Algren? Never Heard of Him. What’s the Catch?

Just read the excerpt in Vanity Fair of the new Joseph Heller biography, which includes this graf:

Candida (pronounced Can-dih-duh) Donadio, who would become Heller’s new agent, was about 24 years old, Brooklyn-born, from a family of Italian immigrants. … In time, her client roster came to include some of the most prominent names in American letters: John Cheever, Jessica Mitford, Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Robert Stone, Michael Herr, and Peter Matthiessen. “She really was the agent of her generation,” a young co-worker, Neil Olson, recalled. And Catch-18 started it all.

There’s no mention of Nelson Algren despite the fact that Donadio herself regarded him as the cream of her crop.
More to the point, it was Algren’s review of Catch-22 (as the novel was retitled when it was published 50 years ago) that gave Heller the biggest boost he ever got. It’s often quoted by scholars. Here, for example, is John Aldridge in the Michigan Quarterly Review, in 1987, pointing out that Algren

made what became perhaps the most famous pronouncement on a literary subject to be uttered since John O’Hara announced, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review back in 1950, that Hemingway was “the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare.” Algren, with far greater precision, called Catch-22 “not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel to come out of anywhere in years.” [Emphasis added.]

That was just part of Algren’s claim, which appeared in the Nov. 4, 1961, edition of The Nation, in a review titled ‘The Catch.” Here, in context, is what he wrote:

To preserve his sanity against the formalized lunacy of the military mind in action, [the novel’s protagonist] Yossarian had to turn madman. Yet even Yossarian is more the patriot than Sgt. Minderbinder, the business mind in action. Even Yossarian has to protest when Minderbinder arranges with the Germans to let them knock American planes down at a thousand dollars per plane. Minderbinder is horrified–“Have you no respect for the sanctity of a business contract?” he demands of Yossarian, and Yossarian feels ashamed of himself.

Below its hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilization, in fiction, to come out of World War II. The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity are lost within it. That the horror and the hypocrisy, the greed and the complacency, the endless cunning and the endless stupidity which now go to constitute what we term Christianity are dealt with here in absolutes, does not lessen the truth of its repudiation. Those happy few who hit upon Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian will find that, what Southern said with some self-doubt, Heller says with no doubt whatsoever. To compare Catch-22 favorably with The Good Soldier Schweik would be an injustice, because this novel is not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years.

Business contracts and Christianity still trump all else in today’s America. What a suprise. Oh yeah. Coincidentally, the review helps explain why Mailer and others among the literati thumbed a nose at Algren.
It’s possible that Vanity Fair edited Algren out of the excerpt, though I doubt that. More likely the author of The Neon Wilderness, The Man With the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side, Never Come Morning, Chicago: City on the Make, and a half dozen other memorable books, simply didn’t rise to a sufficient level of “prominence” in the biographer’s mind.
(Crossposted at Huffpo)
Postscript: An old friend writes, “jee-zus, what a review! heller should’ve approached him from there on out ON HIS KNEES.”
PPS: July 31 — Now that I’ve had a look at Just One Catch, I see that it quotes Algren’s review — how could it not? — but only the second of the paragraphs I cite, and with the references to The Magic Christian and The Good Soldier Schweik excised. It does point out, however, that when Catch-22 was not selling well in the Midwest, Algren gave it another boost.

[He] continued to champion the novel. On June 23, 1962, in the Chicago Daily News, he said, ‘Catch’ is a classic because it employs fantasy to depict truth too devastating to tell by factual narration. A classic because its burlesque of army brass is rooted soundly in the thinking of the businessman in uniform, and is told by a writer whose experience of Business at war is first-hand.

(Business at war … it goes ka-ching!)

A few pages further on, the biography notes that after Catch-22 sales had picked up, largely due to a clever marketing push, Heller tells his friend and would-be writer Alice Denham, “Greenbacks at last. I’m meeting writers I always wanted to know. Like Algren.” To which, she replies, “Wow. Introduce me, bigshot.”

There is no follow-up to that conversation. We never learn whether Heller ever made the introduction. But if he had, Algren would have been pleased. He adored good-looking women, and Denham was more than just a good looker. She had been Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Month for July 1956.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit


  1. says

    Nelson Algren is an American literary giant, mistreated at almost every turn. Hear Wayne Kramer’s “Nelson Algren Stopped By” to be outraged at the misspelling of his name on his tombstone, at how the Chicago city gov’t caved in to neighbor’s protests when his street was named in his honor and returned to the original (“Evergreen”), to the ache of his longing for de Beauvoir, to recall how he was hounded by J. Edgar Hoover. Read “The Devil’s Stocking” to see how far he took modern crime writing, with virtually no credit for it. I went to his apt. sale when he left Chicago for New Jersey; he was getting rid of pots and pans and manuscripts, all equally dirt cheap. The Chicago Tribune’s had a fiction contest in his name — is that an honor or an irony? Algren’s work must be saved from obscurity or we’ve done ourselves just the kind of perverse, self-injurous injustice he so acutely observed.

  2. says

    thanks for continuing to beat the drum for the Dostoevsky of Chicago. And for all you Algren fans–come to MONTROSEPICTURES.COM to get more information about our Algren documentary.
    Algren’s reputation will not disappear!!!!