He had gone public with his ideas. He had written a book—difficult but popular—a spirited, intelligent, warlike book, and it had sold and was still selling in both hemispheres and on both sides of the equator. The thing had been done quickly but in real earnest: no cheap concessions, no popularizing, no mental monkey business, no apologetics, no patrician airs. . . . His intellect had made a millionaire of him. It’s no small matter to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think—to say it in your own words, without compromise.
—Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow
Bellow’s Ravelstein is a thinly fictionalized Allan Bloom, caught at the peak of life, and rendered, so I’m told by Bloom’s friends and students, with uncanny precision and ingenuity. We first see him dressed in a blue-and-white kimono, sashaying around the penthouse he’s rented at the Hotel Crillon in the heart of Paris. His lover, a young man from Singapore named Nikki, lies asleep in bed. Bellow wants to impress upon the reader his subject’s physicality. Abe Ravelstein’s frame is long and angled and ungainly, but it’s usually draped in $5,000 suits. When he eats, you sense the pleasure with which he undertakes the task: “he was stoking his system,” Bellow says, “and nourishing his ideas”; at dinner parties, hostesses are advised to place newspapers under his chair to gather the debris from his enthusiastic feeding. His baldness is “geological.” He smokes constantly, twin spouts of tobacco smoke flowing dragon-like from his impressive nostrils. Bellow stresses the physicality at the beginning of the novel because it lends poignancy to the wasting at the end, when Ravelstein endures a tortured death from AIDS, as did Bloom. He was carried off in 1992, only eight years before Bellow sketched him as Ravelstein and five after he published the book that made him the most famous professor in the Western world.
Among much else, Bellow dramatizes the suddenness of the wealth and fame that rained down on Bloom in the late 1980s. The cause, as Bellow says, was the publication of a warlike book. Twenty-five years later, the original publisher, Simon & Schuster, is celebrating its silver anniversary with a new edition of The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Bloom’s original text is introduced, as it was in 1987, with a foreword by Bellow, who back then took care to assure readers that his friend had written “a trustworthy résumé of the development of the higher mental life in the democratic U.S.A.” And so it remains.
The course that Bloom’s classic took on its way from the higher mental life to boffo box office is notable even among the endless eruptions and craterings of the American book business. Bloom adapted his proposal for Closing from an article he’d written in National Review. At Simon & Schuster the proposal was bought by one editor and midwifed into print by another, with no more than modest expectations. The original title, Souls Without Longing, was lovely, everyone agreed, but also uncommercial, so it was changed and outfitted with one of those clanky, hyper-explanatory subtitles that were soon to be essential for nonfiction books. The first print run, in February 1987, numbered 10,000 copies.
By late spring it was selling 25,000 copies a week. It hit the bestseller list in April, reached number one by summertime, and stayed there for two and a half months. You saw people lugging it around on vacation, bumping in the bottom of the beach bag against the tanning oil and the extra pair of flipflops and the latest waterlogged paperback from Ken Follett. From the top of the bestseller list it beat back waves of challengers, including can’t-miss product: celebrity memoirs, self-help books, and an authoritative guide to surviving the “coming depression of the nineties.” In March of the following year The Closing of the American Mind was still a bestseller. By then nearly a million copies had been sold in the United States. Foreign sales were just as prodigious. The best minds in American publishing were boggled. Never in their experience had a book about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger outsold memoirs by Patty Duke, Shirley MacLaine, and Sam Donaldson—combined.