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Herzog is a 1964 novel by Saul Bellow. In a nod to the epistolary novels of early British literature, letters from the protagonist constitute much of the text.

Herzog won the 1965 National Book Award for Fiction. Time Magazine included the novel in its All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels|TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Plot summary

Herzog is a novel set in 1964, in the United Statesmarker, and is about the midlife crisis of a Jewish man named Moses E. Herzog. He is just emerging from his second divorce, this one particularly acrimonious. He has two children, one by each wife, who are growing up without him present. His career as a writer and as an academic has stalled. He is currently in a relationship with a vibrant woman, Ramona, but finds himself running away from commitment.

Herzog's second marriage, to the demanding, manipulative Madeleine, has recently ended in a humiliating fashion. Madeleine convinced Moses to move her and their daughter Junie to Chicago, and to arrange for their best friends, Valentine and Phoebe Gersbach, to move as well, securing a solid job for Valentine. However, the plans were all a ruse, as Madeleine and Valentine were carrying on an affair behind Moses's back, and shortly after arriving in Chicago, Madeleine throws Herzog out, securing a restraining order (of sorts) against him, and attempting to have him committed to an asylum.

Herzog spends much of his time writing letters he never sends. These letters are aimed at friends, family members, and famous figures. The recipients may be dead, and Herzog has often never met these people. The one common thread is that Herzog is always expressing disappointment, either his own in the failings of others or their words, or apologizing for the way he has disappointed others.

The novel opens with Herzog in his house in Ludeyville, a town in the Berkshires in western Massachusettsmarker. He is contemplating returning to New Yorkmarker to see Ramona, but instead flees to Martha's Vineyardmarker to visit some friends. He arrives at their house, but writes a note - this one an actual note - saying that he has to leave:

"Not able to stand kindness at this time. Feeling, heart, everything in strange condition. Unfinished business."

He heads to New York to start trying to finish that business, including regaining custody of his daughter, Junie. After spending a night with Ramona, he heads to the courthouse to meet his lawyer to discuss his plans, and ends up witnessing a series of tragicomic court hearings, including one where a woman is charged with beating her three-year-old to death by flinging him against a wall. Moses, already distraught after receiving a letter from Junie's babysitter about an incident where Valentine locked Junie in the car while he and Madeleine argued inside the house, heads to Chicago. He goes to his stepmother's house and picks up an antique pistol with two bullets in it, forming a vague plan of killing Madeleine and Valentine and running off with Junie.

The plan goes awry when he sees Valentine giving Junie a bath and realizes that Junie is in no danger. The next day, after taking his daughter to the aquarium, Herzog is in a car accident and ends up charged with possession of a loaded weapon. His brother, the coldly rational Will, picks him up and tries to get him back on his feet. Herzog heads to Ludeyville, where his brother meets him and tries to convince him to check himself into an institution. But Herzog, who had previously considered doing just that, is now coming to terms with his life. Ramona comes up to join him for a night - much to Will's surprise - and Herzog begins making plans to fix up the house, which, like his life, needs repair but is still structurally sound. Herzog closes by saying that he doesn't need to write any more letters.

Through the flashbacks that litter the novel, other critical details of Herzog's life come to light, including his marriage to the stable Daisy and the existence of their son, Marco; the life of Herzog's father, a failure at every job he tried; and Herzog's sexual molestation by a stranger on a street in Chicago.


The beauty of the novel lies in the dissection of Herzog's mind. In typical Bellow style, the descriptions of characters' emotions and physical features are rich in wit and energy.Herzog's relationships are the central theme of the novel, not just with women and friends, but also society and himself. Herzog's own thoughts and thought processes are laid bare in the letters he writes.As the novel progresses, the letters (represented in italics) become fewer and fewer. This seems to mirror the healing of the narrator's mind, as his attention turns from his inner struggles towards the options offered by his current situation – not having to be a scholar, the possibility of starting afresh with Ramona, and so on. In other words, the psychological clarification that is taking place at the level of content is reflected stylistically in the movement from a predominantly epistolary mode towards a more linearly organized narrative.

Autobiographical elements

The character of Herzog in many ways echoes a fictionalized Saul Bellow. Similarities between Herzog and Bellow include:
  • Both grew up in Canadamarker.
  • Both are Jewish.
  • Both have parents who had emigrated from Russiamarker (St. Petersburgmarker).
  • Both lived in Chicagomarker for significant periods of time.
  • Both were divorced twice (at the time of writing; Bellow would go on to divorce four of his five wives.)
  • Both were sons of bootlegger fathers.
  • The character of Valentine Gersbach is based on Jack Ludwig, a long-time friend of Bellow who had an affair with Bellow's second wife, Sondra .



  • Burt, Daniel S. The Novel 100. Checkmark Books, 2004. ISBN 0-8160-4558-5

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