Nelson Algren
Nelson Algren; drawing by David Levine

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 surely the chaotic complexity of his personal life and the chronic need of money that drove him to journalism and screenwriting.) His fiction required a lot of information, the facts and names and turns of speech that make up the “setting” for his portrayals of people on their way down and out. But he found most of his data early in life, and the problem was how to use his experience of life on the road in the early 1930s—in Somebody in Boots (1935) and A Walk on the Wild Side—and street life in Chicago before and just after World War II—in Never Come Morning (1942) and The Man with the Golden Arm. Though he continued to gather new details for the rest of his life, his fictional material was essentially complete by about 1940.

A rare slip of factuality in Never Come Morning suggests something about Algren’s relation to the information he prized so highly. The main character, Bruno Bicek, an eighteen-year-old street punk and would-be heavyweight champion (the book’s working title was White Hope), while in jail is given a “dirty two-cent stamp” by a cop so that he can write a letter to his mother. (He uses it to write to an advice column in a boxing magazine.) We know from other details—names of baseball players, car models, and the like—that the time is the late 1930s; but the first-class postal rate went up to three cents in 1932. Algren, who was eighteen in 1927, has evidently confused some old memory of his own with a small piece of Bruno’s consciousness.

A trivial slip, but it points to something more interesting in this novel, and in Algren’s fiction generally. Bruno is promptly summoned to appear in a lineup, and a sequence which so far has kept close to Bruno’s mind and voice is abruptly intruded upon by a voice from somewhere else:


Bruno Bicek, waiting beside a barred window for the last line of the evening, watched the moving locomotive lights and saw, across the valley of the tracks, the lights of the low-roofed village between Halsted Street and the river; a village in the city, like his own low-roofed streets. Clamorous, like his own, with old-world markets and mid-American saloons, murmurous with poverty, filled with old-world faces and mid-American cries, bound by the laced steel of the railroads and the curved steel of the El. And covered, like his own, with a low slow pall of locomotive smoke.

These are the yards where the dust-colored fruit tramps come in, the off-season bindle stiffs and the punch-drunk veterans; the place where the outdoor workers of the republic hop off the Santa Fe at half past ten of an August forenoon or at 2 A.M. in the middle of March with feet wrapped in rags, in search of the Madison Street Slave Market.

Whatever else it may do, the passage shows that a writer is present, one who knows what Bruno knows and also much that he doesn’t know, and who artfully tries to embellish Bruno’s knowledge—the urban village that’s both American and European, the Tennysonian sonorities of “clamorous” and “murmurous,” the oddly soothing assonance of “low slow pall of locomotive smoke.” Algren was then in his very early thirties, and Never Come Morning is by no means his best book. But what is good about it—the closely overheard, funny, heartbreaking speech of the crooks and bums and cops at the lineup, for instance—seems at odds with something else, the ambitious writer’s fear that knowing and reporting what he knows may not make “literature.”

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 morphine addiction that made The Man with the Golden Arm a sensation. But Algren found the subject almost by accident by consorting with a group of addicts, one of whom was a woman he was for a time interested in. At first he didn’t know they were on hard drugs, and he himself seems never to have gone beyond smoking pot. In the Donohue interview, he reported a conversation with two junkies about the book. One complained, “Well, you know it isn’t like that. We don’t talk like that about junk.” The other, while agreeing, remarked, “But if this guy knew what it was really like, he couldn’t have written a book…. You can’t write a book while you’re on junk. It’s the best thing a square can do.” Try as he will, 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. (After reading a draft of Never Come Morning, Algren’s friend Richard Wright gently suggested, “I think some plot would not hurt at all, Nelson.”) Part of the problem in Algren’s novels, however, is ideological, the consequence of cultural and political pressures bearing on him. Bettina Drew’s modest but very helpful biography of Algren, A Life on the Wild Side, traces the growth and decline of his “radical” consciousness. Studying journalism at the University of Illinois, he aspired to “live nobly,” but in the world he entered after graduating in 1931 it was hard just to make a living; finding no jobs for beginning journalists around Chicago, he sought employment elsewhere in the ignoble America of the Depression. Hitchhiking and hopping freights to Louisiana and Texas, consorting with hobos, grifters, and con artists, he came to know the lumpenproletariat he would take as the principal subject of his fiction. Back in Chicago, as he began to publish stories, he moved in leftist circles, joined the John Reed Club, made friends with politically engaged writers like Jack Conroy, James T. Farrell, and Wright, involved himself in Communist causes but (Drew thinks) probably never joined the Party; while the FBI opened a file on him, he later worked (briefly) without challenge in Hollywood during the purges.

Algren’s radicalism was founded in close and sympathetic observation of the dispossessed and in his own experiences of hard times, but his antifascism was more a matter of attitude than of action. 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; he did not welcome being drafted at thirty-three during World War II, because (he said) he doubted that he was mentally stable enough to endure combat. (With the help of Herbert Aptheker, he ended up as a medic.) Though he defended the Moscow show trials in 1938, he resisted the Party’s literary advice; he scorned the upbeat conventions of socialist realism and concentrated instead on individual weakness, guilt, and self-destructiveness, the human consequences and not the impersonal causes of social injustice. He hated and feared middleclass life, in part from observing it in his narrow, unsympathetic parents, but his books have almost nothing to say about it, or indeed about working-class life, probably because he knew so little about either. His characters are the hustlers, drifters, whores, addicts, petty crooks of his experience—people outside the class struggle because, in effect, they’ve already lost it.


It seems clear that his interest in the “wild side” of American society was essentially not political but romantic. Born to a machinist father and a petty-bourgeois mother, he was a small, beautiful, bookish child growing up in Chicago neighborhoods that were tougher than he was. He was a Jew (his legal name was Nelson Algren Abraham until 1944) who wanted to be called “Swede” by the Irish and Polish kids he hung out with. He learned his way around on basketball courts, in pool halls and speakeasies, on the fringes of bush-league crime. In later life he was a heavy drinker, a womanizer, a compulsive gambler, a rabid sports fan; to “know” had a lot to do, as usual, with being “tough,” with the very old and conventional ideas of manhood that shaped his writing and his life, not altogether for the good of either.

He was, we gather from Drew’s book, both a bit crooked and a bit of a capitalist by temperament. He came more and more to care about money, which he was bad at making and worse at hanging on to. As a GI in postwar Germany and, two decades later, as a war correspondent in Vietnam, he tried hard to make money in the black markets. For two years he ran a poker game for businessmen in a house owned by Ellen Borden Stevenson, but he lost more than he made. He dreamed of owning race horses, managing fighters, or being a landlord, but when he used the money from the film rights to A Walk on the Wild Side to buy an apartment house, he sold it back at a loss and gambled away the proceeds. “I wrote a big American novel. Where’s the hi-fi? Where’s the stereo?” he said with an irony that doesn’t quite conceal real disappointment.

His life, as Drew follows it, was a kind of mock epic of toughness continually betrayed by ineptitude and insensitivity. He was a terrible poker player by all accounts, with a far too expressive face and a fondness for drawing to inside straights. In Vietnam he found black marketeering safer than reporting combat, but he lost his profits and got himself badly beaten up by his competitors. When he was mugged in Chicago, he was pleased and excited—it was an experience, and as a victim he had free access to police lineups for years, where good material for his writing was to be had.

Algren was subject to periodic depression, and some of his friends suspected a suicide attempt when he fell through the ice near his Indiana beach house, but in fact he shouted for help, which fortunately was close at hand. Negotiating the film deal for The Man with the Golden Arm without a lawyer, he was easily fleeced by Otto Preminger, moving his then agent to say, “He was a wise guy, a con man, street smart, and…a Philadelphia lawyer, and for this reason he was a patsy.”

Others saw him similarly, like the public defender in Texas who helped get him off for stealing a typewriter, characterizing him as “the youth with the mysterious brain.” In the army his sergeants called him “Shame of the Nation” because he never volunteered for anything. (In Golden Arm Frankie Machine remembers not having made pfc in three-and-a-half years’ service; a resentful, insubordinate Algren, in for exactly the same time, did make it, but only just before his discharge.) Even post-mortem mishap dogged him: his name was misspelled on his tombstone, and Chicago, after naming a street for him, took it back when the residents complained.

Art Shay’s Nelson Algren’s Chicago, a collection of photographs taken in the early 1950s but not published until 1988, gives an idea of what the novelist looked like at the height of his career, before his fondness for food and drink, Drew tells us, made him resemble a very paunchy Art Carney. Shay artlessly describes Algren as “tall and lean, an amalgam of Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas with a healthy dash of Woody Allen.” But I see much more Allen than Mitchum or Douglas in Shay’s striking, if sometimes posed, shots of him among skid-row derelicts, cripples, freaks, strippers, pool shooters, drunks, and addicts; Algren himself, neat, impassive, unsurprised, seems a little out of place, like some anti-Zelig turning up repeatedly on the underside of modern history. Drew reports that Algren caught Allen’s act at The Bitter End in 1963 and wrote down some of the jokes “for possible use in lectures.” If he did use them, they should have worked—the Allen persona, determined to handle a difficult world he can’t cope with, projecting a knowing aplomb that he can’t quite bring off, fits Algren very well.

But how good are the books and do they stand a chance with readers now? It’s hard not to consider his writing as a coda, the end of the line of social realists like Crane, London, Dreiser, Anderson, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck, to which Algren thought he belonged. His reputation was made by the praise of Malcolm Cowley, Granville Hicks, Maxwell Geismar, and Hemingway, people through whom such a tradition more or less spoke. The decline of his reputation, after A Walk on the Wild Side, began in the literary quarterlies, in attacks by Alfred Kazin, Norman Podhoretz, and Leslie Fiedler (whom Drew lumps together with Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Mark Van Doren and strangely calls “the New Critics”), New York writers who found Algren’s low-down middle-American radicalism simple-minded.

In Confronting the Horror James R. Giles does what he can to correct such a view, arguing that Algren was not simply a literary naturalist of the old sort but an “existentialist” and “absurdist” writer, with strong affiliations with Céline (whom Algren admired) and Sartre (whom he claimed not to have read and disliked for personal reasons—he said Sartre reminded him of a cheap shoe merchant). Giles himself reads Algren while thinking of Nabokov, Mailer, Heller, and Pynchon, and especially of what he calls “contemporary or latter-day naturalism” as represented by Hubert Selby, Jr., and John Rechy. With such writers in mind, he believes A Walk on the Wild Side is Algren’s best work. I think so too, though without finding Giles’s “isms” particularly helpful.

Algren called Wild Side “an American fantasy, a poem written to an American beat as true as Huckleberry Finn,” and the evocation of music in the description seems apt. In rewriting a twenty-year-old novel, Somebody in Boots, he was able to reimagine his experiences on the road without burdening them with the ideas about what social protest novels ought to be that had limited not only his first book but Never Come Morning and The Man with the Golden Arm too. Fantasy freed up his ear for American speech, in all its absurdly expressive refusal of decorum and rationality. When Dove Linkhorn, the illiterate “hero” of Wild Side, child of Texas white trash but sure that he’s “a born world-shaker,” confidently remarks that “you got to work for nothing or you’ll never get rich, that only stands to reason,” much more than the character’s real and extreme stupidity is expressed. Dove works for nothing because it’s the Depression, to be sure; but he’s the victim not just of the contradictions of capitalism but of a pervasive human roguishness that makes everyone the victim of someone else. In Dove’s case he’s the victim of the resourceful rascals who con him into selling coffee pots and homemade condoms door to door or going into “the oil business,” where he swaps gasoline he doesn’t own for farm produce he can’t sell profitably, or performing as “Big Stingaree,” a stud who deflowers “virgins” in Perdido Street sex shows.

Dove’s innocence almost makes sense in a way that American mythology, if not history, supports. Working for nothing can, we want to suppose, have value; work is a virtue in itself, one who works without demanding a reward just might get rich in the end. Surely selfless industry may win esteem and good will that can be cashed in later, as Dove seems to believe. Algren is amused by Dove’s folly, and our complicity in it, without having to insist that it makes some larger point outside Dove’s own story; and he takes pleasure in rendering the vigor of that folly in writing, just as he does in inventing, or partially remembering, characters like Oliver Finnerty, the pint-sized ex-jockey and present-day pimp and entrepreneur who flies women to their dates up and down the Gulf Coast, piloting the plane himself while high on pot, always anxious to enhance his well-deserved reputation as a hard case:

He went in for broad stripes and coats almost to his knees, sometimes draped out and sometimes semi-clad—a man a full ten years ahead of his time with eyes as pale as the whiskey in his glass.

“Oh, how I wish I could get off this killing kick,” he’d complain. “Why do I do it?”

“You might throw away that thirty-eight,” Lucille advised him again.

“Why, then I’d be without help,” Finnerty told her in mild surprise.

Social justice, for all its value, seems happily remote from moments of bizarre, energetic life like this.

A Walk on the Wild Side has flaws, touches of sentimentality and sermonizing that interrupt its poetic “American beat.” Certainly it shows the breaking up of Algren’s original idea of himself as a writer simply recording gritty reality, an artistic self-revision from which he could never recover. And it is not quite free from the heavyhandedness in the other books, which may prevent his winning new readers who might otherwise find him valuable in a time of street crime, addiction, homelessness, AIDS, racial hostility, and sexual inequity.

To put it simply, Algren doesn’t treat social problems as matters of “special interests.” (He was a Jew, Drew says, who seldom spoke of the Holocaust; to him “protest” meant taking up someone else’s cause.) As both Drew and Giles uneasily concede, there is a deep strain of misogyny in his writing and his life; his interest in women, except for Simone de Beauvoir, seems to have been more sexual than sociable or intellectual, and it appears that his many fairly casual affairs meant more to him than his three brief marriages (two with the same woman). The relationship with Beauvoir (whom he privately called “Frenchie,” “Mme. Utter Driveleau,” and “de Budoir”) survived for a long while on his assumption that he was a better writer than she was, but failed when it became clear that she would not subordinate her life to his needs and demands. He liked blacks well enough to treat them as equals, which meant that he saw them as figures in a social landscape where everyone, black or white, was oppressed. Except for the faceless “Do-Right Daddies,” the respectable hypocrites who run and profit from the whole show and in whom he may never have quite believed, there are no villains in his world, no one to blame for misery, not even the police.

Kurt Vonnegut stresses Algren’s “dismaying truthfulness,” saying that he depicted people “said to be dehumanized by poverty and ignorance and injustice as being genuinely dehumanized, and dehumanized quite permanently.” And Algren’s friend Studs Terkel describes him as “very much like Lear’s fool who can say the truth in his own way.” Although Algren was not a great writer or 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.

This Issue

June 28, 1990