Algren's Question | The Nation


Algren's Question

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This essay is taken from the fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Man With the Golden Arm, complete with commentary, from Seven Stories Press.

About the Author

Daniel Simon
Daniel Simon is publisher of Seven Stories Press.

Also by the Author

“Danny Schechter News Dissector” set the precedent for media understanding in the modern age.

One recent Tuesday, members of the literary old guard gathered at the Church of All Souls on Manhattan's Upper East Side to bid final farewell to one of their secret society and to be reminded that the literary agent Candida Donadio, who had died some weeks earlier, was always clear in her devotion to the

written word and the men and women who make it. So much so that she never allowed herself to be pulled off her course by issues of money or power, meanness or shortsightedness. She had represented, over the years, so many of our literature's mega-authors--Heller, Pynchon, Roth and so on. Everything was always personal with Candida. You sensed her Sicilian past the moment you met her, and with Candida business was always the handservant of literature, not the other way around.

I met Candida in 1984. At the time, all of Nelson Algren's novels were out of print, and Algren himself had died just three years earlier. A short story of his that I'd read in a battered anthology compiled by Robert Penn Warren, "A Bottle of Milk for Mother," had knocked me off my feet. A young editor at Norton then, I blazed through the Algren canon. Although the books were out of print, people everywhere seemed to love to say they had known Algren, and two separate short-fiction prizes had been named after him. He was being silenced and cited simultaneously, and to me that seemed like a kind of posthumous torture. So I called Candida, who had represented him, and said I would like to start reissuing his books, which I could arrange through a company called Writers and Readers, where I moonlighted. Candida dutifully called each of Algren's previous publishers--Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, Doubleday, Putnam. None were interested in putting him back into print, so after about six months of demurring she told me yes, and from then on she never ever said no to me. Once she accepted me as a fellow keeper of the flame, I could have proposed running the texts backward and I think she would have given serious consideration to the proposal.

Candida's connection to her authors, and particularly Algren, was devotional both in the sense of requiring an absolute loyalty and in that there was an incense of faith and ritual that surrounded her--and you also, if you were fortunate enough to be on the inside with her. Her youthful partner Neil Olson said that Candida never thought of herself as a literary agent at all, but rather, she said, as a person polishing silver. You could picture her as a goddess disguised as a servant, in order to make sure that the silver--those words written by her clients--not be denied its brightness. For its sense of egolessness in the extreme, and its implied narrative of enhancing the beauty of what is precious, the image is brilliant and pure Candida.

The anecdotes at All Souls were revelatory of how her values increasingly stood out in a changing landscape. Knopf associate publisher Vicky Wilson recalled that Candida used to say sometimes that she wanted to become a Carmelite nun--not a big change, I can't help thinking--and how, at one of their regular lunches, Candida had fixed her large eyes on Wilson and said of a contract, "Can't you do better on the dough?" The interesting thing is that the anecdote suggests mostly they were talking about things other than money.

Robert Stone regaled the crowd with his favorite Candidaism: "She loved to say, 'Trust is good, not to trust is better.'" And then added, "Not that she believed that not to trust is better. Just that she loved to say it." Leaving us in the audience who knew her to be infused one last time with her complexity: Not that she didn't believe that not to trust wasn't better. She knew when to do both. And loved to say it.

Peter Matthiessen added some color along those lines: During a lunch at which Candida had been drinking heavily, she was sitting next to Matthiessen and hardly responded to an attorney's harsh demands during a negotiation over one of Matthiessen's books. At the very end she turned to the attorney and thanked him politely for the pleasure of lunching together, and then raised her voice to say: "We like you but we don't love you. You are not our brother!" And then she countered each of the attorney's points. "She hadn't missed a single thing," Matthiessen recalled, still marveling.

Frank Conroy recalled when Candida and he were both just starting out, he a pimply-faced, 24-year-old unknown, she the receptionist and assistant at a literary agency. At the end of their first meeting, he described how he called up his courage and reminded her that she was never going to make any money off him, then asked, "So why do you want to represent me?" And how she had leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "The prestige!" The complete implausibility of her response had stayed with him all these years. And perhaps too that in the end she had been proved right.

Eden Collinsworth, a young, willowy Hearst executive who had grown close to Candida in the past decade, told a story that was not related to publishing and yet expressed her magic nonetheless. On the evening Collinsworth introduced her to her fiancé, Candida pulled her aside to say, "He has a very interesting mind, but have you looked at his shoes?" Collinsworth had to confess she had not. "Have you looked at his shoes," Candida repeated, "and considered their implication? They're handmade shoes; it's not going to be easy for you."

We miss her. We need more like her.

He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query-room desk.
The Man With the Golden Arm

I am looking at a photograph of Nelson Algren on the evening he received the very first National Book Award. It adorns the most prominent wall in the Seven Stories Press offices, where, were we another kind of business, we would have our diplomas, our first dollar bill or our celebrity photo. Algren was the first author I published, beginning a year or two after he died, and the photo, a recent find in the archives of the National Book Foundation, shows me a happier vision of this person than the one I have grown accustomed to over the past fifteen years. Nelson stands beside Eleanor Roosevelt, who presented him with the award. It is March 1950. He is biting down on a cigar and grinning to himself like a hard-boiled Mona Lisa, unmistakably a man who has taken on the world and won, and, even more surprising, a man who had expected to win all along.

Taking on the world, for Algren, meant changing it through the proper use of his literary voice. His heroes were the Russian writers he admired, who could take for granted what on American soil can seem like a grandiose notion: that literary and social aims fit together. Algren was, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, a novelist with the heart of a radical reformer (precisely the kind of writer HUAC deemed "un-American"), and like his contemporary, the playwright Arthur Miller, he is representative of what many still consider to be the best American literary tradition of the postwar period. When his goal of revolutionary change through literary means seemed impossible, his life depressed him, even made him suicidal on at least one occasion; when the goal seemed within reach, as on this cool night in March 1950, he became elated and all was right with him.

Since Algren fought losing battles on a regular basis, winning, for Algren, held a special glory. But no surprise. And since he had chosen to write about a world of extreme dysfunction and despair, his strategy for making it habitable and enjoyable for his readers had to be complex and even a bit farfetched. In order to mine this world for gemstones of joy and hope, Algren had to be both in his particular historical moment and outside it, and given the sensitive and difficult subject matter he had chosen, he had to approach his readers gingerly, not pointing a finger but asking questions, hopefully questions that could be a bridge from his time into the future.

He had won the award for his astonishing novel The Man With the Golden Arm, completed and published the prior year, 1949. And the mysterious moment captured in the photo is best understood in terms of this specific work. Not because it is his only monumental achievement. It isn't. The earlier novel Never Come Morning (which actually sold more copies), his gracious story collection The Neon Wilderness (still the favorite among his works of many fellow writers), the book-length prose poem Chicago: City on the Make--each of these is of comparable stature and strength. But it is his Golden Arm, nonetheless, that is his greatest triumph, his greatest victory, his winningest hand--because its language is so densely laid down and so lyrical, its momentum so sustained, because the familiar Algren characters here are possessed of so much insight. To say it the way I imagine Algren might have: because it is the book he put the most into. Or as Nelson actually described his feelings about the novel, in a letter written a few years after he completed it [see page 32], "so I feel it was a lucky book, and a lucky time now past, and I was lucky to write it."

The story line of The Man With the Golden Arm is simple, but hidden. It is not the story of a man falling prey to drug addiction, since that happens offstage and prior to the novel's start. Nor is it an account of a marriage breaking up, since that also happens in the wings, before the novel's opening. Nor is it the account of a murder, unless in a most unusual sense, since the murder plays only a small part of the monumental drama that is played out in these pages. The Man With the Golden Arm is, plainly and simply, an account of a junkie trying to go straight or, in more universal terms, a man pulling his life together--and failing miserably at it. Hooked on morphine at the end of the war, Frankie kills his dealer in a fit of pride and disgust. Saddled with a miserable marriage, he begins seeing a girl, an old acquaintance with a heart of gold, and can foresee a time when he has put his marital troubles behind him. Jailed on a minor theft, he heroically "buries his monkey," kicks his habit cold turkey, because jail is the one place he can get that job done. Frankie Majcinek is only trying to improve his life. But Algren's world is an essentially upside-down, tragic place. Good things happen too late to matter, or not at all. In the end, it's all the same difference. After paying so steep a price to get clean, Frankie goes back on morphine anyway. So what keeps us, Algren's readers, trudging along with hope in our hearts?

Algren embraced contradictions: He wrote unromantically, yet sentimentally; he wrote hopefully about characters with no way out; he wrote about a drab and almost colorless world in a splendidly rich, densely poetic and colorful prose style. He turned Aristotle on his head as well, writing about "low" comedic characters as if their stories were high tragedy--and to Algren they were, because what happened to them mattered so very much to him. That he came along when he did, at a time of suffocating conformity, only adds to the magic of what he accomplished. But where lies the pull of Algren's novels? And--a related question--could it be a matter of importance both in his historical period and in ours?

The Man With the Golden Arm is a book about identity, not action. The engine that powers the narrative forward is not the impact of the doer but the drama of the witness--of Sparrow, who sees the murder and helps drag the body out of plain view to buy Frankie time; of the many other neighborhood denizens, who rightly assume they know who done it, and approve; of Record Head Bednar, who interrogates the endless parade of the accused and condemned, only to feel that he alone, he who has done nothing wrong, is the real guilty party. Action here always has a dreamlike, otherworldly quality. People's jobs--Steerer, Record Head, Fixer, Meter Reader--are usually running gags of irrelevance, and even Frankie's--Dealer--becomes one by the end. Algren's characters here watch themselves with the distance and objectivity of nonpartisan witnesses. They reveal what they are made of not through their actions but by how they bear witness.

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