in an unflattering light. Bellow justified this exploitative approach by saying that the truth of his relationships was needed to serve great literature.



 

Professor Peter Kaye, Northwestern University, began by looking at how Herzog came to be in the destabilized situation portrayed at the beginning, and throughout, the novel. He compared Bellow to Milton in that Milton wanted to explain the ways of God to man through his literature, and concluded that Bellow differed in that he was attempting to explain man to himself. Professor Kaye also noted that Herzog's character was questioning his universal connection to reality and that Bellow was commenting on Romanticism's eulogization of the self. Finally, Professor Kay concluded that Bellow was essentially a moralist by showing that the ending of the novel, where Herzog decides not to use a gun which he has brought to the house of his ex-wife and ex-best friend, Bellow is privileging the choices people make which affect each other over the philosophical choices which affect only oneself.


 

Professor Edward Mogul, Wright College, delved into the philosophical issues raised in Herzog, such as the undelivered letters carried around by Herzog and how they symbolized the importance, or lack thereof, of intellectual achievement. Professor Mogul also explored the attitude of Herzog to God and noted the biblical references to Herzog's first name, Moses, as well of other literary references such as Dante's Inferno. In his conclusion, Professor Mogul asked that students consider whether or not the ending was happy and what it said about justice and truth.


 

English Professor Donald Barshis, the former dean of Wright College, started his lecture by questioning the perspectives of the author and characters and also discussed key events of the novel. He explained that the minimalist plot and the emphasis on individual exploration made Herzog the epitome of a modern novel. Professor Barshis also discussed how the fiction of the novel is layered with his own life. For example, it reflects Bellow's 60's and 70's political outspokenness through its use of letters to political figures.


In a discussion panel, Professor Edward Mogul, Professor Peter Kaye and student Patrick Heath began the class by resuming the question as to whether the ending of the novel was happy or not. Professor Mogul discussed how the final scene, where Herzog is back at his house and has decided to stop writing unsent letter, implies that Herzog is ready to stop questioning his sanity. Issues of life, death, justice and happiness were further discussed by the panel and students. Professor Kaye elaborated on a comparison to Aristotle's writings by showing that Aristotle's thinking was based on causality - cause and effect for everything - and how modern people doubt a clear cause and affect. He explained that this challenged the conventions of plots in a novel and used as an example the fact that Virginia Woolf's novel were essentially plotless.