Saul Bellow Was 30 Years Ahead of Me


Here’s a fascinating little August tidbit, via Jeet Heer on Twitter. It’s an excerpt from The Dean’s December, by Saul Bellow, published in 1981. Albert Corde, an academic, is talking to a scientist (obviously modeled on the seminal lead researcher Clair Patterson) about the “real explanation of what goes on in the slums”:

“And the explanation? What is the real explanation?”

“Millions of tons of intractable lead residues poisoning the children of the poor. They’re the most exposed….Crime and social disorganization in inner city populations can all be traced to the effects of lead. It comes down to the nerves, to brain damage.”

….Direct material causes? Of course. Who could deny them? But what was odd was that no other causes were conceived of. “So it’s lead, nothing but old lead?” he said.

“I would ask you to study the evidence.”

And that was what Corde now began to do, reading through stapled documents, examining graphs….What was the message?….A truly accurate method of detecting tiny amounts of lead led to the discovery that the cycle of lead in the earth had been strongly perturbed. The conclusion: Chronic lead insult now affects all mankind….Mental disturbances resulting from lead poison are reflected in terrorism, barbarism, crime, cultural degradation.

….Tetraethyl fumes alone could do it—engine exhaust—and infants eating flaking lead paint in the slums became criminal morons.

What’s interesting is the mention of crime. Lead was a well-known neurotoxin by 1981, strongly implicated in educational problems and loss of IQ. So it’s no big surprise that it might pop up as a prop in a novel. But nobody was yet linking it to the rise of violent crime. That would wait for another 20 years. And a truly credible case for the link between lead and crime wouldn’t appear for yet another decade, when the necessary data became available and technology had advanced enough to produce convincing brain studies. Neither of those was available in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, the germ of the idea was there. In a way, that’s not surprising: I’ve always felt that, given what we know about what lead does to the childhood brain, its link to violent crime should never have been hard to accept. It would actually be surprising if childhood lead exposure didn’t have an effect on violent crime.

Anyway, that’s it. Your literary connection of the day to one of my favorite topics.