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 fully in this novel is guilt, both as it is personified by Frankie and, in a more general sense, as it exists in society. The second part of the novel, beginning with Frankie’s imprisonment, is entitled “Act of Contrition,” clearly suggesting this theme. Algren’s characters are the dispossessed; as such, they experience guilt at being propertyless in a society that values individual progress and possession while providing the means for the ambitious to succeed. These ambitious, successful, up-by-the-bootstrap Americans, however, are not those about whom Algren chooses to write. He focuses on the down-and-outers, whom he understands.
For Frankie, exchanging marriage vows with Sophie when he was nineteen did not really marry the two. The real marriage, the marriage in which Frankie would remain forever trapped, occurred when, through his negligence, Sophie became disabled. Now he had to endure her endless complaining for the rest of his life because of the special burden of guilt her condition placed upon him.
The value system among Algren’s characters has a great deal to do with their continual hustling, their ongoing efforts to turn everything they can to their personal advantage. Sparrow lets Frankie take the rap in the theft of the electric irons. Violet makes her husband a cuckold without a second thought, taking Sparrow into her orb when it suits her but dropping him with equal alacrity when she realizes she can better her lot by giving her sexual favors to the landlord rather than to the hapless, lying Sparrow.
Frankie feels little remorse at killing Louie, nor are readers likely to think ill of Frankie for his lack of remorse. The murder was unpremeditated, a sudden act of passion brought on by drug withdrawal. It is ironic that Frankie is jailed for another crime and, during that incarceration, gets the monkey off his back. Any glimmer of hope that his temporary rehabilitation might suggest is dashed when he returns to Sophie’s nagging and belittling and realizes that he cannot do the only job he can do well unless his nerves are soothed by the drugs that Louie can provide.
In The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren produces some of his finest female characters, particularly in Molly Novotny and Violet, both multifaceted women caught in the kinds of naturalistic dilemmas that recall the writing of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. Algren’s characters emerge, however, as considerably more fulfilled than those earlier heroines and are imbued with comic characteristics that Dreiser’s and Norris’s women lack.