Saturday, April 25, 2009

Nelson Algren

Jack O'Connell was nice enough to send me a link to an LA Times piece about how Nelson Algren's fiction has all but faded from sight. Until I was in my mid-Thirties or so, Algren was holy writ. The small group of literary writers I hung out with in Iowa City would frequently read Algren out loud to each other. His work amazed shocked and sorrowed in ways nobody had before. I still have fifteen of his books. I still read three or four of his stories every month. But if I mention him to most people I get the old blank stare. Of all the Chicago writers it was impossible to believe that James T. Farrell or Nelson Algren would ever disappear from our interest and respect. But man have they ever.

Here's an excerpt from the fine piece by David L. Ulin:

So what, exactly, is Algren's legacy? That's the question the Steppenwolf event means to raise. The show is built around a series of interviews he gave in the early 1960s to a writer named H.E.F. Donohue (later published as "Conversations With Nelson Algren"). The one-night-only affair seems appropriate, given Algren's state of cultural eclipse. Perhaps the most telling anecdote comes by way of the late Studs Terkel, the author's lifelong friend, who recalls going to see Billie Holiday with Algren in 1956, when Lady Day was getting near the end.

In Terkel's words: "Billie's voice was shot, though the gardenia in her hair was as fresh as usual. Ben Webster, for so long a big man on tenor, was backing her. He was having it rough, too. Yet they transcended. There were perhaps fifteen, twenty patrons in the house. At most. Awful sad. Still, when Lady sang 'Fine and Mellow,' you felt that way. And when she went into 'Willow, Weep for Me,' you wept. Something was still there, that something that distinguished an artist from a performer: the revealing of self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own."

An incredible run

That something that distinguished an artist from a performer: This is also at the heart of Algren's writing, or at least the five books he produced between 1942 and 1956, which remain among the most serious and moving in American literature. Beginning with "Never Come Morning," the story of a Polish hoodlum and boxer in Chicago, and ending with his New Orleans romp "A Walk on the Wild Side," it's as good a run as has ever been put together by any writer anywhere.

With these books, Algren defined postwar American urban fiction, interweaving threads of social realism, his own leftist politics and noir. Still, what drives his work is always character, the challenges and degradations of daily living, of trying to make one's way in a world that doesn't care.

for the rest go here:,0,1285589.story

Ed here: I remember Norman Mailer's odd Maileresque comment after he and Algren had disagreed on a tv show: "Two middleweights fought to a draw."


Jerry House said...

Too many good writers fade from the public memory. Thanks for reminding me of Algren. Irving Shulman, Hal Ellson, Chandler Brossard, Wenzell Brown, Bernard many, many possibilities for Patti's Forgotten Books Friday.

Todd Mason said...

FWIW, the last two books I've done have included Farrell (the Judith Merril this past week) and the week before was NELSON ALGREN'S OWN BOOK OF LONESOME MONSTERS, which collected Brossard as well as one of Algren's own...

Anonymous said...

Well, even though this was posted long ago, here's to an Iowa City tradition of finding the most Algrenish bar, reading some of his stuff, sometimes playing poker, and once in a while finding another Molly O.... btw, I loved Entrapment and the direction he seemed to be going in terms of perspective...