Ticket to New Jersey

The first story I ever wrote about Nelson Algren appeared on the cover of the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sunday magazine, in 1979. That was when the paper was healthy enough to have a Sunday magazine.

Algren had just returned from a month in the south of France, where he’d gone with a beautiful young woman half his age. He kept referring to her as his girlfriend. I don’t know what their arrangement was — they were accompanied by her boyfriend — but Algren must have liked it, because he came back relaxed and cheerful.

He was not at all “angry,” as the headline put it. Sure, he had a bone to pick with Chicago, but he looked to me like he enjoyed picking it. I think he considered it a public service.

Chicago Sun-Times
Jan. 21, 1979


By Jan Herman

When Nelson Algren bought a one-way ticket to New Jersey four years ago, the grudge match between Chicago and one of its great writers should have come to an end.

It didn’t. Algren’s feelings haven’t changed.

“I’ll tell you what Chicago is like,” says the 68-year-old novelist. “The people who own Chicago want to live down its reputation as a gangster city. So they buy a Picasso. They want to be a cultural center. They will spend millions buying culture. But they’re buying it. If you come up locally, they stomp you.

“Chicago is basically hostile to the arts. And that’s been true ever since the ’20s, when it was a culture center because of writers like Dreiser and Sandburg.”

Though the words are harsh, Algren delivers them not bitterly but with a laugh. He reminds his listener that Chicago changed long before he came along.

There is an irony in Algren’s escape to Hackensack. Now at work on his first novel since 1956, he has landed on a two-block street that begins at a Sears emporium and dead-ends at a railroad track. No two things could remind him more of Chicago’s far-flung commercial enterprise or his bindle-stiff days during the Depression.

Still, Maple Avenue, lined with trees and clapboard houses of an earlier era, lies broad and quiet between the Sears sign winking through the night and rails now carrying gray-flannel commuters.

Algren’s place is a duplex apartment overlooking a wide porch with a private entrance. His desk, streaming with sunlight, sits cater-cornered before a bay window in the living room.

Books are everywhere. There are plants in wicker baskets set on cinder blocks. The walls record a wealth of personal mementos — photos, collages, prints and prizefight pictures — which Algren collects on his travels and frames in his spare time. And, like many bachelor pads, his kitchen has a clutter of unwashed dishes in the sink.

If Maple Avenue looks from Algren’s window like a scene out of small-town America, it is nonetheless only 30 minutes by car from Manhattan. Algren takes a special satisfaction in that. It gives him the seclusion he needs to write, and yet he can easily hop the bus to Aqueduct, a racetrack he favors.

“I do just what I feel like doing. I’m tied to the typewriter, but it’s a long chain. I can let that thing go for weeks. In the back of my head I’ve always got something going,” he says, vigorously running his hand through a thatch of white hair.

“Writing is my main thing. I don’t want to go on the lecture circuit. I’ll take an invitation if it comes along. It’s easy money and I like to talk. But I don’t want to join a lecture bureau and be told where to go.

“I feel like the guy W.C. Fields played in ‘David Copperfield,’ who says, ‘Something will always turn up.’ I’ve been doing it for so long I assume it will. I’ve got the rent paid and the groceries and I’ve got $400 coming from the newspapers for book reviews.”

In 1942 Algren’s second novel, Never Come Morning, was removed from the Chicago Library under pressure from the righteous citizens who didn’t like what he wrote about their Damen and Division neighborhood.

Ernest Hemingway got such a charge from the book that he called Algren the best novelist in America after William Faulkner. And Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, later translated it into French — helping to launch Algren’s international reputation.

Yet he didn’t become famous on this side of the Atlantic until seven years later when The Man With the Golden Arm, his third novel, hit the best-seller lists in 1949. It won the first National Book Award, in 1950, and afterward, in the author’s feisty words, “was misrepresented in a movie as a cheap biography of Frank Sinatra.”

At right: The funny tale of “The Great Tea Bust” told in Algren’s own words, as I recorded them. It was a sidebar to the main story.

Algren’s life has been filled with such ironies. Twice married and twice divorced, his most publicized relationship was a liaison with Simone de Beauvoir, the French author and feminist, whom he never married. She wrote about him in several books and published excerpts of his letters in Harper’s magazine in 1964. The literary world relished it. He hated it. [Correction: He was three times married and three times divorced, twice from his first wife. — JH]

Algren is always connected with Chicago by critics and readers, but he actually was born in Detroit. Though he grew up in Chicago from the age of 3, he has written as much about the rural South and the life of the road as he did about the city.

Never studious, Algren graduated in 1931 from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism at a time when most people didn’t go to college. He wandered from Minnesota to Texas looking for newspaper work. He couldn’t find it and was forced to take jobs such as door-to-door coffee salesman, migrant worker, gas-station operator and carnival shill.

“My big advantage in writing was I was on the outside,” Algren recounts. “I wanted to get inside. I was knocking on all the doors.”

In fact, Algren was so far outside that an urge to write while he was riding the rails one day led him to walk into a rural Texas college and to walk out of a classroom with a typewriter under his arm. Instead of getting him published, the stolen typewriter got him four months in an Alpine (Tex.) jail waiting for the circuit judge to arrive. Algren chuckles at the recollection.

“Somebody came around once and asked me, ‘What does it feel like to be broke at 60?’ What a silly question. It feels the same as it does at 50. I’m not in debt. I don’t have a family. I’m independent. I’m not afraid of not having money. I told the guy, when you go broke you go and get money. He asked me where, and I said you go to the gettin’ place. There’s always money somewhere.”

Algren’s laughter percolates up through his throat as though he has listened down inside himself to a private joke. Which he has. For the gettin’ place can play weird tricks.

The novel Algren considers his best, A Walk on the Wild Side, has netted him all of $575 in its most recent printing, he says, pointing out that the jacket blurb reads, “over 500,000 copies sold.”

“That book happened by accident,” Algren said. It was his fourth novel, written in 1955 and set during the 1930s largely in New Orleans’ red light district. The book has some of the most moving and comic scenes in our literature.

“I was working on it weekends and I didn’t take it seriously,” he recalls. “Maybe that’s how to write an almost-great book. The critics just swept it out and I believed them. I thought, ‘All right, I made a mistake.’

“Some time later a little girl walked up to me in a half-whorehouse half-bar. She was a hooker and she said, ‘You got it just right.’ And a pimp, a real pro from southern Illinois, said, ‘You got it right, just right.’ That got me to thinking. Maybe the best thing you do is when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

He grins again, then laughs. Yes, the gettin’ place can play weird tricks. The novelist initially came to New Jersey because Esquire magazine asked him to do a piece on Rubin (Hurricane) Carter. Carter is the former middleweight contender, now serving a triple life term in Trenton for triple murder. He and co-defendant John Artis became front-page news when their first trial and conviction were thrown out, and they went on trial a second time.

But the magazine decided not to publish the piece after all. “Actually, their rejection encouraged me,” Algren says. “It convinced me the story was good. The editors were satisfied with it so long as it was picturesque. But if you raised the question of Carter’s guilt, it was taboo.”

That Algren moved permanently to New Jersey to research and write a complete book on the case would seem natural for a man who long ago defined literature as “any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by a conscience in touch with humanity.”

When he finished the book, his agent, Candida Donadio, one of the best in the business, figured she could sell it almost anywhere for $50,000, Algren recalls. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, with whom Algren had a contract, turned down the book. Some publishers said the book consisted of too much trial transcript and too little Algren.

“Carter’s stock had risen so,” he says. “Everybody was on his side, from Muhammad Ali to Bob Dylan. They threw benefits in Madison Square Garden with all kinds of celebrities. They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. The prosecution was, as they say, ‘in disarray.'”

But when the second verdict came down guilty, Carter and Artis went back to prison and everybody else went home. Nobody wanted the book.

“When I got up off the floor three days later, I’m saying, ‘It’s impossible.’ I was really shocked,” Algren says. “Everybody was shocked. This great big thing they did kicked back. The people in the suburbs didn’t like being told what to think by the celebrities and the New York media. You couldn’t turn on a talk show without somebody running down the New Jersey courts.

“I still don’t think Carter’s guilty. He missed by this much,” Algren said, holding thumb to index finger. “When I got up off the floor there was nothing to do. So I worked on a fiction book. It’s called ‘The Fighter.’ It’s not about Rubin Carter, but about Ruby Calhoun, a fighter from Jersey City. He gets convicted on a triple murder charge. But it’s not about Rubin Carter.”

Nobody has seen the manuscript yet, Algren says, not even his agent. Now that he’s fresh from a month in the south of France, he’ll be getting back to the novel and says he will finish it off.

“I was on a college campus once, and some guy began shouting, ‘Hey, Algren! When you gonna give us the big one?’ I shot back, ‘Oh yeah? When you gonna buy the little ones?’ That shut him up …

“If I could make a living in the fight game hanging around a gym, I’d love that. I’d much prefer that to hanging around literary cocktail parties. You know where people are in the fight game. They tell you. Literary people? Forget it.”

Algren died in 1981. The novel he was working on — eventually called The Devil’s Stocking — was published posthumously, in 1983. A federal judge threw out Carter and Artis’s convictions on appeal, in 1985, ruling that they had not received a fair trial. The prosecutor’s case, he said, was “based on racism rather than reason” and “concealment” of evidence “rather than disclosure” — exactly as Algren had drawn it.

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  1. John Blades says

    I always thought you wrote better (knowledgeably, intelligently, etc.) about Nelson than anybody else, and this confirms it. Have you abandoned your bio?