Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make (and others)(and parentheses)
He was the son of Polish Jews, born in Detroit. Like Joseph Mitchell, Pete Dexter, Mark Royko, A. J. Liebling, Luc Sante, and a handful of others, Algren wrote about urban life without mentioning the swells. Chicago, where he lived for most of his life, provided him with his subject matter--the hard lives of working class men and women, the scams of grifters and politicians, the tragedy of bad choices or of no choices at all. His best-known novel, The Man With A Golden Arm possesses the same foreboding sense of doom as James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy--the city's dynamics, its teeming inner life, bring out some of what is best and all of what is worst in everyone. Survival is possible, but at great cost, and much that other writers think of as growing out of our ethical nature, in fact depends upon blind chance. In other words, Algren, like many of the other naturalists of the period just before and just after the Second World War, worked within the social Darwinian framework exploited for different purposes by racists like William Graham Sumner and Theodore Roosevelt--the difference being that Algren and his journalist/novelist brethren felt compassion for the victims of an economic and social system that exploited their worst instincts. Reading Algren I think: nothing much has changed, except, of course, nobody writes about the world without blinking in the way that Algren did; or, better, no one writes as well from within that world.
He had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir in the late 40's and early 50's (Algren is "Lewis Brogan" in The Mandarins), was investigated by the FBI (a badge of honor in those days; Algren never joined the Party, and though he was a man of the Left, he wasn't especially political), and he was condemned by his own Chicago Polish community for his novel Never Come Morning. His 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side has the distinction of being (I think) the darkest of noir writing--the plot reads like an Elizabethan revenge tragedy--drunks, prostitutes, pimps, orphans, and murderers (dark enough to inspire Lou Reed). Algren at his best makes Jim Harrison seem upbeat. Algren disliked fiction that tipped over into propaganda or sociology. His characters are real, if unimaginable. I picked up Naked Lunch the other day to see if there was any Algren in Burroughs; not a drop. Algren brings the purity of art to his stories; Burroughs rambles on like Falstaff--a junky jester. *
Not precisely the home of the Blues, but close enough, Chicago's African-American population has known/knows a thing or two about hard living. (See Wayne F. Miller, Chicago's South Side, 1946-1948). The lyrical element in the music of someone like Jimmy Davis is reflected in Algren's prose, especially in the essay under review here. Chicago: City on the Make, like many a blues lament, is a love-hate song: "My baby done me wrong, but I can't live without her..."
Here's a sample:
"Chicago keeps two faces...one for sunlit traffic's noontime bustle. And one for midnight subway watches when stations swing past like ferris wheels of light, yet leave the moving window wet with rain or tears."
"When chairs are stacked and glasses are turned and arc-lamps all are dimmed. By days when the wind bangs alley gates ajar and the sun goes by on the wind. By nights when the moon is an only child above the measured thunder of the cars, you may know Chicago's heart at last:
You'll know it's the place built out of Man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself. Out of Man's endless war against himself we build our successes as well as our failures. Making it the city of all cities most like Man himself--loneliest creation of all this very old poor earth."
In Algren's hands Chicago becomes what it is in geographic terms--the middle ground dividing us (Saul Bellow loved Chicago but yearned for New York; Algren was all about the odd perch of Porkopolis on Lake Michigan)--our grasping nature, our vulnerability; our indifference to others, our rare but genuine compassion; our imagination and our banality--in the end, what wins out depends on the man or woman: the City, any city, has a life of its own, disconnected from ours ("like the indifferent stars"); it is the theater in which we act out the tragicomic existence of "Man". The Mandarin herself found Algren (at first) charming, hard-edged, a man of conviction (perhaps unlike her Parisian lover); later on he bored her, or perhaps he acted badly--probably he did act badly (he sometimes did).
He was hardly a "writer's writer." In a Paris Review interview (1955) Algren disavows connections with just about every other writer, including Hemingway (he grudgingly admits to admiring Hemingway's style). Algren says a lot of interesting things about the craft of writing, including this:
"I do have the feeling that other writers can’t help you with writing. I’ve gone to writers’ conferences and writers’ sessions and writers’ clinics, and the more I see of them, the more I’m sure it’s the wrong direction. It isn’t the place where you learn to write. I’ve always felt strongly that a writer shouldn’t be engaged with other writers, or with people who make books, or even with people who read them. I think the farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn’t really live, he observes."
A writer doesn't really live...though Algren did live, richly. Does one choose to write, or does writing choose you? Algren had no choice--writing was his means of living, of making a living, but also the way he made sense of the world. I suppose he's a footnote in American literary history; his early books are just coming back into print. It's a shame--he should be better known since his world and this one aren't all that different.
Algren died in, of all places, Sag Harbor, on Long Island, in 1981.
"The Paris Review" Interview (The Art of Fiction #11, 1955), conducted by Terry Southern, is worth reading here:
*My late-in-life disenchantment with Naked Lunch, a book I loved when I was twenty, doesn't diminish my affection for Bill Burroughs, especially for the shambling YouTube performances of his poems. And if Burroughs on "What Keeps Mankind Alive" is precious, Tom Waits singing Burroughs' lines is sublime.
Chicago: City on the Make is available from the University of Chicago Press.
George Ovitt (6/30/15)