Ernest Hemingway once claimed that the writer Nelson Algren “beat Dostoyevsky,” but you wouldn’t know that from his relative obscurity today, 38 years after his death in 1981 at the age of 72. Whether the author of The Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side deserves to have so sadly a faded reputation is not a question taken up by his recent biographer Colin Asher.1 In a work of more than 500 pages called Never a Lovely So Real, Asher never treats Algren as other than one of America’s great novelists in a great tradition following Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and Richard Wright—all of whom, like Algren, found rich soil for their fiction in the city of Chicago. 

Algren has always been identified with Chicago, where he grew up and lived much the better part of his life. A nearly lifelong Chicagoan myself, my only (glancing) encounter with him was as a member of the audience in Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago one evening in 1957. All I remember of the talk is its introduction. Algren was wearing trousers that appeared not to have seen a pressing in the past decade, a rumbled purplish shirt with a zipper running diagonally across it, and he looked as if he could do with a shave. 

“For twenty-five dollar talks,” I remember him beginning, “I generally wear pressed pants and a white shirt. For fifty dollars, I’ll show up in a sport jacket. A hundred-dollar talk gets a suit and tie, shined shoes. And for five hundred and above, I’ll come if required in a tuxedo.” He paused, then said: “I’ll let you guess what my fee is for tonight’s talk.” 

Though I can recall none of the talk itself, I believe I can reconstruct its content. I’d wager that Algren set out the role of the writer as someone who is the enemy of the conformity and shallow consumerism he viewed as then swamping America. Always the enemy of the status quo, the writer, Algren held, needs to make his readers uncomfortable, dislodge them from their dullish lives with home truths about the suffering in their midst that they have trained themselves to ignore. Algren would likely have attacked American business and the middle class, noting that goals like security and personal comfort are nothing less than a denial of life. The writer must align himself with society’s victims, for he is, in his innermost being, a victim himself, whose task is to shake his readers out of their complacency. He must always defend the accused.

I state this with some confidence because I have learned from Asher’s biography and a rereading of many of Algren’s works that he was something of a Johnny One-Note, and the song he sang was that America is a mean and wretched place. At one point, he called the country “an imperialist son of a bitch”; he believed, for example, that the price of the Marshall Plan was acceptance on the part of those countries who partook of it of the status of an American colony. In Conformity, a book on the role of the writer, he claimed that “we live today in a laboratory of human suffering as vast and terrible as that in which Dickens and Dostoyevsky wrote.” Among those not obviously suffering, “never has any people possessed such a superfluity of physical luxuries companied by such a dearth of emotional necessities.” Degraded at the bottom, self-alienated everywhere else—such was the America of Nelson Algren’s imagination.

Algren came by this song through the accident of the time of his birth. His maturity arrived just in time for the Great Depression. His family was working class, his father owning a small shop that repaired car tires. His father’s father had been born in Sweden, and when a young man, under the sway of his own personal messianism, had converted to Judaism, changed his name from Nils Ahlgren to Isaac Ben Abraham, emigrated to America, thence to Israel, thence back to America. Nelson had two older sisters and a mother (née Golda Kalisher) who, in violation of the cliché of clinging Jewish mothers, never thought much of her son. In his twenties, Nelson changed his name from Abraham to Algren; he had long before dropped any sense of Jewish affiliation. 

Under the insistence of one of his sisters, Bernice, Nelson went off to the University of Illinois, where he took a degree in journalism. The Depression still in sway, he found no work on any of the five Chicago newspapers of the day. He moved on to Minneapolis to look for a newspaper job, but without any better results. Out of work, feeling himself out of luck, he headed down south, via hitchhiking and riding the rails, to New Orleans and from there to Texas, where, apart from occasional work as a fruit picker and a few failed confidence schemes, he essentially lived the life of a drifter. 

Algren had been raised to believe, as Colin Asher puts it, “that America was a place where men like him could earn degrees, find steady jobs, and buy homes using loans at a reasonable rate.” But, Asher reports, “by the winter of 1933, he had become convinced that the meritocratic ideal was a fraud, that everyone who placed their [sic] faith in it had been fooled, and that he was obliged to reveal that deception.” As he would later tell H.E.F. Donohue, in Conversations with Nelson Algren, “everything I had been told was wrong.” 

The lives of the underdog, America’s dispossessed, would be Algren’s subject. The dispossessed included, as Algren listed them at one point in The Man with the Golden Arm, “mush workers and lush workers, catamites and sodomites, bucket workers and bail-jumpers, till tappers, and assistant pickpockets, square johns and copper johns; lamisters and hallroom boys, ancient pious perverts, and old-blown parolees, rapoes and record men; the damned and the undaunted, the jaunty and the condemned.” Toss in prostitutes and punchy boxers, junkies and pimps, drug peddlers and hustlers generally. He was interested less in the proletariat than in the lumpen-proletariat. What all his characters have in common, as he writes in The Man with the Golden Arm, is “the great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one.” 

Through the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club, a meeting place for writers, artists, and musicians of revolutionary tendencies, Algren met and befriended Richard Wright and became swept up in the leftist political movement of the time. “I believed the world was changing,” he said in later years, “and I wanted to help change it.” Asher writes that in these early days Algren was a fairly vigilant “Communist, pro-Soviet—and he had an unmitigated disdain for anyone who was not.” He seems to have been the type of the sentimental, rather than the rigidly ideological, Communist. Asher is unclear about whether he was a card-carrying member of the party. Not widely read—he allowed he much liked Chekhov though didn’t know much about him—it seems doubtful Algren was steeped in Marxism, or even read Marx. He told H.E.F. Donohue that “I never joined the Party, but I did a lot of work for them.”

Asher goes on at some length about the FBI file on Algren, which runs to some 886 pages, though he allows that the FBI’s interest in him “was never acute.” He also feels that the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee played a strong part in setting back Algren’s career. Algren thought that he might have been kept from serving overseas during World War II, which he didn’t do until near the war’s end, because of his Communist connections. He also believed that Doubleday, his publisher, rejected the manuscript for A Walk on the Wild Side out of fear of arousing the suspicions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had subpoenaed him for an interview for which he failed to show up. Asher reports that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover continued to monitor Algren: “They talked regularly with his landlords, neighbors, and employers, but they never prepared charges against him. It’s likely he would have faced prison time if he had attended his interview with HUAC and perjured himself [by denying his Communist connections], but he remained a free man because he never did.” 

Through the 1950s, Algren was denied a passport out of the same suspicion that he was a member of the Party. The critic Stuart McCarrell blames the erosion of Algren’s once-legendary love affair with Simone de Beauvoir on the State Department’s denying him a passport, which would have enabled him to spend more time with her. “When it finally did [allow him a passport] in 1960,” McCarrell writes, “it was too late. By then the relationship had changed subtly but decisively… Surely the great love of his life, she [Beauvoir] was his best hope for the long, important, loving relationship that he wanted so much, and never had.” The McCarthy era has over the years been blamed for many things, but this is perhaps the only time it has been accused of ruining a man’s celebrity love life.

The Algren-Beauvoir love affair is recounted in her novel The Mandarins, in which Algren appears, little disguised, as the Chicago writer Lewis Brogan. The two were nicely suited to each other in their differing yet roughly equal distance from reality. He was muddled by his anger at what he took to be the world’s unstinting injustice, while she was mesmerized by abstraction as only a French intellectual can be: She thought America meant the atomic bomb and Americans, when not greatly fixated on gadgets, nascent fascists. When she came calling on Algren in Chicago, he didn’t at first know who she was and only discovered her fame when he saw her name in an article in the New Yorker. He showed her Chicago, his Chicago, which meant the bars on the skid row of West Madison Street, police lineups, burlesque houses, slums, the epic slaughterhouse that in those years was the stockyards—everything but an execution in the electric chair. 

In her novel, Beauvoir gave Algren high marks as a lover. “I used to value pleasure for what it was worth, but I never knew love could be so overwhelming,” she wrote. She returned to be with him again in Chicago, he visited with her in Paris and traveled to Spain and elsewhere with her. He wanted her to stay with him, but she, with a career of her own, had autres oeufs  frire, including an open relationship of sorts with Jean-Paul Sartre. Algren registered his disappointment in a letter in which he told her: “I began to realize that your life belonged to Paris and Sartre. . . . What I’ve tried to do since is take my life back from you. My life means a lot to me, I don’t like it belonging to someone so far off, someone I see only a few weeks every year.” In later years, he felt her writing about him was a betrayal, and subsequently, in Asher’s words, “downplayed Beauvoir’s importance in his life in every forum available, insulted her writing, demeaned her, and consequently made himself seem shallow and sexist.” 

Algren was married three times, twice to the same woman, and fathered no children. Apart from a stint with the WPA during the Depression, and a year at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he detested, believing as he did that no good writing could ever come out of a university, he held no regular jobs. He lived off his writing: publishers’ advances, journalist fees, the less than grand sum that the sale to Hollywood of two of his novels, The Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, brought in (a combined $40,000 for both). His diversions were poker, the race track, watching boxing and baseball. He knew no one, he was rather pleased to acknowledge, who was in business.

His book-length essay of 1951, Chicago, City on the Make, begins with some fairly standard colorful bits about old Chicago characters, Hinky Dink, Mickey Finn, Bathhouse John. At the outset, one might even think that, despite all its deficiencies and bad actors, Algren had a deep love for the city, which he compared to “loving a woman with a broken nose, you may find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” In so thinking, however, you would be wrong. 

In Algren’s rendering, Carl Sandburg’s “city of the big shoulders” has developed a serious slouch, a distinct limp, blackened teeth, and the most frightful halitosis. “In Chicago,” he wrote, “our villains have hearts of gold and all our heroes are slightly tainted.” The city itself is “a grey subcivilization surrounded by green suburbs,” where “every day is D-day under the El.” The Chicago that I myself took such pleasure growing up in, with its ethnic neighborhoods, its sense of possibility and adventure open to a boy and young man, its stunning architecture, its gangsters and crooked politicians to be sure but also major cultural institutions like the Chicago Symphony, the Art Institute, the University of Chicago, the city that was in itself a great reality instructor—this Chicago fails to make an appearance in City on the Make.

 Algren’s Chicago is just another machine to grind down the defeated, a city that, in his words, “forever keeps two faces, one for winners and one for losers; one for hustlers and one for squares. . . . One for the sunlit traffic’s noontime bustle. And one for midnight subway watchers when stations swing past ferris wheels of light yet leave the moving window wet with rain or tears.” In City on the Make, Chicago is in steep decline, a town that “grew up too arrogant, too gullible, too swift to mockery and too slow to love. So careless and so soon careworn, so challenging and yet secretly despairing—how can such a cocksure Johnson of a town catch anybody but a barfly’s heart?”

By the time of City on the Make, Algren’s personal pose had hardened into that of the poet who cannot be conned, the cynic with a heart of gold, the highly sensitive but relentlessly tough guy. His prose would become increasingly purple over the years. This empurpling is a great distraction in what he himself thought his best novel, The Man with the Golden Arm. Colin Asher reports that the novel was originally meant to be one of a series of four set in Chicago, one each on the city’s Poles, Italians, Negroes, and Mexicans. Golden Arm won the inaugural National Book Award for fiction in 1950, and was a bestseller. Yet more people doubtless are aware of the movie that Otto Preminger made from it with Frank Sinatra in 1956. Algren’s novel ends with its main character (there are no heroes in Algren), the card dealer Francis Majcinek, better known as Frankie Machine, wanted for murder, a 40-pound monkey on his back from morphine addiction, seeing no way out, and hanging himself. In the movie, Frankie breaks his drug habit, frees himself from his irksome wife (who is assigned the killing he commits in the novel and for which she goes off to jail), and then walks off to start what is assumed to be a fine new life with a plummy Kim Novak, strains of Elmer Bernstein’s jazz musical score playing in the background. 

Algren said that he worked on The Man with the Golden Arm for two years before he came upon the idea of making Frankie Machine a junkie, when it all came together. But does it really come together? The Man with the Golden Arm is a novel quite without pace. Algren’s lyrical flights, deployed throughout the book, ruin any narrative flow the book might have had. Throughout, characters wax poetically in ways they are most unlikely to have done outside an overwritten novel. Frankie’s badgering wife Sophie, for example, looks out the window of her apartment to note “moonlight that once had revealed so many stars now showed her only how the city was bound, from southeast to the unknown west, steel upon steel upon steel; how all its rails held the city too tightly to the thousand-girdered El.” (Without the El, one sometimes thinks, Algren would have been out of business.) Three more paragraphs in the same vein follow: “The city too seemed a little insane. Crippled and caught and done for with everyone in it.”

The milieu of Golden Arm is the Polish neighborhood of Chicago. The year is 1943. The characters are Blind Pig, Drunkie John, Sparrow, Meter Reader, Umbrella Man, Nifty Louie, and others—as such names suggest, they are not so much characters as caricatures. Failed similes work their way into the prose, so that “the ragged edge of that careless laughter hung like a ripped scarf upon an iron corner of his heart.” Comparably disastrous flights of descriptive fancy play through the stories in Neon Wilderness (1947); in “Million-Dollar Brainstorm,” we find the chief character, Tiny Zion, a Jewish boxer, sitting “with his head in his hands while the gutter giggled at his feet like a blowzy blonde.”  Details often misfire or seem incomprehensible, such as the first description of Frankie Machine as a “buffalo-eyed blond,” or a “Milwaukee Avenue moon,” or an “Ogden Avenue smile.” Nelson Algren was not a careful writer. 

The character in Golden Arm who carries the novel’s message is a Chicago police captain named Bednar. During police lineups, he parries the alibis of the small-time crooks who pass before him with wisecracks. But in his heart lies a heavy stone of guilt. Captain Bednar thinks: “All debts had to be paid. Yet for his own there was no currency. All errors must ultimately be punished. Yet for his own, that of saving himself at the cost of others less cunning than himself, the punishment must be simply this: more lost, more fallen, and more alone than any man at all.”

At one of his police lineups, a defrocked preacher, known for cashing bad checks, answers Bednar’s question about why he was defrocked by saying, “Because I believe we are all members of one another.” In the words of Bettina Drew, an earlier biographer of Algren: “Clearly, Algren believed that we are all members of one another, and that, in a world of survival and oppression, as the critic George Bluestone put it, ‘love is the only way that human beings may meaningfully relate. Nothing else is finally reliable.’” 

Writers falling back on the message of the need for universal love is an old story, and in literature never a convincing one. In W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” there appeared the line “We must love one another or die.” Auden later removed the line, explaining the deletion by remarking that while we can love one another all we want, we are going to die anyway.

Superior fiction makes the unpredictable seem probable. In Algren’s fiction, the reverse occurs: The improbable seems predictable. This predictability chills and ultimately kills Algren’s fiction. Ordinary people struggling to live upright ordinary lives, to raise families, to accrue accomplishments, to do the right thing often at great cost to themselves, never appear in his writing. Instead, his characters—the underdogs, the accused, the punished—come onto the scene downtrodden and depart defeated. No reversals of fortune occur. No improvement is possible. However wretched the situation, it figures to get worse. In a characteristic paragraph from his story “Design for Departure,” a paragraph that could serve as a gloss on the full body of his work, Algren writes about the thoughts of a woman brought up without love and now driven into prostitution:

For the hall [of a Chicago flop house] like their lives [those of the occupants] was equally gray by daylight or dusk. And daylight here was as gray as the sidewalks of Harrison Street; as endless as South State. Forever crowded with men and women; yet each wandering alone, all night, unwept by any and less than lost. Lost even to themselves. And there were no mourners in the world of the half-forgotten strays. Lost, by the long rain alone remembered. As she, alone, remembered the long rain.

In Algren’s fiction, moral conflicts never come into play. No character seems ever to learn anything. Everyone is helpless. The cards are dealt; the game is a nightmare version of five-card stud in which no one is allowed to draw further cards. It’s a dismal game, with no winners, and that, sorry to say, includes those kibbitzers hovering around the table, those unhappy few of us in the four decades since his death who have made the mistake of bothering to read Nelson Algren.

1 W. W. Norton & Company, 560 pages