Nelson Algren Algren, Nelson (Vol. 4) - Essay

Algren, Nelson (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Algren, Nelson 1909–

Algren is an American novelist and short story writer best known for The Man With the Golden Arm. "Poet of the Chicago slums," Algren is the chronicler of America's bars and brothels, drunks and pimps. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

As early as 1935, in Somebody in Boots, his first novel, Algren had confronted the standard interpretation of American life—prosperity and success—with his own chronicles of poverty and failure. His first hero, a "poor-white" Texas boy, growing up during the depression years, takes to the road and becomes a vagabond and petty criminal. The book is dedicated to "those innumerable thousands: the homeless boys of America." It may remind you of Jack London's earlier study of American tramps and vagabonds called The Road, or of certain parts of John Dos Passos' The 42nd Parallel. There is indeed a whole body of literature dealing with this area of the national scene, as far back as the 1890's.

The emphasis of Algren's first novel is on the scenes of brutality which mark the life of the "lumpen-proletariat," the social scum, the passively rotting mass of people who lie at the bottom of the social scale…. [The] novel is also in the straight documentary style of the 1930's: a thesis novel of social protest in which the characters are social types—if they are lucky. The prose is "poetic" in a bad sense; the tone of the novel is sentimental and melodramatic. Never Come Morning, seven years later, in 1942, was a very different story….

Perhaps the best comparisons are with the Chicago Irish of James T. Farrell's novels and the tormented black souls of [Richard] Wright's … work; but you get in Algren's book even more clearly the sense of stunted (and potentially vicious) children….

Algren's powerful effects are usually in his big scenes rather than in the portrayal or development of character. He is almost at his best in this volume of short stories [The Neon Wilderness] where he can suggest the whole contour of a human life in a few terse pages. There is more warmth and humor here, too, than in the earlier books. It is, all in all, an excellent collection of short stories, perhaps one of the best we had in the 1940's. And, opening the new decade of the 1950's, The Man With the Golden Arm brought together the various strains in Algren's work….

The structure of the book is panoramic; there are a host of minor characters. The language is rich, if not ornate with the idiom of punks, cranks, and petty gangsters. This is a Winesburg, Ohio of the slum dwellers; and one remembers that Sherwood Anderson wrote his nostalgic country tales while living in these miserable Chicago buildings, at the ragged end of life, where the streets run on and on, "out of nowhere into nothing."…

Algren's typical figures are failures even at vice. They are the underdogs of sin, the small souls of corruption, the fools of poverty, not of wealth and power. Even the murders they commit, out of blind rage or through sheer accident—or through another ironic twist of their impoverished destiny—are not important….

Algren's work represents an extreme phase of the native American realism which opened, in the 1900's, with Stephen Crane's Maggie, Frank Norris' McTeague, and Dreiser's Sister Carrie. All these authors were concerned with the dispossessed, but still retained the notion of hope and chance in a blind and very often hostile but not absolutely fatal universe. These writers believed that human character was both a social and a biological (or hereditary) product. Or rather, they did not see character as a "product" at all, but as that "mystery of personality" which continued to fascinate the older generation of American artists up to Sherwood Anderson and Ellen Glasgow. (Nor should I exclude, in the "aristocratic" branch of our letters, Edith Wharton and Henry James himself.) Algren moves on a much narrower base than this—the range from the documentary novel of social misery in the 1930's to the later depiction of human beings who are caught in the trap of social circumstance. The scale is always weighted, in his view, the odds are too heavy, the universe is fatal.

He is the poet of this underworld, a high verbal talent, and one is not sure that he is even interested in character, or his characters, except in so far as they contribute another off-beat dissonance. (The true comparison of Algren's work may be with jazz, or bebop, or rock 'n roll.) At least A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), Algren's sequel to The Man With the Golden Arm, contributes to this impression….

The narrative is filled with brilliant little profiles of very dubious characters indeed. There are passages of inimitable dialogue. There are comic interludes of a Rabelaisian hilarity, marked by a deliberate sensationalism which is also a take-off on our conventional notions of romantic love.

Algren has moved closer here to the San Francisco school of "Zen hipsters," as Herbert Gold has described them. ("Zen Strikes Back.") This is the group centered around jazz music—progressive or rocky—those sick sounds and weird reverberations whose … spokesman is Jack Kerouac, whose philosopher-poet is Kenneth Rexroth, whose aging prophet is Henry Miller. But both Miller and Algren are mature artists, deriving from other periods and other roots. For Algren himself, A Walk on the Wild Side is also a kind of hit-and-run book. The trouble is that very often the poetic inspiration—exuberant, gay, outrageous as it is—runs away with the narrative; sometimes the narrative seems to be only inspiration. Here the earlier limitations in the writer's work also become dominant; and in a sense he seems indifferent to them.

Is this also the end of the whole tradition of social protest which, as we have seen, Algren has embodied in his previous work and career? That tradition is unfashionable today (though half the world is in the throes of social revolution). A writer like Algren must at times regard himself as an isolated figure. It is easier to give up; it is easier to become the popularizer of the lower depths, rather than the poet—or to move in the direction of Steinbeck and make theatrical "primitives" out of these native American paisanos. To a certain degree Henry Miller has also done this in his later "sex" books, which are diluted summaries of his earlier ones. The humor of A Walk on the Wild Side is a little too facile; the people are abstracted; their tragedy is muted. The writer is relying on his verbal talent to cover the loss of human material. (A book much in the same vein, Erich Remarque's The Black Obelisk [1957], a satiric and poetic chronicle of post-World-War-I Germany, has much more humanity and warmth.)…

Nelson Algren should remind himself that he represents a solid and enduring part of the American literary heritage; that he derives from this past, and writes not for the contemporary stage alone. That Iron Sanctuary, the source and center of his earlier work, still haunts our civilization. And Algren, like John Hersey, is a writer who carries with him our hope and concern for something more than entertainment.

Maxwell Geismar, "Nelson Algren: The Iron Sanctuary" (originally published in a slightly different version in College English, March, 1953), in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 187-94.

What we have … in this big fat volume ["The Last Carousel"] is a cockeyed chrestomathy of 37 Algren pieces from 1947 to 1972…. Short fiction, travel sketches, reminiscences, character assassinations, pop history material deleted from "A Walk on the Wild Side," odes to Chicago springs. Even occasional lapses into poetry….

Mr. Algren hates waste, finds nothing dispensable. When he latches on to a snappy line or anecdote, he really milks it, even throws it into his nonfiction to hype the action or distract attention from his greased deal. "I've always thought," he confesses, "I could make it as a standup comic." I guess he figures that the guys he breaks up in the Carefree Corner Bar aren't likely to catch his act the next month at Caesar's Palace. But I suspect he just doesn't give a damn, or else he'd have edited out the repeats and overlappings in this catch-all volume….

[What] about all the familiar complaints about Algren's work—his pretending to be a tough-minded naturalist when he's really a closet transcendentalist, his sentimentalizing of the world's losers as if only the fringe-people retained freedom and purity, his shameless exploitation of the dispossessed for easy laughs from the coupon-clippers? Well, all of these charges can be documented from "The Last Carousel." Admitted. Lots of chocolate-covered cherries ooze through these pages: "a thousand heartbroken dawns," "dimly fell the shadows, one by one, of bars," "memory ties rainbows of forgetfulness about old lost years," "the fly-a-kite spring," "the broken-handled cups of hopes that had never come true."

The eschatological imagery wears thin: merry-go-rounds going around for the last time, the golden arm failing at last, the ferris-wheel sinking forever downward into dust, toteboard lights going blind with dusk….

[But anyone] daring to review Nelson Algren today stands in grave danger of being a "past-poster"—a party who puts down a heavy bet on a horse that has already won.

James R. Frakes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1973, pp. 20, 22.

No writer has been more relentlessly faithful to his scene and cast of characters than Nelson Algren. His scene is the "wild side," the "neon wilderness," the seamier sprawls of Chicago and its spiritual extensions across this broad land—America as Chicago. And his characters are the drifters and grifters, clowns and carnies, pimps and pushers, hustlers and hookers, gamblers and touts, junkies and lushes, marks and victims, conmen and shills, freaks and grotesques—the born losers who constitute a half-world, an anti-society to the society that never appears, not even as a sensed or felt presence, in Algren's work. Over the four decades of his life as a writer, scene and characters have never changed. Atmosphere, obsessions, talk, ways of putting in the time—all are fixed, held in suspension, dreamed and long after hazily recalled, caught not as they once were but as they are remembered, just as they are about to dissolve and become ballads. The mythical time, whatever the calendar reads, is always the '30s, somewhere around the longest year of 1935.

Except when it's time for settling old scores. Since The Last Carousel is for the most part an ingathering of magazine pieces, many of them from the pages of Playboy, anything goes….

[The] book takes its echoing tone from Algren's chronic weakness for "fine" writing, the kind of overblown elegaic lyricism—tremulous, quivering, cadenced, or wistful, celebratory, nostalgic, poignant—that used to be called prose-poetry. It was widely practiced by sensitive young writers in conscious quest of an American demotic voice, some suitable song for the open road—the endless, receding plains, prairies, rivers of the imagined West. Of that chorus, Algren's voice was the most prominent and is the longest lasting, the others have long since faded. Decidedly a literary manner, it came on aggressively anti-literary: tough-tender and bittersweet, sentimental and swaggering, robust, keen-eyed, sprung from the soil, epic, open to the full spectrum of American experience, defiantly outside the mainstream of literary modernism and contemptuous of it, a strong dose of salts for the university wits and nancies—in short a species of literary populism and native romanticism, a nervously American preoccupation of the '30s.

The trouble with "style," with any strongly marked literary manner, is that it can become its own object of contemplation. Algren has always been a gifted yarn-spinner, a teller of tall tales and manner as to be finally strangled by them. Helplessly our sorely strained attention shifts from story and character. Typically the story outgrows its limits, expands, without warrant, toward legend. Characters degenerate into "colorful characters"; and our attention, having been thus wrenched from its ostensible objects, centers on the evocative voice of the poet singing of summer with full-throated ease. Not a page is free ofit….

Algren is a maverick of American letters: a solitary, impervious writer in possession of a true though narrow talent….

Algren, our only poet of the lumpen proletariat, is the rambling minstrel of times that never were and are now long gone. He alone has remembered their voices and restored their lives. In order to make them memorable, the stuff of lore, figures in the American landscape, he provides the amplification, with reedy winds, often one lonesome oboe, off-key, and augmented strings, some of them snapped.

Saul Maloff, "Maverick in American Letters," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), January 19, 1974.