The Golden Arm Swings Anew ... Nelson Algren Is Back from Oblivion

By Max Vanzi

 


Nelson Algren may have been the best known American writer ever to watch his major works disappear under waves of loathing and fear. He saw one novel denounced as a Nazi smear by his own Chicago neighbors. Publishers cringing from a witch-hunting FBI suppressed the rest. The lash fell harder the more ascendant the stature. Eventually, all his acclaimed fiction went out of print, including the most acclaimed of all, The Man With the Golden Arm, winner in 1950 of the first National Book Award for fiction.


Harassed though he was by his tormentors, Algren said hed tried to put a "dent" in the conscience of the American middle class by portraying with his fiction the simple certainties and hard truths of those the middle class left behind. He wrote of the addicts, the hookers, the poor hustling the poor, the "coneroos", the washed up prize fighter down for the count. They were societys discards in a rigged game. "Unemployed by civilization", he wrote of a mugged and murdered down-and-outer in 1935.


By the late fifties, he was saying he had failed, that nobody had listened. He was the "the penny whistle of American literature".


Today its clear, as it seldom was in Algrens lifetime, that somebody did listen, that he did make a dent, if not with a ringing bang of the hammer against the conscience of a thoughtless nation, at least with enough punch -- delayed punch, to be sure --- to rescue the best of Nelson Algren from perpetual silence.


All of Algrens books are now back in print, due primarily to a determined New York publisher, Dan Simon, who resurrected and reissued the Algren works through the house he founded, Seven Stories Press, and its predecessor Four Walls Eight Windows. Simon and the writer Brooke Horvath also have gathered, edited, and last year Simon published for the first time what the ardent Algren reader might describe as new treasure: Entrapment and Other Writings combines the unfinished novel of the title with poems, pithy essays, and "The Lightless Room", a compelling short story that somehow never made it into The Neon Wilderness, the acclaimed 1947 collection of two dozen Algren short stories.


But Algren also gets renewed recognition off the page. Live events staged principally in Chicago in the years after Algren died in 1981 form a palpable, if uncoordinated, alliance to help end the silence. The citys Emmy winning Steppenwolf Theatre Company joined with Dan Simon to produce in 2009 a celebration of the writers work on the hundredth anniversary of his birth.


Novelists, actors, theater directors, a journalist, and Simon himself came to the stage for the chamber theater production "Nelson Algren Live". The actors words were Algrens own, performed by some heavy talent: Willem Dafoe recited the resurrected "The Lightless Room" and did a turn as Algrens best-known fictional creation, Frankie Machine, from The Man With the Golden Arm. The novelists Don DeLillo and Russell Banks narrated and performed.


A video of the Steppenwolf event was given out free and distributed to schools across the country.


Another Algren remembrance, less august though more sustained, holds forth every year in Wicker Park, the section of Chicago where Algren lived during the best and worst of his writing times. Prominent among the instigators are writers, poets, theater people, and scholars who carry the flame as members and supporters of the Nelson Algren Committee. The committee and friends have gathered each year since 1989 to remember Algren on or near what would be his birthday on March 28.


Through other of the committees work, a fountain at a central, three-way intersection in Wicker Park bears Algrens name as does a curbside notation and plaque on the nearby apartment house where he lived at 1958 W. Evergreen Street. (In the eighties the street was briefly renamed for Algren, but the neighbors complained of confusion and got it changed back).


If they were all like the 2010 event, the Algren committees birthday parties are a gas (an apt term in the context), a subterranean Vaudeville show cum Algren appreciation.


Dedicated this year to the late anti-war activist and historian Howard Zinn, the celebration unwound before 120 attendees in a church basement. From folding chairs on a paint-chipped concrete floor, members and guests, calloused workers and fresh-faced college kids, rose to offer standing Os to assorted anti-establishment speakers, poets, actors, writers, musicians, scholars, and the woman who in leading the audience in song required all to repeat stanzas in Polish.


Actor Richard Henzel performed the Nazz, the beat poet Lord Buckleys variation on a hip Jesus, that "sweetest, gonest, wailinest cat" who fed his posse with loaves and fishes "stuffed and smoked". So began and ended the religious part of the evening.


Poet Charlie Newman, "I'm an Old Testament Liberal since May 17, 1943," gave it up for Algren Chicago style:

Nelson Algren wished his self into every day into
the choked streets the ordinary the clenched teeth
not small picture kick of real life lived wrong life-out-of-history
out-of-time & what did it get him? mastodon mayhem
you & me? hell we got it good

Algren committee co-founder Warren Leming, saying heres something to "set the room atwitter", spoke of a coming movie on the stormy love affair of Algren and the famed French Existentialist writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir with Johnny Depp playing Algren.

All for the love of Algren, other poets took the stage, as did Erwin Helfer, 74 years old, playing his own stride piano compositions. At age 88 Art Shay spun tales of his longtime friendship with Algren and of the hundreds of photos he made of the author and his milieu over the years. One of those captured on his Leica was the esteemed de Beauvoir, in the nude, from the rear, unaware Shay's lens was upon her. It circulates briskly.

Leming, a maker of theater and music, prose and poetry, spreads himself widely across the Algren committees remembrance movement. As a writer, he picks up the central Algren theme, today seldom struck, of two Americas, one uncaring but at the same time responsible for the condition of the other. And so, says Leming, "We live now, as [writer Brooke] Horvath suggests, at a time when Algren remains a problem for the po/mo (post-modernist) academics, the hacks at the heart of the media and the middlebrow millionaire breast-beaters of the Dr. Phil and Oprah variety."

Leming knew Algren, and put on a musical show retelling an Algren short story at the first committee entertainment 21 years ago at which fellow co-founders Studs Terkel and Stuart McCarrell read from the writers works. More recently, Leming wrote, performed, and narrated solo "Algren's Last Night", a video short that interprets an Algren alone as he moves on foot in the Wicker Park darkness bidding goodbye to Chicago. He speaks so close to the Algren bone that Leming suffers the often-held assumption that Nelson Algren wrote the bittersweet monologue, whereas only one sentence in the performance was Algrens: "Literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity."

The film can be seen at nelsonalgren.org, the Algren committee's website featuring on the home page the Chicago PD's lurid mug shot of Algren -- occasioned by some minor pot bust apparently -- staring at the police lens at the time of booking. Looking at it stenciled on my souvenir coffee mug -- a visitor from California, I attended the party for the first time this year -- I'm reminded of the resignation with which, in other photos by Art Shay, Algren surveys a losing poker hand. He was a gambler known for spending much of his limited income trying to fill inside straights when the pot odds were telling him to fold.

Before that first and last goodbye to Chicago in 1975, Algren rose on making literature from its downtrodden, and fell with them at the hands of his attackers. With publication in 1942 of his breakthrough novel Never Come Morning came the uprising against him on his home turf in Wicker Park.

The Polish Roman Catholic Union and the editors of a Polish community newspaper, Zgoda, unleashed the accusation that Algrens portrayal in the novel of under-class characters off the streets of Chicago's Polish slums, playing out the tragedy and despair that defined their lives, slandered Chicago's Polish community. Ludicrously, they called the book a World War II plant by the Nazis. A report on Algren by the Catholic group to the FBI caught the eye -- not for the first time or last -- of Director J. Edgar Hoover. The clamor spread, and Chicagos mayor, the good New Deal Democrat Edward Kelly, ordered Never Come Morning banned from the Chicago Public Library. Bettina Drew tells us in her 1989 biography, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, that the novel remained off the shelves at least into the early 1960s.

(The neighborhood took years to calm down. Chicago freelance writer Jeff Huebner wrote in 1998 that placing the black iron Algren fountain at the commercial center of what had been Polish Chicago required delicate negotiations that finally found consensus around calling the memorial The Nelson Algren Fountain at the Polish Triangle).

After serving as a decidedly reluctant buck private in WWII Europe -- he resented his officers more than the Germans -- Algren returned to Chicago and by 1949 had published, first, and with modest success, the short-story collection The Neon Wilderness. Studs Terkel once told me he thought the title alone a made contribution to the language. Next came The Man With the Golden Arm. Now critical praise ran up the literary ladder all the way to Hemingway who wrote to the author, "Mr. Algren, boy, you are good".

They were good post-war years for the celebrated novelist whose lyrical portraits of the urban poor were receiving recognition and his love life was blossoming in the embraces of his renowned French lover. None of it lasted.


With the FBI cudgel coming down on writers whod drifted to the left, usually arrived at decades earlier when communism looked like a reasonable alternative to Depression America, Algren paid a heavy price. His FBI file would run to 546 pages. Publishers turned away as the McCarthy-ite 1950s took hold. Doubleday cancelled a book of Algrens it had agreed to publish. His application for a passport was denied on accusations of him being a Communist. Algren denied ever joining the CP and while at one time he embraced its causes, selectively, much of his 1930s fiction had departed from the path of party-line proletarian literature, as Brooke Horvath explains with examples in his 2005 book, Understanding Nelson Algren.


As if troubles with Hoover and Chicago's Poles were'nt enough, Algren lastly infuriated the powerful in the city at large with publication in 1951 of his prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make. From its pages flowed melodically a hard appraisal, tempered with compassion, of a hard city. He limned a hustler's crossroads from its earliest days that was "still an outlaw's capital but of an outlawry whose colors, once crimson as the old Sauganash whiskey-dye, have been washed, by many prairie rains, to the colorless gray of the self-made executive type playing the percentages from the inside".


The executive types responded through their mouthpieces. Chicago: City on the Make amounts to "a case for ra(n)t control . . . [and] revocation of the authors poetic license," huffed the now-departed Chicago Daily News. The slim volume hit the stores in 1951 when post-war prosperity boosters held center stage. ". . . if Algren succeeded in capturing this city, there were very few at the time who wanted it captured," observed Caroline Gottschalk-Druschke in Nelson Algren: A Collection of Critical Essays in 2007. The executive types controlled the Zeitgeist. The book sold poorly.


Dan Simon summed up the battered Algren legacy, and his part in its healing, in an email to me. After Hoover declared Algren a red menace, "his tremendous fame and celebrity of 1950 - 1952, when he was literally America's most famous writer, was given over to cult status and semi-obscurity for the rest of his life."


Simon, explaining death and rebirth at the hands of publishers as perhaps only a publisher can, told me: "At the time I first came upon Algren in 1983, every single one of his books was out of print. . . . I became incensed that this writer so many claimed to read and too many claimed to have known, was completely out of print. I contacted [Algren's] agent, Candida Donadio, and asked her if I could begin to bring out reissues of his books. . . . . Candida first contacted each of Algren's previous publishers and asked if they would publish his books again . . . . All of them refused.


"So she started to give me the rights, first to Neon Wilderness, then Never Come Morning. I started carrying the torch for Algren's writing then and am still carrying it. We have brought out nearly everything." Two titles were revived by others, Chicago: City on the Make, reissued by the University of Chicago Press, and A Walk on the Wild Side, which is in print by Farrar Straus Giroux. Algren's last novel was The Devils Stocking that followed in barely disguised fiction the life of prize fighter Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, published in 1983 presumably after Simon's fruitless search for an in-print Algren title.

And that might have been the end of the run for Nelson Algren, who died before the pub date of his last novel but for his minor renaissance, one that so far keeps on giving. Simon, as he says, still carries the torch. The party givers in Wicker Park have never missed a birthday. The Algren committee keeps the website up and running.

It's evident the Algren revival show on a stage once fallen dark is managing to stay in production, and even, auspiciously, filling seats with a new and younger audience.

At the birthday party this year, Nate Mills, 27 years old, explained his goal to get to the bottom of Algren's elusive politics, the subject of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan. A Hungarian-born former Chicagoan Orsolya Bene, stepped up to tell of new vistas opening opened for her upon reading Algren. Could anyone there help her with her research? She wants to bring out an illustrated edition of Chicago, City on the Make.

But if anyone at the party qualified to demonstrate, as Algren did, life in Chicago below polite society's radar, and bring it full force onto the contemporary literary stage, it was the young novelist and college instructor Bayo Ojikutu. Where Algren made literature from Polish Chicago, Irish Chicago, white nobody Chicago, Ojikutu makes it from black Chicago in a voice similarly unsparing and un-scrubbed.

Ojikutu read from his prize-winning second novel, Free Burning:

"One of my phony uncles from the plant come telling me later that Mamma'd got caught doing a little more than sipping from a flask. Said she was smoking that base, too. Figure she'd stopped giving it up to him, too -- punk nigga, should've whipped him right on the spot for talking out of turn. No matter, whatever it was, she wasn't tricking off like that anymore and hadn't been to a circle fiend meeting since I started high school.


"I started making peace with the truth at nineteen years-old, just about the same age as Mamma was when she gave me birth. By then, I counted myself among the lucky to know my true root, half of it at least, felt it blessing me with this powerful edge on most young fools around our blocks. The fact that the two of us were spitting image didn't have to mean that I looked like a four-cornered South Shore honey. Mamma's lived this dirty down life of hers, and the worlds beat her cold and hard just like it does a dark man. So it's her, not me, who nature has all flipped upside down."


Nelson Algren, back in print, spreading influence, making dents after all.

 

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