Study Guide

Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren Essay - Algren, Nelson

Algren, Nelson

Introduction

Nelson Algren 1909-1981

(Born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham) American novelist, short story writer, journalist, poet, and essayist.

Algren lived most of his life in Chicago and often explored in his fiction the gritty underworld of Chicago's impoverished neighborhoods. Called the "poet of the Chicago slums" by American critic Malcolm Cowley, Algren often addressed such subjects as poverty, drug addiction, violence, oppression, and social injustice in his novels and short stories. Many critics have described his work as social protest fiction and have aligned him with the realistic or naturalistic literary traditions because of his frank and passionate depiction of the underdogs in American society and his use of unsentimental prose and authentic street dialect. Although Algren is known primarily for his novels, in particular The Man with The Golden Arm (1949), winner of the National Book Award and the basis for a well-known film of the same name, his short stories have been lauded for the precision and control some critics find lacking in his longer works. Some of Algren's best-known short stories include "So Help Me," "Design for Departure," and "A Bottle of Milk for Mother," the latter of which has been widely studied and anthologized.

Biographical Information

Algren was born in Detroit and grew up in a working-class Polish neighborhood of Chicago. He graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois in 1931 but was unable to find work during the Depression. Travelling to New Orleans and later to the Southwest, Algren worked odd jobs, including carnival worker, salesman, migratory worker, and gas station attendant. His experiences at a gas station in Rio Hondo, Texas, in 1933 led to his writing his first short story, "So Help Me," published in Story magazine that same year. Algren became involved in the Communist Party and, with Jack Conroy, edited a leftist magazine called The New Anvil. In the late 1930s, he joined the Federal Writers Project, which gave him a chance to write full time. From 1941 until his death, Algren worked as a journalist, often reporting on the victims of poverty and crime. He also served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945 as a medical corpsman. The decade following his discharge was his most productive as a writer; Algren published two novels, the short story collection The Neon Wilderness (1947), and the prose poem Chicago: City on the Make (1951). Algren knew many important writers of the period, including Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. He also traveled extensively throughout Europe, Asia, Central America, and the United States. Algren left Chicago in 1975 and moved to New Jersey and later to Long Island. He died of a heart attack in Sag Harbor, New York, in 1981.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Many of Algren's short stories were first published in such magazines as Nation, Life, Atlantic, Partisan Review, Playboy, and Rolling Stone, and were later collected in The Neon Wilderness, The Last Carousel (1973), and The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren (1995). The Neon Wilderness contains twenty-four stories, with all but eight of them set in Chicago. "So Help Me" tells the story of Homer, a young uneducated man who is apprehended for the murder of a Jewish boy named David. This work is written as an extended dramatic monologue and reveals Homer's emotions and state of mind as he recounts his story to a lawyer. "A Bottle of Milk for Mother" centers on Lefty Bicek, a Polish-American youth living in Chicago. Lefty, who is a pitcher in a Polish baseball league and an aspiring boxer, is caught robbing a drunkard. As he flees the scene, Lefty accidentally shoots his gun. He is unaware, however, until he is interrogated by Captain Kozak at the police station, that the man he robbed has died. During the questioning, Lefty acts defiant and tough, but by the end of the interrogation, he has been dismissed and degraded by the police officers. Another story in the volume, "Depend on Aunt Elly," focuses on a young woman who cannot escape prostitution and her relationship with a boxer. "Design for Departure" is the story of Mary, a frightened young woman who, neglected by her father and his girlfriend, decides to make a life of her own. She finds work in a packinghouse but eventually turns to prostitution. Shortly after, Mary meets Christy, who sexually abuses her but then becomes her lover and drug supplier. When Christy is sentenced to jail for three years, Mary becomes distraught and, upon his release, asks Christy to give her a lethal dose of drugs. The Last Carousel, in addition to including some of Algren's short stories, contains sketches, reminiscences, essays, and unpublished portions of his novels. The title story of the volume, "The Last Carousel," depicts the seedy atmosphere of carnival life in Texas, and "The Captain Has Bad Dreams" is the account of a police captain who confronts feelings of despair and nihilism as he deals with nightly lineups of burglars, drug addicts, and alcoholics. The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren features stories that are set in Texas during the Depression. Centering on migrant workers, vagrants, and impoverished Mexicans, these stories were gleaned from Algren's experiences in the Southwest during the 1930s and address such themes as corruption, racism, and anti-Semitism.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Algren's fiction has been mixed, with some suggesting that he never received sufficient critical attention during his lifetime. Many have noted that after Algren earned acclaim in the 1950s for such works as The Neon Wilderness and The Man with the Golden Arm, he virtually stopped writing fiction, focusing instead on journalism and travel writing. Some have also suggested that he alienated himself from the literary establishment by decrying critics for placing more emphasis on literary analysis than on writing itself. For example, Algren once stated: "I don't read [critics]. I doubt anyone does, except other critics. It seems like a sealed-off field with its own lieutenants, pretty much preoccupied with its own intrigues." Critic George Bluestone unsuccessfully attempted to redeem Algren's reputation in a 1957 essay in Western Review, in which he provided a thoughtful scholarly analysis of Algren's fictional works and refuted most commentators by stating that "to read [Algren] in the naturalist tradition is to misread him." Although many literary critics overlooked or shunned Algren, such notable authors as Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, and Richard Wright lauded Algren's contribution to contemporary American fiction. Hemingway once called Algren one of the most notable authors of his generation, and writers and critics alike praised his realistic depiction of the underside of American society and his emphasis on social concerns. Others, however, have faulted Algren for what they call his recycling of material; many of Algren's short stories became episodes in his novels, and portions of his novels were later changed and published separately as short stories. Despite the ambivalence and controversy Algren's work has generated, he is remembered as a highly influential writer who addressed such subjects as poverty, oppression, and drug addiction before it was fashionable to do so. Concerning Algren's legacy, R. W. Lid has stated, "Algren saw and felt and responded in literary works of magnitude and distinction to the cultural and social forces that aggravate poverty and lead to the denial of human rights long before such inequities created an awakened national conscience."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

The Neon Wilderness 1947

*Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters [editor] 1962

The Last Carousel (short stories, essays, sketches) 1973

The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren 1995

Other Major Works

Somebody in Boots (novel) 1935

Never Come Morning (novel) 1942

The Man with the Golden Arm (novel) 1949

Chicago: City on the Make (prose poem) 1951

A Walk on the Wild Side (novel) 1956

A Walk on the Wild Side (play) 1960

Who Lost an American? (nonfiction) 1963

Notes from a Sea Diary: Hemingway All the Way (nonfiction) 1965

Calhoun: Roman eines Verbrechens [The Devil's Stocking] (novel) 1981

Nonconformity: Writing on Writing (nonfiction) 1996

Algren wrote the introduction and contributed one short story, "The House of the Hundred Grassfires," to this work.

Criticism

John Woodburn (review date 1947)

SOURCE: "People of the Abyss," in The New York Times Book Review, February 2, 1947, p. 16.

[In the following review of The Neon Wilderness, Woodburn states that the collection is uneven but praises Algren's sympathetic characterization.]

The world of Nelson Algren's The Neon Wilderness is like James T. Farrell's, one he never made. It is not the same world as Farrell's, however, despite the fact that all but eight of these twenty-four brutal, pitiful and piteous stories occur in Chicago, among the streets and alleyways where Studs Lonigan and Danny O'Neill traced their wayward patterns. For Algren's is an Existential world, a sunless place of...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Catherine Meredith Brown (review date 1947)

SOURCE: "Chicago without Tears or Dreams," in The Saturday Review, Vol. 30, February 8, 1947, p. 14.

[In the review of The Neon Wilderness below, Brown praises Algren's portrayal of the downtrodden and discusses the plots of various stories.]

The challenge of the short story must be infinitely compelling to those writers willing to meet it. The demands of a limited scope make incident, character, and mood tight and tellingly heightened. Economy of things said, of those things left unsaid, can be memorable when practised well. Chekhov in three pages paints a portrait; Hemingway does an entire underworld story in not many words; O. Henry gives us middle-class...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

George Bluestone (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Nelson Algren," in Western Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Autumn, 1957, pp. 27-44.

[In the following excerpt taken from an essay in which Bluestone primarily discusses Algren's novels, the critic provides a mixed assessment of The Neon Wilderness, focusing on the story "Design for Departure."]

It is true that the stories [in The Neon Wilderness], like meditative finger exercises, explore situations and characters that have already become familiar. The drug addicts, petty thieves, prison inmates, small-time fighters, corrupt police, dypsos, winos, hobos and prostitutes—all are here. The boy in "The Brother's House" who discovers that he cannot...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)

Maxwell Geismar (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Nelson Algren: The Iron Sanctuary," in American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill and Wang, 1958, pp. 187-94.

[In the following excerpt, Geismar comments on Algren's focus on character development in The Neon Wilderness.]

The stories in The Neon Wilderness (1948) are in a softer vein [than Algren's other books]. For the first time women appear here, not only as credible human beings, but as a source of comfort and aid, however briefly, in the fast run between the womb and the grave. There is the sketch, reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson's Midwestern vein, of the workingman who gambles and drinks his week's pay away on Saturday night because his...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Haskel Frankel (review date 1963)

SOURCE: "They're Human Too," in Washington Post Book Week, Vol. 1, December 8, 1963, p. 20.

[In the following excerpt from a review of the anthology Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters, Frankel discusses Algren's introduction to the work and the one story he contributed, "The House of the Hundred Grassfires."]

(The entire section is 438 words.)

R. W. Lid (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "A Commentary on Algren's 'A Bottle of Milk for Mother,"' in The Short Story: Classic and Contemporary, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1966, pp. 504-12.

[In the following essay, Lid discusses the primary conflicts in the short story "A Bottle of Milk for Mother" by examining Algren's use of detail, character, and symbolism.]

In "A Bottle of Milk for Mother," Bruno Lefty Bicek, the young pitcher of the Polish Warriors S.A.C., and an aspiring boxer, makes his descent, step by step, into hell. At the beginning of the story he stands, a shorn Samson (the Warriors have all had their heads shaved), in the query room of the Racine Street police station before his...

(The entire section is 3279 words.)

Daniel R. Silkowski (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Alienation and Isolation in Nelson Algren's 'A Bottle of Milk for Mother'," in English Journal, Vol. 60, No. 6, September, 1971, pp. 724-27.

[In the following essay, Silkowski discusses themes of identity and isolation in "A Bottle of Milk for Mother, "focusing on how to make the story meaningful to students.]

Sue came to school each day in a canary yellow Mustang; Leslie wore clothes right out of the pages of a fashion magazine; Gary wanted to be sure I had filled out his recommendation for Yale.

Our next short story was to be Nelson Algren's "A Bottle of Milk for Mother." I had spent part of my childhood in the areas described by Lefty...

(The entire section is 1784 words.)

James R. Frakes (review date 1973)

SOURCE: "Something of Algren for Everyone," in The New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1973, p. 20.

[In the following review of The Last Carousel, Frakes comments on Algren's use of humor in the stories.]

It's about time! When we've got a living American writer as sure-footed and as fast off the mark as Nelson Algren, it's almost criminal not to have something of his in hard covers at least once a year, to heft and roar at and revel in. Having, early in his career, ceded the Chicago territory to Sandburg, Farrell and Algren, Ernest Hemingway later paid our man the ultimate tribute: "Mr. Algren can hit with both hands and move around and he will kill you if...

(The entire section is 1305 words.)

Saul Maloff (review date 1974)

SOURCE: "Maverick in American Letters," in The New Republic, Vol. 170, January 19, 1974, pp. 23-4.

[In the following review of The Last Carousel, Maloff faults Algren's overblown prose, his self-indulgence, and the repetitive nature of the stories in the volume.]

No writer has been more relentlessly faithful to his scene and cast of characters than Nelson Algren. His scene is the "wild side," the "neon wilderness," the seamier sprawls of Chicago and its spiritual extensions across this broad land—America as Chicago. And his characters are the drifters and grifters, clowns and carnies, pimps and pushers, hustlers and hookers, gamblers and touts, junkies and...

(The entire section is 1285 words.)

Commonweal (review date 1947)

SOURCE: A review of The Last Carousel, in Commonweal, Vol. XCIX, No. 18, February 8, 1974, pp. 467-69.

[In the following excerpt, the critic praises the short stories in The Last Carousel and discusses the similarities between Algren's fiction and nonfiction.]

Nelson Algren hasn't written any novels for going on 20 years now—which is sad in a way. But it's not like he's been exactly idle in the years between: The Last Carousel is the third collection of short pieces he has published since his last novel. Unlike the other two (Who Lost an American? and Notes from a Sea Diary), this one contains a lot of short fiction. There is...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

R. W. Lid (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "A World Imagined: The Art of Nelson Algren," in American Literary Naturalism: A Reassessment, Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1975, pp. 176-96.

[In the following excerpt, Lid provides an overview of Algren's career and critical reaction to his works. He also discusses the short story "A Bottle of Milk for Mother."]

It is but nature to be shy of a mortal who declares that a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington.

—Melville to Hawthorne

It is not so long ago, as literary history goes, that it was convenient to speak of Nelson Algren as a literary...

(The entire section is 2570 words.)

Martha Heasley Cox and Wayne Chatterton (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Contour of Human Life," in Nelson Algren, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 39-58.

[In the essay below, Cox and Chatterton provide an overview of Algren's short stories, stating that critical focus on his novels has minimized "Algren's considerable achievement in the [short story] genre."]

Critics such as Chester Eisinger, George Bluestone, Maxwell Geismar, and Leslie Fiedler, who have assessed Algren's fiction comprehensively, have approached the major works chronologically, but they have usually ignored his early stories and have discussed some others only as they have appeared between the publications of the novels. Such treatment has tended to minimize...

(The entire section is 8309 words.)

Tom Carson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Neon Wilderness, Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., 1986, pp. 7-11.

[In the following introduction to the 1986 edition of The Neon Wilderness, Carson calls the collection "the pivotal book of Nelson Algren's career" and comments on Algren's writing style and the relationship between his short stories and his novels.]

The Neon Wilderness, first published in 1947, is the pivotal book of Nelson Algren's career—the one which bid a subdued but determined farewell to everything that had earlier made him no more than just another good writer, and inaugurated the idiosyncratic, bedevilled, cantankerously poetic...

(The entire section is 1364 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXIII, No. 20, October 15, 1995, p. 1457.

[Below, the critic provides a positive review of The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren.]

Usually thought of as an urban midwestern realist, Algren (1909-81) also wrote gritty, cynical accounts of rural poverty and crime set in Texas during, and as transformed by, the Depression years. The stories [in The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren] are set in tank towns and hobo jungles and jails, and comprise a virtual sociology of life on the bum (where "God help you if you run and God help you if you fight; God help you if you're broke and...

(The entire section is 217 words.)

Albert E. Wilhelm (review date 1995)

SOURCE: A review of The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren, in The Library Journal, Vol. 120, No. 18, November 1, 1995, p. 108.

[Below, Wilhelm comments favorably on The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren.]

Best known for his tales of urban slums, Algren also wrote eloquently about the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He first experienced this region in 1932 as a wandering college graduate who could find no job. Surrounded by desperation and casual violence, Algren produced semi-autobiographical stories like "So Help Me," which dramatizes brutal exploitation. Set apart by his Jewishness, Algren also observed and recorded episodes of racism and discrimination. After stealing...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Bettina Drew (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren, University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. ix-xviii.

[In the following introduction to The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren, Drew provides an overview of the time Algren spent in Texas during the 1930s and discusses how the author incorporated his experiences in the Southwest into his short stories.]

This slender volume [The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren] preserves a unique and devastating view of the Lone Star State during the Depression, a melancholy and explosive world of hoboes, migrant workers, ranch hands, penniless Mexicans, carnival roustabouts, and the dangerous and helpless...

(The entire section is 3105 words.)