The Dean's December (1982) fits squarely into the period defined as "late Bellow." It is Bellow's first book after his Nobel Prize. It has been called simultaneously magnificent and dull. It is a tale of two cities, Bucharest and Chicago, emblematic of irreconcilable differences between East and West. It's protagonist Albert Corde, half Huguenot and half Irish (p. 129) is a newspaperman who has become a professor of journalism and then Dean of an unnamed Chicago college (although Univ. Chicago and Northwestern are named in the novel (p.303)). He has written, in apocalyptic fashion, a series of articles in Harper's indicting Chicago for its racism and lack of "moral initiative." He has also pressed for the conviction of a black man who murdered one of the college's white students, Rickie Lester. His impulse to take absolute moral readings leads to his dismissal as Dean.
Kiernan (Saul Bellow) points out that the protagonist is concerned with "connections" (p. 32) between opposites - with cords that bind, as his surname suggests. This manifests itself in a dialectical approach to experience. He seeks experience of an alternative kind in hope of discovering some ultimate synthesis. As a Tribune reporter with an international reputation, ha abandons a career others would envy and seeks seclusion in academe. Once dean, he devotes himself to muckraking journalism that embarrasses the college. After establishing such liberal credentials he makes a crusade of bringing a black man to justice, leaving himself open to charges of racism.
Corde's cousin Max Detillion (Detillion has cheated him of $200,000, thereby "debt"-illion) chooses to represent the defense in the murder trial that proves Corde's undoing. Detillion and Corde's deceased brother-in-law both see him as H.L. Mencken's Boobus Americanus. Zaehner's son Mason, college dropout, friend of the accused, appoints himself the Dean's harshest critic. Mason views his uncle as a racist, titillating himself with the observation of lives darker than his own (like Charlie Citrine in Humboldt's Gift). He thinks Mason's voice "the true voice of Chicago - the spirit of the age speaking from its lowest register" (p. 41). Not all his male cohorts are detractors. Beech, an eminent geologist, invites him to write about his discovery that crime in inner-city populations can be traced to the effects of lead poisoning - to be his interpreter to the "Humanists" (p. 134).