The Algren I Knew Was No Loser

Taking nothing away from the brilliance of Colin Asher’s biographical essay on Nelson Algren, or my admiration for it, I have a mild but serious objection. I intended to post this earlier but didnt have the time. Now I do.

The subhead on the essay calls Algren “the type of loser this country just can’t stomach.” It’s absolutely true the country couldn’t stomach him. But to call him a loser is not only untrue, it is an insult.

The Nelson I knew may have been a lousy poker player, and he may have lost plenty of skirmishes with the critics, not to mention the prolonged seige laid on him by the FBI and the State Department, and he certainly found himself on the wrong end of some business deals. There’s also no question that he could be stubbornly self-destructive, for reasons too obscure to fathom. But that subhead would have been more accurate had it simply said Nelson was the type of writer this country just can’t stomach. Because as a writer he was a winner — an unmitigated truth teller and whistle blower — not a loser — who will be remembered long after those who tried to discredit him are forgotten, as the essay itself shows.

This does bring up another issue, though. While it’s true, as Asher writes, that Nelson “kept going his own way,” despite rejection “at the height of his career,” I don’t believe “Nelson shrugged” at the “wealth, leisure, and the lasting respect of his peers.” On the contrary, there was nothing he wanted more. He believed he had earned it, and it was maddening to him even as he laughed about it that less-deserving writers, including some he held in contempt, benefitted from all three.

As evidence, let me cite an unpublished letter by Kay Boyle, whose admiration for Nelson was immense. (He dedicated The Last Carousel — a 1973 potpourri of stories, satirical nonfiction, and poetry — to her.) She revered him not only as a writer but as someone whose refusal to sell out cost him more than it would have had he not wanted recognition and all the perks that went with it.

The letter was written to Kurt Vonnegut in 1981, the year Nelson died, when Boyle almost single-handedly established a literary prize named for Algren by raising $10,000 to fund it through contributions from anyone willing to help. Among the writers who pledged money were John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, Studs Terkel, and John Irving. Vonnegut, however, balked. Despite his frequently stated awe of Nelson’s achievement, and in spite of the fact that he promoted it whenever he could, Vonnegut thought that naming a prize in Nelson’s honor was not a good idea.

Kay Boyle

Kay Boyle

So Boyle let him have it with both barrels. Here’s an excerpt from that letter:

You say you knew Nelson “fairly well.” I knew him very well for over fifteen years. In your letter to me, you have reduce Nelson to a one-dimensional figure who “adored real bums.” But Nelson was a four and even five dimensional man. I feel I must stress this because I am so familiar with the image he projected to those he didn’t know very well. He wanted recognition, he wanted to be accepted by other good writers, almost more than any good writer I’ve ever known. He was an actor, and he put on a number of very convincing acts. […] It is easy enough to respect him as a person who had “no use for badges of rank.” It is far more difficult to understand that he needed those badges to give him faith in himself.

Kay Boyle to Kurt Vonnegut [Oct. 11, 1981]

He drank so as to keep silent about all he wanted more than anything else in life, and the sometimes corny, always persuasive role he acted out made it easy for people to create the Nelson Algren myth (in the very same way that the Robert McAlmon myth was created by people in the ’20’s and ’30’s in Paris, a man who insulted every American publisher he met, and whose fiercely obsessive hope was to be published in America).

There’s nothing wrong in wanting recognition. The only thing is that if that wanting goes too far (because one is humble, uncertain, wounded in one’s pride) it can be a very painful thing. […]

You have clearly missed the depths of Nelson’s despair, and, in missing the complexities of the man, you have not understood that he would wish his name to be remembered. The money put in anonymous funds would have meant nothing to Nelson. In giving this particular fund his name, the winners of the award throughout the years ahead will be made aware that a remarkable man and writer once lived, and they will perhaps be moved to look for his books. Nelson would have wanted that. Good god, can’t you realize that the last thing Nelson ever wanted was to be anonymous? Had you so little understanding of his pain?

Boyle sent me a copy of the letter, having enlisted me as her campaign deputy because I was a working newspaperman in Chicago and a friend of Nelson’s who had written an article upon his death that had struck her favorably.

Nelson Algren, Jan Herman [ca. 1980]

Nelson Algren, Jan Herman
[Photo: Carl Weissner, 1980]

She explained in a cover note that Vonnegut was “apparently advising people in Sag Harbor not to contribute to the fund, as Nelson ‘would not have liked it,’ suggesting (as he wrote me) that Studs and I would do better to give the money we have collected to one of the writers’ ‘pension funds’ which now exist. If such funds (pensions for needy authors) do exist, I have no knowledge of them.” She noted that she and others had “tried to inaugurate such a fund for the Academy-Institute for members over seventy, but it met with no success.” (The reference is to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as the American Academy of Arts and Letters was then called.)

Kay asked that I keep her letter to Vonnegut confidential “unless he himself wishes to make it public.” But by sending me a copy, she clearly wanted somebody else to know about it. And now that they’re both dead, I feel no obligation to maintain its privacy. By making it public, I don’t mean to cast an aspersion on Vonnegut, although that can’t be helped. I personally have never doubted his good will toward Algren. But I believe that Kay’s description of what made Algren tick will help set the public record straight about the myth of the man, lending one more fact and thus more nuance to Asher’s already nuanced essay.

The letter also calls attention to the Nelson Algren Award, which Kay would be thrilled to know still exists. She hoped the $10,000 she and others initially raised would draw enough interest to keep it viable and could be combined with funds from PEN American Center and elsewhere. I haven’t followed the history of the award, but I know that it has evolved under various benefactors after some rough early years and that today it is sponsored by the Chicago Tribune.

The award for an unpublished short story of less than 8,000 words may not be as prestigious as the awards named for Hemingway and Faulkner and, recently, Mailer. But it certainly got off to a prescient start. The first winner was Louise Erdrich, an unknown writer at the time. And the total prize money has grown. Last year’s top winner received $5,000. This year the top prize will be $3,500, with four finalists each receiving $1,000, and five runners-up each receiving $500.

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


  1. says

    I wonder if you might be missing (in an intentional way) the ironic connotations in Asher’s use of the term “loser.” I think he meant it as a kind of euphemism for someone who rejected the sort of success that would have meant compromising artistic integrity. Asher puts it this way:

    “America has always been able to countenance beggars, short-con men, and nine-to-fivers who just can’t get ahead, but we’ve never known what to do with the type of person who could have been really big but chose not to make the concessions required.”

    Algren refused to be a corporate, academic, or artistic suck up. In this sense the term loser is reappropriated to symbolize a truth-teller, someone willing to stand apart if it became necessary to maintain honesty.

    As your friend Kay Boyle notes, that doesn’t mean artists don’t care about recognition, it just means they want the right kind, the kind the prize in his name represents. In a way, it’s no surprise that Vonnegut missed this point. His characters are often too idealized, a little to cute, a bit too one-dimensional. He wanted to turn Algren into the same kind of cartoony figure that so often turns up in Vonnegut’s own work. Algren had a deeper sense of truth, and that’s why his characters are generally so much more authentic and multi-dimensional than Vonnegut’s.

    I’m sorry that there are so few artists these days willing to be “losers.” Among composers (my field,) a postmodern philosophy evolved in the 80s that we should, for the most part, embrace the system and work it for all its worth. This included snuggling up to the commercialism of the music industry even though its vulgarity could often not be more obvious. It was a counter-reaction to the artist-in-the-garret ideals of modernism which were at times indeed excessive. This form of postmodernism meshed well with the system embracing ideals of the Yuppies beginning in the 1980s.

    And as would be expected, these people now represent the musical establishment in contemporary classical music. Following in the concepts of neo-liberal economic theories, they essentially defined the marketplace as the ultimate and sole arbiter of all human endeavor. Their excesses in embracing “the system” are now as extreme as those modernism created in rejecting it.

    So yeah, in this sense Algren was a loser – a person who stood outside the system in order to stand for truths it wouldn’t tolerate. It allowed him the same ironic dignity that many of his loser characters also had. And in a way, I doubt authors can ever fully separate themselves from their characters. I hope the paradoxical irony will continue that such losers like Algren will continue to be honored – at least when society wakes up to who they really are. At that point, of course, its time for new losers to appear.

  2. says

    Bill — Typically perceptive and thorough. I’ve received other comments, privately, about the connotation of “loser” and will have more to say sometime later today when I can get to an actual keyboard. Right now I’m on my iPod via Wifi at a cafe in the Slope, where the most um “awesome” congregation of yuppies, baby strollers, and hipsters “on the planet” has planted itself like a species of moss.

  3. says

    Thanks for sharing that letter, Jan. Kay Boyle was incredibly articulate and a huge fan of Algren, so I’m glad you were able to see just how passionately she felt about his talent and his stuggle. Like you and like me, she wanted the world to understand the man’s contradictions, and just how true he was to his core beliefs, no matter what price he paid.

  4. says

    Finally, I’m at a keyboard …

    It never occurred to me, that “loser” implied a compliment. Algren called himself a “loser” in the same self-deprecating way that he once called himself “the penny whistle of American literature.” I don’t think he felt “loser” was a compliment. But Bill Osborne is not alone in taking the term as an expression of praise.

    KS, a corresponent from New York, messaged me even before Bill posted his comment: “I did not think that Asher used the term “loser” derogatorily. There are two meanings to the word. There’s “loser,” failure, good-for-nothing. Then there’s “loser” with the implied compliment that losers are more authentic because they don’t sell out or grub for success. I took Asher to mean the latter. That said, I like your note because it enlarges the story and shows Algren in his complexity. I love your assertion that the subhead should have just called him the ‘type of writer this country can’t stomach.’ Amen.”

    After reading Bill’s comment, KS sent another message: “Here, here. I agree entirely with Bill’s eloquently expressed vantage point — with the qualification that I still think your addendum is enormously valuable. It’s the coup de grace.”

    Well, the coup is really Kay Boyle’s, as Michael Caplan has noted, as have Bill and others. In any case, I thoroughly agree about Bill’s eloquence and especially his assessment of Vonnegut’s characters vs. Algren’s.

    But I’m not alone either in believing “loser” to be a derogatory term. One correspondent, EW, messaged from the Netherlands. “I, too, thought that Asher’s subtitle sucked.” Another, CG, wrote from England: “I absolutely can’t stand it when I see stuff like that written about Algren — it really pisses me off!” Still another, JB, from Chicago (and someone who knew Algren), wrote, “I read Asher’s article, via your link, and thought it was a rousing and reasonably accurate summation of Nelson’s life and work, especially for those unfamiliar with him and it. But you do provide a necessary and convincing corrective about the loser label. I guess Asher’s mistake is a natural one, since he’s by now a generation or two removed from Algren and bases his conclusions on the false impression of Algren that he himself was largely responsible for creating.”

    I’d agree the confusion has something to do with a generational cohort. What I liked about Asher’s piece was how well written it was, and how he followed Algren’s chronology so smoothly that all the twists and turns made sense. It’s something I always found difficult to clarify, and I spent a long time doing research for an Algren biography I never wrote.

    As to the meaning of “loser” and what it implies by describing Algren as a loser rather than the stance he took in standing up for losers, it’s worth remembering what Algren wrote about F. Scott Fitzgerald in his beautiful little book “Nonconformity.” He meditates on the terrible error of mistaking Fitzgerald for the characters he wrote about. He cites a passage from “The Crackup,” in which Fitzgerald himself agonized about “why I had become identified with the objects of my horror and compassion.” Algren writes, “What Fitzgerald risked […] was an emotional sharing of the lives he recorded. […] He stood on the precipitous edge of exhaustion, a man who has spent himself, by coins of pity and love and pride, into spiritual bankruptcy.”

    Algren, too, stood on that precipice. But while he “struggle[d] to write with profundity of emotion” (as Fitzgerald did), he never had the opportunity, or the need, “at the same time to live like a millionaire” (as Fitzgerald did), and he never went belly up, not spiritually. Algren doesn’t condemn Fitzgerald. On the contrary, he feels a huge sympathy for him, pointing out that the contradiction “so exhausted” Fitzgerald “that he was at last brought down to the point where he could no longer be both a good writer and decent person.” The dilemma Algren faced was of another order entirely. It’s not for nothing that he invoked Whitman in the epigraph to “Never Come Morning,” his first great novel: “I feel I am of them — / I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself — / And henceforth I will not deny them — For how can I deny myself?”

  5. Colin Asher says

    I wish I had known this debate was raging, I would have jumped in earlier.

    Anytime I get really attached to a story my intent becomes so clear to me that I lose track of the fact that I can be, often in some very obvious way, obscure. (I once wrote a lengthy piece that used Youngstown, Ohio, as a stand in for flagging faith in the American Dream, and right before publication my editor finally said, “You know, no one knows anything about Youngstown. At some point you’ll have to explain why it matters.” “What do you mean,” I rolled my eyes. “Everyone knows about Youngstown.”) As with Youngstown, so too with “loser”. Somehow it simply never occurred to me that it might come off as an insult.

    As Bill Osborne pointed out—more eloquently than I’m likely to manage this evening—I intended it as a compliment. I see Algren as a person who had every chance to abandon closely held beliefs in exchange for money and greater prestige and chose not to. I’m not claiming that he courted or embraced obscurity—he didn’t—only that he would accept it sooner than compromising himself. One of the great tragedies of his life was that he wanted and believed (rightly) that he deserved all the accolades provided lesser, more morally pliant writers, knew they wouldn’t be provided without compromise, and refused to let go of either his ambition or his principles. So, a “loser” only because he played masterfully by his own set of rules, but was judged by another set entirely.

    And I intended it as an insult to the country. This is, after all “the one land where ownership and virtue are one.” When you finish life in a rented cottage, living on a small military pension and a social security check, you are a loser; if it had been within your power to end things differently and you chose the cottage, doubly so—talent, intelligence, accomplishment or virtue notwithstanding. And I write that not to insult the person being judged but the place making the judgment. As a country we recoil at the temerity of people who are offered a chance to sell themselves and don’t. I believe that’s why people turned against Algren with such finality after A Walk on the Wild Side. He knew exactly what was expected of a writer who wanted to continue living well, but instead of cranking out some milquetoast veteran-moves-to-suburbs-and-discovers-ennui twaddle he gave us Dove Linkhorn, for which he was never forgiven.

    Now I feel the urge to apologize to anyone who might have taken offense at my subheading, but I’m going to restrain myself. Algren wouldn’t have done so, and though I’m not 1/10 the writer he was, I like to pretend. And so I’ll settle for having made my intent clear, and saying that I truly am flattered that my article has engendered such a great discussion.


  6. says

    I’m pleased to see anything written about Algren. As a Chicagoan and long-ago employee of the Chicago Daily News (I wrote also for Herman Kogan, a friend to Algren), I always figured the lack of high regard for Algren’s writing after The Man with the Golden Arm was due to Second City passover. I attended Algren’s sale of household stuff in his apartment when he moved to Patterson, and was sorry that he was evidently destitute but that never suggested to me that he was a loser, only that he was a tough guy who lived as he intended to, which I take to be Colin Asher’s point (and Boyle’s and yours, Jan). I read The Devil’s Stocking when it was first published and could not understand the lack of attention it got, except to think that James T. Farrell was also ignored, Ben Hecht no longer read and seldom acknowledged for anything but The Front Page, and Meyer Levin’s reputation was under some sort of cloud. Stanley Elkin doesn’t have the place in American literature he deserves either, IMHO, nor W.R. Burnett. Richard Wright I knew about only for Native Son. Except for Saul Bellow and Dreiser, no American novelist seemed to get much respect in Chicago – none of them were taught in my high schools – and the literary world there when I was a young adult in residence (’70 – early ’80s) was virtually underground, even though I was taking John Schultz’s excellent Story Workshop courses at Columbia College. Mike Royko was the only local writer with a national rep, besides Ann Landers — Larry Heineman’s Nat’l Book Award seemed like a fluke. Who represents Chicago fiction today? Sara Paretsky and Scott Turow. But the city has a much richer lit culture than just them. Thanks largely to Algren, there’s a very high standard for writing brewed in Chicago that reflects the realistically hard-scrabble view of life the city once inspired. Whose writings from such unflagging perspective gets published now?