Singing the Back Streets

Nelson Algren; drawing by Tom Bachtell
Nelson Algren; drawing by Tom Bachtell

Nelson Algren arrived in Hollywood on January 26, 1955. He had spent the previous year rewriting a book he couldn’t stomach and running from a wife he didn’t love. He was agonized by the State Department’s refusal to issue him a passport—they distrusted his leftist political views—and he had wandered from state to state, from bus stop to cheap motel, desperate to find a place where he might be at peace to write the way he wanted to. He knew Hollywood was no place for authors of distinction but couldn’t argue with a thousand a week. He was soon in the company of the Austro-Hungarian director Otto Preminger, who had bought the rights to his novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) and wanted him to write the screenplay. Bringing Algren down Wilshire Boulevard in his red Cadillac, Preminger chose the worst first question to ask his new collaborator. (He just wasn’t sure where to begin with Chicago’s answer to Dostoevsky.) “How come you know such terrible people you write about?” he asked.

People who expect contempt can spot it at five hundred yards. Within a few days, Algren had written a film treatment full of compassion for the prostitutes, junkies, Polish immigrants, and workers in his novel, and Preminger threw it in the trash. “He had showed what he thought of me and my people,” Algren later said, “and I showed him what I thought of him and his people.” He did this by refusing to write the screenplay Preminger expected. From first to last, Algren was an author who hated schlock, who avoided happy endings and disdained binary narratives about good and evil, and the film that eventually emerged, starring Frank Sinatra, made his blood run cold.

Algren’s conscience was trailed by the FBI. The reasons weren’t very complicated. He was a writer out of the Depression who felt that America should be judged by how it treated its poorest citizens. As an artist, he had a special vision and a singular prose, and he used them to see behind the billboards and the newsreels, beyond the lipstick, beyond the fear, into the lives of people left stranded by the American dream. He offers a lesson in what it means to be a writer in a society that believes commerce is virtue. More than Walt Whitman or John Steinbeck, more than F. Scott Fitzgerald or Dorothy Parker, he reveals the essential loneliness of the serious writer, never fooling himself with baubles and status, but staying with his subjects, the forgotten in society and his own alien self. All great writers are self-harmers—they have to be, if they’re doing it right—and Algren lived the second half of his life in a miasma of chaos and disappointment, having failed some test of worldliness. But with Colin…

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