The Man with the Golden Arm

by Nelson Algren

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Places Discussed

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Division Street

Division Street. Violent, crime-ridden neighborhood of Chicago that provides the novel’s primary setting. There, drugs, alcohol, gambling, and theft are a way of life. Algren’s protagonist, Francis Majcinek—nicknamed Frankie Machine—works as a card dealer in an illicit upstairs gambling den at the Club Safari and is known as the “man with the golden arm” because of his skill. Algren modeled the neighborhood on Chicago’s real Wabansia Street, where he briefly lived.

Club Safari

Club Safari. Sleazy Division Street nightclub in which Frankie deals cards in illegal games. There Nifty Louie also gives community junkies their fixes, adjusting dosages to ensure that addicts keep returning, and paying, for ever-stronger and more expensive hits. Frankie himself also gets his fixes from Louie and needs them to deal cards with a steady hand. As the source of both his employment and his ever-strengthening drug habit, the club entraps Frankie in a way of life that he cannot escape.

Division Arms Hotel

Division Arms Hotel. Frankie’s Chicago residence, in which he is initially trapped with his psychosomatically crippled wife, Sophie, who also trapped him into marriage by faking a pregnancy. She has also faked her disability, which she attributes to an accident caused by Frankie. Sophie uses Frankie’s guilt to draw “the knot so fiercely that she felt he could never be free of her again.”

Tug and Maul Bar

Tug and Maul Bar. Aptly named zoolike bar whose animal-like patrons gather to keep up on neighborhood news. The most offensive of the patrons is Blind Pig (called Piggy-O), who would seem to be more at home in a refuse bin.


Jail. Chicago police station in which Frankie is held. It is here that the walls begin closing in on him more tightly than ever before. For Frankie, who wants to kick his drug habit, the jail becomes an “iron sanctuary”—a concept that at once suggests both imprisonment and safety. The jail is the only place where he can be free of the debilitating influences of Division Street; a red metal tag labels his cell as a “deadlock,” meaning he has no privileges. Frankie himself is in another kind of “deadlock,” a psychological one just “one bit lighter than the deadlocks of the cells with the red metal tag.” There, time seems to stand still for the prisoners, since all the clocks permanently, and symbolically, read twelve o’clock.

When Frankie is released from jail, he attempts to stay free of drugs but again becomes quickly addicted. Since Record Head Bednar, a police investigator, suspects Frankie of Louie’s murder, Frankie is only temporarily and theoretically “free.” Bednar employs Piggy-O to set up Frankie and Sparrow, Frankie’s friend and a witness to the murder, on a drug charge. Frankie is freed, but Sparrow is taken to the “query room” at several police stations, in which he is interrogated and threatened until he implicates Frankie.

The walls of these rooms are places where men literally have their “backs to the wall.” Algren writes of the inevitability of the confessions: “Indeed, your query room is your only true house of worship, for it is here that men are brought to their deepest confession.” After Sparrow testifies against him, Frankie—who is ironically described as “the fair-haired boy”—flees. He is sheltered by the faithful Molly, turned in by Drunkie John, and wounded, like Achilles (an ironic twist of Algren’s), in the heel, before he hangs himself. His death by suffocation is particularly appropriate since it also suggests entrapment and enclosure.

Literary Techniques

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Algren's most abiding...

(This entire section contains 362 words.)

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technique is simply that of classic realistic fiction — the graphic depiction of details of slum life, drug deals, card games, boxing rings, and all the other settings which represent the winner-loser environment: the dim barroom environment of the Tug & Maul; the grubby tenement shared by Frankie, Zosh, Molly 0, Violet and Old Husband; Nifty Louie's lair, where Frankie gets "fixed"; the station house in front of Captain Bednar's desk; the prison where Frankie does a stretch for stealing; and always, the streets, alleys, and doorsteps of Chicago.

Also important is Algren's surprising gift for dialogue, for capturing a particular kind of speech — fast talking, rapping, tall tales, and scams, represented in this novel by the ubiquitous chatter Frankie deals out with the cards. Indeed, Algren sets up his own mythology of urban life, complete with heroic characters, jargon, proverbs, and folk wisdom. But most remarkable of all is the prevalent, pervasive presence of Algren's unique humor — flat, understated, delighted in word plays ("moral warpitude") and turnabouts upon elevated diction, especially that of law and the courts, which mock respectable euphemisms. In addition to the comic element inherent in his use of language, Algren creates situations that are comic in their absurdity — the love triangle of Violet, Old Husband, and Sparrow; Sparrow's dognapping of Rumdum, the beer-drinking mascot; and the theft of a bag of underwear that lands Frankie in jail.

The darker, tragic notes underlie the comic themes — the murder of Nifty Louie; the decayed, subhuman specter of Blind Pig, who winds up with Louie's roll and Louie's pusher's job; the defeated, loser's life of Molly Novotny; the lives devoted to destruction and self destruction. The familiar images — here, the El itself, looping and twisting its steel girders across the city — provide an apt metaphor for human life, going quickly but going nowhere, up and down, like the merry-go-rounds, roller coasters, the junkie's high and the pain of coming down "cold turkey." Juxtaposed to the realistic detail is a type of romantic lyric, an elegiac tone employed by the narrator to celebrate periods of intermittent joy and humanity and to express the pathos his characters register, but rarely acknowledge.

Social Concerns

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In this novel of Chicago street life, the Midwestern city becomes a metaphor for American experience, epitomizing a system which requires one either to become a victim or to victimize others. Algren's portrait of the alienation, exploitation, and degradation of dispossessed people explores the familiar naturalistic themes of fate and choice, struggle and defeat, success and failure. But unlike the gospel of Social Darwinism and the Protestant Ethic so often present in popular literature, Algren's portrayal celebrates losers caught in the peculiarly American cycle of success and failure, the "special American guilt" of owning nothing "in a land where ownership and virtue are one." This critique of the Horatio Alger myth so common in popular literature (that everyone can succeed with determination, hard work, and a little luck) advances that dialogue one step further, uniting the message of classic American realism with the popular appeal of irreverent humor, remarkable comic and dramatic characters, and exotic low-life settings. Algren's white ethnic ghetto dramatizes the conflict between vulnerable, displaced, traditional people in a landscape characterized by an unresponsive, dehumanized system of social control. His Midwestern landscape puts American readers in touch with their immigrant past and with the experience of those "outsiders" in WASP culture, the Eastern European and Mediterranean immigrants whose inner life remains alien in a country devoted to the work ethic and distrustful of the interior life, the "silent people" Michael Novak calls the "white ethnics." Ethnicity, for this third-generation child of Jewish, Swedish, and German immigrants, means not to fit into the social machine, means to be marginal, alien, and exploited, cut off from the mainstream and robbed of power and identity.

The criminal underworld, while long a staple of American popular fiction, is here invested with a humanity which goes beyond good guys and bad guys, showing social problems with social roots. The Man with the Golden Ann is perhaps most notorious for introducing American readers to a lengthy, graphic depiction of drug use. Frankie Machine has a "thirty-five pound monkey" (Algren's coinage) on his back, a morphine addiction inherited from a shrapnel war wound. With this device, Algren shows how Frankie is victimized both by society, in the person of Nifty Louie the pusher, and by himself, as his habit delivers a momentary joy and intensifies the guilt which rules his life.

Drugs are also an apt metaphor for midcentury commercial capitalism, as Louie both creates and fulfills a need for his goods. Urban people, no longer workers or producers, are instead unemployed consumers, driven by advertising, commercialism, and commodity culture in the "rutted tunnels that lead between the advertising agency and the bank." His hustlers, the mirror image of respectable businessmen, deal alike in sales, commodities, and consumption.

Algren's depiction of what he called the "usurpation of man over man" is made more complex by his analysis of the alternate victimization and exploitation which exists in the relationship between the sexes. Although his world of barrooms, boxing matches, racetracks, and prisons is a peculiarly male one, women exist to relieve the unrelenting competition and one-upmanship of male sparring. Men and women come together not so much for passion as to fulfill a mutual need for warmth and nurturing, needs denied or exploited by the world outside. At the same time, though, Algren is one of the writers to deal most in depth with issues of sexual violence — the beaten woman is a familiar character in his stories — and sexual exploitation in prostitution.

Algren's concern for the loser continues in his ubiquitous depiction of the complete victimization of the individual by society epitomized by the cops — criminals dance and the prison system, itself a vehicle for the ultimate in human degradation, capital punishment. The prison scenes in The Man with the Golden Arm join an array of the convicted in Southern prison farms, small town jails, and on death row in a plea for the dignity of human life denied by capital punishment.

Literary Precedents

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Algren falls without a doubt into the camp of traditional literary realism, along with Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane, but his most complete identification is with Walt Whitman, whose democratic vision included "conquered and slain" persons as well as victors, and with Carl Sandburg, the poet of Chicago. Because of his comic style, his ironic humor, and his technique of dialogue and depiction of low-life characters, he has roots also in Mark Twain and in the Midwestern tale of riverboat brawlers, eye-gouging wrestlers, con men, and gamblers. Looking at the continental roots of his realism and his urban settings, one finds elements of Villon, Zola, and Baudelaire, In his philosophy Algren recalls Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit (1944), most notably in the portrayal of human relationships in which men both devour and seek to be devoured, where they seek to be united with others and yet seek independence from others.

Algren himself set precedents in graphic depictions of urban life found in novels such as William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959). A relationship between Algren's work and that of nonfiction chroniclers of the urban proletariat (e.g. Mike Royko and Studs Terkel) is also evident.


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The Man with the Golden Arm was a sensational movie hit in 1950, rendered even more sensational in that it initially was denied clearance by the Production Code because of its portrayal of drug use and paraphernalia. Produced by Otto Preminger for United Artists, the film was unfavorably reviewed, and Algren himself thought the picture a misuse of film rights and purely a vehicle for its star, Frank Sinatra, who played Frankie Machine. Forced by a lack of funds to drop his lawsuit, Algren emerged with only $15,000 for the film rights.

Janet Polansky


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Beauvoir, Simone de. America Day by Day. Translated by Patrick Dudley [pseud.]. London: Duckworth, 1952. This book, which displeased Algren, contains considerable detail about the genesis of The Man with the Golden Arm, which Algren had nearly completed when he went on an extended trip with de Beauvoir to New Orleans, Mexico, and Guatemala.

Cox, Martha Heasley, and Wayne Chatterton. Nelson Algren. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Material from Algren’s letters to and interviews with the authors, who did exhaustive research. Covers Algren’s career only to 1970. Accurate, well written, and thorough.

Donohue, H. E. F. Conversations with Nelson Algren. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964. Extensive interviews from 1962 and 1963 provide detailed information about Algren’s background, childhood, and early years. Valuable information about Algren’s wanderings after his graduation from the University of Illinois in 1931.

Drew, Bettina. Nelson Algren. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989. Detailed, authoritative critical biography of Algren, covering his life up to his death in 1981. Much of the book is based on the extensive collection of Algren papers at the Ohio State University, to which Drew had full access.

Giles, James. “The Harsh Compassion of Nelson Algren.” Introduction to The Man with the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 1990. Provides valuable insights into the pervasive comic element in Algren’s writing.


Critical Essays