The informal poll I have taken over the last few months assures me that Nelson Algren—the writer whom Hemingway called “one of the two best authors in America,” who was elected to the American Academy of Letters after having received its highest honor, and whose sixth book, The Man With The Golden Arm, was the first recipient of the National Book Award for Fiction—is largely unknown today.
He is not part of the university canon, nor is he even mentioned in references like Holman and Harmon’s scholarly but definitive A Handbook to Literature. Sure, Chicagoans know him, but a city always knows its native sons, even those who eventually choose exile over ignominy. Perhaps the facts of my poll cried out for Seven Stories Press to introduce us to Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm, by re-issuing a 50th anniversary critical edition, so that we can take note of the American writer who according to Hemingway “beat Dostoyevsky” in the crime and punishment category. If we choose to.
The 17 tributes to Algren included in the book alternately gush praise for the man, describe him anecdotally, and admonish critics, the public and academia for not recognizing his place in the pantheon. Since there are pieces written by notables who knew Algren personally, such as Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, Chicago everyman columnist Mike Royko, and Lawrence Lipton, it is like having an acquaintance whose mind you already know offer a hearty recommendation, and a lengthy explanation.
According to many of the portraits, Nelson Algren the man seems hard to separate from some of the characters in his books. Born in 1909, he lived through the Great Depression, ridden the rails, worked as a migrant worker in the South, carried on a love affair with Simone de Beauvoir, been jailed for stealing a typewriter and was an editor of the Illinois Writer’s Project of the WPA. His lifetime fascination was with the lives of the urban slum-dwellers, and their ability to only voyeuristically participate in the American Dream. It was what the narrator of Golden Arm calls: “the great special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all in the land where ownership and virtue are one.”
The story, set in Chicago in 1946, follows the return of Frankie Majincek, a.k.a. “Frankie the Machine,” or “Dealer,” a soldier who makes an un-American return from the war. Instead of returning to the GI Bill, prosperity and suburbia, Frankie returns to the Polish slums of Chicago’s Division Street where he partly cripples his wife in a drunken accident and pays for his morphine habit by dealing cards in the backroom of Zero Schwiefka’s bar, the Tug and Maul. Frankie is recognized as one of the greatest card dealers in the universe of a Polish Jewish barrio, and so it is his telltale virtu which sets the stage for a tragic fall of sorts. Unlike Greek tragedy, where the hero goes from the highest place in society to the lowest, Frankie’s fall is more akin to that of someone whom society would not even notice, if not for Algren’s pervasive sympathy for all such characters.
John Clellan Holmes writes that “The motto over his [Algren’s] writing desk might well have been Chekhov’s statement: ‘It is not the business of writers to accuse or prosecute, but to take the part of guilty men once they have been condemned and undergoing punishment.’ Algren’s deepest and most natural instincts went out to those he called ‘the tricked, the maimed, the tortured and the sly doers of small deeds from the nation of furnished rooms.’”
Perhaps Algren is not the rage today because he is a sentimental idealist, a man who believed in the power of literature to change society, an idea that is no longer fashionable. Also, the society which he probes with an eye for detail so sharp that the plot and action are often lost, is no more. The Polish slums around Division Street are gone, and it is hard to even imagine a ghetto or slum composed of European immigrants. Thirdly, the book is written as a sort of prose poem made up of sound, sense, tons of dialogue and long flights of prose by an omniscient narrator, who frustratingly scratches the surface of philosophical problems but only stays long enough to create pity before moving on: “It was Happy New Year everywhere but in Molly Novotny’s heart; neither her heart nor her nest gave sign of the season. The stove was smoking again and she thought carelessly, ‘We get the ones the landlords buy up for old iron,’ of both the stove and her heart. The day comes when both feel past throwing heat.”
It is passionate, concerned, and full of the hard details about the lives of the lumpenproletariat, but it is no Crime and Punishment. Where Dostoyevsky uses the failings, mistakes and passions of the common man as an opportunity to educate his reader and discuss lofty matters, Algren as a practical American man and writer, would simply have us feel empathy and pity for his characters, and hope that that feeling will change things, which is one way to change the world.