On Nelson Algren's Centenary

— Nathaniel Mills

“American literature is the woman in the courtroom who, finding herself undefended on a charge, asked,  ‘Isn’t anybody on my side?’” — Nelson Algren(1)

2009 MARKS THE anniversary of three events whose coincidence Nelson Algren might have appreciated. First, it is the centenary of Algren’s birth in 1909 in Detroit (in 1913, the family would move to Chicago, the setting of Algren’s fiction, where he is still a local hero). Second, it is the 60th anniversary of the 1949 publication of The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren’s third and most successful novel. A lyrical, politically-committed, and quasi-existentialist novel set among the urban underclass of postwar Chicago, The Man with the Golden Arm won the first National Book Award for Fiction in 1950, and prompted Ernest Hemingway to declare Algren better than Dostoevksy and “probably the best writer under 50, and name your own figure, writing today.”(2)

Finally, 2009 is the tenth anniversary of the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. That protest may well be the last time that the media organs of the ruling class in America have taken significant notice of left-wing political activity. After casting the 1990s as a decade of comfortable Clintonian prosperity seasoned with salacious sexual gossip, mainstream opinion was compelled to face the fact that some people thought something was wrong beneath the surface of the booming nineties. That “something” was a set of concerns that were supposed to be outdated: issues of economic justice, market imperialism, labor rights, etc. The hysterical reaction to the events in Seattle by both the repressive (the police) and hegemonic agents (the media) of the ruling class demonstrated how much of a scandal protests in the name of economic disparity still are in America.

Nelson Algren was a writer whose work consistently clamored for justice on behalf of the oppressed. It is in no small part due to this that, even though he was once acclaimed, he is now usually remembered as a minor writer. Just as economic oppression, and the non-material consequences for those who suffer it, are sociopolitical realities that American public discourse can’t acknowledge, Algren’s reputation today is evidence that those who insist that there is something wrong with economic disparity can’t be acknowledged, either.

As Algren once said, the “billboards” and “comic strips” of America “tend to dwell more upon the American dream than upon the American reality.”(3) Those who call attention to that reality have to be dismissed. In Seattle, they were violent, crazed anarchists. Thomas Friedman saw them as “ridiculous…flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960’s fix” and merely putting on a “circus.”(4)

In the 1950s, that other decade of official “prosperity” in America, Algren had to be caricatured just as the Seattle protestors were. Time magazine, reviewing his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side, asked whether Algren’s “sympathy for the depraved and degraded has not carried him to the edge of nonsense.”(5) Norman Podhoretz wryly titled his New Yorker review “The Man with the Golden Beef” and summed up Algren’s political position as nothing more than: “if you’re on the side of Society, you’re bad, and if you’re an outcast or a misfit, you’re good, and that’s all there is to it.”(6) The “American dream,” when it encounters the American reality on the streets or on the page, recoils in scorn and disdain.

Algren isn’t exactly forgotten on his centenary. Currently, every major work of Algren’s — with the exception of his first novel, Somebody in Boots (1935) — is available in print from Seven Stories Press, which earlier this year brought out Entrapment, a volume collecting fragments of an unfinished novel.(7) A tribute to Algren, featuring readings by Willem Dafoe, Russell Banks and Don DeLillo, was held at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago in April.

Algren is frequently still remembered as Simone de Beauvoir’s lover. Their relationship, which began in the late 1940s, is memorialized in a collection of her letters to Algren(8); in fictionalized form in de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel The Mandarins, which won the presitigious Prix Goncourt; and in the 2006 play Transatlantic Liaison by Fabrice Rozié.

The Man with the Golden Arm has been supplanted, in many people’s minds, by Otto Preminger’s 1955 film version, starring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. The film bears little resemblance to Algren’s novel, emptying the story of much of its social-protest priorities and changing key elements of plot and characterization. But Algren deserves to be remembered as one of American literature’s best writers of politically committed fiction. In his work, Algren consistently depicted a reality that was visibly undeniable for a brief moment in Seattle and which still pertains, and will pertain, as long as the capitalist mode of production endures.

“[W]e live today in a laboratory of human suffering as vast and terrible as that in which Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote,” Algren wrote in the 1950s. “The only real difference being that the England of Dickens and the Russia of Dostoevsky could not afford the soundscreens and the smokescreens with which we so ingeniously conceal our true condition from ourselves.”(9) Or in the words of literary critic Ian Peddie, one of the best readers of Algren’s political investments: “For Nelson Algren overturning the middle class’s apparent denial of social reality was an essential preliminary to domestic amelioration.”(10)

That denial takes different forms depending on the needs of capitalist hegemony. To perpetuate itself capitalism must cover up, distort, spin, twist, or conceal the deep inequalities, suffering and discontent that its contradictions produce. The lesson of Nelson Algren is that literature can and must engage in the none-too-easy task of standing up for the truth.

Algren was born Nelson Algren Abraham (he would later drop his last name).(11) After growing up in Chicago, he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1931 with a degree in journalism. Due to the economic crisis he was unable to find steady employment, and took to riding the rails across the South and Southwest. Out of that often harrowing experience would come the material for his first novel, Somebody in Boots.

At the height of the Great Depression, Algren’s career as a writer was launched together with his career on the left. His political commitment was firmly established when he returned to Chicago in 1933. There, he joined the local John Reed Club. Backed by the Communist Party, the clubs were designed to aid the development of new talent in left-wing literature. Through the club and its connections to the Communist left in Chicago, he met other left-wing writers like Richard Wright, who would be a long-time enthusiastic admirer of Algren’s work, and the worker-writer Jack Conroy, with whom Algren would later start The New Anvil, a proletarian literary magazine.

When the Party dissolved the John Reed Clubs in 1935 in order to establish the League of American Writers (an organization of accomplished writers from across the left-liberal spectrum devoted to the Party’s Popular Front anti-fascist coalitional policy), Algren welcomed the change. He was an active member of the League, serving on the National Council in 1935-1936, and as the executive secretary of the Chicago chapter in 1938.(12)

In 1936, he was hired by the Illinois Federal Writers Project (a New Deal program to subsidize creative artists), where he recruited members for the League.(13) Enthusiastic about the Party’s anti-fascist policy, he was discouraged by the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, which caused the Communist policy to shift away from anti-fascism, but would later describe the pact as merely an “incidental thing,” not shaking his fundamental commitment.(14) In 1943, he was involved with the Party’s Abraham Lincoln School in Chicago.

After serving as a stretcher bearer in Europe during World War II, he continued his political activities in the postwar era. He campaigned for Henry Wallace’s presidential run on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948 (a campaign organized in large part by the Communists), was involved with the National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (a 1948 coalition of Communist and liberal professionals), and, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried and eventually executed for Soviet espionage, Algren was the honorary chairman of the Chicago Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case. Further archival research will probably uncover even more of his activities, but the known record already marks Algren as a notable instance, in American letters, of the committed oppositional writer.

Even though his active involvement as a Communist gradually slackened in the postwar era, he continued to display certain Stalinist tendencies and habits of mind throughout his life. “I had gone into the Communist Party because I believed the world was changing and I wanted to help change it,” he would later recollect. He sometimes found the Party authority rigid and petty (they “could say black is white today and white is black tomorrow and either you switch or else we’ll excommunicate you,” and they once earned the hard-carousing Algren’s ire by rebuking him for acting “drunk and disorderly” in public), but he admired the commitment of Communists to the cause of material justice, as well as their vanguard role in the fight against fascism.(15)

He romanticized the Soviet Union as “the one country where artists were truly free” and where oppressions of all kind had been vanquished.(16) Even though he would eventually acknowledge the dystopian reality of Soviet Russia, he would often compare it favorably to the United States. In the 1960s, he insisted that the Soviet space program was undertaken for scientific advancement and social betterment, whereas the American program was run solely for national propaganda.(17)

He would later regret that his rigid adherence to the Party line in the 1930s made him attack, in reviews, the novels of James T. Farrell simply because Farrell was an anti-Stalinist.(18) However, throughout his life he could be caustically disparaging of other writers whose work failed to protest in the name of the marginalized, or whose work was simply about middle-class people. “I can see no purpose in writing about people who seem to have won everything,” he once declared.(19)

Such opinions have something of the flavor of 1930s polemic. Finally, the macho persona that Algren crafted throughout his life may have owed just as much to a certain typically Stalinist “toughness” as it did to his longstanding admiration of Ernest Hemingway.

Of course, Algren’s political views and activities, as with many writers, were mediated by the vicissitudes of personal experience and private life. Algren suffered from depression, and following the commercial failure of Somebody in Boots in 1935, had a complete nervous breakdown: at the first American Writers’ Congress (put on by the League of American Writers) in 1935, he was so distraught that he was barely able to speak.(20)

He could also be unpredictable in his opinions: he wrote de Beauvoir, in 1953, that the Rosenbergs had been foolish to die for Russia. He added that he had been personally unmoved by their plight, describing Ethel as a “little fat fool of a woman.” This uncharacteristic outburst may have been prompted by romantic jealousy, as Jean-Paul Sartre, the other man in de Beauvoir’s love life, had moved the year before to a more (if short-lived) pro-Soviet stance.(21)

The tough-guy persona he cultivated included sexist and homophobic attitudes. Algren’s personal life was generally disorganized: a hard drinker and chronic gambler who suffered bouts of depression, he spent much of his life alone. He married Amanda Kontowicz (whom he met at a promotional event for Somebody in Boots in Chicago) twice (in 1937 and 1952), but both marriages failed. His most passionate emotional and intellectual connection was with de Beauvoir, but neither one was willing or ready to relocate permanently (either she to Chicago or he to Paris), and much of their relationship was spent apart. His final marriage, to Betty Ann Jones in 1965, would last two years.

For most of his career, he struggled financially. As a writer, he was often critically castigated for his consistent commitment to the causes of social and economic justice. Such writing was out of favor in the Cold War era — to the establishment, it smacked of out-dated 1930s “red decade” sentimentality. Following the triumph of The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren never had another major commercial success.

The American literary canon was being redrawn by academics in the Cold War years. In a complex and uneven process of re-categorization, experimental and aestheticist writers replaced naturalist, socially-oriented writers as the American greats. Henry James was in, Theodore Dreiser was out. Clearly, Algren’s literary reputation didn’t stand much chance. When Algren was admitted to the American Academy and Institute of Art and Letters late in his life, it was a late and overdue recognition.

Two of his novels were made into major motion pictures (The Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side), but in both cases Algren was conned out of much of the financial proceeds. Further, throughout his career he was investigated by the FBI, and was denied a passport in 1953 on the grounds that he was a Communist and a security threat.

But his troubles were a consequence of his credo as a writer: namely, that good writing was synonymous with social protest on the behalf of the oppressed. “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery,” he wrote. Just as a writer lauded by the commercial and critical establishment can’t hope to critique that establishment, “[i]f you feel you belong to things as they are, you won’t hold up anybody in the alley no matter how hungry you may get.”(22)

Algren located himself among those forced by the economic iniquities of capitalism to engage in criminality, for which a hypocritical bourgeois morality in turn condemned them. The tramp, the vagrant, the stick-up man, the drug user, the pimp, the prostitute — Algren understood that these figures were products of structural unemployment, social marginalization, and the dehumanization of capitalist labor. The writer’s role is to take their side and write against the system that has simultaneously created and stigmatized their condition.

What follows is a survey of Algren’s most important works: Somebody in Boots (1935), Never Come Morning (1942), The Neon Wilderness (short stories, 1947), The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956).

Somebody in Boots is his best novel, a gem of the rich left-wing literary production of the Depression. It is the story of Cass McKay, a hobo from a poor white family in Texas. It follows him as he rides the rails in the depths of the Depression, documenting in often gruesome detail the violence and degradation of the life of the poor. Eventually, Cass ends up in Chicago, where he becomes romantically involved with the prostitute Norah Egan (who is a prostitute because she is unable, in the Depression, to find any other steady work).

Cass and Norah make ends meet with a string of robberies, until Cass is arrested in the middle of a heist. When he gets out of jail, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, a festival of American capitalist triumphalism, is in full swing. Cass tries to relocate Norah, and works as a pitchman for a burlesque house. There, he meets Dill Doak, a Black musician whose onstage persona is “a light-footed, dance-loving, song-loving, rubber-limbed mappet, full of a rich, black belly-laughter” but who offstage “spoke and acted in a way in which Cass had never seen or heard a Negro speak or act before.”(23)

Dill is one of Algren’s most fascinating characters, an African American able to survive in a racist society by performing a caricature of blackness, but who outside of performing is a member of the Communist Party. He challenges and unsettles Cass’s racist assumptions, assumptions that have been drilled into Cass through violence and intimidation amongst the white lumpenproletariat of the South.(24)

Dill takes Cass to Communist rallies. He tells Cass of Russia, a place where prostitution (which Cass assumes is an eternal feature of human society) has been eliminated, and tells him that “[w]e must change the order of things here too.” (242) But Cass’s visceral education in the violent ways of the lumpenproletariat has not afforded him the ability to reflect critically on his own situation.

Cass has a dim understanding that something is wrong in America, but can only apprehend it as “somebody in boots,” a reference to the violence performed by booted men, such as his abusive father or the feared railroad bulls.

“[W]henever he thought of one man robbed by another, he thought of somebody in boots. He was an ignorant man.... Daily he saw suffering and want, but he saw through a veil of familiarity. What he saw he took for granted. He could not trouble himself, one way or another, about any better or happier world.” (230) Consequently, the speeches at the rallies make no sense to him. At the end, failing to reconnect with Norah, he is left with only a racist, violent hobo named Nubby who, after beating Cass for associating with Dill Doak, takes him back on the road.

Somebody in Boots is politically pedagogic without being romantic — that is, it advances a strident Communist critique of capitalism without resorting to depictions of heroic virtuous workers or a triumphant labor strike. Cass never comes to class consciousness, never identifies the Communist Party as the true representative of his material interests, but the depiction of that failure allows Algren to present the degradations of capitalism in full.

Not only does capitalism threaten the life and livelihood of the underclass subject, but it disguises oppression, to the oppressed, as something to be taken for granted. Cass, Norah and the other lumpenproletarian characters only know what they experience themselves, and are unable to think beyond the immanent terms of that experience, other than to suspect that they have been vaguely “cheated” by someone, somewhere. They are examples of how capitalism deforms the very cognitive abilities of the poor.

But Algren’s novel is multi-voiced: it gives us more than just Cass and Norah’s limited point of view. Algren’s narrator provides a ringing political condemnation of the World’s Fair that contrasts with Cass’s political ignorance. In another scene, Norah, after leaving her low-paying job at an apron factory, comes across the aprons she made in a shop window, selling for a dime each. She looks at her half dollar of wages, her earnings for making seven dozen aprons at eight cents a dozen, and senses that something’s wrong. (159-160)

Although this scene yields no political awareness for Norah, it argues to the reader (and to the left) that the everyday experience of the poor can potentially be translated, with Marxist theory, into class consciousness.

Algren’s later novels continue to explore the urban underclass, but from a less explicitly Marxist perspective. Algren’s second novel, Never Come Morning, was hailed as a critical success and was greatly admired by Sartre and de Beauvoir, who translated it into French. Set in the Polish-American section of Chicago, it documents Algren’s fascination with the world of prostitutes, pimps, boxers and gangsters. The novel also depicts the symbiotic relationship between the police and the urban underworld, institutions that share power over the inner-city lower class.

Bruno Bicek, an aspiring boxer, belongs to a local gang that is controlled by a sinister underworld figure, the barber Bonifacy Konstantine. Wanting to be seen as “tough” by the gang, and cowed by their threat of violence, Bruno is compelled to stand aside as they rape his girlfriend, Steffi Rostenkowski. Frustrated by his powerlessness in the situation, Bruno kills one of the would-be rapists, a Greek.

The murder goes unsolved, but Bruno is jailed for another crime he didn’t commit. As he sits in jail, Bruno is overwhelmed by guilt over Steffi’s rape — Algren’s rendering of this Dostoevskian inner anguish no doubt appealed to the French existentialists. However, Bruno’s anguish is amplified by the fact that he doesn’t quite understand why he feels such guilt: according to the masculinist code of the gang, by allowing them to rape Steffi, “[h]e had been straight with the boys, he had been regular. And to be regular was all he had ever been schooled to accomplish. Beyond being regular there was nothing expected of a man.” As a result, “he could not, even to himself, see his guilt clearly toward her.”(25)

Like Cass, Bruno possesses a conscience and awareness deformed by the omnipresent threat of violence wielded by those in power (in this case, by the criminal underworld). Despite posturing as a tough, hyper-masculine writer for much of his career, Algren acknowledges the origins of male chauvinism in capitalist dynamics of repression. Like racism in Somebody in Boots, masculine aggression is here a deformed and deforming mode of false consciousness.

When he is released, Bruno finds Steffi, who is being kept as a prostitute in a brothel controlled by Bonifacy, and whose psychological despair is even more complex and vivid. They plan to defy their environment and escape on money Bruno hopes to win from a boxing match. He wins the climactic match, but is arrested for the Greek’s murder.

The inescapability of the inner-city neighborhood — bisected in its power arrangements by gangsters and police and governed by a dynamic of violence and deprivation — is a major concern in this novel, but that neighborhood is also a symbolic microcosm of capitalist society itself. Life on the underside of that society is a vast prison where “[e]veryone was in on a bum rap; not one would be paroled.” (215)

This theme and subject matter are also central in The Neon Wilderness (1947), a short story collection that contains some of Algren’s best work. “Design for Departure” is especially notable for its lyrical rendering of the psyche of Mary, an inner-city opiate addict. “How the Devil Came Down Division Street” adds a gothic twist to Algren’s usual depiction of the urban underclass.

“He Couldn’t Boogie-Woogie Worth a Damn” tells of an AWOL African-American soldier in France at the end of World War II who opts not to return home to segregated Memphis (where racism limits his life options), but to follow his Algerian lover to Africa. The story raises complex issues of Black nationalism, the place of Blacks in America, and their relationship to American ideology. It performs this political analysis in a fast-paced, engaging noir-ish story, set among the backstreets and black markets of Marseilles, and is a sterling example of how a work of fiction need not sacrifice stylistic skill and subtlety to be politically engaged.

The Man with the Golden Arm is also set in the Polish-American section of Chicago. Frankie “Machine” Majcinek, a local poker dealer, returns from service in World War II. Wounded in the war, he has become addicted to morphine as a result of his treatment in a field hospital. The novel’s characters are by turns grotesque, absurd and deeply sympathetic. They haunt bars, tenement houses, and alleys beneath the neon lights and rumbling El trains of Chicago.

Algren’s prose is evocative, attempting to capture a certain emotional mood through carefully overwrought, lyrical renderings of the landscape. For instance, one character “listened to the glistening hum of the tracks, leveling dead away toward midnight after every El that passed; following faintly all the way to the Loop straight southeast into the metallic moonlight’s mocking glow.” Or “The cold rain ran with the red lit rain. Like years beating by on the wheels of an empty Loopbound El.”(26) Such imagery abounds, lending the narrative a rich aura of autumnal ennui.

The sense of an impending end that permeates the novel is subtly tied to the onset of the Cold War, a new reality of imminent apocalypse that filters down to all levels of felt experience. The Man with the Golden Arm is generally known as a novel of drug addiction — and it is, provided that one understands that, for Algren, drug addiction is a symbolic means of rendering the dependent, entrapped experience of all of capitalism’s victims. (While he knew addicts, Algren himself was never a user and was disgusted by the habit.) Ultimately, Algren’s most famous novel is a superb account of the psychological and emotional texture of life for those victims in a terrifying age of atomic conflict.

Algren returns to the Depression in A Walk on the Wild Side, this time evaluating the period from the perspective of the 1950s. The novel is similar to Somebody in Boots, though it offers characters who are more humanized and well-rounded, and all references to the Communist left are excised. If the emphasis in the earlier novel was on the political limitations of the lumpenproletariat, now Algren finds a measure of naïve sociopolitical wisdom in the lumpenproletariat.

Dove Linkhorn, a poor rural white like Cass McKay, but one who hasn’t realized that his whiteness matters, at one point tries to use a Blacks-only restroom in New Orleans. “Country boy, you got colored blood?” the Black porter asks him. “Naturally it ain’t white,” Dove responds.

Dove senses something is amiss: “Dove didn’t know what was wrong. He just felt wrong. And left the REST ROOM FOR COLORED in retreat.” He then tries to drink from a water fountain, and the porter stops him, telling him it is only for those with “colored blood.” Dove is confused: “Ain’t everybody got colored blood, mister?” The porter expels him, and Dove concludes that “a Christian don’t scarcely stand a chance for a drink of water in town no more.”(27)

Dove’s literal-mindedness — of course he has colored blood: it’s red, isn’t it? — makes him ignorant of the rules of capitalist racial oppression, but his naiveté is, ironically, sociopolitical awareness. Unknowingly, Dove offers condemnation of a system that uses a figurative understanding of “blood” and “color” to deny a human being access to life itself.

In the 1930s, Algren’s characters needed Communism to translate their experiences into a theoretical analysis of capitalism that would enable them to recognize their rightful place in the ranks of the revolutionary proletariat. In the 1950s, Algren wonders whether or not they already have, in their very cognitive limitations, the potential for political consciousness. Yet Dove, like all of Algren’s protagonists, is far from ethical or moral: Algren is not merely romanticizing the poor and the criminal, as his detractors have alleged. Rather, he is devoted to examining the complex, tangled possibilities for anti-capitalism in the experiences of those on its margins.

If Algren was trying to remind mainstream America that the criminal and the destitute existed, he was also trying to remind the political left that those oppressed by capitalism aren’t always noble and honorable — precisely because they are oppressed. As Kurt Vonnegut sagely observed: “Algren said in effect, ‘Hey — an awful lot of these people your hearts are bleeding for are really mean and stupid. That’s just a fact. Did you know that?’”(28)

Algren’s oppressed are usually neither saintly and heroic, nor militant and resistant. They are, however, human, and it is the duty of the committed writer to take their side when no one else will. His work calls on the left to do away with romantic notions of the magical revolutionary proletariat and to focus on real people in concrete conjunctures, and to probe revolutionary possibilities already germinating in the experience and consciousness of capitalism’s most deprived victims. Powerful writing, he wrote, must draw “vitality . . . from degradation.”(29)

This vitality seems to have struck Richard Wright forcefully when he read The Man with the Golden Arm. Wright was in Paris, and de Beauvoir related the story to Algren. “I just read Golden Arm. That is fantastic!” Wright told de Beauvoir and others. “We said . . . ‘It is really good, is it not?’ soberly; he laughed again: ‘It is fantastic!’ He spoke in French, a very bad broken French, and I don’t know if the word had the same meaning in both languages.”(30)

I think Wright was trying to express both senses of “fantastic” in English: “really good,” but also unbelievable, strange, unsettling, surprising. Wright identified the fantastic vitality Algren drew from the shocking, disturbing, “fantastic” reality of capitalism’s material and psychological degradations.

Notes

  1. H.E.F. Donohue, Conversations with Nelson Algren (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 279.
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  2. Bettina Drew, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989), 210.
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  3. Bob Perlongo, “Interview with Nelson Algren,” Arizona Quarterly, 45 no. 1 (Spring 1989), 105.
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  4. Thomas Friedman, “Senseless in Seattle,” New York Times, 1 December 1999, A23.
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  5. “Rough Stuff,” Time, 28 May 1956, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/ 0,9171,937429,00.html?artId=937429?contType=article?chn=us, Accessed 14 July 2009.
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  6. Norman Podhoretz, “The Man with the Golden Beef,” New Yorker, 2 June 1956, 137.
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  7. Nelson Algren, Entrapment and Other Writings, Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon, eds. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009).
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  8. Simone de Beauvoir, A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren (New York: New Press, 1998).
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  9. Algren, Nonconformity: Writing on Writing (New York: Seven Stories Press), 73.
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  10. Ian Peddie, “The Wrong Side of Town: A Walk on the Wild Side in an Age of Reaction,” Invisible Suburbs: Recovering Protest Fiction in the 1950s United States, Josh Lukin, ed. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2008), 28.
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  11. For the details of Algren’s life and activities, see Bettina Drew’s Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side. I have drawn on her engaging and thorough biography throughout this essay.
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  12. Franklin Folsom, Days of Anger, Days of Hope: A Memoir of the League of American Writers, 1937-1942 (Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1994), 266.
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  13. Drew, 104.
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  14. Donohue, 89.
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  15. Donohue, 87-89.
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  16. Algren, “We Never Made it to the White Sox Game,” Entrapment and Other Writings, 253.
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  17. Donohue, 217-218.
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  18. Algren, “We Never Made it to the White Sox Game,” 253-256.
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  19. Perlongo, 104.
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  20. Drew, 90-91. Drew gives a detailed account of this dark period in Algren’s personal life, 87-93.
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  21. Hazel Rowley, Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (New York: HarperCollins Publishers),  225. On this period see also Ian Birchall, Sartre Against Stalinism (Berghahn Books, 2004).
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  22. Algren, Nonconformity, 34.
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  23. Algren, Somebody in Boots (New York: Berkley, 1965), 227.
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  24. 24. For an excellent reading of Somebody in Boots as an examination of how racist ideologies of white privilege serve capitalism by inhibiting class consciousness in the oppressed, see William Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 179-202.

  25. Algren, Never Come Morning (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996), 133.
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  26. Algren, The Man with the Golden Arm, William J. Savage, Jr., and Daniel Simon, eds., 50th Anniversary Critical Edition (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), 97, 166.
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  27. Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 103.
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  28. Kurt Vonnegut, “Algren as I Knew Him,” The Man with the Golden Arm, 50th Anniversary Critical Edition, 369.
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  29. Algren, Nonconformity, 35.
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  30. Simone de Beauvoir, A Transatlantic Love Affair, 417.
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ATC 143, November-December 2009

Algren more than a social protest writer

Many on the left like to place Algren solely in a role as social protest writer. He was this - but like Richard Wright, something more and this "something more" doesn't sit well with the U.S. left's often bland and blind social optimism.

Both Algren and Wright were not "salvationists," meaning that their portrayals of life at the bottom showed layers of damage that couldn't be meliorated even by reform or even revolution, as welcome as those developments might be for other reasons. This kernel of tragic hard-edged realism is what makes them genuine radical writers and separates them from easy slotting into the social protest mold.

IMHO, the U.S left could benefit from their keen powers of observation and become less Mary Poppins-like, with a spoonful of socialist sugar solving every conceivable problem and instead become more like the Mickey Rourke character in "The Wrestler,"
knocked-down and bloodied but rising tough-minded and unbowed.

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