Nelson Algren and the Pathologies of Life in the USA

Colin Asher’s Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren is both a top-notch work of research and an elegantly written profile of a great writer who is too little remembered today. Unlike too many contemporary biographies, which tend to be either research dumps badly in need of editing or axe-grinding treatises with one major argument repeated ad nauseam, Asher’s book tells the story of a 20th Century literary giant with grace and clarity.

Algren grew up and lived most of his life in Chicago, the city he is closely associated with, thanks to his most famous novel, The Man With the Golden Arm (1949), about a card dealer with a heroin problem, and the epic prose poem Chicago: City on the Make (1951). A child of poor Polish immigrants, his early life was profoundly shaped by the Great Depression of the 1930s; after receiving a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from the University of Illinois in 1931 and subsequently being unable to find a job at a newspaper, he resorted to riding freights and hitch-hiking in search of employment. He traveled through many states but barely found any paid work. The few menial jobs he secured didn’t last long.

Having experienced first-hand the dire failures of capitalism during the Depression, Algren wrote his first novel, Somebody in Boots, in 1935. The book included characters and situations loosely taken from Algren’s time on the road in the American South, including a stint in a Texas jail for stealing a typewriter, an experience that profoundly affected him. The book received some positive notices but barely sold. Its frank sex and violence put off some readers; some saw it as too radical while would-be revolutionaries thought it wasn’t radical enough. While Algren did join the Communist Party, he was not one to shape his writing to fit a party line.

Algren’s second novel, Never Come Morning (1942), received enthusiastic support from his friend Richard Wright, author of the best selling Native Son, and seemed poised to find much more popular success than Somebody in Boots. The influential critic Malcolm Cowley praised the new novel, ranking it alongside Native Son. But the Polish slum dwellers who populate Algren’s book include prostitutes and hard men, and their behavior does not mark them as exemplary role models. Overlooking Algren’s inherent sympathy for even the most violent of his characters, the Polish Roman Catholic Union launched a campaign against the book, which they deemed anti-Polish. That pressure largely squelched the momentum of the book’s initial release. The famous war correspondent, and wife of Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gelhorn wrote this blurb which was used to promote a second printing: “Never Come Morning hasn’t a dull or useless sentence in it. Nelson Algren has done something wonderfully exciting to words, so that they look and sound new.” But sales didn’t follow, and Algren was soon broke again.

Algren’s work, always gritty and uncompromising but also shot through with mordant wit, continued to garner critical acclaim through the remainder of the 1940s, which saw the release of the stellar short story collection The Neon Wilderness (1947). But financial security only came in short-lived bursts. Many people assumed that Algren enjoyed a financial windfall after his masterpiece The Man With the Golden Arm was sold to a Hollywood producer and Otto Preminger directed the Frank Sinatra vehicle of the same name. That was not the case, and the combination of feeling ripped off by a cut-rate movie deal and being severely underwhelmed by the cinematic bowdlerization of his book contributed to a bitterness that worsened in Algren’s later years.

In Never a Lovely So Real, Asher lays bare a previously under-emphasized factor behind many of the roadblocks and frustrations the novelist encountered in his career and personal life: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The biographer’s Freedom of Information Act requests yielded Algren’s entire FBI file, begun in 1940, which no previous biographer had seen.

Algren married a woman named Amanda Kontowicz in 1937. They later divorced, then subsequently remarried and divorced a second time. But the most famous phase of Algren’s love life was his long-term affair with the French novelist and feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote about their liaison in her novel The Mandarins, as well as in her memoirs. De Beauvoir met Algren while she was visiting the US in 1947. Yearning for her companionship after they became lovers, Algren became dead set on leaving the US to spend more time with de Beauvoir, who was involved romantically with Jean-Paul Sartre when not with Algren in the US. But his requests for a passport were repeatedly turned down. Algren’s spirits were crushed by this denial, and further limits on his travel contributed to struggles with depression, which had also bedeviled him earlier in his life. His state of mind did not improve when de Beauvoir threw him over for Sartre.

The suppression of Algren’s freedom to travel was only one part of the FBI’s harassment of the writer. Algren wrote a caustic political broadside called Nonconformity in the early 1950s which the Bureau successfully pressured his publisher to jettison. Algren was also investigated and almost prosecuted for perjury and defrauding the US government.

As the 1950s wore on, literary and academic professionals lost their enthusiasm for left-leaning social realism, and mainstream reviewers tended to write off Algren’s work. Critic Orville Prescott wrote in the New York Times that A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) was “a series of offences against decency,” while in another Times review Alfred Kazin accused Algren of “puerile sentimentality.” The Reporter even called Algren, who stuck to his radical commitment to give voice to the urban poor, “a museum piece.” It wasn’t a good era for an author with the guts to write, as Algren did in Chicago: City on the Make, “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.”

After the 1950s, Algren had neither the stamina nor the confidence, much less the support from a publisher, to continue writing novels that took years to finish. In the past he had spent months getting to know the men and women, including heroin addicts and petty criminals, who his characters were based on. He did endless revisions, refusing to write anything tossed off. But by the 1960s, he worked mostly as a journalist, producing pieces that kept him in money for rent and his worsening gambling habit but that varied wildly in quality, as Asher doesn’t shy away from noting. Personally, he could be mean-spirited and difficult in his later years but he was still also frequently generous and wildly funny. Not to mention idiosyncratic: What other world-famous man of letters would keep a complete collection of Police Chief magazine so that he could “keep an eye on the opposition”?

When he died in 1981, Algren was working on a book called The Devil’s Stocking, based on the police railroading of black boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. The book started as nonfiction but Algren transformed it into a novel, which was released posthumously in an unfinished form. True to Algren’s lifelong radicalism, this final work focused on a marginalized, poor outsider screwed by corrupt law enforcement and judicial systems.

Asher does an excellent job of showing how prescient Algren’s insights into the pathologies of life in the US still are. Comparing Algren’s take on the post-WWII US to that of George Orwell’s vision of a nightmarish all-powerful state, Asher writes, “Nelson feared a different, but not less despairing future. Instead of looking to the government for guidance, 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 qualities 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 everybody was only out for themselves.”

Because of Algren’s sympathies with the downtrodden and the desperate underdogs he spent time with, he had little interest in playing what the writer and Algren friend Terry Southern would later call “the Quality Lit Game.” Though Algren wanted to make a living from writing, he didn’t ever consider relocating from Chicago to New York, the epicenter of the literary world, which would likely have been a savvy career move. In Asher’s words, “He foreswore luxury, scoffed at chasing status, trained like a boxer to keep his mind sharp, and avoided the company of writers – because writers who spend time with writers write books about writers who spend time with writers, so that their work will be read by other writers. He was never interested in that, so instead, he wandered the neon wilderness by night, and stalked people who lived behind billboards or slept in cage hotels. They were the story no one saw, and he believed it was possible to forecast the future by reading their scars.”

Never a Lovely So Real is clearly a labor of love, a work of impressive research and sharp insights into Nelson Algren’s work and life that should be read by anyone who appreciates literature about the people left behind by the American Dream, or who is looking for some sharply-honed truths about our society.

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Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

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