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Humboldt's Gift

citrine von novel materialist

a novel by Saul Bellow, published in 1975, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Set in the affluent suburbs of Chicago where even the wives of mafiosi are taking Ph.D.s, the book places two generations of writers at its centre. One is represented by the anguished modernist, Von Humboldt Fleischer, an intellectually omnivorous poet who dies in poverty. The other is exemplified by his disciple Charlie Citrine, a famous dramatist who succeeds in becoming wealthy in the Chicago of the materialist 1970s. The novel is related from Citrine's perspective, reminiscing about his friendship with Von Humboldt. However, Citrine refuses to succumb to the chaos of the materialist world and its emptiness of morality, by adopting a gnosticism in late life. Citrine clings to his memories of Von Humboldt as a means of fending off the harassment and demands of a variety of people, moving inward to protect himself from the threats of physical violence, and the pressures of materialism and mere physicality. Endeavouring to fuse a transcendental philosophy with modern commercial America, the novel was a mixed success, while the combination of the fantastic and the realistic produced a varied response from contemporary reviewers.

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