When I was getting my Masters in Creative Writing at San Franciso State, I approached the chair of the department, Frances Mayes, for what I thought would be a perfunctory signature on a form allowing me to do my thesis on Nelson Algren.
I had always admired Algren’s gritty grotesques, and I especially wanted to analyze how he unflinchingly represented a part of America that few authors bothered with: the beastly condition of America’s underclass. Algren was essentially the last working class author. Algren’s fame peaked just as Joseph McCarthy began black balling artists who had a socialist conscience, and the idea of writing challenging social realist novels never gained traction again.
After Algren something changed in American literature. Yes, writers still wrote and write about the street, and with a certain bravado, realism, and beauty, whether it’s Jack Kerouac, Seth Morgan, Jim Carrol, or Charles Bukowski. But all of these authors were more interested in something else than the feeling of inescapable injustice. They might have writen about a needle going into a vein, but they didn’t convey its horror, its sole pleasure in a jaundiced day, a moment of relief just barely able to wipe out the knowledge that there is no relief. In their work, there was always an element of fun or holiness in doing drugs. With Algren, in a book like The Man with the Golden Arm, the pain was the main thing, and the pain was symptomatic of a far greater societal pain.
Of course Algren wasn’t a social realist as much as he was a poet. He was a gambler in life, and a gambler as a writer. Political earnestnesss didn’t suit him; it was the meaning of life that mattered.
The Man with the Golden Arm won the first National Book Award, but Frances Mayes wouldn’t sign the form. I asked her why. “Well, he’s a bad writer,” she said.
It’s nice to see Algren getting his due in a recent article in Salon. One thing I know is that he’d never write cheap travel books pretending to be literary adventures. And if he wrote one that became a popular success, he wouldn’t start writing cheap and diluted sequels for more money–and he wouldn’t allow Diane Lane to play his characte in a movie! Whether he was a good or bad writer, at least he wrote and lived from the heart.