He stole a typewriter and went to jail. That’s all I heard. I knew I found a new friend…
“The great strength of a fighting man is his pride. That was Young Rocco’s strength in the rounds that followed. The boy called Kid Class couldn’t keep him down. He was down in the fourth, twice in the fifth, and again in the seventh. In that round he stood with his back against the ropes, standing the boy off with his left in the seconds before the bell. He had the trick of looking impassive when he was hurt, and his face at the bell looked as impassive as a catcher’s mitt.” (in ‘He Swung and He Missed,’ 1942)
“During the post-war years Algren started an affair with the French writer Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre’s life-companion. At that time she shared Sartre with Dolores Vanetti Ehrenreich, once the mistress of the surrealist poet André Breton. Dolores lived in New York, where Sartre had dediced to spent a few months every year with her. Beauvoir made a lecture tour in the United States in 1947 and the two writers met through an introduction arranged by Mary Guggenheim. “On train to Los Angeles I read one of his books and thought about him,” de Beauvoir later wrote, “he lived in a hovel, 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.” (from A Transatlantic Love Affair, 1998) Algren showed Beauvour Chicago’s underside, introduced her to stickup men, pimps, baggage thieves, whores and heroin addicts. He was the first man with whom Beauvoir ever had an orgasm. On every day they met, they slept together.” (1)
Nelson Algren’s legacy ebbs
He wrote some of the most compelling books of the last century. So why do so few remember?
By David L. Ulin
April 26, 2009
Reporting from Chicago
The Steppenwolf Theatre feels like a womb. It’s warm, dark, soporific, full of voices barely loud enough to be distinguished, a setting beyond time. Outside, the streets of Old Town are laced with spring afternoon snowflakes; on the South Side, at U.S. Cellular Field (formerly Comiskey Park), opening day has been postponed.
The fact that Comiskey is no longer called Comiskey is a sign of how Chicago has changed, and not for the better. But then, the old Comiskey had a date with the wrecking ball almost two decades ago. The new park — bland, lifeless, another corporate sellout — is the kind of ersatz place marketers and con men try to pass off as authentic in a world that no longer remembers what authentic means.
A long falling out
All this raises the question: Why hasn’t Algren lingered more? Partly, Banks suggests that it has to do with the bifurcation at the heart of his work: “The people he wrote about,” he says, “were different than those who read his books, which is a divide that’s impossible to get around.”
But not unlike Lady Day, Algren flamed out, falling prey to alcohol and bitterness. He left Chicago first for Paterson, N.J., where he moved to write about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer unjustly convicted of triple murder, and then for Long Island, where he died in 1981 at age 72. He sold “The Man With the Golden Arm” to Otto Preminger but hated the 1955 movie, reportedly grumbling that “Sinatra shook heroin like he shook a summer cold.” Algren alienated everyone, complaining that he hadn’t gotten what he deserved and then didn’t write a book worth reading for the last 25 years of his life. “Some fighters can only go eight,” Gifford says, “and he got tired, like Kerouac got tired.” And yet, he continues, “He wrote enough.”
Gifford’s correct, of course, although it’s not just a matter of what he wrote, but how. He stood up for what was important, and for what was right. ” ‘What is literature?’ Jean-Paul Sartre once asked in a small volume bearing that title,” Algren declared, invoking his rival for Simone de Beauvoir’s affections, in a 1961 afterword to “Chicago: City on the Make.”
“I submit that literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.
“Now we all know.” (2)
“In a 1949 letter to Algren, Ernest Hemingway provided the following review of the novel (which Doubleday chose not to include in its marketing):
Into a world of letters where we have the fading Faulkner and that overgrown Li’l Abner Thomas Wolfe casts a shorter shadow every day, Algren comes like a corvette or even a big destroyer… Algren can hit with both hands and move around and he will kill you if you are not awfully careful… Mr. Algren, boy, you are good.” (3)