The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is a twentieth-century rendition of Mark Twain's classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After Bellow published his first two novels, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to live in France and travel throughout Europe. After abandoning his efforts on two other novels, Bellow located in Augie March a point of "spiritual release" for his style. He stated that writing the book had been a great pleasure for him, and that the ideas had come easily - "in buckets".
According to Bellow, his first two novels felt "cramped". Augie March, on the other hand, was something of the reverse; the material dictated the form, and, for this reason, critics have often complained about the novel's "shapelessness". The novel is fashioned in the picaresque style, with numerous episodes surrounding a likable rogue-character of low birth (the picaro). At the same time, the novel hovers precipitously close to the form of the bildungsroman, a novel which details a young man's ascent into maturity, usually in an autobiographical format. In contrast to the picaresque novel, the bildungsroman is structured around the development of the protagonist. Whether Augie actually matures is a subject of much debate, though Bellow clearly intended Augie's development to be the focal point of the novel: the book even opens with the assertion that "a man's character is his fate".
In Augie March, Bellow establishes an exuberant new voice while attempting to lavishly portray the Chicago of his childhood. As Augie narrates the novel, his voice abandons individual realizations and musings to take on a vast social canvas of places and characters. This "free-style" voice aims for the candor of autobiography while simultaneously suppressing facts from the reader (and quite possibly from Augie's own consciousness, as well). The story opens with Augie living with his simple-minded mother, subsisting in the shadow of a father who has abandoned the impoverished family, a Machiavellian-style grandmother, the very specter of anti-Semitism, and an "idiot" brother. This atmosphere, rife with the potential for trauma, quickly becomes the starting point for the exploration of Augie's self-discovery - particularly with respect to women and love. Augie expresses only occasional moments of real bitterness as he attempts to locate his identity amid the flux of the material world. He encounters a colorful array of personalities, and a preponderance of individuals who become interested in exerting influence over him (including Grandma Lausch, Simon, Einhorn, Mrs. Renling, Thea, Mintouchian, and Basteshaw). The original title for the book, in fact, was Life among the Machiavellians.
As a consequence of his encounters with this wide array of characters, the quick succession of episodic events, the variety of occupations that he experiments with, and his numerous confrontations with realists, Augie repeatedly cycles through optimism, disaster, and recovery throughout the novel. His rambling exploration of social, historical, psychological, and mythical landscapes expresses a variety of tones ranging from romanticism and naturalism to satire and humanism. The verbose sentences, riddled with hyphenated words that allude to history, philosophy, and mythology, represent the "democratic" tone of the novel - which, according to Bellow, is expansive, optimistic, sprawling, and celebratory. Bellow consciously strove to write in the fashion of Walt Whitman's verse, to which Augie March is a clear nod. Bellow believed that the successful expression of the texture of contemporary life was supported by this "riskier" style, and the result of these efforts is a delightful exploration of the possibilities of language, as well as the resoluteness of the human spirit. From Depression-Era Chicago to post-war Europe, Augie relentlessly travels the globe in search of what he hopes will be "a better fate".
The stark movement away from the highly controlled character of Bellows' first two novels to the polyphony of characters and comic eccentricity (which has come to be known as the "Bellovian" style) displayed in his subsequent work won The Adventures of Augie March the National Book Award. The book marks the beginning of Bellow's remarkable ability to express the tenacity of the human spirit.