Nelson Algren was one of the great American authors of the 20th century, it is no exaggeration to say, and among the most neglected. Consider his underrated classic, “A Walk on the Wild Side.” The title — popularized and co-opted as an idiomatic phrase by Hollywood and Madison Avenue (institutions Algren loathed) — is familiar to most anyone who speaks English or knows Lou Reed’s lyrics. But the novel itself? Hardly.
Reprinted from the Sunday edition of the Chicago Sun-Times
Algren’s ‘Wild Side’ still rocks
March 26, 2006
By JAN HERMAN
Nelson Algren was one of the great American authors of the 20th century, it is no exaggeration to say, and among the most neglected. Consider his underrated classic, A Walk on the Wild Side. The title — popularized and co-opted as an idiomatic phrase by Hollywood and Madison Avenue (institutions Algren loathed) — is familiar to most anyone who speaks English or knows Lou Reed’s lyrics. But the novel itself? Hardly.
When it first appeared, in 1956, the literary critics mostly told Algren to take a hike, and for the many years since, they’ve mostly ignored him and it. Now the British have brought out a 50th anniversary edition of Walk. Richard Flanagan, a formidable novelist himself, recently noted in the (London) Telegraph that it “made a mockery of the American dream. Set among the pimps, whores and con men of New Orleans, it was a brave — and prescient — expose of the nation’s contempt for its own people.” Small wonder the lit crits of the ’50s dismissed it.
“It’s the ‘kill the messenger’ syndrome, I suppose, for the news that Algren’s work brings us is not good news,” another remarkable novelist, Russell Banks, has written.
Apparently the British — not to mention the Australians (Flanagan is from Tasmania) — don’t mind reading Algren’s bad news. Last year the Brits brought out a new edition of an earlier Algren novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, the one that made him famous for a while. But if they have a history of appreciating Algren, so do savvy Americans. Although Walk and Arm have both been out of print from time to time on this side of the pond, they’re available these days in trade paperback editions. (Walk has a foreword by Banks, and Arm has memoirs by Studs Terkel and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as essays and appreciations by Mike Royko and others.) Seven Stories Press has also re-issued a handful of other Algren titles.
A savage work of tragicomic satire, Walk is tenderized by the sympathy Algren feels for an illiterate Texas drifter at its center, Dove Linkhorn, a big, dumb, freckled naif “who could not remember a time, a place nor a single person, house cat or hound dog that had sought his affection.” Dove’s innocence is turned upside down when he rapes the first woman who, by seducing him, shows him any feeling. And he loses whatever innocence is left when he becomes a New Orleans peep-show stud after failing as a door-to-door salesman of French Dripolator coffee pots and counterfeit certificates for a “free finger wave and shampoo at the Madam Dewberry Beauty Shop.”
Algren’s compassion extends even to the least likable of the creatures in Walk. Depression-era vagrants all: Dove’s father, for instance, a mean, Bible-spouting drunk who preaches anti-Catholic screed and hellfire warnings about “the doc-treen of evolution” from the courthouse steps of Arroyo (population 955) in the Rio Grande Valley.
But as the novel’s very first sentence tells us: “‘He’s just a pore lonesome wife-left feller,’ the more understanding said of Fritz Linkhorn, ‘losin’ his wife is what crazied him.” It goes deeper than that, of course, and further back. The elder Linkhorn “came of a shambling race,” we learn. “That gander-necked clan from which Calhoun and Jackson sprang. Jesse James’ and Jeff Davis’ people. Lincoln’s people. Forest solitaries spare and swart, left landless in sandland and Hooverville now the time of the forests had passed.”
Few critics had the slightest inkling, much less an understanding, of characters such as Fritz Linkhorn (they somehow managed to forget Huck Finn’s Pappy) or the oddballs who surround Dove — Kitty Twist, Legless Schmidt, Oliver Finnerty, Reba, Hallie — people Algren called “the broken men and breaking ones; wingies, dingies, zanies and lop-sided kukes; cokies and queers and threadbare whores,” as Flanagan reminds us. And, Flanagan adds, all of them are “in search of America, only for the reader to discover that they are America.”
The literary historian Maxwell Geismar was an exception, according to Algren biographer Bettina Drew. Reviewing Walk in the Nation, a leftist weekly, Geismar praised it as a “surrealist comedy of life in the gutter.” But the establishment critics dismissed it. In the New York Times Book Review, Drew notes, Alfred Kazin wrote, “I do not think it has anything real about it whatsoever. … It is just picaresque.” The Times’ daily reviewer, Orville Prescott, piled on, calling it overwritten as well as unreal. And in the left-wing Partisan Review, where Algren might have expected a sympathetic hearing, the academician Leslie Fiedler insulted him as “the bard of the stumblebum.”
Following the failure of Walk, Algren’s life “took an increasingly tragic turn,” Flanagan points out. That’s exactly right. As Vonnegut has written: “Like James Joyce, he had become an exile from his homeland after writing that his neighbors were perhaps not as noble and intelligent and kindly as they liked to think they were.” Furthermore, Vonnegut has promoted him whenever he could in literary quarters that Algren spurned out of contempt and humiliation; he has also paid homage to Algren as his literary superior, which is no small thing.
Of all Algren’s writer friends, however, Terkel probably understood and appreciated him best. He knew Algren longest, shared his Chicago roots and radical sensibility, and lent him money. Lots of it. He still held an IOU for $3,000 when Algren died, in 1981. Terkel was bemused when he told me the heirs to Algren’s estate had declined to pay it off because it wasn’t notarized. Why, he wanted to know, would a man who didn’t bother to make a will have bothered to notarize an IOU? It was, Terkel added, the final irony of Algren’s funny, sad, glorious, tragicomic life.
Jan Herman, a former Sun-Times reporter, blogs at artsjournal.com. He is the author of A Talent for Trouble, a biography of Hollywood director William Wyler.