Lit Issue 2019

Bard of the Stumblebum

A new biography reevaluates the legacy of one of Chicago’s most iconic writers

Ellen Hao

Halfway through his new biography of Nelson Algren, Never a Lovely So Real, Colin Asher recounts a story the novelist once told about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who thrust himself into his work so whole-heartedly that “he could no longer be both a good writer and a decent person.” The author of The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise instead became like “the beady-eyed men I used to see on the commuting train…men who didn’t care whether the world tumbled into chaos tomorrow.” 

Algren’s point is that the writer is engaged in a permanent flirtation with unhappiness, if they’re good. (If they’re bad, or just a hack, he thinks their life is easy enough.) Reading Asher’s book—a thorough account of the contours of Algren’s own unhappinesses—it’s difficult not to think of this anecdote, and its demand that the writer subordinate their life to their art. Algren was once so poised for success that after the release of his most successful novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, which won the inaugural National Book Award, Ernest Hemingway wrote a note in his copy that said, “Ok, kid, you beat Dostoyevsky.” But political persecution, aided by a turbulent personality, meant that Algren practically stopped writing at the height of his career, and the books he did put out were tepidly received. His reputation faded in the world at large, helped on by his critics, who derided him as a “bard of the stumblebum.” 

Asher’s book is, in some ways, a long argument for why Algren and his work deserve to be revisited. (He may overemphasize the point slightly. Even at his nadir, Algren’s reputation in Chicago and among other authors remained robust: his contemporary admirers include Don DeLillo, Kurt Vonnegut, and Cormac McCarthy.) It also offers a challenge to anyone living in Chicago: how do you engage well with the work and intention of a writer whose words about the city have been picked over to the point of becoming a cliche? 

Nelson Algren grew up in South Shore, at 71st Street and South Park Avenue (now MLK Drive), where he chased after brewery trucks, collecting and drinking sickly sweet canfuls of yeast and malt. In 1920, when he was eleven, his family moved to a Jewish neighborhood in Albany Park. Over the course of his life he’d hop around the city—from a small garden apartment at 35th and Cottage Grove to a three-flat in Wicker Park. It was in the latter neighborhood, in Chicago’s old Polish Triangle, that he gathered much of the material for The Man With the Golden Arm

The story of Algren’s life makes it clear that he was a turbulent personality, always attracted to extreme positions. Sometimes, this took the form of attempts at radical reinvention. In college at the University of Illinois, he read Marcus Aurelius and became a Stoic, enduring cold showers at 6am and oatmeal with salt for breakfast. He wasn’t particularly successful at living up to this ideal—“I was always perpetually falling off this grand plane that I had arranged,” he said in a later interview. Engagement in “an extended contest between virtue and sin,” as Asher puts it, gave Algren’s life meaning that, in a quotidian college town, it would otherwise have lacked. 

Algren was fully capable of self-destruction, too. During the early fifties, at the height of his literary success, he gambled away the money his publisher sent him, asked them for more, and lost that too. He remarried his ex-wife, Amanda Kontowicz, while in love with another woman, Paula Bays; Asher writes that, after finishing the vows, Algren kissed Bays before Kontowicz. (He then wrote an agonized letter to another great love of his, Simone de Beauvoir, declaring that he had “made a horrible mistake.”) 

Soon after the ceremony, he traveled to the South to get away from his marriage and work on a book—it marked the beginning of a long series of meandering trips, the attempts of a broke forty-something-year-old to write, make money, or leave the country. At one point, he spends a few nightmarish months in Los Angeles, coerced into working on the film adaptation of The Man with the Golden Arm. At another, he visits free-spirited friends in East St. Louis; there, he longs to experience the carefree pleasure they take in life. He writes enviously to a friend, “Everyone of those women, and their men too, sat there for hours just having themselves one hell of a time.” 

Algren was capable of having a good time—he was the consummate tour guide to his own city, drinking all of his out-of-town friends under the table. His problem was a lack of moderation. He couldn’t stop himself, as he admitted in a letter to his friend, from marrying Amanda because it seemed like the right thing to do, in line with the same principles that informed his written work. He also couldn’t resist defending the Rosenbergs, or inserting a throwaway reference to two real-life FBI informants on leftist movements in one of his novels (which caused them to contact the Bureau about Algren’s past politics).

This last act spelled the start of real trouble for Algren. Never a Lovely so Real isn’t the first biography about the writer: Tribune reporter Mary Wisniewski released hers all the way back in 2017, and there was another written in the eighties. But Asher has a good reason for putting out a new book, and a convincing explanation for Algren’s failure to capitalize on his quick fame: he’s the first to gain access to a less redacted version of Algren’s FBI file, maintained during the years that the agency suspected the writer of being a Communist spy. 

Algren was involved with the Communist Party in the thirties, when he was a member of the Chicago’s proletarian literature movement. In an atmosphere suffused with revolutionary optimism, he developed the idea that writing should be explicitly political, for and about the working-class. That underlying principle informed his decision to write about people living on the “fringes of society” for the rest of his career. It’s present in his failure of a first novel all the way to his most famous works, Golden Arm and Chicago: City on the Make

The FBI assiduously surveilled Algren: the postmaster in Gary, where he lived for a while, kept track of the writer’s mail, and agents would routinely phone up his unsuspecting mother to figure out where he was. But because the details from the investigation were never made public, Algren’s mid-life deterioration seemed to be entirely his own fault, even to Algren himself.

He never knew how many of his friends and professional contacts the bureau had spoken to, or how closely they were watching him, so when publishers began distancing themselves from him, he assumed his work simply wasn’t wanted or wasn’t good enough…. When he discovered he couldn’t concentrate well enough to write the way he once had, he attributed this trouble to personal weakness.

As he writes in the introduction, Asher’s biography relies heavily on this point: Algren was not dragged down by his own demons, except with a generous shove from a repressive political regime. In making it, he also comes close to levying a defense of Algren that concedes too much ground to the moralizer—Algren is salvageable because he was not as bad as his detractors suggest. But just as we shouldn’t read novels to confirm our smug ethical certainties, there’s no need to save Algren from his critics. Asher’s book uncovers valuable new information that expands our understanding of Algren’s circumstances, but it’s also an entrancing picture of his failures, and a man unable to do anything at half-speed, even as it leads him into trouble. 

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Though Algren may live on in general obscurity until Asher gets his way, he retains a significant reputation in Chicago, where his footprint sometimes shows up in slightly absurd ways. Last year, Neon Wilderness—a bar named after Algren’s short story collection—opened in Wicker Park; the hard-nosed slogan on their website reads: “We Don’t Hand Out Participation Trophies. They’re Earned.” A few months later, the Art Institute hosted an exhibition of mid-century Chicago film and photography with the same title as Asher’s book. 

Algren is also a favorite of the contemporary columnists and journalists who seem to see themselves as descendants of a long line of Chicago writers writing for the common man—Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Ben Hecht. Tribune columnist John Kass once argued that City on the Make should be Chicago’s official book of the year, decrying the “Orwellian magic” of the selection committee that chose To Kill a Mockingbird instead. In his former column at DNAinfo, Mark Konkol wrote that, “No other writer has captured the truth about our beautifully corrupt and lovingly coldhearted city like Algren in the 1940s.” (Ignore, for a moment, that the book was written and released in the 1950s.) 

It’s easy to see the appeal of tying oneself to Algren and his peers. City on the Make sketches the enervation of a once-great city—“the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones.” It’s only the little ones that remain by the time Algren is writing, ordinary people trying to make a life for themselves in whatever defiant and defiled way they can manage. Still, there’s a romance to the Chicago shown in the work, indelibly corrupt but somehow irresistible, “an infidel’s capital six days a week.” It’s this vision, of a place equal parts underdog and conman, that’s come to dominate the city’s conception of itself over the last half century. 

But this view of Chicago erases any of the nuance in Algren’s thought and writing. Kass’s columns, for instance, are full of both reflexive cynicism and treacle: every politician is corrupt, while every police officer, up to and including Jason Van Dyke, is worth all our mawkish sympathy. The writing must play well with uninformed suburbanites, but, unlike The Man with the Golden Arm, it’s neither sharp nor resonant. 

What would it mean, particularly for a Chicagoan, to take Algren seriously instead of superficially, and to genuinely engage with his legacy as a writer? For this, it may be best to replace City on the Make with Nonconformity, a book that Asher highlights as particularly worthwhile in his biography. Rejected by Doubleday and published posthumously, Nonconformity is a long essay covering Algren’s theory of what literature should be. His main contention is that the “flabbiness and complacency” of most American writing is due to the unwillingness of novelists to live and work “in shabby company,” somewhere outside the confines of mainstream cultural spheres. He inveighs against writers who spend time mostly around their own kind, and eventually take off for the coasts: “The less he sees of other writers the more of a writer he will ultimately become. When he sees scarcely anyone except other writers, he is ready for New York.” 

Nonconformity also criticizes writing that models itself after reportage and “makes a virtue of stenography…. A surefire means, it seemed, wherewith to gain one’s art without losing one’s life.” Algren, who wanted to be a sociologist for a while in college and researched his books exhaustively, is drawing a fine distinction here: while literature must be true to life, it cannot simply imitate it. Instead, there must be a commitment to discover emotional truth, paired with a relentless description of reality. 

If we must engage with a city as it exists, and not simply as we imagine it to be, is it still justifiable to think of Chicago as a “city of hustlers”? That’s a complicated question, of course, and the near-decade under Rahm Emanuel saw plenty of corruption scandals wherein some vestige of an old machine asserted itself: Willie Cochran, Ed Burke, Barbara Byrd-Bennett. But they can sometimes seem to pale in comparison to how straightforwardly the extraction of resources from the city’s lower classes takes place now. The closing of schools and mental health clinics wasn’t a con—it was just faceless austerity politics. The news that Burke tried to shake down a local Burger King franchise, or that Danny Solís enjoyed visiting massage parlors, is small-fry comedy next to the recent finding from a team of New York University public health researchers that the gap in life expectancy between Englewood and Streeterville is thirty years. This presents its own challenge. How do you write fiction about the gradual disappearance of Black people from the South Side, or new megadevelopments the size of a small neighborhood?

Perhaps for this reason, the better-known Chicago novels of the 21st Century have mostly tackled the safe territory of the past: Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is partly set in the present-day, but revolves around the AIDS crisis of the eighties, and Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project is focused on a hundred-year-old murder. This isn’t a crime; Algren’s mandate for fiction is in many ways singularly narrow-minded—his embrace of a particular mode of writing often came at the expense of others, and he railed against a tendency toward symbolic fiction that he saw emerging in the mid-twentieth century. 

Still, there’s something compelling in Algren’s totalitarian, ambitious vision of what a writer should be. Part of the appeal, of course, is that he was writing at a time when it still seemed to matter what writers had to say about the world. But his ideas also encourage literature that extends our understanding of the world all the way to its frayed edges, and helps us see the complex lives of others beyond the simplifications of, say, centrist identity politics.

Last Friday, Lil Durk, the drill rapper from Englewood, released his fourth studio album, Love Songs 4 the Streets 2. On the fifth track, “Locked Up,” he raps about his friends and associates  who are languishing in prison—the one who didn’t snitch in exchange for a plea deal, or another who got thrown “in the hole ‘cause he got a gang case.” He recalls, briefly, his own incarceration (three months on a weapons charge), and his drug problems. 

Listening to Love Songs, I was reminded of a passage at the beginning of The Man With the Golden Arm. Frankie Majcinek, the book’s protagonist, has been picked up and sent to jail for the night. The next morning, he watches the other inhabitants get up and perform their daily ablutions: 

Though he had seen not one man of them in his life, Frankie knew each man. For each was seared by that same torch whose flame had already touched himself…. The great, secret, and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in a land where ownership and virtue are one. 

Majcinek imagines the remaining days of these men, “luckless living soon to become the luckless dead.” It’s their anticipation of death as the great equalizer that they take solace in: “they’d all be taking the same road, down the same littered street, to the same single trench together.” Algren here is trying to confront us with the invisible lives of people in trouble; their utter, anonymous forgettability is what should haunt us. 

Durk’s songs don’t necessarily deal with the forgotten; their subject is often, instead, the interchangeable Black male always implicitly present when people talk about violence in Chicago. He takes the grainy photo from the police blotter and shows the guilt, sorrow, and anger that might exist within that person. He also confronts us with the invisible—the rich interior life we deny the criminal. 

I think that if there is a true heir to Algren in Chicago, it’s probably not a novelist, or John Kass, but Lil Durk, or one of the other drill rappers and backyard slam poets depicting the nuanced realities of life on the South and West sides. It’d still be nice to get a big new book about the city, though. 

Colin Asher, Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren. $39.95. W.W. Norton. 543 pages.

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Christian Belanger is a senior editor at the Weekly. He last wrote about the history of community land trusts in Chicago.

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