Never Come Morning
The Neon Wilderness
The Man with the Golden Arm
A Walk on the Wild Side
Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side
Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Nelson Algren
Nelson Algren’s Chicago
Nelson Algren died in 1981, but during the last twenty-five years of his life he had published no book of new fiction. Many younger readers now have only the dimmest idea, or none at all, of who he was. His then shocking novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) won the first National Book Award for fiction, and Hemingway thought Algren “possibly the best writer under 50…writing today.” But what then seemed to some a major career in progress petered petered out, and his later travel writings and literary journalism and The Devil’s Stocking (published posthumously in 1983), his fictionalized version of the Hurricane Carter murder case, did little to win a new audience. He was remembered, I suppose, mostly as the nominal source of two bad movies he himself despised and, to the cognoscenti, as the lover who gave Simone de Beauvoir her first experience of complete sexual pleasure.
Now, however, old friends and new academic admirers are saying that a mistake has been made: the books are better than we thought, or imagined without having read them. They are, we hear, wrongly classified as “realism” or “naturalism” or “social protest,” and the world Algren described—of dispossessed, victimized outcasts dreaming of finding their place in an America that promised to include them, but lied—is in fact our world too. Algren, Russell Banks says in his introduction to the new edition of A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), tells us “it’s not morning in America, and it hasn’t been for a long, long time,” and since this message is so evidently true, we should stop punishing Algren for saying so. The reissue of most of Algren’s fiction by small presses makes it possible to consider the case for ourselves.
While serious fiction should tell us something true about some part of our world, we want it to do more, or perhaps less, than that: we want it to give us some sense that art engages us in an impractical, playful process of shaping and revising what is merely real. Banks is careful to add that Algren “writes well,” even “brilliantly.” But he does not quite say what sort of writing it is.
In an interview with H.E.F. Donohue, Algren spoke of his work in a way that sounds both proud and defensive:
I’ve never believed in writing directly from imagination. If I had the imagination maybe I would…. My kind of writing is just a form of reportage…. I mean you have to know how do the law courts work. You have to know how many bars there are in a jail cell. You can’t just say, “The guy’s in jail.” You’ve got to know.
This passion for circumstantial truth may help to suggest why his books came so slowly; between 1935 and 1956 he published four novels, at seven-year intervals, with the fifth and last coming out almost thirty years later. (Another factor was …
Nelson Algren: An Exchange October 25, 1990