Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren
Nelson Algren will probably never again be as admired as he was in 1949, but “there are sadder afterlives,” said Jonathan Dee in The New Yorker. A new biography of the novelist once judged by Ernest Hemingway to be better than Dostoyevsky likely won’t restore him to the pantheon, but it “does something else nearly as valuable”: It shows why the author of The Man With the Golden Arm remains the model of a principled artist. A champion of the poor and an outspoken foe of Red Scare paranoia, Algren refused to change. Biographer Colin Asher alleges that the FBI, in response, engineered Algren’s downfall, and “whoa if true.” More likely, Algren’s stylized voice simply didn’t age well, and “it’s the life, more than the work,” that deserves study.
Though Asher isn’t a reliable interpreter of the era’s politics, his portrait of Algren “has heft and heart,” said Thomas Mallon in The Wall Street Journal. Born in 1909, the son of a car mechanic, Algren developed his affinity for the downtrodden during a Depression-era cross-country odyssey. And he listened so closely to his subjects that the plots of his novels almost don’t matter. “What one remembers are the jazzy idiolects, malapropisms, and accidental rhapsodies of its jailbirds, junkies, cops, and cripples.” Algren took failures hard: After his first novel flopped, he attempted suicide; after critics derided A Walk on the Wild Side, his best-selling follow-up to The Man With the Golden Arm, he practically threw himself into the role of a fallen idol.
You have to wonder what might have been, said Dan Simon in The Nation. Everyone initially associated with the film adaptation of The Man With the Golden Arm was blacklisted, and the FBI saw to it that Doubleday didn’t even publish the first book Algren wrote after his award-winning breakthrough. Though most of his 12 novels are thus little known rather than celebrated, at least five were “enduring masterpieces.” The only real mistake Algren ever made was casting his lot with outcasts. “His defeat then was also his triumph,” and “remains so today.” ■