A Heroic Line of Losers: From Herman Melville to Nelson Algren

by Hugh Iglarsh

"A huge passivity has settled on industrial society. ... Society begins to take on the character of the kept woman whose role is expected to be submission and luxurious passivity."

Marshall McLuhan, 1951

 

It is a sad business reading through Bettina Drew's A Life on the Wild Side, her 1989 biography of Chicago novelist Nelson Algren (1909-1981). At some point in the not-so-wild 1950s, down drops the curtain on Algren's first act, his Popular Front-era salad days of accomplishment and purposefulness and growing acclaim. It rises again to the Cold War cultural chill and a slow downward spiral on Algren's part into embitterment and withdrawal and creative fadeout. A lifelong gambler, and not a particularly lucky or good one, in his later years he seems to have been dealt an unfairly poor hand.

Algren, the author of The Man with a Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, Neon Wilderness, Never Come Morning, A Walk on the Wild Side and other works that place him squarely at the apex of American urban realism, finished only one novel in his last 25 years - a labored reworking of the Hurricane Carter saga titled The Devil's Stocking. The question that haunts Algren fans is why he almost entirely stopped writing fiction, and what might have been had he not.

Along with Fitzgerald, Algren is a classic example of the American writer who outlived his career. At a certain point, under political and critical attack, the lifelong left-wing author lost his faith in literature and downshifted to the less vulnerable and demanding role of journalist and essayist. He was cursed not by lack of talent or aspiration, but by their excess. And he was by no means the first victim of this peculiar American affliction.

The pattern was set long ago by Herman Melville, who was born and died exactly 90 years before Algren. Algren was aware of the Melville precedent. "Things of the Earth: A Groundhog's View," an Algren manuscript quoted in H.E.F. Donohue's book-length Conversations with Nelson Algren, includes the following comment: "Thinking of Melville, thinking of Poe, thinking of Mark Twain and Vachel Lindsay, thinking of Jack London and [Thomas] Wolfe, one begins to feel that there is almost no way of becoming a creative writer in America without being a loser." He wrote this about 1950, at the time of his first disastrous, ego-crushing visit to Hollywood, a trip made in connection with the planned film adaptation of Golden Arm, which had won the first National Book Award.

It is interesting that he begins his list with Melville, the patron saint of ignored literary genius. One could write a long essay on the striking parallels between Melville and Algren, but let me just tick off some highlights: both are sensitive sons of unloving mothers, with fathers who courted economic failure; both come of age during an economic depression (Melville, the Panic of 1837, the nation's first great capitalist bust, and Algren, the Great Depression); both find themselves reaching adulthood in a world without particular use for their "advantages" - in Melville's case, his family name and connections, in Algren's, his newly minted diploma from the University of Illinois.

Bored and idle, both hit the road in their early 20s: Melville to the South Seas and the allegedly cannibalistic but otherwise amiable Typee islanders, Algren to the hobo jungles of South Texas and the dives and bordellos of New Orleans. Both find themselves reborn among social and cultural outsiders; neither can ever fully or happily re-adjust to middle-class values and expectations again. Both naturally take the side of the underdog against instituted authority. Algren writes famously: "I submit that literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity." Melville attacks many of the sacred cows of his day, from sanctimonious missionaries to brutal naval discipline; his genius transmutes anger into a searing beauty. In White-Jacket, his fictionalized memoir of life aboard a U.S. navy warship, Melville declares on behalf of the American sailor: "For him our Revolution was in vain; to him our Declaration of Independence is a lie." In the U.S. navy, he continues, mutiny is a justified form of popular resistance to the feudal horrors of flogging.

Both writers give voice to their disillusionment through a well-honed subversive style that, in the words of critic David Reynolds, "describes modern America only in sarcastic, inverted terms, with bold social pariahs deemed preferable to hypocritical social rulers." The same spirit that led Algren to define Chicago as "the place built out of Man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself" can be heard in Melville's comment about his own New York: "What is a good, earnest subject? Daily progress of man toward a state of intellectual and moral perfection, as evidenced in the history of Fifth Avenue and Five Points?" (Five Points being the Cabrini-Green and South Bronx of his day.)

Finally, both writers fall victim in the end to America's limited appetite for the critical and oppositional, a mode that our cultural guardians all too often dismiss as merely perverse in this best of all possible worlds. Moby Dick, with its shamanic intensity and oceanic depths, meets a largely indifferent critical reception. And when Melville's Pierre - a savage indictment of Victorian family pathology and bourgeois inanity - is published, a New York newspaper responded with the well-argued headline, "Herman Melville Crazy." Melville's last full-length novel is published in 1857. Already almost forgotten at the age of 38, the man who once lived among cannibals takes on a soul-killingly dull civil service job, lubricated by increasingly heavy drinking. Billy Budd, his magnificent final rumination on authority and radical innocence, sees the light of day decades after his death. His entire novelistic production earns him a lifetime grand total of $10,400.

Part of the problem is that both writers became icons early in their careers: Melville as the writer of spicy, exotic armchair adventure tales, Algren as scandalizing chronicler of the slums. Within these categories, the writers are saleable commodities, but heaven help them if they attempt to reach readers at a deeper level, as moral forces and spokesmen for the unheard. In our society, it is often the strongest and clearest books that most confuse the critics. And it is at this point of critical bafflement that authors find themselves writing in a vacuum, sealed out of the oxygen-rich world of attention and success.

And that internal exile of semi-obscurity is where Melville and Algren found themselves, once-famous novelists reduced to object lessons in downward mobility for reasons they could never totally grasp.

For Algren, his acceptance of has-been status seems to be rooted in the soul-bitterness associated with the word "loser," which he applies freely to himself as well as his illustrious predecessors. With sardonic pride, he declares himself the scion of a long line of losers. On the one hand, the word has the fundamental American meaning of one who does the work but does not end up with the money - that is, the sucker, the patsy, the chump. This sums up Algren's own interpretation of his Hollywood experience. "Loser" also has a deeper and sadder significance: the sense of losing vital connection with the reader. He is describing the moment in his life when the necessary spiritual reward was no longer there, and the mental and emotional effort could no longer be made.

Algren describes this breakdown of relationship poignantly in the Donohue interview: "The loss I am speaking of is in the shifting of a writer who's plugged in one way, the good way, to our society." He adds: "Now the only way I can be plugged in again is on this money thing. That's the only way by which you get respect."

The serious American novelist's central problem, according to Algren, is that "you have to believe your work is wanted ... but the real deception, the real disappointment, is that actually it's not wanted." So why put in the years that a great book demands? His disenchantment covers more than his exploitation and humiliation at the hands of Golden Arm producer Otto Preminger: "I didn't find any real difference in the values of the publishing world than in the values of the studios. It's the same thing. Their values are: get something that sells, get books into the presses and then promote them." The process dominates the product, and the market rules over all. As Algren comments, "The work that is wanted is not very well paid, and the stuff that is not wanted gets paid very high."

And so writers sell out and produce what they themselves would never read, and readers buy what they would never write, words unlinked to their own lives. A profit-driven culture biz disrupts the bond between writer and reader by forcing writers to think like MBA-wielding publishing executives and turning the reader into a passive consumer not of mere books, but of calculated, overheated bestsellers. When the personal statement and the personal response are lost, the novel becomes a dead letter mailed to a nonexistent address. We are thrust into the absurd universe of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," a tale about an emerging business civilization's capacity for infinite proliferation of meaningless texts - even pre-Facebook, pre-tweet.

Melville wrote for a pre-corporate publishing culture, but was similarly torn. He wrote that publishers treated "even the greatest lettered celebrities of the time, ... the full graduates in the University of Fame [as] legal minors forced to go to their mammas for pennies wherewith to keep them in peanuts." He described his novels Redburn and White-Jacket as "jobs, which I have done for money - being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood." He continues: "My only desire for their 'success' (as it is called) springs from my pocket, and not from my heart. So far as I am individually concerned, and independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sorts of books which are said to 'fail.' - Pardon this egotism."

Beyond Melville's "egotism" is his recognition of the trap he is caught in. His material existence as a producer within the literary marketplace is not reconcilable with his calling as social conscience and visionary artist. To succeed at one role is to fail at the other. And both roles are necessary to maintain productivity and self-esteem in the real world.

Both writers experienced their contact with the culture industry as demoralizing, demeaning, emasculating. Their extended periods of silence in what should have been their prime years are two of the real tragedies of American letters - for them, for us, and for future readers and writers. I consider them preventable tragedies.

The premature end of Melville's and Algren's careers cannot be blamed entirely and directly on the abuses heaped upon them by publishers, critics and other outside forces. In both cases, there was an element of self-destructive behavior and willed failure. This self-sabotage reflects the double bind that engaged, nonconformist artists faced and continue to face - that because objective success so often comes at the price of self-respect, high literary achievement tends to eat away at itself, and promising careers become ticking time bombs of conflicting motives and desires. When "winning" and "losing" are equally painful, why play the game at all?

It's the competitive, zero-sum, money-driven system that's the real problem, not the psychological makeup of the players. In a truly sane society, publishers would exist to support writers, not the reverse, and both would exist in close and reciprocal relation to the reader and the larger world. Culture would be one loop of consciousness, a seamless movement between lived reality and individual imagination. Instead, a powerful and parasitic media and marketing presence intervenes, converting readers into demographic cohorts to be seduced, fostering atomization and ghettoization rather than connection. The notion of society itself, the goal of seeing and reshaping the matrix that defines us, is sacrificed to a cloistered and sterile hyper-subjectivity.

How can we prevent such tragedies in the future? One thing that's certain is that good writers require good readers. And to be a good reader in America today - or a functioning citizen - calls for more commitment than one might expect. It means arming oneself against the hype machine and being willing to take chances, to wander freely, and to cultivate qualities of attention, discrimination and engagement that are not rewarded or encouraged by the larger culture. It means an ability to slow down, listen, absorb, reflect - basic concentration skills endangered in a world ruled by speed and sensory overload.

When Melville and Algren quit writing novels, they were giving up on not only their chief art form, but also their concept of democracy - as a living public consciousness that could be moved to indignation and action. The best way to vindicate and honor these artists and the vision they stood for is to become the kind of reader that they deserve.

Hugh Iglarsh is a Chicago-based writer and critic, and a member of the Nelson Algren Committee (www.nelsonalgren.org). This article originated as a presentation at the Nelson Algren Birthday Party in Chicago. He can be contacted at hiiglarsh@hotmail.com.

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