Nelson Algren Algren, Nelson (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Algren, Nelson 1909–

An American novelist, short story writer, and editor, Algren creates a fictional world peopled with society's underdogs. The strength of his work lies in his impressionistic evocation of mood and scene, rather than in character or plot development. Algren is concerned with the lack of tradition in American letters and his work consistently reflects his search for a definitive vision of America. Two of his novels, The Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, have been made into films. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

George Bluestone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nelson Algren is known as a Chicago novelist, but he is only secondarily an urban writer. He has chosen, rather, to explore the theme of death and survival among our Lumpenproletariat. Of his four novels, all of one and two-thirds of another are set entirely outside Chicago. In The Neon Wilderness, his collection of stories, at least one third take place outside the urban world. In brief, only slightly more than half his published fiction is centrally concerned with Chicago….

Somebody in Boots, Algren's first novel, is the most uneven and least satisfying, but in some ways the most revealing of his books. It is a tale of wandering during the depression of the late twenties and early thirties. Cass McKay is a yokel from the border town of Great Snake Mountain in West Texas where earth is parched, townsmen poor, and Cass's life unpromising. (p. 27)

[Nancy, Cass's sister, and Norah Egan provide] Cass with temporary relief from his primitive wandering, the hope of something more than sheer survival. Nancy offers innocent love; Norah profane love. The two climactic movements of the book center around the destruction of both relationships. (p. 29)

There are weaknesses, of course. The narrative is episodic without consistent structural justification. The style is erratic, often uncertain of its mood and emphasis. The parenthetical broadsides against a thinly disguised Chicago Tribune (for blind encomia to a local World's Fair while half the city starves) are purely didactic intrusions. At the same time, Algren reveals certain inclinations which will become more important later on: the choice of fallen, barely articulate characters; a narrative sensibility aware of verbal complexity; a prose appropriation of poetic devices; a piecing together of previously published pieces (no less than seven magazines are acknowledged); a central concern with love and survival in the face of loneliness and death.

Never Come Morning, Algren's second novel, is located entirely in Chicago, but more than setting has been unified. Instead of a single character going through a wide variety of adventures, Algren gives us a small, relatively homogenous group of characters, a more tightly knit conflict to trigger Bruno Bicek's fate. Once a character appears, he remains fixed, reappears frequently to carry out his appointed role…. This time the narrative events are spare, more cleanly delineated. Bruno Lefty Bicek, a tough eighteen-year old who has decided to become a heavyweight fighter, seduces his girl, Steffi Rostenkowski. Later, under the combined pressure of his own cowardice, his spurious code of manhood, and his friends' clever threats, he permits his gang to "score" with Steffi, too, in the sordid shadows of an abandoned warehouse underneath the El. Bruno's frail humanity is overwhelmed…. Bruno's sense of sin makes him homicidal. The rest of the book is merely a logical and inevitable working out of Bruno's destruction. (pp. 30-1)

What appears here … is an emerging structural pattern which is characteristic of Algren's fiction: first the destruction of a love relationship, then a physical defeat or death. The pivotal acts constitute a kind of double reference, a dual climax, and both are somehow preordained from the moment the conflict appears…. Between the crucial acts of broken love and brute destruction occur a number of events which scarcely affect the central character at all, a series of frozen images in which development and consciousness seem to be arrested. In such interludes, waking seems a kind of living death, and death seems like relief…. [In] Algren's central vision, self-destruction becomes operative only after the destruction of some loved object. The moment a central character becomes responsible for such ruin, he is irrevocably doomed. That "irrational, destructive force," then, is the impulse to destroy love which is tantamount to death.

It is the manner in which the pattern is rendered, however, that gives Algren his special idiom and identity. In Never Come Morning, Algren's characteristic symbolism and indirection endow the action with pity and concealed prophecy. (pp. 31-2)

[We] find here, woven into the matrix of the prose, those haunting images of deserted cities, symbolizing the characters' life-in-death, which becomes increasingly typical of Algren. (p. 32)

Such moments illustrate the way in which Algren is able to sustain a narrative in the frozen moments between pivotal events. Supplementing these moments is Algren's skill with humor and physical action. He becomes a master of digression…. [Through] all of this … the impression of frozen life persists, as if the characters had become mere puppets, performing by rote or ritual. Because these sequences do not have any real effect on either Steffi or Bruno, the reader soon finds himself watching the performance for its own sake. Any one of these acts could easily stand alone. After Steffi's climactic fall, only the thinnest of narrative threads stitches them together. More important than any plot or character development is the general doom implicit from the start. Only the powerful voice behind the events insists on our attention.

This view of the book helps explain, I think, a certain dissatisfaction with most of the stories in Algren's collection, The Neon Wilderness. For if in the root-pattern of the prose a crucial fall is followed by an interlude of frozen change before a death or final loss, then a short story which fails to encompass such a mechanism is liable to seem more like a sketch than a story. It is true that the stories, like meditative finger exercises, explore situations and characters that have already become familiar. The drug addicts, petty thieves, prison inmates, small-time fighters, corrupt police, dypsos, winos, hobos and prostitutes—all are here…. As in Balzac's world, or Faulkner's, a character, once created, can crop up anywhere. But the stories, like the novels, are bound not so much by a common cast of characters as by a general background of disorder. The characters have a curious kind of horizontal mobility, capable of changing their physical location without ever changing their status. What makes this change impossible is less the entrapment of poverty than the destructive forces unleashed by the failure of love…. [Whatever] the origin, love's destruction breeds a terrible kind of spiritual stasis, a curious kind of dreamlike, empty marking time for which terminal death is the only cure. (pp. 32-4)

In The Man With the Golden Arm, all of Algren's exploratory motifs merge for the first time to form a satisfactory whole. The humor, the incantatory style, the graphic eye, the poetic imagery all elucidate a central pattern. The reasons for this success, however, are not easily fixed. True, the characters are more clearly etched than ever before…. True, Algren combines the leisurely, episodic narrative of Somebody in Boots with the spare, more tightly unified structure of Never Come Morning, lending the novel new tension and density. (p. 35)

The real center [of the novel] … lies in an advancement of the...

(The entire section is 2976 words.)

Ralph J. Gleason

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Walk on the Wild Side … deserves to be read by every Catch 22 and Cuckoo's Nest freak just so they can find out what opened the door for two novels that had the same kind of effect on the changing American consciousness that Bob Dylan has had. It's not only that before Heller and Kesey there was Algren. It's that Algren is where they came from, and the fantasy/reality, inside/outside paradoxical view of the inversion of the American Dream that is central to their books was first laid out by Algren in A Walk on the Wild Side.

Algren got to where he was when he wrote that book by discovering, during the depths of the Depression, that the whores and the pimps and the...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Ross Macdonald

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have never quite met Nelson Algren—we talked on the phone once—but he has been a continuing influence in my life. He is the poet of the sad metropolis that underlies our North American cities; I was among those millions who caught an early chill there. Reading Algren didn't dispel the chill, but it did teach us to live with it and to look around us with deepened feelings and thoughts.

Algren's Chicago and the people who live in its shadows are still there. Algren is their tragic poet, enabling those who can read him to feel pain. And nearly everyone can read him. He writes with a master's clarity about the complex troubles of simple people, and not so simple people. Bruno Bicek and Frankie Machine and Steffi "with the new city light on her old-world face" appear to be simple because Algren presents them with such understanding.

Algren came into the full use of his talent in the early years of the Second World War, which promised to open the way for a reassessment of our society. In full knowledge of the lower depths which had to be redeemed, Algren asserted the value of the people who lived in those depths. The intensity of his feeling, the accuracy of his thought, make me wonder if any other writer of our time has shown us more exactly the human basis of our democracy. Though Algren often defines his positive values by showing us what happens in their absence, his hell burns with passion for heaven. (p. 62)

Ross Macdonald, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1977.