Sunday, January 1, 2012
"Conversations with Nelson Algren"
Highlighting a mostly forgotten author, "Conversations with Nelson Algren"
is rich with themes relevant today, and a critique of American life a worthy of consideration.
Algren was a "tough guy" writer from Chicago's west side. He was jailed in Texas as a young man, enlisted in World War II, traveled to Asia on a merchant ship, maintained a long-time romance with the existentialist and feminist intellectual Simon de Beauvoir, to name just a few of the adventures which filled his life.
Much of his literature concerned itself with drug addiction in the mean streets, to shedding light on the realities of this particular sliver of the demimonde. To such themes did he stake his name and novels, among them "The Man with the Golden Arm" and "Walk on the Wild Side."
"I thought I'd make a dent," he tells his interrogator. "I didn't make the least dent, because there is no way of convincing or even making the slightest impression on the American middle class that there are people who have no alternative, that there are people who live in horror, that there are people whose lives are nightmares. This is not accepted. The world of the drug addict doesn't exist. The world of the criminal doesn't exist. The world of the murderer doesn't exist. Nothing that does not touch the person individually exists."
Two of Algren's novels were made into A-list movies, one starring Frank Sinatra. Otto Preminger produced one of them. Algren's is the quintessential Hollywood writer's story, the one where he gets ripped off, recounted in an angry, detailed narrative that makes "Conversations with..." worth the trip.
Not that he finds things much better in New York or Chicago: "I put up with the disdain. I accept that as part of the creative person's lot in the United States. You must live with the disdain. There's something criminal about being a writer, that is, if you're not a successful writer, that is if you're not a yes man."
He should see how things are today. Algren's own experience sounds like some contrived fantasy for television kids.
For example, his first time in New York, "I went right up to Vanguard Press and met James Henle. And he said, 'What'll you need to write a novel?' I said, 'I'd go back to the Southwest.' He said, 'What would you need to do that?' I said, 'I need thirty dollars a month."
And he got it, plus "ten dollars to get out of town."
Products of long ago, his conversations do double service as memoirs that explain mid-century America, starting with the Great Depression and heading into the early '60s.
He was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the '30s, starting out at $87 a month and rising to $125 over the life his job. A window on government's turn at fomenting fortune in the art world.
"The WPA? Yeah, it was very good. I believe that the first thing it was, it served to humanize people who had been partially dehumanized. There had been, I believe, in those years between 1929 and 1930, '31, when people who had been self-respecting, lost their self-respect by being out of work and then living by themselves began to feel the world was against them. To such people WPA provided a place where they began to communicate with people again."
If you do not find something like that interesting, you should bypass this book, which is sociological and political in nature, glazed with a Chicago-street patina.
Algren was friends with Richard Wright, had a tense encounter with James Baldwin, disliked Jack Kerouac's work, but liked John Clellon Holmes and, generally speaking, had enough to say about his times to generate a panoramic view of the same.
That panorama is on display in these interviews conducted by the also-forgotten H.E.F. Donohue.