While battles rage about the canon--What books should be required reading for students? To what extent does ideology shape reading lists?--the number-one canon-maker, Father Time, and his consort Fortuna go calmly about their business, sending most writers to the oblivion of the unread and the unremembered. That is where the shade of Nelson Algren currently resides, awaiting revival.
Algren, born Nelson Algren Abraham in 1909, published his first book, the novel SOMEBODY IN BOOTS, in 1935. Like all of his works it reveals both a deep sympathy for the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed and an uncomfortable fascination with degradation that hints at the twists in his own psyche. The high point of his career came in 1949 with the publication of THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, an urban tragedy of drug addiction, police corruption, and thwarted love; widely praised, this novel received the first National Book Award in 1950. (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM was made into a film starring Frank Sinatra, but Algren brooded for years over the way in which Otto Preminger swindled him, acquiring the rights to the novel for a pittance.) By 1956, when A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE was published, Algren was already being dismissed as an anachronism; writing in THE NEW YORKER, Norman Podhoretz wondered why Algren “finds bums so much more interesting and stirring than other people.” When he died in 1981, Algren was a forgotten man.
Both as an individual and as a figure representative of many writers who came to maturity during the Depression, when the inequities and injustices in American society were too vast to be hidden, Algren is a fascinating subject for a biography. Bettina Drew’s account is workmanlike at best, poorly written and unimaginative, but as the first full-scale narrative of Algren’s life it is very much worth reading. The text is supplemented by notes, an index, and five photographs.