Nelson Algren’s Street Cred
Twenty-six years ago in these pages, Harold Brodkey took brutal stock of the work of the late John O’Hara, whose reputation, over which O’Hara had obsessed, was already in decline. “Literary immortality is a curious notion,” Brodkey wrote, in a tone of detached sagacity that surely surprised those who knew him, for if any writer could give O’Hara a run for his money in the ego department it was Brodkey. With a coroner’s acumen, he catalogued the ways in which O’Hara’s work, once touted (most insistently by O’Hara himself) for the Nobel Prize, had grown dated and flat, before concluding, rather menacingly, with this one-sentence paragraph: “I think anyone who spends his life working to become eligible for literary immortality is a fool.”
There weren’t very many American writers who seemed as well positioned for that sort of “immortality” as O’Hara back in the nineteen-forties and fifties, but one of them was certainly Nelson Algren, the author of “The Man with the Golden Arm,” “A Walk on the Wild Side,” and half a dozen other works of fiction and nonfiction. Algren, like O’Hara, lived long enough to see posterity begin to claw back his reputation; his response, interestingly, was to try to beat posterity to the punch. Around 1960, unwilling to give the literary culture that had turned against him the satisfaction of seeing him wounded, he stopped writing novels, or even referring to himself as a novelist at all (preferring the term “journalist,” or “loser”). He showed up at various literary events dressed more or less in rags, and acted the clown there, as he did for journalists and other interviewers, lying about the facts of his own life and work in ways that made them seem less colorful rather than more. His efforts, sadly, were not unsuccessful. In the last years of his life, the work that Ernest Hemingway once said “beat Dostoyevsky” was so undervalued that much of it was out of print.
Long identified with his home city of Chicago, Algren began spending much less time there, living itinerantly in hotels or rentals or friends’ houses from Long Island to Vietnam. Yet devotees—young writers, many of them—kept finding him. These are not always the young writers one might expect, either, given Algren’s reputation as a kind of proletarian naturalist poet of the streets; the kinship between his sensibility and that of fanboys like Terry Southern or Russell Banks or Cormac McCarthy or Thomas Pynchon (Algren, Pynchon said, “is behind a great deal of what I do”) is not instantly apparent. In 1964, a twenty-seven-year-old former advertising copywriter and aspiring novelist named Don DeLillo was vacationing on Fire Island and heard that Algren was living nearby. When he went to pay his respects, he learned that Algren, in a rental house without electricity, had only an electric typewriter; DeLillo returned with his own manual model, a loan Algren gratefully made use of for the rest of the summer. In 1981, when Algren was even closer to obscurity, another admirer, Kurt Vonnegut, succeeded in having him elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Algren grudgingly admitted to being pleased by the honor. He died the night before the induction ceremony.
And now comes a devotee named Colin Asher, who has produced a wonderfully readable, passionately partisan biography of Algren, “Never a Lovely So Real” (Norton), the title a line from Algren’s book-length paean to Chicago. In the course of making the case for Algren’s neglected work, Asher does something else nearly as valuable, which is to reframe—and to free from myth and obfuscation, much of it Algren’s own—the life: a life not just entertainingly full of incident but also inspiring and exemplary in a time when questions of art’s role in resisting the enemies of democracy and economic justice are newly immediate.
Right up front, Asher promises a scoop. Algren’s late-career slide into irrelevance, Asher says, was no impartial operation of fashion or taste but the result of an orchestrated plot by Hoover’s F.B.I. to silence him, at the peak of the McCarthy era. What’s more, the plot itself, in Asher’s telling, was the direct result of a gratuitous insult Algren inserted into “The Man with the Golden Arm”—mockingly employing the surnames of two known turncoats who had identified, sometimes for money, many former friends and colleagues as members of the Communist Party. Incensed, the two men sought revenge by naming Algren to the F.B.I. and to the House Un-American Activities Committee, prompting an investigation that turned Algren into a pariah and sabotaged his career. But “they operated in secret,” Asher writes, “so Algren blamed himself when his life began falling apart. He presumed the paranoia and depression that began to cripple him in the nineteen-fifties were the result of personal weakness, and decided his books were not being published because no one wanted to read them.”
Whoa if true, as they say on the Internet. It is certain that Algren fell afoul of the repressive social and professional culture of the McCarthy era. The F.B.I. kept its investigation of him open for twenty-nine years, enlisting as informers everyone from his publishers to his landlady to (however unwittingly) his mother. Its activities weren’t always a matter of simple information-gathering, either. For many years, the Bureau refused to grant Algren a passport, and the reason for that is a reminder of what a vindictive, resource-wasting cause of shame the Hoover-era F.B.I. could be: it denied him the passport because it wanted him to appeal that denial, a process that would necessitate his signing a form saying he’d never been a member of the Communist Party, which—since agents held evidence to the contrary—would allow the Bureau to file perjury charges against him and put him in jail.
And all this comes to light now because Asher had the gumption and good fortune to obtain, for the first time, Algren’s entire F.B.I. file. (Two previous biographers had to make do with a much more heavily censored version.) So he has a story to tell. The question is whether Algren’s fate was really down to these two stoolies—Louis Budenz and Howard Rushmore, may their names live in infamy—or whether the forces that pushed him and his work out of the mainstream were broader in scope than that.
Algren came from a line of iconoclasts, of stubborn outsiders. He was born in Detroit in 1909 as Nelson Algren Abraham because his grandfather Nils, raised a Lutheran in Sweden, had, purely for intellectual reasons, converted to Judaism around 1850—notwithstanding the fact that there were at that time only about three thousand Jews in all of Sweden, their rights severely curtailed by anti-Semitic laws determining where they could live, whom they could marry, etc. An A student (though he later denied it), Nelson graduated from college with a journalism degree and entered the job market in 1931—not exactly boom times for finding a job of any kind. A road trip in search of work gradually turned into something more like hobo life: he travelled as far north as Minnesota and then as far south as New Orleans, on foot or hopping freight cars, his official Illinois Press Association card growing tattered. After a year and a half, he and two acquaintances wound up trying to revive an abandoned gas station on the Texas-Mexico border; when that failed, he finally went back home to Chicago, with nothing but a newly radicalized sense of what the real America looked like and what its people were made of. He was still mining those years for material in his fiction a quarter century later.
His desire to write about what he’d seen brought him into contact with arts organizations like the John Reed Club and magazines like The Anvil: Stories for Workers, all of them ardently left-leaning. He identified proudly with the Communist Party and the “proletarian literature” movement, even though, as Asher points out, his literary sensibility was imperfectly suited to it; Algren was always less attracted to the heroic working class than to hustlers, outlaws, those who rejected the whole culture of work itself.
His first novel, “Somebody in Boots” (originally titled “Native Son”: his good friend Richard Wright’s book of that name hadn’t been written yet), sold a meagre seven hundred and sixty copies, failing to earn back its two-hundred-dollar advance. Many first novels tank in this way, and many first novelists are despondent as a result, but twenty-six-year-old Algren—in what would be a harbinger of how he handled perceived failures later in life—took the blow particularly hard, and tried at least once to commit suicide. His friends feared for his sanity. Invited to New York to address the first-ever American Writers’ Congress, Algren stood shaking at the lectern, mumbling the same sentences over and over, which gradually became audible: “My book was a failure. Please buy my book.” Alarmed, his New York comrades secured him a cushy residency at Yaddo, the upstate artists’ colony housed in an old mansion. Algren escaped it as if it were a prison and hopped a bus back to Chicago.
Living in a storefront, stealing milk from people’s porches in the predawn hours to feed himself and his girlfriend, he wrote and published another novel, “Never Come Morning,” which bombed as well. He took a job as a welder’s assistant. Inducted into the Army, he was kept Stateside until the war in Europe was almost over, suspecting—rightly, it turns out—that this was because Army records pointed to him as a subversive. Post-discharge, he produced a short-story collection, “The Neon Wilderness.”
His literary reputation somehow spread far enough that he was cold-called one evening in 1947 in his Chicago apartment by Simone de Beauvoir. In town on a lecture tour, she asked him to meet her at a fancy downtown cocktail lounge; after a couple of drinks there, he suggested that maybe she would enjoy a tour of the real Chicago instead, and thus began one of the unlikely love affairs in literary history. Beauvoir had an open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, an attachment that rankled Algren. He said he wanted to marry her, although, given his romantic history otherwise, it seems as if their long separations were in some way a key to his ardor. (Asher defends Algren against the charge, levelled by another ex, that he was “scared to death of love,” but this seems more like loyalty than like objective analysis.)
His life was his research: he spent his days writing and his nights in Chicago’s underworld, and in due course he became familiar with the culture of drug addiction, principally morphine and heroin. He never tried those himself, though he watched and took notes while others shot up or went through withdrawal. This led at last to his breakthrough success, “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1949), a novel about a poker dealer named Frankie Machine who loses control of his drug habit, spontaneously commits murder, and is gradually subdued by guilt about it. The winner of the inaugural National Book Award, made into a popular movie (from which Algren earned almost nothing) starring Frank Sinatra, this was the pinnacle of Algren’s achievement; it was also the novel into which he tossed the inside joke ridiculing Budenz and Rushmore, and thus, at least in Asher’s telling, planted the seed of its author’s eventual destruction.
Asher devotes less real estate to critical analysis of the fiction itself than another literary biographer might; but he does make an interesting, out-of-the-box case for “The Man with the Golden Arm” by comparing it to a novel published just a few months earlier, Orwell’s “1984.” Asher writes:
Nelson feared a different, but no less despairing future. He studied the class of people who had not benefited from the wartime recovery or the postwar economic boom. The thinness of the American Century’s promise was evident in the quality of their lives, he believed, and he intuited that their fates foretold everyone else’s. He looked at them and saw an atomized society where no one felt at home any longer, and masses of people cycled through prisons and jails—a place where irrelevance was both sin and punishment, and there was no need for a totalitarian government to stifle dissent because everyone was out only for themselves.
With fame came, of course, increased attention, in as grim a political climate for artists as America has ever known; and, in Algren’s words, “They don’t exactly give me any medals for caution.” He was outspoken in his defense of the Rosenbergs, telling an audience that the whole thing was “straight out of Cotton Mather.” America, he corrected an interviewer, was “an imperialist son of a bitch.” He endorsed a gay candidate for Chicago’s board of aldermen in 1951. He gave a speech warning against blind trust in law-enforcement agencies and was booed off the stage. He created a support committee for the Hollywood Ten, appeared onstage with blacklisted writers and actors, and signed open letters condemning government censorship. “Today,” he wrote in an essay for Holiday nominally about the city of Chicago, “under the name of ‘security,’ the dark shades are being drawn.”
Holiday responded by editing much of the political content out of that essay without telling him, and publishing it in its bowdlerized version. And here we start to run up against the limits of Asher’s near-allegorical thesis that Algren’s downfall can be traced to a personal vendetta. True, the F.B.I. interviewed Budenz nineteen days after “The Man with the Golden Arm” won the National Book Award; among the names he gave the agents that day was Algren’s, and Hoover himself, when this interview was brought to his attention, requested that Algren’s file, already ten years old, be “re-opened.” But it’s hard to imagine, given Algren’s new fame and chronic outspokenness, that their interest in him wouldn’t have perked up; and, anyway, it wasn’t all about the Bureau. There’s no reason to cast organizations like Holiday—or like Doubleday, which in 1953 refused to publish Algren’s slim, fiery volume about writing and resistance called “Nonconformity”—as victims rather than as perpetrators in the culture of repression. Such was that culture that if Budenz and Rushmore had never existed, one ends up believing, publishers and other gatekeepers still would have started turning their backs on Algren, with similar results.
Notwithstanding the stupendous success of “The Man with the Golden Arm,” Doubleday also declined to publish Algren’s follow-up novel; it went to Farrar, Straus instead, in 1955. Its title—“A Walk on the Wild Side”—has entered the lexicon, thanks less to Algren than to Lou Reed, who was pitched, early in his career, the idea of writing an Off Broadway musical based on the book. (Let that sink in for a moment.) A comic picaresque about a Depression-era naïf who gets peripherally involved in the sex trade in New Orleans, the novel mines much of Algren’s own Depression-era experience on the road, and lionizes those he met there:
Sports of the world, poor bummies, poor tarts, all they were good for was to draw flies I was told. You could always treat one too good, it was said, but you could never treat one too bad. Yet I wouldn’t trade off the worst of the lot for the best of the other kind. I think they were the real salt of the earth.
Russell Banks, for one, thinks it’s a better novel than “Golden Arm,” and I’m inclined to agree; but, in the critical response at the time, there was a new, hostile note. The American literary community, in the prosperous, paranoid Cold War era, was growing less hospitable toward Algren and his Whitmanesque sympathies. Leslie Fiedler used the occasion of the novel’s publication to dismiss Algren himself as “a museum piece—the last of the proletarian writers.” Norman Podhoretz, in these pages, took moral umbrage at the embrace of the downtrodden: Algren seems to believe, he wrote, “that we live in a society whose bums and tramps are better men than the preachers and the politicians and the otherwise respectables.” And Time piled on: “One of the literary clichés that takes a long time dying is the notion that prostitutes have hearts of gold and that bums are somehow more steeped in humanity than people who work.”
Today, the irony of this attack on the old proletarian-lit principle that fiction should embrace real people with real problems—should mine, for meaning’s raw material, not imagination or fantasy but close, reportorial observation of the world—is that the principle itself has come full circle and is now associated with a kind of literary conservatism. Think of Tom Wolfe’s manifesto, in the nineteen-eighties, wondering where all the Balzacs have gone, or the critic B. R. Myers, who has made a career out of complaining that writers like the aforementioned DeLillo have lost touch with “real life.” There’s something about Algren’s attention to his characters’ social helplessness, to the economic forces that treat them as a kind of waste product, that registers now as old-fashioned.
But Algren’s work is way weirder than traditional social realism. Hemingway had it right when he identified Algren’s proper ancestor as Dostoyevsky. It was the souls of the underground men that Algren was interested in. And, if the Podhoretzes of the world were offended that he should look into the souls of thieves and whores and drug addicts and find more beauty there than among the “respectables,” one must imagine them scowling similarly at Whitman (“I belong to these convicts and prostitutes myself”), or at Chekhov (“It is not the business of writers to accuse or prosecute, but to take the part of guilty men once they have been condemned and are undergoing punishment”), or, for that matter, at Jesus Christ.
Algren was still a big enough name that “Wild Side” did O.K., but in retrospect it is easy to see its sometimes nasty reception as the beginning of his downward drift. He was hopeless with money; he gave it away to friends, lost it at poker, poured it into lawsuits. As it dwindled, his serious depression surfaced again. His friends institutionalized him. There was what seems like another suicide attempt. And then began the long last act of his life, in which he played the role of nomadic hack, accepting paying gigs at writing workshops for which he appeared to have little but contempt, and generally undermining the notion that who he was or what he did mattered to anyone. Though he generously welcomed the steady stream of admirers who showed up unannounced at his door, in public he passive-aggressively insulted anyone who treated him like a big deal. “A man who won’t demean himself for a dollar is a phony to my way of thinking” was the kind of thing he said.
But the fire wasn’t completely out. He gave Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” its first rave review, and did the same twenty years later for Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.” And, in an infuriating coda to his writing career, in 1973 he took an assignment from Esquire to cover the aftermath of a murder trial in Paterson, New Jersey: two black men had been convicted of killing three white people in a bar, and the story was to be about how that event encapsulated the racial tensions threatening to engulf the city. Algren went to Newark, interviewed nearly everyone involved, including one of the alleged killers—a former prizefighter named Rubin (Hurricane) Carter—and came back with a story not about “racial tensions” but about how Carter was innocent of the crime for which he had been successfully framed. The case eventually became a global cause célèbre; Bob Dylan wrote a song about it, Denzel Washington starred in a movie about it. Algren was among the first to see the injustice that had occurred and to try to make it public. Esquire’s response was to kill the story, on the ground that it wasn’t what the magazine had asked him to write. By this point, any reader of the biography will understand why Algren had pretty much given up even trying.
He stood with the outcast, the demonized. His politics fell afoul of the culture in a way that wound up costing him everything, but he refused to compromise them; and that refusal makes his political bona fides, according to the current moment, impeccable. Thus the work, so long disregarded, is ripe for a revival now, too—right?
Sometimes writers fall through posterity’s cracks because, in retrospect, we can’t figure out where to place them. We associate writing about the underclass, about “real” people, with a straightforward, realistic style, plain sometimes to the point of awkwardness, as with Dreiser. Algren didn’t go for that. He wrote in a kind of high style derived from slang, as in this passage from “Golden Arm”: “These were the luckless living soon to become the luckless dead. The ones who were fished out of river or lake, found crumpled under crumpled papers in the parks, picked up in the horse-and-wagon alleys or slugged, for half a bottle of homemade wine, in the rutted tunnels that run between the advertising agencies and the banks.”
The sentences and the paragraphs themselves are lyrically constructed but the narrative connections between them are sometimes choppy, hard to latch onto. One of Algren’s signature moves is to begin a new paragraph (sometimes even a new chapter) with a sentence fragment that’s a kind of leftover clause from the sentence preceding it:
So Dove said it too and both were inside.
Where along the back bar’s thousand bottles, Old Doc Dockery’s hundred dolls remembered the twisted twenties.
Dark-eyed, dressy little town dolls and dutch-bobbed blondies from windmilled countrysides.
His project was to give voice to society’s inarticulate; the way he did that was to make those people articulate, at least in the very specific and highly stylized argot of the street culture they inhabited. He researched this argot tirelessly, filling notebooks with expressions overheard in bars, at poker games, and elsewhere. (We owe the mainstreaming of the drug-culture expression “a monkey on your back” to “The Man with the Golden Arm.”) It’s a stark contrast to, say, Stephen Crane—one of Algren’s early heroes—who also wrote about society’s inarticulate, figures who may have complex thoughts but in terms of dialogue are constantly telling each other to “go teh hell” and that’s about it. The effect in Algren’s work is like a rocky marriage between Zola and Damon Runyon. Every character has a colorful nickname: Frankie Machine, Sparrow, Record Head, Piggy-O. However real the source of the diction, it works against the reality of the characters themselves if, in the grip of heroin withdrawal, they are able to deliver a line like this: “You always get scared too soon. You got the bull horrors. Hand me the hypo, I’m hitchin’ up the reindeers.”
The subject matter of “The Man with the Golden Arm” was considered so shocking for its time that there was some question whether it might even be published. But the grit no longer registers as grit; the popular culture to which Algren introduced this material has thoroughly colonized it. Still, at its best, his fiction has an unfakeable, lived authenticity to it, even now; at its weakest, it comes off as sentimental—a charge Algren anticipated, and owned. Sentimentality “is an indulgence in emotion,” he said in an interview. “You want men and women to be good to each other and you’re very stubborn in thinking that they want to be. Sentimentality is a kind of indulgence in this hope. I’m not against sentimentality. I think you need it. I mean, I don’t think you get a true picture of people without it in writing. . . . It’s a kind of poetry, it’s an emotional poetry, and, to bring it back to the literary scene, I don’t think anything is true that doesn’t have it.”
This sentimentality, that indulgence—then as now—is a kind of fence that some readers are going to be willing to squeeze through and others aren’t. In the end, it’s the life, more than the work, that still seems exemplary, particularly in this cultural moment when writers and artists of all stripes are again trying to figure out what genuine resistance looks like and what price they are willing to pay for it. The only problem with this conclusion is that Algren himself would have hated it. When Beauvoir published a very thinly veiled account of their love affair—crediting the character based on him with giving Beauvoir’s character her first “complete orgasm,” no less—Algren was, far from gratified, distraught over what he considered her betrayal. He needed his work to matter; without that, celebrity was little more than humiliation.
In Asher, he gets the biographer any writer dreams of: thorough, smart, literate, and unabashedly on his subject’s side—a disciple, a role that puts him, as the book itself lays out, in excellent, even august company. In his acknowledgments, Asher tells the story of his own son, who, unborn when Asher started work on the biography, was referring to Algren as “Uncle Nelson” by the time it was done. Instead of an audience of millions, then, a steady single file of bright, devoted, flame-tending acolytes. There are sadder afterlives. ♦