A Great American Author of Proletarian Literature is Ready for His Close Up

Algren is a nonfiction biopic about the first author to win the National Book Award for Fiction. At a New York ceremony in 1950 former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt presented that coveted accolade to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm. Previously, Algren – who was born 1909 in Detroit and moved to Chicago’s South Side when he was three – received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1947, the same year his short story collection The Neon Wilderness was published and two of its stories were given an O. Henry Award. No less a luminary than Ernest Hemingway, recently the subject of a Ken Burns PBS series, gushed: “Mr. Algren, boy, you are good.”

Golden is about junkies, poker players and flophouses. Neon’s characters include prostitutes, hustlers and drunks. In Algren, author/academic Bill Savage, one of the documentary’s many talking heads, observes Algren wrote about “the marginalized of America.” On camera, novelist Russell Banks adds that Algren’s fiction “go[es] into the lower depths.” As Nelson himself (voiced onscreen by Veep actor David Pasquesi) put it, he explored “the other side of the billboards.”

Algren’s realistic writing about the underclass is the focus of filmmaker Michael Caplan’s 86-minute chronicle, which is creatively told using more still images than generally appear in docs about subjects born after the inventions of celluloid and video. To be sure, Algren has its fair share of archival footage, clips and lots of presumably original interviews. The latter feature fellow scribes, such as Barry Gifford and oral historian Studs Terkel, confidantes who knew-him-when, like Denise DeClue, and, surprisingly, several film directors, including John Sayles (1979’s Return of the Secaucus Seven), Andrew Davis (1993’s The Fugitive), William Friedkin (1971’s The French Connection) and Philip Kaufman (who’s oeuvre contains dramatizations of literati – 1990’s Henry & June about Henry Miller in Paris; 2000’s Quills about Marquis de Sade; and 2012’s Hemingway & Gellhorn, largely depicting those correspondents during the Spanish Civil War).

These filmmakers may figure prominently in Algren because two of his novels were adapted for the big screen. The envelop-pushing Otto Preminger directed the 1955 big screen adaptation of The Man with the Golden Arm, which scored Frank Sinatra a Best Actor Oscar nom as card sharp Frankie Machine, who tries to kick his narcotics habit by going cold turkey (Trailer (imdb.com)). Kim Novak, then regarded as one of moviedom’s “sex kittens,” portrays Molly, the “hostess” of a strip joint, and Frankie’s former lover. Although this peek behind the curtain of middle class America at the seamy underside of life was edgy material for 1950s Tinseltown, Algren clashed with Preminger about the movie’s degree of realism. As John Sayles, one of the USA’s veteran indie filmmakers, points out: “Hollywood shaves the edges off.”

The 1962 film version of Walk on the Wild Side is based on Algren’s 1956, Depression-era novel set in Texas and New Orleans (where the movie was largely shot on location), featuring bar-hopping and brothels. The work’s most oft-quoted lines, regarded as Algren’s “three rules of life,” are said in jail by Cross-Country Kline to the story’s lead character, Dove Linkhorn (Lithuanian-born British actor Laurence Harvey): “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.”

Major figures of the Old and New Left played prominent parts in making Walk on the Wild Side, which is believed to have also influenced Lou Reed’s famous 1972 transgressive song of the same name. The picture’s director, Edward Dmytryk, was one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten (although after being fined and imprisoned Dmytryk recanted, became a “friendly witness,” and informer who gave names to HUAC, so he could continue to make movies) (Elia Kazan and Top Hollywood Blacklist Informants – The Hollywood Reporter). Antiwar and now climate crisis organizer Jane Fonda depicts Kitty Twist, who becomes a hooker in the novel (Jane Fonda and Joaquin Phoenix Bring the ‘Drill’ Home – Progressive.org).

As stated above, Michael Caplan’s documentary zooms in on Algren’s sympatico treatment of society’s underdogs and outcasts, but unfortunately the author’s championing of leftwing causes is given short shrift in Algren. The straightlaced Federal Bureau of Investigation was likewise concerned with Nelson’s compassionate portrayals of the lumpenproletariat, as his depictions of the down and out cut against the grain of 1950s Cold War America, a conformist era obsessed with materialism while best by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

However, unlike (for the most part) Caplan’s biopic, the writer’s lifelong commitment to progressive causes did not escape the attention of the FBI. According to Seven Stories Press’ founder/publisher Dan Simon’s 2019 Rediscovering Nelson Algren article in The Nation, J. Edgar “Hoover considered Algren to be perhaps the leading Communist sympathizer among American writers.” (Rediscovering Nelson Algren | The Nation) But unlike Richard Wright – who called his onetime Chicago compatriot “the best writer in the USA” – it is unclear whether or not Algren ever joined the CPUSA, as Wright did.

In the 2013 article But Never a Lovely So Real in Believer Magazine, Algren’s biographer Colin Asher writes: “There is dispute about whether he ever joined the Communist Party. It is unquestionably true that he considered himself a communist for a period of years, and spent considerable time at meetings of the John Reed Club. The FBI claimed Algren had been a card-carrying member of the CP. Algren himself denied this, but never took the matter to trial, maybe to avoid perjuring himself. The truth of whether or not he signed a card and paid dues seems lost to history. I state here that he was a communist because he referred to himself that way (‘I went into the Communist movement,’ he says in Conversations with Nelson Algren)…” (But Never a Lovely So Real – Believer Magazine)

Blacklist scholars Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner also state in 2002’s Radical Hollywood that like Wright, Algren belonged to the CP-organized John Reed Clubs. According to Asher, “In ’48 alone, he stumped for Henry A. Wallace, the Progressive Party nominee for president, helped run the Chicago Committee for the Hollywood Ten.” Simon writes that Nelson also served as honorary co-chair of the Save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Committee, which sought to save the so-called “atomic spies” – the only US civilians convicted under the Espionage Act during the Cold War – from being electrocuted. Nelson’s anti-establishment activism also didn’t escape the notice of HUAC, as “he received a letter requesting that he testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee,” Simon noted in The Nation.

According to author/documentary producer Herbert Mitgang’s 1987 article Policing America’s Writers in The New Yorker, Hoover’s interest in Algren dates back to at least 1942. During the Depression, along with other illustrious writers including Wright, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, John Cheever and Terkel, Nelson was employed by the Federal Writers Project, a program of the job-creating Works Progress Administration, an essential element of FDR’s New Deal.

In WWII, Algren was a litter bearer for the Army in the European Theater, but that didn’t stop the Bureau from compiling a 546-page dossier on Nelson, who was listed in the FBI’s “Program for Apprehension and Detention of Persons Considered Potentially Dangerous to the National Defense and Public Safety of the United States.” (When America Surveilled Its Writers | The New Yorker)

According to The New Yorker, “Hoover thought Algren so important that he himself wrote a letter to the director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in 1966 telling him that Algren was either travelling abroad or planning to do so. Details of Hoover’s letter were blacked out a few years after Algren’s death and remain so in the material provided to [Mitgang].”

According to The Nation, “His last novel, The Devil’s Stocking (1983), though he would not see it published in his lifetime [Nelson died in 1981], represented a return to form. The novel fictionalizes the Hurricane Carter case, which saw a former middleweight contender wrongfully convicted of murder.” To the documentary’s credit, Algren does recognize this chapter of Nelson’s activism.

But while Caplan’s biopic otherwise mostly glosses over or only mentions in passing Nelson’s leftist stands, the author’s purported penchant for “womanizing,” including frequenting prostitutes, is highlighted. In particular Algren zooms in on Nelson’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, who became world famous by 1949 when The Second Sex, about women’s oppression, was published to much acclaim. Asher writes that despite the French feminist’s ongoing relationship with renowned existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, she and Algren also carried on “a long-distance love affair that lasted many years,” and included international travel, which the State Department sometimes hampered (as it did his publishing of books by NY houses) by withholding Nelson’s passport. De Beauvoir wrote rather explicitly about their sex life and romance in 1954’s roman à clef The Mandarins, which was dedicated to Nelson and won France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt.

A presumably perceptive intellectual, Simone – who knew him well – described Nelson as “that classic American species: self-made leftist writer.” It’s a pity that Caplan’s depiction of Algren is as a “classic American species: self-made writer,” with a grievous omission of this man of letters also being a noteworthy (whether observed by J. Edgar or de Beauvoir) “leftist.” In doing so, viewers get only a partial portrait of who Nelson was. This depoliticization of a lifelong activist reminds me of CNN’s hour-long, August 9, 2021 program featuring Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wherein MSM hack Dana Bash was – for some reason – positively bashful about asking America’s most famous living female socialist about that which distinguishes her from almost every other member of Congress: Her advocacy of socialism and membership in Democratic Socialists of America (No Socialism, Please!: CNN Gives AOC the Corporate Media Treatment – Hollywood Progressive).

Caplan’s bowdlerized version of Nelson also put me in mind of another 2021 film – Lisa Roessler’s feature Best Seller. In it the veteran two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine portrays a cantankerous, curmudgeonly novelist, Harris Shaw. The alcoholic author displays anti-social behavior and has some sort of critique of society in his late-in-life novel The Future is X-Rated. But as with the depiction of Nelson in Algren, for the most part there is no discernible political philosophy per se or activism by the nihilistic Shaw. (Best Sellers (2021) – IMDb)

Nevertheless, despite the documentary’s turning a blind eye to most of its protagonist’s activism, I enjoyed Algren, a well-made primer introducing many viewers to one of our outstanding writers of Proletarian Literature. Or – since unlike John Steinbeck’s farmers/fruit pickers in The Grapes of Wrath and John Dos Passos and Marc Blitzstein’s industrial workers, most of Nelson’s characters are marginalized people on the fringes of society – Algren’s oeuvre may more properly be called “Lumpenproletarian Literature.”

Algren o​pened in cinemas nationwide October 1, including the Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles.​ For more info: First Run Features: Algren.

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is an L.A.-based film historian/critic who co-organized the 2017 70th anniversary Blacklist remembrance at the Writers Guild theater in Beverly Hills and was a moderator at 2019’s “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” filmfest and conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rampell co-presented “The Hollywood Ten at 75” film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.