Study Guide

Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren Essay - Critical Essays

Nelson Algren American Literature Analysis

The work of Algren is best understood within the context of naturalism, a literary tradition deriving from realism’s truthful representation of life darkened by “Darwinian” notions of survival of the fittest and determinism. Though naturalism began in nineteenth century France with authors such asÉmile Zola, a strong American tradition runs from Stephen Crane through Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and James T. Farrell to Algren. Their novels tend to foreground the marginal elements in industrial society, where factors of heredity, chance, and social conditions determine an individual’s fate regardless of his or her will. Though characters are depicted as insignificant, their plight is often presented in a romanticized and melodramatic manner, as in some of Algren’s writing.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, with the apparent collapse of capitalism and the rise of Fascism, naturalism adapted easily to the left-wing dissent that blossomed at the time. Believing that “the role of the writer is always to stand against the culture he is in . . . with the accused,” Algren, like many others, sympathized with the Communist Party. Despising capitalism’s hypocritical rejection of addicts and criminals whose condition mirrored capitalism’s materialist addiction and vicious competition, Algren put his pen at the service of the underdog, whom he saw as victim and scapegoat. This resulted in an often heavy-handed preachiness, though this element was less pervasive in his stories, usually, than the novels.

Algren claimed never to have been a Communist Party member; his compassion for the underclass was more personal—as was that of Studs Terkel, his lifelong friend. At home with a segment of society that most people refuse to see—con artists, drug addicts, prostitutes, and petty criminals—Algren regarded these people as victims of an economic system under which the rich are simply the successful hustlers. The only crime of the dispossessed is that they are losers, their guilt “the great, secret, and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one.”

Doing what he called “emotionalized reportage,” Algren wrote from life, speaking for those spiritually starved and trapped in the bleak struggle with their social surroundings. Always valuing the human over the theoretical, he lived in the urban settings he described—alley, bar, brothel, jail, tenements, and flophouses—just as he traveled the countryside of his novels, the poverty-stricken United States of the Depression.

In the world of Algren’s fiction, there seems no way out except through the always-imminent violence, and the only fatal weakness is the expression of doubt and compassion. For his main characters, never brutal enough, there is no hope for salvation except by trusting other people. Unfortunately, they are the products of a society in which trust, even self-trust, is impossible; the promise of love is counterfeit—or seems so until it is too late. Throughout Algren’s work, characters destroy love; then, guilt-haunted, they are unable to escape their fates. Indeed, they seek their doom as expiation of their betrayal of love, while the policemen who hound them are burdened by their sense of shared guilt.

Though these themes remained constant, over time the tone of Algren’s writing changed, irony giving way first to the comical before turning bitter and satirical, subsiding at times into slapstick and the bizarre. This reflected not only Algren’s belief in the underlying absurdity of the human condition but also his growing despair that writing would ever change anything: Parody was ultimately his only response to society’s callousness.

Though this cynicism suits naturalism, Algren was influenced stylistically by the poetry of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, as well as the splenetic, free-form novels of the Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Algren’s prose catches what he called the poetry of human speech, its rhythms and repetitions, while repeated catch-phrases and song lyrics give it both a dreamlike quality and structural cohesiveness. A mix of specific details, low-life jargon, and well-observed idiosyncrasies of thought and behavior make this style both realistically exact and lyrically grim, though occasionally overwritten. Characteristic is the heavily symbolic and colorful imagery that conveys a nearly pervasive foreboding, as in The Man with the Golden Arm.Goggling upward at it, shivering a bit in the shabby coat, he felt for a moment as if he, too, were something impaled on city wires for only tenement winds to touch.

Leaving out the spare parts, as he put it, Algren created an unorthodox grammar of fragments and short run-ons arranged to suggest the movement of thought and able to convey a wide range of moods, from the contemplative to the urgent. In these ways, he communicated mental states that his uneducated characters could not articulate for themselves.

From 1935 to 1981, Algren wrote only five novels. Though able to churn out stories and articles for money, he was never able to write his novels easily. Never planned, each developed by a process of aggregation as he expanded it from the inside. To complete this difficult process, Algren needed firsthand experience, but he became increasingly isolated. This partly explains why he completed so few long works; he was also hindered by increasing bitterness about his place in American letters.

Identifying with the writers of the 1930’s, who were poor but committed, Algren was critical of the literary scene after World War II. Not only was he ambivalent about the prosperity of other artists (which his gambling habit denied him anyway), but he also considered himself to be the victim of an anti-Communist backlash that he believed extended into literature through the auspices of the New Criticism. This movement removed writing from its social context, dismissing special pleading for a social cause in the belief that true art is self-contained. Attacking this as falsely limiting, Algren believed that “literature is made upon any occasion when a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.”

Unfortunately, in the turbulent political climate of the 1950’s, when to be liberal was to be suspect, many critics turned their backs on the social issues, dismissing Algren’s work as sentimental and romantic. Yet the responsibility for his meager output was Algren’s also, as he abdicated control of his own artistic life, choosing to see himself as a victim.

Never Come Morning

First published: 1942

Type of work: Novel

A young boxer from Chicago’s slums destroys himself in his struggle for identity and independence.

Never Come Morning, like all of Algren’s novels, is a study of doom working itself out. Bruno “Lefty” Bicek is a young Polish American imprisoned in the Polish slums of Chicago, so oppressively isolated that the outside filters through only in films and tabloids. These promise a glorified version of success, but the American Dream is closer to nightmare in this world of police lineups, gangs, petty crime, and brothels. Here everyone is either the hunter or the hunted, who have nothing to lose but are too worried about being cheated of what they are owed to trust anyone else.

Like the rest, Bruno, hungering for boxing glory, scorns the Old World values of hard work and religious faith, but he is not strong enough to live by the New World’s capitalistic code of violence and deception. Bruno thinks of himself as a wolf, but he is a dreamer instead of a schemer; though sensitive and humane, he is too crippled by conscience to protect himself and too insecure to protect others. Despite his boxing prowess, he cannot stand up to his more brutal inferiors, either the knife-wielding Fireball Kodadek or the blackmailing Bonifacy “the barber” Konstantine, who wants to control his boxing career.

In a world where everything is a cheat, love seems as false as every other promise, but to destroy love in Algren’s novels is to destroy oneself. This is what happens when Bruno, asserting himself as a gang leader, seduces and betrays Steffi Rostenkowski. Steffi, born with similarly limited choices, gives in to Bruno because he seems the best she can expect. Then Bruno, unsure of himself and afraid of Kodadek’s knife, lets the rest of the gang have their way with Steffi. After this, Bruno’s fate is sealed. Stubbornly proud, he channels his shame into rage, murdering a Greek outsider trying to join in the rape.

Knowing that there can be no forgiveness for killing Steffi “in his heart,” he is ready to accept any punishment and goes to jail for a crime he did not commit. Still in search of forgiveness, he returns and gets a job at Mama Tomek’s brothel where Steffi, now Bonifacy’s mistress, works. Hoping to free Steffi and himself, Bruno establishes his independence by arranging his own boxing match and proves his manhood by beating up Bonifacy’s henchmen. All escape is illusory, however; Bruno wins in the boxing ring, but only for Bonifacy to denounce him to the police for the Greek’s murder.

Never Come Morning is a stylistic improvement over Somebody in Boots, with complex shifts in tone and pacing, subtler characters, and well-developed scenes. The brothel scenes, in particular, are praised for their authenticity and compassionate understanding, conveying simultaneously the comic and the threatening. Critics differ about this and other digressions in the novel, however, which weaken the story’s tension to dwell on capitalism’s oppressive exploitation. To heighten the sense of futility and hopelessness, Algren uses images of imprisonment and rain. Equally bitter are the song lyrics whose cheerfulness is merely ironic in a dark world where people are compared to mutilated flies and decapitated dolls. In many parts, the story often pushed to the side, Never Come Morning reads like a mood poem on the imminence...

(The entire section is 4151 words.)