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Algren, Nelson 1909–

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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

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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 love-death theme we have traced before. More specifically, it lies in the complex relationship between Frankie and Sophie on the one hand, and between Frankie and Molly on the other….

Haunted by his own destructive past, hunted by the police, Frankie is driven out into the deserted streets to loneliness and suicide. Frankie's destruction of Zosh has made Molly's love impossible. It is this double focus in Frankie's identity that gives the digressions, the mood pieces, and the reveries their structural significance. (p. 36)

[The] figure of the altar … represents a recurrent thread which Algren has suggested in his previous work but has never before so fully woven into his texture: an inverted use of Christian myth to comment ironically on the action…. This … level of inverted Christian imagery functions ironically because in Algren's world there is no hope of an afterlife. In themselves, the Christian terms would be no more significant than other recurrent images if they did not have a special meaning. This secular appropriation of religious ritual is pertinent to Algren's central theme. For in this novel, Algren's prose approaches a very individualized kind of incantation, like the chanting of ritual itself. The incantatory style continually makes implicit judgments on the action. If, as Algren makes abundantly clear, morality is not to be found in the law, the church, in criminal ethics, in social struggle, in any normative standards for success, then where is the moral authority? Only in love. But if love is doomed by the social milieu, or by some inexplicable destructive instinct, where does redemption lie? In the stubborn ingenuity that guarantees these characters' survival? Yes, to some extent, Algren seems to say. The details of this drama can be very funny … but surely mere survival is not enough. Then is redemption to be found nowhere at all? The peculiar intensity of Algren's prose seems to support the harsher judgment. If man is deprived of salvation in an afterworld, if he must make his way in this world or not at all, then life is truly harsh. Indeed, Algren's final image, despite the humor, despite the intensity, despite the struggle to survive, is one of hopelessness and desolation. In this world, death is inescapable.

What possible approaches are open to the narrator who wishes to communicate such a vision? He can laugh; or he can lament. Algren does both supremely well. But the laughter is edged with bitterness; before the reality of death, it sadly falls away. (pp. 37-8)

The lament, on the other hand, becomes at once a threnody of pity and a defense against terror. It enables Algren to look at his Medusa without turning to stone, as if the act of writing itself had become an amulet for evil. For Algren, then, the incantatory style is a surrogate for prayer.

A final word about the structure of this novel, since much has been made of its weakness…. [Not] only is a very real theme sustained, but that the structure is the only one really suited to it…. If the novel gives the impression of separate pieces of cloth loosely stitched together … it is simply because no other scheme will do. If Algren is concerned with the living death that follows love's destruction, then one can understand the succession of timeless moments, each indistinguishable from the rest, like a series of stills in which action is both palpable and frozen. Postures succeed each other without correlative shifts in consciousness. Only moments of love—or love's destruction—can create new states of being. What lies between these points is the echoing wind of death. Everyone meets death at the end; the loveless meet it sooner. (pp. 38-9)

The meaning of all the digressions is precisely in their pointlessness. A more conventional development, conforming to traditional standards of plot, crisis and resolution would constitute a different kind of novel. To reject Algren's structure, then, is to reject his central vision. When his vision changes, then his structure, too, will change. He is too careful a writer to have it otherwise. (p. 39)

[In his book of non-fiction, Chicago: City on the Make,] Algren's impressions of Chicago are typical of a new and sympathetic look at urban life which goes beyond recoil and horror. Much of what we have seen in the stories and novels appears here, too: a pervasive sense of loss and loneliness, an image of urban desolation, an eye for graphic detail, incantatory prose. In the slender arc-lamps which "reveal our backstreets to the indifferent stars," there is still an implacable universe indifferent to human suffering. But there is also something here we have not seen in the novels and stories. In ranging out beyond the world of the Lumpenproletariat, the author implies a certain dissatisfaction with his own past work. The highly articulate voice which narrates the book possesses more knowledge than is ever allowed to enter the circumscribed world of the novels. Algren knows politics and business; knows the history of the town; knows Darrow and Masters, Lindsay and Sandburg, Dreiser, Altgeld and Debs. This outside information gives his prose an historical perspective which the fictive characters cannot possibly possess, yet manages to avoid the didactic intrusions of Somebody in Boots. This author knows that in urban society there is vertical as well as horizontal mobility, that Skid Row is merely the ugliest manifestation of tendencies embedded in all strata of city life. It is this mind that accounts, perhaps, for the curious turn in Algren's latest work.

At first glance, A Walk on the Wild Side seems to be a mere rewriting of Somebody in Boots…. From the point of view of Algren's entire output, however, it represents a fascinating reappraisal of his central theme. Again we have a country yokel from a Texas town who is propelled into the world by broken love and finds his education in depression year adventures. Like Cass McKay, his earlier cousin, Dove Linkhorn discovers that there is no more hope of redemption in the outside world than there is in Arroyo, the town where he was born. Again the structure resembles a patchwork, or mosaic, the pieces loosely worked together. Again episodes are borrowed. (pp. 39-40)

Ultimately, the differences between the two books are more striking than the resemblances. The first and most startling difference appears in Algren's tone. The narrative alternates between a mood of savage tenderness and one of broad burlesque, but this time the comic mood is strongest. The tenderness, to be sure, appears at important intervals, carrying out the obsessive pattern of the earlier books…. Again there are moments of sweet redemption; again the breaking up of love leads to violence.

The broadly comic tone, on the other hand, instead of endowing the intervening acts with the aura of living death, transforms them into moments of high, acetic comedy. (pp. 40-1)

At least one reason for the change in tone is apparent in the love affairs. Unlike Frankie and Bruno, Dove Linkhorn has not been destructive. Terasina and Hallie reject him, not the other way around. Both women have been maligned by men before the story opens. Without Dove, neither one degenerates. The corruption of female innocence … is completely absent here…. Within this scheme of things, even death itself is parodied. During a raid on Finnerty's brothel, Dove is thrown out. This leads two policemen to the mistaken conclusion that the blow has truly killed him. A colloquy between them on what to do about the corpse is rudely interrupted. Dove pops up to answer for himself. The joke is on the law. Dove's playing possum is the first and only instance of mock death in all of Algren's work. The author, it is clear, has learned to laugh at his most sacred cow. Instead of living death, we have a new and indestructible vitality.

The main point, however, is more serious than this. For Dove has injured someone after all. In running off with Hallie, he has deprived Legless Schmidt, Hallie's lover, of his one redeeming love. A personage of grace and power (certainly not a freak!), Legless Schmidt is not one to be deprived. And so punishment is bound to follow after all. We realize that although Dove himself is free of death's obsession—only the lonely memories of Terasina rise up to distrub him—Algren's prose is not. Like a distant tocsin, the warning sounds continually between the lines. In a coal picking scene at the beginning, a child is inexplicably destroyed…. The second section ends with Hallie's desertion; the third with a weird barroom brawl in which Legless Schmidt reduces Dove to a mass of cartilege and bone, only to be pushed to his own death by a mob of sadistic spectators. In the very last scene … a blind and humbled Dove comes home to old Arroyo.

Dove's innocence, then, becomes a kind of moral blindness which precipitates his fall…. He must pay the price of his eyes to learn that love, trust and giving are, after all, the only graces in this world and that one tampers with them at one's peril. (pp. 41-2)

The picture of blind Dove stumbling toward Terasina's chili parlor, still struggling to live and to love despite his defeat, is something new in Algren. Unlike so many Algren characters, Dove is not condemned to true or living death…. He becomes the first major character to accept defeat, to return home, and to continue looking for love in this world. The innocent yokel has been redeemed, chastened, changed; he has learned to do penance for his sins. If the ending does not quite come off (the comic tone is never fully integrated with the passages of sadness and defeat; no rendition of Dove's new awareness matches the superb barroom brawl), it does at least show Algren working his way to new levels of thematic consciousness, and, at the same time, to a unified story structure….

If Algren ever felt the efficacy of social amelioration, he both posed and rejected it in his first book. If, on the other hand, he is mainly concerned with the problem of death, one can understand his popularity with those French Existentialists who see in him a continuation of the Symbolist tradition. It is not by accident that where Algren's earliest epigraphs are taken from Marx, his later epigraphs are taken from Baudelaire and Kuprin. For out of the poetic exploration of this marginal, half-lit world there emerges the image of a universe in which human action must inevitably seem absurd. And yet, within that world, there co-exists a real belief that human action can have validity and meaning. Not only can the human condition be redeemed through love; it can also be altered by the very existence of Algren's incantation. (p. 43)

In his long and impassioned lamentation on death, Algren has surely learned how to sing. It remains to be seen whether the song will now become a dirge or dithyramb. (p. 44)

George Bluestone, "Nelson Algren," in The Western Review (copyright 1957 by The Western Review), Autumn, 1957, pp. 27-44.

Ralph J. Gleason

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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 junkies and the thieves (even before the Bonnie & Clyde/Robin Hood mythology) dealt with the reality of America, and in their dealing exposed the hypocrisy of the whole social structure….

Up until Algren, no American writer had really combined a poetic gift for words and a vision of the truth about the textbook democracy. He saw it, gradually or all at once makes no difference, and he put it down in the one novel which blew the minds of hundreds of other writers and had the effect—very specifically on Kesey and Heller—that Robert Johnson had on the Cream and Mick Jagger.

And when he had said it all … he tried for a while to do other things, turning, like Mailer, to journalism and then finally, like Dylan, turning off to a private world. It is an odd relationship, the literature of Algren and the song/poetry of Dylan. They cover the same territory, see the same images with or without different faces and different names, and no one familiar with the inhabitants of the night world where Algren took his wild side walk was startled to meet the images of Dylan's apocalyptical visions….

When he wrote A Walk on the Wild Side, Algren did not really believe that the whole thing had gone out of control. He believed in a kind of goodness indigenous to the American scene or at least possible in the American scene. He believed, too, in a kind of non-secular God, I suspect.

Ralph J. Gleason, "Perspectives: Is It Out of Control?" in Rolling Stone (© 1970 by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 64, August 6, 1970, p. 9.

Ross Macdonald

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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.

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