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Nelson Algren: An Exchange

In response to:

Underground Man from the June 28, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In “Underground Man” [NYR, June 28], Thomas R. Edwards accuses Nelson Algren of “a rare slip of factuality” for having one of his characters use a 2-cent stamp for a letter in 1942, when the postal rates went up to 3 cents in 1932. On the evidence of this “slip” Edwards concludes that Algren really gathered all his material in the 1930s, before writing his supposedly realistic novels. This is a curious conclusion in any case, but what if the “slip” was not really a mistake at all? I seem to recall that in 1942 you could mail a letter with a 2-cent stamp on it if the letter was left unsealed. That’s how we sent Christmas cards in those simple days, when it was a commonly shared assumption that privacy would be respected. I also remember that in 1943 the “postal zone”—the ancestor of the zip code—entered our lives. I hope Algren remembered to put these into his stories!

Bruce A. Toor
San Pedro, California

To the Editors:

Thomas R. Edwards’s assessment of Nelson Algren’s fiction relies largely on biography and ideology rather than on the works themselves. Edwards reviews the man and finds him wanting, in so doing providing a discussion of Algren’s works that is, at best, inadequate.

James T. Farrell called the critically acclaimed Never Come Morning “one of the most important American novels I have read,” yet Edwards’s analysis of this work focuses largely on the fact that Algren got the price of a stamp wrong. And Edwards never even mentions The Neon Wilderness, a story collection including two O’Henry Award winners, a Best American Short Story, and a number of widely anthologized pieces. Most disturbingly, the only aspect of The Man with the Golden Arm mentioned by Edwards is narcotics addiction. Yet this book won the first National Book Award, was nominated for a Pulitzer, and caused Hemingway to remark Algren “beat Dostoevsky” because the depth of its psychological understanding was so intense. Overall, Edwards gives short shrift to the books which in fact established Algren’s reputation, then judges him on A Walk on the Wild Side and decides he’s not really that great. It’s a neat method, but hardly good scholarship, and hardly fair.

Calling Algren “a writer simply recording gritty realism” enables Edwards to dismiss him as a “social realist” in the by now hackneyed Cold War tradition, but it also forces him to ignore everything that made Hemingway call him “possibly the best writer under fifty writing today.” Edwards repeatedly overemphasizes Algren’s reliance on research while hardly mentioning the scope of the author’s human understanding. Algren observed life at the bottom so intensely not only because he felt that the proper study for mankind is man, but also because he felt there was a complexity to lost people that could not be comprehended simply by sitting in front of a typewriter. In fact, Algren’s books were slow in coming not, as Edwards suggests, because he spent too much time in observation, but because at his best Algren was so seriously devoted to language and craft, and because his books came at such tremendous emotional cost to himself.

Edwards’s treatment of Algren is neither new or fresh. It’s the same kind of criticism that has plagued Algren for more than thirty years—an approach that tends to dismiss depictions of our most unfortunate citizens as “social realism,” politically motivated, gratuitously disturbing, or otherwise undeserving of the label “art.” Now that the Cold War is over, those of us who believe in the power of Algren’s finely wrought prose look forward to an assessment based more appropriately on his work. Fortunately, until then, the reissue of his books makes it possible for readers to judge Algren’s significance for themselves.

Bettina Drew
Medusa, New York To the Editors:

  1. I was amused by the didactic, nit-picking “reviews” of seven Nelson Algren books, including one of mine, by Thomas R. Edwards. “Try as he will,” he indicts Algren, “the non-addict writer remains an outsider, having to make his art do some of the work of knowing. But social realism needs art, too: it needs to find formal and vocal ways of making its truth reasonably coherent.” What does the Rutgers professor do in his spare time, caution the Raritan Canal not to run uphill?

A rare slip of factuality in Never Come Morning,” Edwards huffs, inflating a penny to a paradigm, “suggests something about Algren’s relation to the information he prized so highly.” The slip: Algren had one of his characters use a two cent stamp because he “has evidently confused some old memory of his own with a small piece of Bruno’s consciousness.” Shoulda been a three cent stamp Edwards’s recondite paragraph of postal rate history harrumphs!

I’m sure that were my old friend Nelson alive to defend himself he would’ve spoken to Edwards’s limp slap by framing it in the professor’s own terms: Something like, but much more artful than:

Hey, prof, if you prize accurate trivial information even higher than I do, how about getting my fucking original name right? It was Nelson Ahlgren Abraham for Crissakes. And congratulations on penetrating Bruno Bicek’s consciousness—I been waiting for years to learn about what he really was thinkin’ walkin’ north on Milwaukee. Now that you bought it up what he was really thinkin’ was whether Anton at the Post Office window by Evergreen would let the letter go through for 2 cents seeing it was from him. And thanks for noting my presence as a writer in that other paragraph you half-liked. I felt I was there—now I know.”

  1. Edwards expertly ransacks Bettina Drew’s painfully honest biography of Algren, A Life on the Wild Side, then calls it “modest but very helpful.” Helpful if you’re skimming for nits or justification for such flatulent bookchat as: “It seems clear that his interest in the ‘wild side’ of American society was essentially not political but romantic.”

For God’s sake, Algren was a writer. His interest was in writing not politics, romance or Judaism. He once told me, “People always ask why I don’t write about this or that. I tell them if a writer can just get down on paper a few people on one street he’s done a good lifetime’s work.” This is what Algren did and it’s why, amazingly, despite his minuscule output, interest in him continues to grow, his books continue to be reprinted, and here in Chicago, everytime there’s an Algren reading or event, it is filled to overflowing with young people. Studs Terkel—whose quote on Nelson as Lear’s wise fool Edwards artlessly twists into calling Algren neither a great writer nor a wise man—and I meet on this amazing circuit about five times a year. Somehow, without writing the long shelf of books Hemingway hoped he would, and despite hoots from academe like Edwards’s; Algren has hustled his way into the language.

A Walk on the Wild Side” captioned a spacewalk cover for Smithsonian last year, a softdrink billboard campaign this year. “The Man with the Golden Arm” made Newsweek’s cover—over a picture of pitcher Orel Hershiser, picking up in variations from Sports Illustrated, Business Week and Forbes. His admonitions against eating at Mom’s, pokering with Doc and sleeping with a woman with more troubles than you popped up in a big movie last season without credit, as if the character had just made it up.

  1. Professor Edwards has driven me to two dictionaries to determine what he means by “Shay artlessly describes Algren as ‘tall and lean, an amalgam of Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas with a healthy dash of Woody Allen.’ ” My old Webster’s says he means “wanting art, knowledge or skill.” My newer American College says my description is “free from deceit, cunning or craftiness; natural; simple.” Uh oh. Their third meaning is “lacking art, knowledge or skill.” Whatever the factuality, as the man says, artlessly or artlessly, Edwards disparages my image—as he does some of Drew’s, saying in my case, “But I see much more Allen than Mitchum or Douglas in Shay’s striking if sometimes posed shots…. Algren himself, neat, impassive, unsurprised, seems a little out of place….” Good God Nelson, we went to the wrong place! We missed Chicago completely! Also next time we wander through your world you gotta show more surprise and less neatness. What should we have done, carried a make-up crew to muss him up? A dart gun to elicit surprised expressions rather than the dull Mitchum physical reaction to almost any scene? Algren’s dash of Woody Allen, as, say, my frontispiece shows, was mostly facial, but sometimes at parties he was self-mockingly comedic. Of course Nelson was doing this long before Woody himself or Edwards’s evocation of Woody’s peripatetic Zadig—but 200 years after Voltaire’s Zadig, a self-mocking allegorical biography. Zadig was a sage in Babylon who was, like Nelson, hounded by ill fortune and died, as Algren did, disappointed in everything. Voltaire looked more like Kirk Dougles.

Had Edwards noticed the big picture on page 47 in my book (Nelson Algren’s Chicago) of Algren left-hooking the heavy bag he could easily have seen Mitchum and Douglas in the big man’s hard stomach muscles, not one of Woody’s strengths.

  1. Speaking of pictures I enjoyed your using my picture of Algren on Division Street in a cold twilight, shadowy people moving down the block. One of my academic editors didn’t want that picture in the book because I had “apparently not used a fast enough shutter speed to stop the background action.” Pace Susan Sontag it’s just hard for a photographer to come up to someone’s else’s esthetic standards. You properly credited the picture to me. However my daughter the intellectual property lawyer thinks you and David Levine ripped me off by copying, line for line, my frontispiece portrait of Nelson—combining it with Algren’s exact body position on the back cover picture—showing him and me at a pool table. Levine, whose work I’ve esteemed for years, even used my placement of Nelson behind the eight ball—one of Algren’s spontaneous Woodyesque ideas. We let Marcel Marceau push the trigger because he was there, but I retain the copyright. Now that the Levine picture enters the growing Algren pantheon, I don’t want a federal case, just acknowledgment of the pleasant collaboration and a copy of the original or a chance to buy the orginal. In the past I’ve worked with such artists as Norman Rockwell and Leroy Neiman, but they have acknowledged my collaboration. In the case of Levine I had no idea that we were working together until publication time.

  2. Edwards’s laughable ratiocinations on Nelson’s army career reminded me of the ungainly dances bees perform when they think they’ve discovered pay-flowers. Free clue to future biographers and the inevitable movie maker: Algren turned down the Good Conduct Medal because “I couldn’t live up to the responsibility.”

  3. Edwards quotes lawyerless Algren’s “then-agent” on his getting “easily fleeced” by Otto Preminger. In fact it was Algren’s then-agent who royally screwed up the movie sale of The Man With The Golden Arm by leaving out a vital phrase from the original contract with Bob Roberts and John Garfield, the phrase that had to do with 50 percent of the resale rights and 2 percent of the net. Years later on the Kup Show in Chicago, Preminger admitted he had paid the Garfield-Roberts heirs $100,000 for the book. The benighted agent, who had gotten him a paltry $20,000, Algren felt, was the one who needed the lawyer going in, to get that $50,000 from Otto or the Roberts-Garfield heirs, to say nothing of a squadron of lawyers in an armored tank to get that 2 percent of the profits. So, professor, there’s another slip of your “factuality” for you—and not pennyante either! Art Shay
    Deerfield, Illinois To the Editors:

Nelson Algren, when alive, experienced more than a few chop jobs at the hands of hatcheteers, who were masters of their craft. It is ironic, and wonderfully Algrenian, that this writer, now dead, be cleaved by a fumbling apprentice.

Edwards points out that Algren, in an early novel, Never Come Morning, had committed an egregious boner. Bruno Bicek, the punk protagonist, “while in jail is given a ‘dirty two-cent stamp’ by a cop so he can write a letter to his mother.” Edwards, in the course of what I assume is assiduous research, wings his pigeon: “…the time is the late 1930s; but the first-class postal rate went up to three cents in 1932.” Franklin Pangborn, auditing the books of W.C. Fields in The Bank Dick, could not have been more devastating.

What makes this piece of detective work so remarkable is that a few passages later, Edwards refers to Algren’s careers as screen writer and journalist. Screen writer? Journalist? Algren’s life in Hollywood consisted of a brief seriocomic encounter with Otto Preminger. The director, in a case of reverse alchemy, transmuted Algren’s written gold into cinematic dross; the book’s author had nothing whatsoever to do with it. He may have written a page or two of script that obviously didn’t cut it with Otto; that was it. As for journalism, he wrote an occasional book review to pick up a badly needed fifty or a hundred, and wrote one newspaper piece for the Chicago Sun-Times, covering a Dodgers White Sox game in the World Series of 1959. That was it. Yet, Edwards so casual in these matters, is so exacting in the case of the upscaled postage stamp. If he had a hatchet job in mind to begin with, he really should have been more careful or at least consulted experts, say Norman Podhoretz or Leslie Fiedler. They were a couple of specialists in the campaign of Algren-bashing; not that they didn’t come out of it unbloodied. As Hemingway put it to Algren in another context, “Boy, you hit with both hands.” Were this battler still around, he’d have had Edwards for a quick lunch.

Several times, Edwards calls upon Bettina Drew’s attempt at an Algren biography, A Life On The Wild Side. He refers to it as “very helpful.” A personal note may be in order here. In reading the galleys, I came across a stunning piece of news: Nelson Algren had collaborated with me on a play. Amazing; especially since he had neglected to tell me about it. When I called Drew to find out more about her astonishing discovery, she referred to something she had found among the Algren papers at Ohio State. It appears he was thinking of adapting something of mine for a possible one-act play. Yet Edwards, precise when it suited his purpose, saw Drew’s work as one of his divining rods.

The Man With The Golden Arm is smartly slapped with an Edwardsian back-of-the-hand. It is casually administered. “Although Algren observed and sympathized with the underdog life he wrote about, he did not exactly live it. It was, for example, Frankie Machine’s morphone addiction that made The Man With The Golden Arm a sensation…and he [Algren] himself seems never to have gone beyond smoking pot.” Pity Melville at the mercy of Edwards. The man wrote of Queequeg, yet how many harpoons did he throw? As for Stephen Crane, I don’t recall his having done any fighting at Gettysburg or Antietam or any of those places. Edwards is a hard case.

Nor is he averse to throwing an occasional rabbit punch. “While he joined in the protests over the Falangist revolution in Spain, he had no desire to go there and fight, which was obviously dangerous….” I doubt whether anyone could stand up against Edwards in the ring; he could give Jack Sharkey lessons in the art of the sneak punch.

Edwards ends the review in quoting me describing Algren as “very much like Lear’s fool who can say the truth in his own way.” He takes off from there: “Although Algren was not a great writer nor even a very wise man, he did know something that is true and important; but it may be hard for us, like Lear, to credit the knowledge of a fool, until it’s too late.”

Did Edwards deliberately miss my point or is he on some other wave length? I was thinking of A.L. Rowse’s observation of the Fool “as Lear’s familiar who brings home to him the truth of his situation and folly. Wisdom and truth are spoken through the mouth of a Fool, with all the more caustic effect.” It was the Fool, using coded language, whom I saw as Nelson Algren, not the fool, who, in this instance, may be somebody else. Studs Terkel
Chicago, Illinois

Thomas R Edwards replies:

Bruce Toor is right, and I thank him (and others) for the correction; I’m old enough to have remembered, and sorry I didn’t, that unsealed letters could be mailed for two cents well after 1932. (I take a little consolation in noting that Studs Terkel and Art Shay, who are also old enough, evidently didn’t remember either.) In fact I was trying, not to score a cheap point against Algren, but to use what I did call “a trivial slip” to get into a broader discussion of just how his writing uses the “reality” he cared so much for. Terkel, Shay, and Bettina Drew seem better at personal abuse than issues of fact. It seems odd of Drew, Algren’s biographer, to deplore my emphasis on biography; rather than “reviewing” Algren’s fiction, which isn’t exactly new, I was trying to concentrate on a career and a reputation that seem, for whatever reason, to have faded. His prizes and plaudits from Hemingway and others don’t prove him a great writer, though I did mention them. Drew’s complaint about my “scholarship” and fairness sounds feeble coming from someone willing to say that I called Algren “a writer simply recording gritty realism” when in fact I wrote, “The breaking up of Algren’s original idea of himself as a writer simply recording gritty reality,” referring to his own description of his work, quoted earlier in my essay, as “reportage.” Drew’s notion that I meant to “dismiss him as a ‘social realist’ ” (for being one, I guess she means) has no basis in my text, and her characterization of me as some sort of neoconservative, “cold war” aesthete would be insulting if it weren’t as ludicrous as her idea (in her book) that Lionel Trilling, Norman Podhoretz, Leslie Fiedler, and Jacques Barzun were “New Critics.”

Art Shay’s complaints are equally insubstantial. The original family name was Ahlgren but Nelson’s father Americanized it before his son’s birth; the “legal name,” as I said, was “Nelson Algren Abraham” (Drew, pp. 12–13). I wrote “artless” as a politer way of saying that it seems simple-minded and vulgar to hope that one’s friends look like movie stars. The “then-agent” quoted was Robert Goldfarb, who according to Drew (pp. 214, 219) was not among those who negotiated Algren’s disastrous original film contract for Golden Arm. Since Shay finds it hilarious that I (or anyone?) should be a “professor,” I’ll go along with the joke by pedantically reminding him that the Woody Allen character in question is called “Zelig,” not “Zadig.”

Studs Terkel, sure that a critical judgment differing from his own must be a hatchet job, graciously calls me a “fumbling apprentice,” though evidently one with a mean rabbit punch. But Terkel does some fumbling himself. I did not suggest that Algren wrote the final script for Golden Arm. I said he was driven to “screenwriting,” since Drew reports that in 1950 he got a contract that included $4,000 for a script for the film, worked for three months with Paul Trivers on such a script, and signed a contract with Preminger to rewrite it (he was never paid, and the rewrite was never done). I said he wrote “journalism” not because of an “occasional book review” or “the odd newspaper piece,” but because in later years he wrote travel pieces, memoirs, critical essays, introductions, and quite a lot of reviews and columns for such journals as Holiday, Playboy, The Nation, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, the Chicago Tribune Magazine, The Critic, New York magazine, the Chicago Free Press, and others. (If Terkel would like to refresh his rather selective memory, he could find some of these collected in Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make, Who Lost an American?, and Notes from a Sea Diary; he could also recall that the last novel, The Devil’s Stocking, was conceived and first written as a piece of non-fiction “new journalism” for Esquire though it was rejected.)

My remark that Algren didn’t use hard drugs was not a slur on the literary validity of The Man with the Golden Arm but a suggestion, much to Algren’s credit, that its power was as much the product of art as of unmediated personal experience. My “sneak punch” comes from Drew, whose documentation isn’t always very thorough but who seems to be paraphrasing Algren himself when she writes (p. 104): “though he said he was asked [by the Communists] and that it was assumed that he wanted to go to Spain, he didn’t want to be killed.” And Terkel’s outrage that I missed his point about the Fool in Lear seems wholly mysterious; I too saw Algren as the Fool who, in his nominal wisdom, knows something his presumed betters don’t accept until the tragedy—the American social tragedy he wanted so badly to stop—has gone too far.

It would have been pleasing to write what Terkel and Shay wanted to hear, that their friend was a great writer and an all-around sweet guy, but my sense of the work and the life, right or not, forbade this, though I tried to credit the work with the virtues I think it really has. My information about the life necessarily relied greatly on Drew’s biography, and if she got things wrong, Terkel and Shay can address their complaints to her. I wish them all joy of one another.

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