A couple of years ago I followed a family of Jewish Russian migrants that I saw on the immigration records, and tried to trace their whereabouts after their migration. I was able to find them in the censuses of 1920 and 1930 living in Chicago. Searches in ancestry.com also yielded a hit for a 1929 yearbook of a Chicago middle school, Sabin Junior High. In the page in which I found the girl’s name mentioned, there was also a story printed across half of the page. The title was My Life Thus Far, and it was a modest autobiographic sketch by a 14 years-old student. He mainly bragged his awesome Canadian-ness, but also told about a difficult upbringing as a child to an immigrant family, struggling to make his way in an American school. The story was signed by one, Sol Bellow.
Saul Bellow’s 100th birthday is coming up on June 10th, and it has been ten years since he died. Bellow’s family lived at that time in Chicago’s Humbolt Park, on Cortez Street, and he went to nearby Sabin Junior High between 1927 and 1930. The story was written when Bellow was finishing his eighth grade, one year before graduating from Sabin. I was unable to find any sign that this has been noted before, although I cannot say that I searched beyond exhaustion. I presume that this was seen previously, as the piece does show up, in fact, upon a simple search of Bellow’s name on ancestry.com. Bellow’s very recent biography, The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964, does relate to records from Sabin Junior High (pp. 99-102), and I would assume that the author might have seen this piece from the yearbook as well. In any case, I wonder whether this was, technically speaking, Bellow’s first published piece.
Update (June 30th, 2015): According to Zachary Leader, the author of the above mentioned biography of Bellow, this piece was unknown to him, and for all he knows this is indeed the first one published. He hopes to be able to incorporate it in the upcoming paperback edition.
My Life Thus Far
By Sol [Saul] Bellow
I doubt if many children of my age have had as varied experiences as I have had. I was born in the little town of Lachine Quebec, a suburb of Montreal, on June 10, 1915, the youngest of four children, there being my two brothers and my sister. In Europe my father had been a wealthy man, but in Canada he became a bakery driver.
My mother tells me that as a child I liked to try to eat paper and coal. We had a family of kittens, and my favorite past time was to put them into the bath, and let the water run. At the age of two I put my left foot into the stove. This foot still bears a mark. I remember the time when at the age of three I was allowed to hold the reins of my father’s horse. When I was four the family moved to Montreal. I remember the house also. It was large and roomy, and ancient.
At the age of five I entered Strathorn School Kindergarten. The teacher was a French girl and made us repeat the morning prayer after her. The first lines went like this, “Our fathers fought in heaven, what shall be our name.” When I came home I asked my brother if my father fought in heaven over my name, and he said he did not know.
Montreal is a wonderful place for a boy to live in. Everything a boy can wish for is there. There is nutting in the fall, skiing, skating, sleigh riding, hockey, la crosse for winter sports, and in the spring there were mountains to climb. In the summer I would go to Lachine for a vacation. There were no mountains to climb in Lachine but, oh my! There were woods, and rapids, and Indian reservations, a rocky beach, roads to hike, berries to pick, and many other things to do. You may rest assured that I had a good time. Every summer the Fair would come to Fletcher’s Field and I would go home to see it, there I would eat popcorn and pink lemonade and gaze in wonder at Wah Wall the Indian snake charmer or at the sword swallower. In the big tent there would be clowns, and a lion drinking out of a saucer, all these things impressed me.
When I entered the Devonshire School, I was put into third grade. Then we began a study of French. I regret that I never had an opportunity to learn French thoroughly. I only remember a smattering of words. At the age of eight I underwent an operation for appendicitis. The operation was not successful, and I received a blood infection. I believe now that if I hadn’t had my early training in Canada, I would never had enough resistance to pull through. The doctors told my mother that I must be in the open air constantly. I this way I was cured, but I missed a half grade of school. During my illness my father’s business failed. And seeing there was no work to be found, my father decided to move to Chicago, where he would be sure to find work. My father went ahead of the family and found a job as a Manager of the Imperial Baking Co. This was about five and one-half years ago. The family followed soon afterwards, and before we went I visited my birthplace and all the other places that I knew, loved so well and still remember. When we came to Chicago we moved to Augusta Street, and the rooms. They would crowd around I entered the LaFayettte School.
Here I found many friends, who were proud to have a Canadian member in me and ask me questions which astonished me such as, “Did you live with the Indians”, or “Did you live with the Eskimos”, etc. In the school I was no shining star either, but I soon picked up. We then moved to Cortez Street, and I entered the Columbus School. From then on school was easy. I entered Sabin with one hundred and twenty on the intelligence test, a row of E’s, and a lot of high hopes. I entered 206; Miss Maher was sick and we had a young substitute Miss Nelson. The first month I walked around in a daze and came out with two D’s in minors. But I came back with interest. To make up a half year that I missed, I went to summer school and made up. I am now in 8A.
In my early age I wanted to be a street car conductor. Later I wanted to be a mountaineer. At the present I have better and higher ambitions, like being a professional man.