Having said in The Revenge of the Mediocre that both Bettina Drew and Mary Wisniewski fail to capture Nelson Algren’s personality in their biographies of him, I realize I didn’t mention something equally and, some would say, more important. Sure, they get his so-called skid-row lyricism, which Blake Bailey recently harped on, but that shortchanges the formidable intellect which guided Algren’s work. He had a vision of society not only recalling Dostoevsky and Dickens, but also Balzac and Hugo and Zola. I asked Colin Asher, whose biography of Algren will be published by Norton, if he’d be kind enough to comment about any of that. He messaged back:
Good to hear from you, Jan — and thanks for the question.
I should be clear about one thing up front: I haven’t read Wisniewski’s biography, and I don’t plan to until my own biography is finished. I wouldn’t want her take on Nelson’s life to influence my own, or have her ideas find their way into my book accidentally. But with that caveat established, I’d be more than happy to comment on Nelson’s ideas about literature, and the distorted way he and his work are often remembered.
Your question, luckily, is easy to answer because Nelson had unique ideas about writing and wrote about them a great deal. He saw literature as a social institution whose primary function is to challenge orthodoxy, and expose hypocrisy — an adjunct to journalism, sort of. He believed writers should be in touch with the world, and willing to present the unadorned truth even when it was dangerous to do so. He believed authors were obliged to remain independent — unattached to universities, the government, the church — so they could be effective social critics. And he was most adamant that great writing can only be produced by people who are willing to ignore their ideals and ideology and commit the truth, as they perceive it, to the page.
A writer’s job, he said, is to put down the “world of reality” by working “without haste, as the story grows within, regardless of all social and moral ideas, regardless of whom your report may please or offend, regardless of whether the critics stand up and cheer for a month or take hammer and tongs after you, or simply ignore you — regardless of all forms, of all institutions, of all set ways of conduct and thought. Regardless, chiefly, of what the writer himself prefers to believe, know, think or feel.”
“. . . literature is made on any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.”Great literature, he claimed, opens “a wedge for the inarticulate of the world.”
An asterisk is often attached to Nelson’s legacy. People say he could have been one of the Great Authors if he just chose a different subject and stopped writing about the urban poor. Saul Bellow said this very directly at one point — I wish he aimed “higher,” he said. Many others have echoed the same objection since, though often not so directly, and I feel compelled to digress long enough to dispatch with that criticism.
I’ll concede that most of Nelson’s characters had similar class backgrounds — working class, or working poor — but I won’t concede that the demographic fact of his characters’ backgrounds is a limitation. Any critic who dismisses Nelson’s work because he wrote about “the poor” is revealing more about themselves than they are saying about his writing — they’re saying they presume people without social privilege can’t lead lives worthy of documentation, and of course they’re wrong. Ambition, lust, anger, desire, intellectual curiosity, and emotional complexity manifest themselves among people who grew up without economic privilege in the same proportions they exhibit themselves among people who were raised in tidy suburban homes, and told they should expect to attend Ivy League schools. Period.To put it another way: If Richard Yates can be celebrated as an American great despite the fact that his characters are almost exclusively anxious, privileged suburbanites then Nelson can be also, even though his characters are almost exclusively anxious, angry, and dissolute city dwellers.
Nelson’s choice of characters has damaged his legacy, but it shouldn’t have. If you consider his work in concert with the ideas that guided his career, his choice of subjects seems both rational, and incredibly prescient. He didn’t write about poor people, or addicts, or boxers who made their living by taking beatings because he idolized them. He did so because he thought the quality of their lives spoke to the moral condition of society. He felt, he once wrote, “that if we did not understand what was happening to men and women who shared all the horrors but none of the privileges of our civilization, then we did not know what was happening to ourselves.”
People often assume Nelson had a fetish for hoodlums, or some sort of unreasoned compulsion to surround himself with people who lead miserable lives. Fans sometimes make that claim because it makes Nelson seem like a proto-hipster. Critics and competitors often latch onto that idea to undercut his legacy. (William Styron once wrote: “Nelson was basically an underworld groupie.”)
But I say both groups miss the mark entirely, and when I want to picture Nelson I think about a scene in Clancy Sigal’s Going Away. Sigal was a friend of Nelson’s, and visited him once while driving across country — California to Massachusetts. He wrote a novel after he reached the east coast, and wrote Nelson into it using a pseudonym.
Sigal visits Nelson at home in that book, and then they go out for coffee. They sit down in a cafeteria, and their table slowly fills up with neighborhood misfits. Nelson sits quietly, watches everyone at the table, and eavesdrops. People greet him, and gossip flies. Someone asks Sigal if he wants to pay for sex; someone else brings Nelson a couple loaves of bread as a sign of respect.
Eventually Sigal gets up to leave. “I’m getting to feel uncomfortable around here,” he says.
“Your deal,” Nelson responds. “Good to see you.”
“I like your friends,” Sigal says.
Then Nelson shrugs. “They scare me,” he says. “I’m a peaceful man.”
That’s Nelson. He doesn’t have a fetish for criminals. He’s a man who had the misfortune to live through the most conformist period in American history. He’s got a healthy amount of skepticism and when he looks around he sees that a great mass of people are living lives that bear no resemblance to the American ideal being pushed on them by commercials and glossy magazines. The political establishment is ignoring them, the literary establishment, and the church. He’s aghast at the condition of their lives, and he thinks: I need to write about these people because no one else is going to.
If this past election taught us anything, it taught us that Nelson was right. We can’t understand what’s “happening to ourselves” unless we understand what is happening to the people who share “all the horrors but none of the privileges of our civilization.”
Postscript: Nov. 29 — “Nelson Algren Live,” featuring Willem Dafoe, Don DeLillo, and Barry Gifford, will be screened Wednesday (Nov. 30) at The Metrograph on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The 73-minute flick, directed by Oscar Bucher, is being shown in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Seven Stories Press, which has published new editions of eight Algren titles, including three of his major novels Never Come Morning, The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Devil’s Stocking, as well as his classic story collection The Neon Wilderness, his collection of fiction and reportage The Last Carousel, his travel writings Algren at Sea, and two titles that were never previously published, Entrapment and Other Writings, and Nonconformity: Writing on Writing. (The novel A Walk on the Wild Side, originally published by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in 1956, is still in print in a subsequent edition from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.)
The screening will be followed by a discussion with Dafoe, DeLillo, Gifford, Bucher, and Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon, moderated by Colin Asher. “Nelson Algren Live” documents a staged reading by a group of writers and actors at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago on March 28, 2009, which would have been Algren’s 100th birthday.
PPS: Dec. 23 — The flick bowled me over, especially Willem Dafoe’s reading of a previously undiscovered, unpublished story of Algren’s called “The Lightless Room.” This video teaser is excerpted from his reading of the entire story. Dafoe, who was at the screening, said it was virtually a cold reading. In other words, no rehearsal. He had been called upon at the last moment, three days earlier, to substitute for someone who had unexpectedly dropped out.