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Algren Speaks | The Nation

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Algren Speaks

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This previously unpublished letter is taken from 1952 correspondence with Joe Haas, a serviceman in the Korean War. Used by permission of Seven Stories Press, courtesy of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Ohio State University Libraries.

About the Author

Nelson Algren
Nelson Algren (1909-1981) won the first National Book Award for fiction in 1950 for The Man With the Golden Arm.

Also by the Author

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.

At the height of the Cold War, the famed writer took Christmas as the occasion to deliver an invective against the "faces of the American Century, full of such an immense irresponsibility toward themselves."

Dear Joe,

I'd judge that I rewrote "Golden Arm" a dozen times in some places, and more in most others. I suppose there were, for some sections, forty rewritings that still aren't right. If Mr. Doubleday hadn't come and wrenched the thing away from me by brute strength I'd still be up there on Wabansia Avenue, rewriting away. Unless, by this time, they would have come and wrenched me away, shrieking Don't Let Them Take My Baby's Daddy Away.

No, it didn't pour[.] It comes in lumps, and each lump has to be smoothed and grained down and then, when it's just so shining and smooth you read it over aloud to [yourself] and love the sound of every perfect word, you find you can't use it, it doesn't tie in, it's fine in itself but it diverts the whole story. So you gulp and put it away assuring yourself you'll make a use of it another day and sometimes you do, if you remember what drawer you put it away in. Sometimes it's like a squirrel looking for the acorns he hid the fall before last--he knows it's somewhere in the neighborhood, and digs up the whole plot and when he finds it, it's gone to seed in those two years.

It's a hardy trade, Joe, with a boot as quick as a fiver.

But there were never days when I felt I wouldn't complete it. I knew that, unless the army got me again or a Buick bumped me, I'd get a story put together, because I had the parts to put together. My self-doubts weren't concerned with whether it would be completed, but only whether it would say anything, and say it well, as nobody else could ever have said it, when it was done. All those things came true, to a limited degree, so I feel it was a lucky book, and a lucky time now past, and I was lucky to write it.

No, I wasn't wild with delight in the writing--but certainly not unhappy. I had more kicks, aside from writing in that time, than ever before, and was moderately happy, and still am. I don't think you have to suffer as savagely as you suspect. Just so long as you don't get complacent, and self-satisfied, you're alright. Actually, I don't think I gave any particular thought, at the time, as to whether I was happy or not, and still don't. Don't have the time to find out. Or, rather, not particularly interested, one way or another. So I guess if I had been, or were now, I'd know it.

I never recall having an anger that brought words to flow like tears. First place, words never flowed for me, out of any emotion, and I never believe I ever got that mad. In a sense, I suspect, I'm mad all the time. But it isn't up where it interferes with my life. Nobody could get that mad about anything so long as he has a remnant of a sense of humor. Because I understood, a long time ago, so long ago I can't remember where or how I first found it out, that it's all a crazy sort of joke on us all; that there isn't any true meaning to anything that won't be untrue in half an hour, and if you can live through it you're doing fine. If you can live through it, and have a few of the good things on the way--music, a girl, a sense of work that you like, then you're as lucky as possible. I think that, once you get rid of the notion that the world is going to hell unless you keep it from going there personally, you're better off. It frees you to do and say what you think, to talk back and not fall for the hundred myths with which we're deluged every day, and not to expect too much. After all, it's only your life.

Nathaniel West was somebody who would have been one of the greatest and the best if he'd [had] just a few short years [more] to live. I have his "A Cool Millions."

The dramatization, for which you generously gave thought to backdrops, is off. We hadn't even reached the script stage when you started buying props. My collaborator couldn't do it. He's the third one who's had to give up....

Don't trouble yourself about my using my valuable time to answer your letters. If I feel like writing to somebody I do, if I don't I throw the letter away. I do most wasteful things with my priceless hours. Write when you like,

                there you go, Algren

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