Rediscovering Nelson Algren

Rediscovering Nelson Algren

The literary giant’s unique resonance in our anti-capitalist moment.


Literary rediscoveries come in waves, and always mean something. In the postwar period, Lionel Trilling from his perch in the Columbia University English department brought back E.M. Forster, Matthew Arnold—and Sigmund Freud!—and made them foundational again. He was responding to what he saw as a crisis of morality in the wake of two world wars and the untold destruction of life and culture that they had wrought.

Today it’s another historical moment of leveling and rediscovery, for complex reasons. Online, old books can be as visible as new ones. The cultural present tense isn’t limited to what’s new, and this particular present is fraught—the book-publishing community frightened, the community of writers sorely challenged and inadequately supported, the latest blockbuster often disappointing, and our best new voices often the ones you’re not hearing about—published, almost invisibly, at the independent publishing houses that carry disproportionately the responsibility for translation and discovery of what’s new around the world in terms of literature. So we rediscover voices from the past that satisfy us more than the latest blockbuster. Lucia Berlin, Eve Babitz, George Orwell. We can include Kurt Vonnegut, and even though a good decade or so younger, Margaret Atwood, two towering figures that have never gone out of style, and that young people are rediscovering now in droves.

Into this maelstrom comes the first three-pound excavation of Algren, Colin Asher’s Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren, which Norton is bringing out, with some fanfare, in April. Besides being larger in size and scope than any previous biography of this last celebrant of what once was called Proletarian Literature, Asher’s book is devotional and beautifully written, seven years in the making, its sentences capturing the very same mix of lyricism and street, hard truths and sentimentality that made Algren himself so special. It delves into Algren’s lifelong struggle to stay true to his credo, his soulful cry that the purpose of any writer is to stand up to power, to take the judge down from the bench, to give voice to the voiceless. And it delivers a wrenching portrait of a man who struggled to maintain his sanity and his spirit in a society that was well prepared to see its writers give up or sell out, but struggled to comprehend writers who persevered and paid the price as Algren did.

In 1950, the year he won the first National Book Award for Fiction for The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren stood out as the best of American character: virile, direct, taciturn and also very funny, identified not with the American worker but with the man in the street who was denied the dignity of work yet had dignity nonetheless—a subversive notion if ever there were one. Algren’s characters were the men and women who were left behind by the striving, upwardly mobile American middle class.

It was as if Algren’s folk belonged, not to the past, but to a different America. And part of the phenomenon of Algren’s celebrity was that through him American readers were making their first acquaintance with his rogues gallery of smart, self-aware, down-and-out hustlers, prostitutes, and petty thieves only to discover that they were familiar to us, speaking a different language but one we could understand perfectly because it was in us already, and we knew we had to reckon with it if were to know ourselves at all.

Algren’s fall came soon after, orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover himself, and it was arguably as swift a fall from grace as has ever occurred to someone who had climbed to the pinnacle of the American literary pantheon. Hoover considered Algren to be perhaps the leading Communist sympathizer among American writers. And because Algren in 1950 was our most famous writer, Hoover saw Algren, perhaps rightly, as the single greatest threat to the body politic of Hoover’s idea of what America stood for. By 1953 Hoover saw to it that Algren’s next book, a long essay on the morality of the writer that Algren was then calling The State of Literature, was canceled by Doubleday. Algren’s passport application was denied by the State Department, and he received a letter requesting that he testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). And that June, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed. Algren had been honorary co-chair of the Save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Committee, which may have been how he got on Hoover’s radar to begin with. The forces for and against were lined up like armies on the plain. And yet, and this was by design, no one informed Algren that he was at war. Instead, he simply came to the conclusion that his work was no longer wanted.

It wasn’t the end of Algren. He suffered mentally as anyone does who cannot compromise his vision. But he kept writing novels, and when he couldn’t sustain that wrote shorter pieces of fiction and nonfiction, including reportage and travel books. In 1951 Doubleday had published his book-length prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make, but obscurely and without enthusiasm, and it went virtually unnoticed. His next novel after The Man with the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side, a rewrite of his first novel, Somebody in Boots, came in 1956, and received hostile, though not dismissive, review attention. After that, although book after book came out, his work was largely ignored. And yet he continued doing what he did, hardly wavering in his core beliefs about the societal role writing must play and the moral demands on writers. His last novel, The Devil’s Stocking (1983), though he would not see it published in his lifetime, represented a return to form. The novel fictionalizes the Hurricane Carter case, which saw a former middleweight contender wrongfully convicted of murder; Algren finally left Chicago and moved to Paterson, New Jersey, to write it. Capturing the world of boxing had always been one of the things Algren did best, and in Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, he found the perfect embodiment of his ethos, an honorable man, an underdog, punished for a murder he could not have committed.

By the time Algren died in May, 1981, his productive career had lasted a full half-century and included more than a dozen books and at least five that were not simply first-rate but enduring masterpieces. Few among America’s other greatest writers’ lives have delivered as much. He had stood alone and withstood having the literary establishment turn its back on him, and the country at large to move past him and his concerns, scorning the truths and traditions that mattered most to him. Where his friend Richard Wright, like James Baldwin, had solved their American problem by emigrating, Algren hadn’t even emigrated from Chicago, not until the very end, and then only as far as New Jersey, before finally setting up house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, where he spent his last days.

There’s heartbreaking poignancy in the fact that the art of storytelling in the 20th century was perfected by so many whose lives ended miserably in tragedy, including many who died from alcohol poisoning and suicide. Algren wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t an alcoholic, and his two known suicide attempts were indecisive. The only temple he prayed at was the work itself, and he never stopped working. In terms of his reputation, he really had made only one misstep in terms of American morality, and that was throwing in his lot in the first place with the losing side, with the addicts, the busted-open fighters, and the drag queens of his era. The various establishments of state and literature decided he didn’t matter because the people he based his characters on don’t matter, fighting for the losing side when we are a nation of winners. His defeat then was also his triumph, and remains so today.

Algren was 13 years older than Vonnegut, and already a young University of Illinois grad in journalism trying to survive on his own by his pen when the Great Depression hit. Vonnegut by contrast was still a child during the Depression, watching helplessly as the devastation wrecked his parents’ lives. Algren and Vonnegut became friends later, when both of them were teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1965 to ’67, by which time Algren was already post-famous, and Vonnegut’s star hadn’t yet risen, though it was about to (Slaughterhouse Five, the book he was working on, published in 1969, would become the anthem of the anti-war generation).

In the 1960s and early ’70s, The Atlantic published Algren’s tales of boxers and the racetrack. Nobody else could write so lyrically and at the same time so brutally about the inhabitants of those demimondes. At around the same time, Algren was also publishing in Playboy Chicago-childhood reminiscences and reportage from his voyages to East Asia, including to brothels in every city where he disembarked, often traveling by merchant ship rather than more comfortably by air. The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times published him repeatedly in those years as well, as did The Saturday Evening Post.

Algren must have had a system, acting as his own secretary, sending to one magazine editor, and if they didn’t go for it, taking the same carbon copy of the same story and posting it to the next one on his list. And these weren’t ever easy pieces to publish or to read, his writing still imbued with the wise-cracking street talk of lost souls. You felt smart reading them because you got it. But they must have been pretty different from anything else you’d read in those very mainstream publications. They published them because he was Algren, the living legend, still writing great stuff, and maybe also a little out of pity, since it was clear that these weren’t just the little things he was doing in between working on his next big novel. These little things were all he was doing now.

But, like one of his fighters, Algren kept coming at you. Who knew, but it turned out there was another big novel in him after all. Once he heard the story of what had happened to Rubin Carter, nothing could have stopped him from selling all his worldly possessions and shipping what he couldn’t sell to the blighted neighborhood in Paterson where Carter’s story unfolded. And even if he didn’t see The Devil’s Stocking published in his lifetime, he must have known it was good.

Does Algren matter? His legacy across the decades has been kept alive by other writers (Don DeLillo, Barry Gifford, Kay Boyle, Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, Russell Banks, his good friend Studs Terkel, among many others); a handful of academics (Malcolm Cowley, Brooke Horvath, William Savage, Carlo Rotella, Hazel Rowley); and a belief in him that’s a powerful mixture of loving the work and loving the man. He was lovable and beloved, not simply because the things he stood for still hold true and remain important, even if we believe they do, but because he embodied them and couldn’t help himself. Algren wasn’t against selling out; he just couldn’t do it, even when he tried. How can you not love someone who is incapable of profiting, whose anti-capitalism runs that deep?

Algren, for those of us who carry the torch for him, is a person who helps us live, whose work and person encourage us to do more than we might otherwise do, and now that we have come this far, we need him now more than ever, because there’s no going back.

Never a Lovely So Real is a terrific biography, not an easy one. With it, we welcome Asher into the circle. It is in some important way the first biography of Algren to be written, because, although it’s technically the fourth or fifth, it’s the first really long one, and it’s the first to let you walk in Algren’s shoes instead of looking at him through a microscope like a specimen in a petri dish. Walking in Algren’s shoes is hard work.

In the end, Nelson Algren is rediscoverable for the very same reasons that he was forgotten in the first place: for his great political and literary instincts, his jabs against the status quo of his time, his integrity—which cost him greatly and makes him beautiful in our eyes even, or especially, across the great distance of the last three-quarters of a century. He’s important to us because he’s inside us like perhaps no other writer, always whispering to the part of us that’s smart and funny but also lost and broken.

We think we know all about the Red Scare and the HUAC, and Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn and the blacklist. But we really need to think about it a little differently than how we do. Not simply to ask whether it is or isn’t just and reasonable to blame those who named names, or ask who was really at fault, but instead to forget the blame game and ask altogether different sorts of questions. What poems and plays and novels might have been written and published that weren’t written and published, which careers would have risen and helped defined what an American writer is, or even an American actor or filmmaker, instead of going nowhere because of the blacklist?

In 1950, the movie star John Garfield was going to play Frankie Machine in the film version of The Man with the Golden Arm. Garfield was a Jew, and a huge star, but before the end of the year he and everyone else who had signed on to the film, including the screenwriter Paul Trivers, the producer Bob Roberts, were all blacklisted. So was Algren’s friend, the black novelist Richard Wright, along with Algren himself, though he didn’t know it. Garfield went into hiding, and died suddenly of a heart attack after only a few months of that life.

Had things been allowed to follow their natural course, Algren’s star would have continued to rise. After The Man with the Golden Arm and Chicago: City on the Make would have come the strong work of nonfiction, his credo—The State of Literature* as he was calling it—and then probably the Garfield film version of Man. Algren would have been on top of the world. And with him the kind of writing he stood for, the literature of conviction, of commitment, and conscience, perhaps inspiring a whole generation of uncompromising writers who, in their turn, would have helped to turn our whole society into one that is more humane and broadly tolerant and self-aware. The difference between that and the HUAC-defined decade boggles the mind.

To its credit, The Nation published no fewer than three excerpts from Algren’s banned essay during the height of the Red Scare: “American Christmas, 1952” (December 27, 1952); “Hollywood Djinn with a Dash of Bitters” (July 25, 1953); and “Eggheads Are Rolling: The Rush to Conform” (October 17, 1953). So we should not say we lost the war, but nor can we say we eventually won it. As with all wars, the cost we paid was just too great. And so there is a tinge of sadness and regret swirling around literary rediscoveries always, along with the other things. What if Lucia Berlin had been celebrated, as she should have been, while she lived and wrote? How different might our world be then?
* The only existing copy, a carbon, was lost, and then rediscovered in an archive at Ohio State University, and finally published as Nonconformity: Writing on Writing in 1996, long after Algren’s death.

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