The Man with the Golden Arm, written during Nelson Algren’s two years on stipends from the Newberry Library and the American Academy of Arts and with a sixty-dollar-a-week advance from his publisher, is the first novel in the United States to explore fully the drug culture. The novel was an immediate success: In 1950, it was the first book to receive the newly instituted National Book Award. Otto Preminger optioned the book’s film rights and eventually produced the first feature-length commercial film to deal openly with drug addiction.
The great difference between the book and the film, released in 1956, is that the book deals respectfully and compassionately with its characters and presents its information factually, bereft of editorializing, whereas the film degenerates into a sensationalized presentation of drug addiction and of the triumph of the forces of right.
Algren’s special magic in this landmark novel rests in the fact that he has constructed a sound, viable novel that accommodates what he wanted to say about the drug culture and about the entire culture surrounding West Division Street. Just as John Steinbeck in Tortilla Flat (1935) presents Danny and his friends with respect and even affection, consistently allowing them their personal dignity, Algren deals respectfully and affectionately with his characters in The Man with the Golden Arm, a book that grew out of his close association through many years with the sort of people about whom he was writing. His room on Chicago’s Wabansia Street was in the middle of the kind of environment about which he writes in this book.
One of the themes Algren explores...
(The entire section is 689 words.)