Algren, Nelson (Vol. 10)
Algren, Nelson 1909–
An American novelist, short story writer, and editor, Algren creates a fictional world peopled with society's underdogs. The strength of his work lies in his impressionistic evocation of mood and scene, rather than in character or plot development. Algren is concerned with the lack of tradition in American letters and his work consistently reflects his search for a definitive vision of America. Two of his novels, The Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, have been made into films. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Nelson Algren is known as a Chicago novelist, but he is only secondarily an urban writer. He has chosen, rather, to explore the theme of death and survival among our Lumpenproletariat. Of his four novels, all of one and two-thirds of another are set entirely outside Chicago. In The Neon Wilderness, his collection of stories, at least one third take place outside the urban world. In brief, only slightly more than half his published fiction is centrally concerned with Chicago….
Somebody in Boots, Algren's first novel, is the most uneven and least satisfying, but in some ways the most revealing of his books. It is a tale of wandering during the depression of the late twenties and early thirties. Cass McKay is a yokel from the border town of Great Snake Mountain in West Texas where earth is parched, townsmen poor, and Cass's life unpromising. (p. 27)
[Nancy, Cass's sister, and Norah Egan provide] Cass with temporary relief from his primitive wandering, the hope of something more than sheer survival. Nancy offers innocent love; Norah profane love. The two climactic movements of the book center around the destruction of both relationships. (p. 29)
There are weaknesses, of course. The narrative is episodic without consistent structural justification. The style is erratic, often uncertain of its mood and emphasis. The parenthetical broadsides against a thinly disguised Chicago...
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Ralph J. Gleason
A Walk on the Wild Side … deserves to be read by every Catch 22 and Cuckoo's Nest freak just so they can find out what opened the door for two novels that had the same kind of effect on the changing American consciousness that Bob Dylan has had. It's not only that before Heller and Kesey there was Algren. It's that Algren is where they came from, and the fantasy/reality, inside/outside paradoxical view of the inversion of the American Dream that is central to their books was first laid out by Algren in A Walk on the Wild Side.
Algren got to where he was when he wrote that book by discovering, during the depths of the Depression, that the whores and the pimps and the junkies and the thieves (even before the Bonnie & Clyde/Robin Hood mythology) dealt with the reality of America, and in their dealing exposed the hypocrisy of the whole social structure….
Up until Algren, no American writer had really combined a poetic gift for words and a vision of the truth about the textbook democracy. He saw it, gradually or all at once makes no difference, and he put it down in the one novel which blew the minds of hundreds of other writers and had the effect—very specifically on Kesey and Heller—that Robert Johnson had on the Cream and Mick Jagger.
And when he had said it all … he tried for a while to do other things, turning, like Mailer, to journalism and then finally,...
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I have never quite met Nelson Algren—we talked on the phone once—but he has been a continuing influence in my life. He is the poet of the sad metropolis that underlies our North American cities; I was among those millions who caught an early chill there. Reading Algren didn't dispel the chill, but it did teach us to live with it and to look around us with deepened feelings and thoughts.
Algren's Chicago and the people who live in its shadows are still there. Algren is their tragic poet, enabling those who can read him to feel pain. And nearly everyone can read him. He writes with a master's clarity about the complex troubles of simple people, and not so simple people. Bruno Bicek and Frankie Machine and Steffi "with the new city light on her old-world face" appear to be simple because Algren presents them with such understanding.
Algren came into the full use of his talent in the early years of the Second World War, which promised to open the way for a reassessment of our society. In full knowledge of the lower depths which had to be redeemed, Algren asserted the value of the people who lived in those depths. The intensity of his feeling, the accuracy of his thought, make me wonder if any other writer of our time has shown us more exactly the human basis of our democracy. Though Algren often defines his positive values by showing us what happens in their absence, his hell burns with passion for heaven. (p. 62)...
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