Tag Archives: American Literature

Never A Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher

This is the latest biography of a writer you have probably never heard of. But his story and reputation have made a bit of a comeback of late. There have be a couple of biographies and three documentaries on Nelson Algren in the past few years. He was considered one of America’s greatest novelist in the 40’s and 50’s, but during the Red Scare, his stature took a tumble. He won the first ever National Book Award. It was presented to him by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950 for his 3rd novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Five years later, Otto Preminger broke the Production Code and it became the first major motion picture about morphine addiction, and it starred Frank Sinatra. But Hollywood and Preminger cheated Algren out of money and respect. Preminger thumbed his nose at the lowlifes Nelson hung around with, and Nelson saw Hollywood as fake.

Algren held a lifetime grudge and he became sour on the American Dream quickly. He got a decent amount of money, but he was a gambler and lost it all quickly. He preferred the losers in life to the winners. So he hung around junkies, prostitutes, gamblers, and con men.

In 1956, he published A Walk on the Wide Side (WALK). It was a re-write of his first book, Somebody in Boots, a depiction of his travelling days throughout Texas and New Orleans during the Great Depression looking for work. Louisville’s Hunter S. Thompson was a big fan of his and WALK, and would getting into a letter writing feud with him about the amount of a long quote that Hunter used in his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Lou Reed would take this title in the early 70’s and make one of the most iconic rock songs ever about a different kind of misfits.

He had many fans, Richard Wright, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut to just name a few. He had famous lovers and many one night stands. He had a relationship with a junkie prostitute that was being abused by her husband and he helped her get clean and remarried.

The world’s leading feminist Simone de Beauvoir would visit him in Chicago from Paris in 1947. They would become soulmates. He showed her the underworld of Chicago and she was hooked. In the 1950’s, the FBI and State Department had him under surveillance for his days as a Communist in the 1930’s alongside Richard Wright and Studs Terkel. So he couldn’t leave the U.S. and his relationship with Simone fizzled. But she was buried wearing a ring he bought her.

He was able to visit Cuba and while there he called on Hemingway, who had just survived his second plane crash at the end of 1955.

In the 60’s, Algren wrote mostly for money. Quick books about his worldly travels. A book defending Hemingway after his death. Many magazine articles. He had never made the money or got the prestige that he deserved, so he made a mockery of his life and work, because that’s how the world treated him.

He taught a semester at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid-60’s, but he was a terrible teacher and didn’t think creative writing could be taught. He was the highest paid writer there and he got his third wife a position too, but he gambled all their money away.

Nelson always had a love-hate relationship with Chicago and after living there for almost six decades, he left to write a book about the Boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 1975. He would call Carter “the sanest man that I ever met.”

Nelson died in 1981 on Long Island at the age of 72. He was alone much of his time, despite many friends and lovers (and three brief marriages). In the documentary, The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All, Terkel called him two images, the Cat and Art Carney (from “The Honeymooners”). Vonnegut, who had met Algren at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, says Algren was the loneliest man he ever knew. 

If you want to read some of the greatest prose ever written, read Algren. If you want to read a great biography of an interesting life, read this work by Colin Asher.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Native Son by Richard Wright

I usually do not like recommending books to the average stranger, because my tastes, though wide, are more precise as I age. But I’m telling you, EVERYONE should read these two books NOW!  Native Son (1940) is a work of fiction that astounds me.

For years I have wanted to read Wright but never got around to it. In my twenties, I read a handful of Black authors and liked them but became a little burned out on the subject, much like telling a talker, “OK, I get it.”

Well, as I aged, I learned a lot about how things work and how people are, and about how I am. I am a white male. And as I became older and wiser, I discovered I had racist issues as is expected, since society is full of racism. My racism wasn’t hatred or feelings of inequality, but such that I bought into a lot of stereotypes that society threw at me.

Recently, I’ve gotten into a writer, Nelson Algren, who was a close friend with  Wright. They met at the Federal Writer’s Project in Chicago, and this gave Wright the time and money to produce Native Son.  Both were “Communists” in the 30’s and 40’s. Both experienced life from the bottom of society. Native Son, as well as Algren’s early novels, delves deeper into the intricate ways that the top and middle of American society preys upon its poor and black people than any work of fiction that I have read.

It is an exceptional novel that begins with high drama and is able to sustain the climax for the entire novel. The protagonist is Bigger Thomas, a 20 year old African-American male, who at his mother’s urging gets a real job. He is a young “thug” surviving by stealing and using his wits. Wright intentionally makes him a stereotypical thug for effect. If Bigger is an acceptable young man, who fit into society, it would be easy for everyone to let him pursuit the “American Dream.” But Bigger is trapped in 1930’s society in Chicago slums. The Jim Crow effects reach northward in more subtle ways, but they are not subtle if you are black. Bigger was not allowed to be an AMERICAN. He was only a “Negro Nationalist” living in America. Bigger was unwanted by his OWN PEOPLE and “his” country of birth.

Bigger knows how to survive in a tough black reality. He is exceptionally smart and can figure out the con in every game. But all he knows of the white world is to avoid it. It is ok to rob a black liquor store, but not a white one. He knows the Cops will come down on you hard if you mess with white folks.

So the real action begins when Bigger gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich, white family.  One night out with the beautiful daughter (Mary) of this rich man, and her Communist boyfriend (Jan) forces Bigger to cross many boundaries he doesn’t want to. He soon learns that one small action can change  the lives of many. We are all interconnected in a very simple, yet complex way although we seem all separate from one another.

If I had to give one book to Middle School to College aged people to read, Native Son is the one. The language is so simple and Wright makes the complex ways of interconnectedness so clear than everyone can see.  This modern world is made to make us a cold money making machine. And we roll along with this machine as it grinds out human lives beneath it.

To some, who are not willing to open their minds, it may feel that white people are on trial here but it is more that society is on trial. Individuals only make up a tiny part of it. But individuals and their actions can shape the world at large. In groups, we go easily along with what is inhumane in society.

The great baseball player Curt Flood, speaking about The St. Louis Cardinals owner August Busch, who was astonished to learn that black players could not stay at white hotels during spring training, said: “It shows you how you can segregate yourself into the back seat of a limousine and not know what’s going on.”  In the novel, the wealthy Mr. Dalton is one that rolls along with it. He is a great philanthropist and supporter of black people but he also had made his wealth in real estate at black people’s expense.

There is an innocent intelligence to the main character Bigger Thomas. He knows what is going on, but not quite. His survival in his black world is much different than his trying to stay alive in the white world. The rules are much different.  He learns as he goes. Experience is his teacher. In the end, what Bigger (and the reader) has to learn goes SOUL DEEP. It speeds by all the rules of civilization. The REDS, the WHITES, and the BLACKS are all weighing on Bigger’s mind wanting something from him that he cannot give. He is truly an outsider who must face a reality he could never have imagined.

Another book that I highly suggest is The Fire Next Time (1962), a work of non-fiction by James Baldwin, an adversary of Richard Wright. It is very enlightening, collecting two Letters, written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  Each Letter looks frankly at the state of American race relations from the black perspective, as well as Baldwin’s personal history.

It was a suggestion offered by a Facebook friend, who said it should be taught in school. It did not disappoint me. In fact, it inflamed me even though it is 55 years old.

We have both books in three different formats. I used all three with both books. I read both the Hardcover versions, the eBook (when around a computer), and listened to the Audiobook as well.  I usually have a hard time following along with an audio version but both books were a joy to listen to. The Native Son CD is beyond excellent.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library