Sunday, March 28, 2004
For Keeps and a Single Day: The Tin-Whistle of American Letters
The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man. -- Nelson Algren
Today is Nelson Algren's birthday. If he was alive he'd be ninety-five. Although best known now for a crummy Otto Preminger movie made from his most famous work and for his affair with Simone De Beauvior, in his day Algren was considered one of the greatest novelists of his generation; Hemingway said that he was better than Faulkner, etc. But Algren never had a lot of luck and wouldn't have known what to do with success anyway, a champion of underdogs and lost causes--he was always something of a lost cause himself.
The son of Swedish immigrants, he grew up on Chicago's west side, hoboed his way through the South during the depression, and ended up entering the world of literature by way of a WPA program. Algren went to jail for a little while because he stole a typewriter to finish his first novel -- he was an American's American. He was also, as per the name of this blog, a leftist of the American-persuasion. Here's how De Beauvior described him in her fictional account of their relationship:
At first, I had found it amusing meeting in the flesh that classic American species: self-made leftist writer. [ ... ] Through his stories, you got the feeling that he claimed no rights on life and that nevertheless he had always had a passionate desire to live. I liked that mixture of modesty and eagerness."
His greatest work was The Man with the Golden Arm, a bitterly beautiful account of the life and death of a junkie in the slums of 40's Chicago. Algren depicted a world of junkies, pimps, petty thieves, cynical bartenders, drug dealers, drunks, gamblers, thugs, freaks, corrupt politicians, and prostitutes who "just want to settle down with a nice pick-pocket" with tremendous lyricism and compassion; he wrote, as someone or other said of Raymond Chandler, like a slumming angel.
Anyway, I've made it a minor mission in my life to evangelize on behalf of the genius of Nelson Algren. He, afterall, more so than anyone else, was responsible for my conversion to the good side of the political spectrum when I encountered his writing in college, more than a decade ago now. So the next time you're in some dive somewhere, have a boiler-maker for Nelson Algren, and if you're looking for a novel try The Man with the Golden Arm.
Here's a short film by Warren Leming and Carmine Cervi featuring narration lifted from the man's writing and interviews.