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As evidence, let me cite an unpublished letter by Kay Boyle, whose admiration for Nelson was immense.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.
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.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.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.