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The Dean's December by Saul Bellow

The Dean's December (original 1982; edition 1982)

by Saul Bellow (Author)

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831410,880 (3.58)18
Title:The Dean's December
Authors:Saul Bellow (Author)
Info:London: Penguin Books (2008)
Collections:Read but unowned, Read All Time, Read in 2012
Tags:English Literature, American Literature, Novel, CASS

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The Dean's December by Saul Bellow (1982)

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It was in the early 1980s that left-wing optimism made place for no-nonsense neo-liberalism. Sympathy for a Marxist ideology and humanist view of society, fostered for about a decade since the late 1960s, disappeared without trace, and sympathizers went into hiding or transformed. The Dean’s December by Saul Bellow traces that transformation.

The Dean’s December tells the story of Albert Corde, a former journalist, now Dean at a University in Chicago, who travels with his wife to Bucharest to attend to his dying mother in law. The reality of life in Bucharest is not utopian. It is hard for Corde to come to terms with the fact that one man, the Colonel, can decide about simple matters, such as whether or not to obtain permission to visit the dying mother-in-law in hospital. The reality of Bucharest is inhumane and harsh. Corde concludes that this is a lesson he is taught, a lesson about the human condition. In Communist countries, it is the government that sets the pain level for you. In the United States, it is very different, muses Corde, because it is a pleasure society which likes to think of itself as a tenderness society. In conservative capitalism this harshness is smoothed over by explanations that whoever should die are those who are disadvantaged, (…) or come from a backward section of the country. (p. 275).

During his career as a journalist, Corde passionately wrote about the social injustice he observed in his hometown Chicago. His sympathy is particularly with that black underclass, (…) which is economically redundant (…) falling farther and farther behind the rest of society, locked into a culture of despair and crime.(p.206) They are a part of society that has been written off.

Corde’s message does not earn him any honours. Rather, his analytical powers are derided and he is slandered for a traitor, writing about such problems in his city.

Much of the philosophical theme of the book doesn’t emerge until the last quarter of the book, although the first part of the novel plays an important role to build up to that. What is most on Corde’s mind at the beginning of the novel is a court case about a murder trial involving two black students at his own university. Corde is convinced that the case is misrepresented, and that the black students do not get a fair trial. There is no room for the “reality” of the case. The idea that the death of the white student was not premeditated but the result of an unfortunate accident does not fit the view of the case, or, as Corde observes with ordinary consciousness you can’t even begin to know what’s happening”. (p. 266)

With nothing at hand, and meeting an old school friend in Bucharest, Corde has not much other to do than to contemplate this case, and his career as a journalist and academic, barely realizing and “incapable of grasping the full implications of world transformation”. Reality didn’t exist “out there”. It began to be real only when the soul found its underlying truth. In generalities, there was no coherence—none. The generality mind, the habit of mind that governed the world, had no force of coherence, it was dissociative. It divided because it was, itself, divided. Hence the schizophrenia, which was moral and aesthetic as well as analytical. (p. 266)

The Dean’s December is a novel with an uneasy message. It describes a situation in American society, which remains unresolved, and which, in the waning of the hegemony of the United States will present itself more on the foreground, as the American Dream makes way for the American condition. The Americans haven’t seen any real pain yet. The American character doesn’t even exist yet. It’s still kicking in the womb.

The Dean’s December seems to have a limited readership. It was published at the time of the ascent of neo-liberalism, and perhaps therefore ignored. However, the tremendous scope of the novel, and the prediction contained in it, about the formation of the American character and the undecided outcome of the American condition, a novel written by a Nobel Prize winner, must mean that there will be a future re-assessment of its value, at a time when Americans have to come to terms with every man’s inner inner city. (p. 207). ( )
2 vote edwinbcn | Dec 23, 2012 |
This is correctly referred to as the 1st Trade Edition, stated "First Harper & Rowe edition" and is the 1st US ed other than previous 500 signed 1st editions same year as per Firsts magazine and a Franklin Library Special Edition. I don't know why the ISBN no indicates a Harper Collins ed in 1981. Now I do. There is a Harper Collins HC of the book in 1981.It shows up on Amazon.UK as well as the supposedly 1st British Ed HC by Secker & Warburg 1982. Whether it was published in the UK only or Canada I don't know. And why would it be published before the American Edition? I checked what appears to be a Library of Congress no which is 80-8705. It comes up with nothing other than the name and author with a question re date and bindings. Very helpful indeed. Surely they recorded more than that but apparently not. Well back to work. Can anyone help?
  bhowell | Oct 13, 2007 |
Bellow at is typical brillance. Simultaneously the story of one man realizing his limitations, the end of a marriage, and cross cultural conflict. ( )
  piefuchs | Nov 12, 2006 |
Flap: Tale of two cities, Chicago and Bucharest. And the double-crisis in life of Albert Corde, a newsman who returns to his hometown to serve as Dean of Students. A Trial of two black men accused of killing a white student. Inside one of the pentitentiary societies of Eastern Europe.
  keylawk | Sep 25, 2006 |
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Corde, who led the life of an executive in America-wasn't a college dean a kind of executive?-found himself six or seven thousand miles from his base, in Bucharest, in winter, shut up in an old-fashioned appartment.
Corde, che in America conduceva la vita di un executive (non è forse un decano di collegio una sorta di funzionario esecutivo?) si trovava, ora, a sei-settemila miglia dalla sua base: a Bucharest, in pieno inverno, tappato in un appartamento vecchiostile.
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