An American nightmare: the US vs Nelson Algren

Posted on December 2, 2008


By Darran Anderson

Nelson Algren had it all. A bestselling novelist, he was critically acclaimed for his edgy and urban exposes of the age’s underworld and had the Hollywood studios knocking at the door. Yet just a decade later, he stood at the brink of madness and suicide, shunned by associates, blacklisted by publishers and washed up as a major author. It’s arguably the most precipitous decline of any modern writer but how did it happen and how did history resurrect the poet laureate of life on the skids?

When he released the killer combination of Never Come Morning, The Man With The Golden Arm and Walk On The Wild Side in the late forties, it seemed to herald Algren as a major creative force in American literature. So successfully did he recreate the lives lived amidst the flophouses, speakeasies, drunktanks, whorehouses and shooting galleries, that those very terms have become utterly synonymous with the writer. Though he had mixed feelings about the film version of his junkie tale The Man with the Golden Arm (featuring ol’ blue eyes himself), it was a crucial breakthrough in cinema history, injecting (excuse the pun) a new and vital realism to a world that had been traditionally treated as cartoonish, crass and neurotic (see Reefer Madness). Hubert Selby Jr, Tarantino, Frank Miller‘s Sin City and a thousand other chroniclers of scuzzballs, lowlifes and grafters would no doubt acknowledge their debt to the man.

So where did it all go wrong? Well Algren, for his sins, had a conscience. And it was an inopportune time to do so. After the fall of the Nazis, it took several years for the great freeze of the Cold War to take hold but with the Berlin blockade and the Soviets acquiring the Bomb, fear of their new enemy soon gripped America. When the opportunist demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his platform, the full reds under the bed moral panic swept the US. Anyone with communist, socialist or even liberal sympathies was vulnerable to accusations of being a traitor. It’s no exaggeration to say that thousands of decent Americans, upholding the very virtues their country was founded upon, were ruthlessly victimized; losing their jobs, families, minds, even lives. Figures in the arts, due to their exposure and potential audience, came in for particular attention. The blacklist reads like a who’s who of the great cultural figures of the time: Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel, Charlie Chaplin, Dashiell Hammett, Paul Robeson, Leonard Bernstein. Algren did not escape.

Though his left-leaning beliefs were evident to even the most cursory readers of his fiction and journalism, Algren was no dyed-in-the-wool Bolshevik. His sympathies were instilled at an early age through experience. He grew up in a notoriously rough part of southside Chicago and came of age during the Great Depression. A heavy drinker, he struggled through a series of dead-end jobs and abject poverty. He wrote his first story in an abandoned petrol station in Texas where he was crashing and was jailed for four months for stealing a typewriter from a classroom. Writing wasn’t a career or even a calling, it was a life raft.

Algren learned his craft observing and, significantly, interacting with the people around him, the hoods, prostitutes and third-rate boxers, siding with the shafted, the losers, the failures and those on the wrong side of the law. For what do the winners have to tell that’s worth hearing? Though he spoke out in favour of the Rosenbergs and the Hollywood Ten, his was never the politics of condemnation or celebration but just the telling of how it is. In doing so, Algren gave a lie to the American dream, cast aspersions on the fact the US was presented an unbridled meritocracy and undermined the ethic (most often espoused by the rich and the unsound of mind) that there is dignity in backbreaking poorly-paid labour. It shook the image of Norman Rockwell-America that was projected to the world and to itself. And so Algren was a marked man.

At the time, the FBI was nothing short of the personal secret police of cross-dressing, barely lucid J. Edgar Hoover and the United States was his own private fiefdom. In their fight to destroy the communist menace, the state had no qualms about employing communist methods to investigate their citizens. So they kept tabs on Algren, turned his public and private life inside out in the process. When they’d finally accumulated over 500 pages of speculation (that’s about two-thirds the length of Ulysses), nitpicking and snooping, it turned out they hadn’t turn up one single piece of damning evidence against him. The damage was already done however. He was soon ashamedly hounded by the mainstream literary press, his book sales plummeted, his publishers ditched him as a liability, his passport was rescinded effectively trapping him in a state that had cut him off and he was soon airbrushed from popular culture, a victim of the age-old curse damnation e memoria. It was a betrayal of someone who had served his country and spent his life exploring the other Americas, those outside Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue and the Hamptons. He was one of the nation’s finest writers and the authorities had hung him out to dry.

Of course it’s easy to get mired in tales of shadowy government agents, whether true or not. Tormented though he undoubtedly was, what ultimately put paid to Nelson Algren was Nelson Algren. He succumbed not just to the persecution that was subtly, and unsubtly, exhibited upon him but also the persecution complex this brought on. There’s an old saying — “when there’s no enemy within, the enemies without can’t affect you” — and Algren’s own doubts, insecurities and demons were already undermining him.

Perhaps the happiest, or at least most stable, stage of his life was spent with Simone de Beauvoir, the French writer and philosopher. They’d met in post-Liberation Paris, had fallen wildly in love and travelled together in South America. Algren offered de Beauvoir what she lacked in her life-partner, the existentialist patriarch Jean-Paul Sartre; real active passion beyond theory, modesty, a rugged edge. “He lived in a hovel,” de Beauvoir wrote explaining her attraction, “without a bathroom or a refrigerator, alongside an alley full of steaming trash cans and flapping newspapers, this poverty seemed refreshing, after the heavy odour of the dollars in the big hotels and the elegant restaurants, which I found hard to take.”

Forced apart by circumstance, they maintained their affair in letters and fleeting encounters, de Beauvoir regarding Algren as the love of her life whilst Sartre was her intellectual equal and partner. For reasons only he would truly know, Algren’s feelings fluctuated from being smitten to cruelly and publically mocking his companion as “Madame Drivel.” The turning point was the publication of de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, a thinly veiled account of their liason (featuring a suspiciously familiar American writer by the name of Lewis Brogan). Already of a paranoid disposition, Algren exploded, his behaviour becoming one of public contempt and denunciation followed by private yearning towards her. Despite meeting again and travelling together around the Mediterranean, they would never be completely reconciled and the melancholy feeling of unfinished lost love would never be laid to rest. Many years later, de Beauvoir would be buried wearing a ring Algren had once given her.

Not long after the rift, Algren’s mental health went into freefall, culminating in a full-blown breakdown. He was admitted to a psychiatric ward, so far gone that it took him two hours to sign his name on the entry form. On New Years Eve of 1956, Algren plunged through the frozen ice of a Chicago lake and narrowly escaped death. When viewed in the context of his recent unhinged behaviour (including a morbidly depressive letter to de Beauvoir), it’s probably that it was a botched suicide attempt or at least one revised at the last minute.

When the radicalism of the Sixties created a political thaw and the world had finally caught up with his style (via Lou Reed, Taxi Driver and a raft of exploitation movies), Algren was strangely absent, locked in a kind of vow of silence for the last quarter century of his life, drinking and blowing his money on cards and horses. The seedy unconventional world, and the doomed anti-heroes who inhabited it, he’d documented was now big news and Algren was nowhere to be found. Whereas Bukowski could make a virtue (and a livelihood) of his drunken disgraces, Algren was never able to, held back perhaps by a lack of ego and a feeling of duty, social responsibility in his writing. Though he is said to have found some peace living in Long Island, respected by those peers wise enough to recognise his talent, he was burnt out and would not release another novel in his lifetime.

History has, to an extent, rehabilitated Algren. Slowly through plain common sense and being cited from Transformer to Kurt Vonnegut, his stock has risen again. With his writing back in print, he’ll long outlive his critics, even his effective blacklisting can be seen in hindsight as a strength — the censor pointing out that his writing was dangerous, and effective, enough to ban. And as he died believing he’d failed, it seems to be a tragic tale but then again, in the long run, who’s isn’t?

If there is one note of caution, it’s that he’s known immediately these days for the wrong reasons. It’s been said he’s more likely to be cited as the first person to have given Simone de Beauvoir an orgasm than for his writing which is a tragedy (and an eyebrow-raising footnote). In fact, for all his name is bandied about, Algren’s reputation languishes somewhat, at least in mainstream channels. Mostly, he’s seen as a gateway writer, someone you get into before moving onto the harder more addictive kicks. Plus there’s been enough satires of hip street novels to make originals with characters like Dove Linkhorn, Sparrow Saltskin and Frankie Machine and phrases he invented like neon wilderness seem self-parodic, kitsch. Look at him through the other end of the telescope though and his influence and skills become apparent. To recreate a world so identifiable, so rich in character and which captures the truth so fully that it becomes a cliché is an underestimated achievement.

Having simultaneously serenaded his city and annihilated it with the remarkable Chicago: City on the Make, Algren was rewarded when West Evergreen Street (once a tough neighbourhood and residence of the writer) was posthumously named after him. True to form, this honour was withdrawn after complaints from respectable members of the community. A prophet denied in his own land.

Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika and 3:AM Magazine.

Posted in: Essays
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