SEPTEMBER 6, 2019
WITH THE PROLETARIAT, to a large degree, having morphed into today’s precariat, midcentury writers who sought to align themselves with the dispossessed tend to be a forgotten, if not extinct, species. Which is unfortunate because, until the onslaught of McCarthyism, they were a vital force in American cultural life. These days few people read the work of radical authors like Benjamin Appel, Tom Kromer, Meridel Le Sueur, Josephine Herbst, and Mike Gold, all of whom depicted the conditions of those surviving on the margins — indeed, declared their solidarity with those unfortunates, extolling their virtues and idiosyncrasies. Writers who survived that tradition with their proletarian credentials intact were, to a large degree, those — like Jim Thompson and David Goodis — who were able to convey their portrayals of the underclass via hardboiled pulp fiction. After all, they were themselves working writers, laboring in obscurity, grinding out paperback originals to make a living. By contrast, left-leaning authors such as John Dos Passos, James Agee, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright had literary connections and writing ability that allowed them access to the upper realms of respectability. Rarer still were those writers who found themselves stranded between proletarian fiction and mainstream literature, yet who could nonetheless sidestep the pay-by-the-word pulp market. Notable among such talents was Nelson Algren, who, no matter how celebrated in his day, would eventually pay the price for adhering to that precarious position.
Born in 1909 in Detroit, Algren (née Nelson Ahlgren Abraham) moved with his family at the age of three to Chicago, where he remained for most of his life. Like many of his fellow writers during that era, he was briefly a member of the Communist Party, dividing his time in the 1930s between professional writing and organizing work for the Communist Party–inspired League of American Writers and the John Reed Club (and later, during the New Deal, for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project). Always a dedicated, if individualistic leftist, he went on to raise funds for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), then, some years later, for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; not to mention voicing his opposition to creeping conformism (code for McCarthyism), the Vietnam War, and the false promise of consumerism. It was during the Great Depression that Algren, inspired by books like Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Aleksandr Kuprin’s brothel-set novel The Pit (Yama, 1915), as well as by witnessing the plight of ordinary people, kicked off his writing career. Like many during that era, he took to the road, riding the rails and hitching rides, ending up in Texas, where he hooked up with some petty criminals and eventually manned a rural gas station. It was at the local teachers’ college that Algren, seeking to hone his literary chops, stole a typewriter, was arrested, found guilty, and given a two-year suspended sentence.
Many of his experiences in and around Texas would be recorded in Algren’s first novel, the picaresque Somebody in Boots (1935). Evocative of that time and place, the book concerns the travails of a young, poor, semiliterate Texan, Cass McKay. A thoughtful, meandering, and eccentric example of proletarian fiction, Algren’s novel had its admirers, notably fellow proletarian writer Jack Conroy. But others considered it overly didactic. Disappointingly, the book would turn out to be far less successful than Algren had hoped. However, his fortunes would change somewhat with his next effort, the explosive, Chicago-based Never Come Morning (1942), which centers on “Lefty” Bicek, a petty criminal and prizefighter whose dream is to one day escape the squalor of his Windy City neighborhood. Not belonging to any particular genre — a description that could apply to much of Algren’s subsequent work — the book illustrates, for the first but hardly last time, Algren’s allegiance to the inhabitants of Chicago’s demimonde. Less didactic than his previous effort, it is, nevertheless, equally hard-hitting, particularly when it comes to scrutinizing the false promises inherent in the American Dream.
Colin Asher, in this well-written and scrupulously researched biography, sums up Never Come Morning’s democratic leanings, saying that it affirms “that no person can be defined solely by the economic and cultural constraints brought to bear on them.” Though lauded by Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, and James T. Farrell, the novel also drew strong opposition: the Chicago-based Polish Roman Catholic Union of America was indignant enough to insist that it be removed from the shelves of the Chicago Public Library. Undaunted, Algren struck back five years later with The Neon Wilderness (1947), a collection of stories set again among Chicago’s Polish working class, replete with prostitutes, prizefighters, hustlers, gamblers, drunks, and small-time crooks — all struggling, according to Asher, “to orient themselves within a world that seems to grow colder and less forgiving by the day.”
But none of those previous efforts could have predicted the intensity and impact of Algren’s next two novels: The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956). These are, of course, the books with which the author is most commonly associated and on which his reputation is primarily based. Both not only demonstrate Algren’s unstinting devotion to those on the social margins, but they are written in a fervent prose style that conveys the impression that the author is about to let his characters off the lead, though never quite relinquishing control. The Man with the Golden Arm focuses on a war veteran, morphine addict, and would-be drummer, Frankie Machine, and is yet again set amid the drinkers, dopers, and card hustlers of Chicago’s Polish community. Embedded in the text, according to Asher, is the implication that the indignities suffered by its tragic characters — Frankie, Sparrow, Molly, and Sophie — “will be visited upon the rest of society in due time.”
Though the novel won the National Book Award, it did not fully lift Algren to the heights of literary respectability. Many critics considered The Man with the Golden Arm to be little more than a glamorization of Chicago’s seamy underclass. Perhaps that critique prompted Algren to set his next novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, not in Chicago but in New Orleans, and to feature a central character who, instead of being a Polish lowlife, was a young, semiliterate Texas drifter. Set in a world of cafés, brothels, and blinkered attitudes, and with a diverse cast of reprobates, A Walk on the Wild Side utilizes, not for the last time, material Algren collected 20 years earlier during his stint in Texas. One memorable example, quoted in the book, was reworked into Algren’s now-famous bit of advice, given in a 1956 Newsweek article: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” The book was a best seller, but critic Alfred Kazin called it a work of “puerile sentimentality,” and his colleague Norman Podhoretz said it purported to show that “we live in a society whose bums and tramps are better men than the preachers and the politicians and the otherwise respectables.” (For his part, Leslie Fiedler considered Algren and his book “almost a museum piece — the Last of the Proletarian Writers.”) Podhoretz’s response might have been, in a roundabout way, accurate, though such comments would have only made the novel all the more appealing to some prospective readers. Both Golden Arm and Wild Side would be adapted for — some would say butchered on — the screen, the former by Otto Preminger in 1955, starring the dubiously cast Frank Sinatra, the latter by Edward Dmytryk in 1962, with a screenplay (only loosely based on the novel) by another chronicler of the down and out, John Fante.
Unfortunately, no further Algren novels would appear during his lifetime. By the time of his death in 1981, his star, partly for reasons that will become clear, had long since descended. His final years did see him complete one last (posthumously published) novel, a thinly veiled account of the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter entitled The Devil’s Stocking (1983). However politically laudable, Algren’s final effort unfortunately lacks the depth, poetry, and stylistic complexity of his earlier work. That verdict would not apply to his final book of stories, the aptly named The Last Carousel (1973); though marred by some vindictive digs at Otto Preminger regarding his film of Golden Arm, as well as at Simone de Beauvoir, with whom Algren was at odds after she revealed aspects of their long-distance affair, it nevertheless contains a number of excellent stories, some of which harken back, yet again, to material collected in Texas all those long years ago. Reading it, one can’t help but be reminded of how much Algren has influenced such diverse writers as Hubert Selby Jr. and Denis Johnson, not to mention Thomas Pynchon.
Yet despite his abiding literary talent, Algren would spend most of the post–Wild Side years pursuing assignments for various magazines, many of which ended up in his collections Who Lost an American? (1963) and Notes from a Sea Diary: Hemingway All the Way (1965). Never the highest paid of best-selling authors, Algren was by now describing himself as a journalist rather than a novelist. In fact, up until embarking on his “Hurricane” Carter project, he harbored little if any desire to write another novel, saying that “I’d as soon attempt that as I would open a pizza joint on Chicago’s Westside without getting protection first.” Clearly, this once-celebrated chronicler of the underclass had become disillusioned with writing fiction, but mostly he was tired of the power publishers had over him, and so was more than ready to join the ranks of freelancers in search of commissions and a soupçon of personal stability. Come the 1970s, he would even turn to teaching, a form of employment for which he had little regard, mostly because he didn’t believe writing could be taught and, though he enjoyed the company of young up-and-comers like Don DeLillo and Russell Banks, considered its practice a curse rather than a blessing.
This was an attitude born, for the most part, out of self-defense, if not self-preservation. It was not dissimilar to the way he had sought to disguise himself as a bumbling eccentric in the hope that he might rope-a-dope his enemies, whether they be film directors or the Feds. All of these postures, as Asher points out, harkened back to the man with whom Algren most closely identified: his Swedish grandfather who, in the old country, had converted to Judaism before immigrating to the United States, where he became a wandering rabbi manqué. They were also signs of just how far Algren had fallen: after all, this was someone whose fiction had only recently been compared to Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Charles Dickens. Hyperbole, perhaps, yet Algren, who could break your heart with one sentence and make you laugh with another, had no need, at his best, to take a back seat to anyone.
Asher details all of this and much more. As for his catchy but obscure title, Never a Lovely So Real, he explains that it derives from Algren’s superb prose poem, “Chicago: City on the Make,” written for Holiday magazine in 1951, in which he describes his attachment to the city: “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” Asher maintains that he adopted this sentence as his title because “our imperfections are often the wellspring of our virtues,” and it nicely describes “the tension that exists between [Algren’s] flaws and his immense talent.” While acknowledging this passage’s possible misogyny, he goes on to say that the lines were quoted to him by his mother, serving as his introduction to Algren’s work; as he puts it, “there was some justice involved in using the line to describe its creator, and referring to Algren as ‘a lovely.’” It’s true that, no matter how much Algren liked to think of himself as a man of the streets, a tough guy in the company of down-but-not-quite-outs, he was, at heart, a romantic — a striking dichotomy that his friends and lovers, including de Beauvoir and numerous other women, might well have seen in him.
As if prying open an oyster, Asher feels certain that he’s located the exact spot to insert his biographer’s knife, the point from which he can make sense of Algren’s rough-edged story. Specifically, he has uncovered the 800-plus, mostly unredacted pages of the author’s FBI file, acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. This evidence, previously unavailable to researchers, suggests that Algren’s erratic behavior — his drinking, gambling, problems with publishers, reluctance to write another novel, mental breakdown, and relationship difficulties — was, to some extent, exacerbated by the FBI’s surveillance, which continued for almost 30 years, from 1940 to 1969. During that time, Algren’s publisher, as well as his friends and neighbors, would all be questioned and warned about the author’s radical sympathies. Algren himself would be subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, something he tried to conceal from even his closest friends. Likewise, his passport application to visit de Beauvoir in France would be turned down on several occasions, the FBI hoping that Algren would appeal his case, deny his past membership in the Communist Party, and thus perjure himself. Fortunately, the FBI’s primary witness was, in the end, discredited, and Algren’s case was eventually dropped. It’s doubtful that Asher is claiming that the blame for Algren’s eccentric behavior and personal problems can be placed entirely on the FBI’s doorstep. But, as he points out, such harassment could only contribute to Algren’s belief that his falling-out with publishers proved that he was no longer competent enough, and that personal weakness was the cause of his assorted anxieties.
Though he paints his portrait with a broad brush, Asher’s book is enjoyable not simply because it shows how Algren plied his trade or reacted to the world around him, but due to the little things Asher notes in passing: a teenage Algren visiting Chicago’s speakeasies; the layout of Algren’s apartment, with its bicycle, punching bag, and bread bin filled with letters from de Beauvoir; the author shooting craps while in the army with a man with a “golden arm”; the night Algren and Jack Conroy, both drunk, convinced a street-corner evangelist to marry them. Equally interesting, since Algren had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the truth, is the way Asher triangulates different versions of a given event, such as the discrepancies he notes between Algren’s and de Beauvoir’s accounts of her last Chicago visit; the result is a reasonable approximation of the truth.
Despite his odd assortment of friends, Algren would always remain, at heart, a loner, preferring to live in the predominantly working-class neighborhoods with which he was familiar. He did, for a time, inhabit a lakeshore house and would, toward the end of his life, quit Chicago for Paterson, New Jersey, and points beyond, primarily to research his “Hurricane” Carter novel. But Chicago would always be Algren’s city and his world. As he was fond of saying, “My own Chicago begins where the boulevards and skyscrapers ends.” And, like fellow Chicagoans Louis “Studs” Terkel and Mike Royko, Algren knew those precincts as few others did, pounding the streets as Ben Hecht had once done: talking, listening, observing, taking notes, turning everything into grist for his literary mill, putting himself in the middle of “scenes in which human beings were involved in conflict,” recording his “own reactions and [catching] the emotional ebb and flow and something of the fear and the terror and the dangers and the kind of life that multitudes of people have been forced into.” Accordingly, what was happening to his city and his country always gnawed at Algren’s better angels. With no small amount of prescience, he would write that “we stand on the rim of a cultural Sahara”:
You can live in a natural home, with pictures on the walls, or you can live in a fort; but it’s a lead-pipe cinch you can’t live in both. You can’t make an arsenal of a nation and yet expect its great cities to produce artists. It’s in the nature of the overbraided brass to build walls about the minds of men — as it is in the nature of the arts to tear those dark walls down. Today, under the name of “security,” the dark shades are being drawn.
Though Algren was a writer of his time, his politics — especially his concern for the underclass — are arguably still applicable today. After all, this was someone who, whether out of conviction or to shock the shockable, had the temerity to say, “Any challenge to laws made by people on top, in the interest of people below, […] is literature.” But even if Algren were to magically reappear among us, his compassion, antiauthoritarianism, and fearlessness would, in an era of social media and right-wing populism, mark him out for roadkill no less than when he was alive. For Algren did not suffer fools, nor worry about causing offense; rather, at his best, he sought to reveal the world in all its contradictions. Ever the literary outsider, he would write that to put down “the world of reality,” the writer has to work
without haste, as the story grows within, regardless of all social and moral ideas, regardless of whom your report may please or offend, regardless of whether the critics stand up and cheer for a month or take hammer and tongs after you, or simply ignore you — regardless of all forms, of all institutions, of all set ways of conduct and thought. Regardless, chiefly, of what the writer himself prefers to believe, know, hear, think or feel.
However relevant his books might be today, they can hardly be disassociated from the era when they were written, years that stretched from the Great Depression through the Cold War. Anyone interested in that period in American life and literature would be remiss not to seek out Algren’s work. Yet, despite the best efforts of recent publishers, it’s unsurprising that so few do. For Algren’s fiction can be brash, unsettling, and, for some, morally ambiguous. Nor is it surprising that, in an era of sound bites, Facebook likes, and tweets, more people know about Algren’s affair with de Beauvoir than have read The Man with the Golden Arm, and that more people know the Lou Reed song “Walk on the Wild Side” than have read the novel from which the title derives.
In the final pages of Never a Lovely So Real, Asher cites New York journalist Jimmy Breslin’s claim that, in 50 years, Algren will be read in schools. That seems optimistic. Though Asher, Breslin, and other devoted readers might wish it otherwise, Algren’s achievement remains largely obscure, even at a time when the proletariat is more marginal than ever, the precariat scrambles for crumbs, and the literary past is in danger of being forgotten. One can only hope that efforts of remembrance like Never a Lovely So Real will help to return the author’s star to the literary firmament where it belongs.
Woody Haut is the author ofPulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995), Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction (1999), Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (2002), and of the novels Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime (2014) and Days of Smoke (2017).