Never A Lovely So Real

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Nelson Algren was one of America’s best novelists, the author of such memorable works as “The Man With the Golden Arm” and “A Walk on the Wild Side.” His rewards for those and many other literary accomplishments? One major critic called him “the bard of the stumblebums.” Another dismissed his work as “puerile sentimentality.” Algren was also hounded by the FBI for 28 years, ripped off by lawyers, publishers, literary agents and Hollywood producers, and died forgotten and bitter in 1981.

Now a new biography of Algren has been published, NEVER A LOVELY SO REAL, which hopefully will remind the world of his stature and win its respect again. Written by Colin Asher, the book paints a graphic picture of a novelist whose subjects were people on the margins of society, those whose lives were full of “larceny and arson, sodomy and simony, boosting, hijacking and shootings in sudden affray; blackmail and terrorism, incest and pauperism, embezzlement and horse theft, tampering and procuring, abduction and quackery.”

Writing about the down and out was considered a novelist’s duty when Algren first started out. This was in the 1930s, when the Great Depression and the failure of capitalism spawned a proletarian literature movement which he happily joined, along with such other worthy writers as Richard Wright, Meridel Le Sueur, James T. Farrell, Jack Conroy and Mike Gold.

“There wasn’t much connecting the motivations of the proletarian writers, but they had a unifying goal,” Asher explains. “They wrote to broaden the scope of American literature so that working-class characters could assume prominent roles, and most understood that effort as part of a larger struggle. They believed their writing had the potential to change the world, and the Communist Party USA–-the proletarian literature movement’s greatest benefactor–-encouraged them to embrace that possibility.”

Algren joined the Party for a while and although he eventually resigned his membership for ideological reasons, he essentially remained a proletarian writer for the rest of his life. That was his strength and glory, really, but it came up against changing tastes in literature. “Just as painters were moving away from realism and toward abstract expressionism, writers were abandoning ’social novels’ in favor of technique-driven works that placed more emphasis on metaphor, irony, and paradox than on research, compassion, or story. A book’s relevance no longer mattered to many reviewers, and the quality of Nelson’s work that had earned him the greatest praise for 21 years of his career was suddenly a liability,” states Asher.

Being rejected and ignored like that deeply affected Algren, a man who had suffered from depression all his life, to such an extent that he even tried to kill himself. Essentially a loner, an outsider, he also had trouble relating to women. Neither of his three marriages lasted, and his well-known affair with Simone de Beauvoir began in passion and love but ended in disrespect and dislike (on his part).
But despite these personal and professional problems, Algren
never stopped writing, not even when the major publishing houses began to reject his work (including the companies which had earned millions with his best-sellers). “I now consider myself a journalist, a freelance writer,” he told friends. For several years he concentrated on articles, reviews, and teaching gigs. But then his social consciousness kicked in and he came to the aid of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a black ex-boxer whom he felt had been wrongfully convicted of murder.

Algren quit his home city of Chicago and moved to Paterson, New Jersey to be closer to where Carter was incarcerated--and to write a novel about him. Algren worked for several years on the book, putting everything he had into it, only to be devastated by rejections from Doubleday and Random House. The only offer to publish came from a minor company which wouldn’t pay more than fifteen thousand bucks for the rights. Algren deemed the offer insulting; consequently “The Devil’s Stocking” was not published during his lifetime.

Algren’s fight to exonerate Carter was typical of him. In earlier days he had bravely taken on a leadership role in the campaign to free Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a married couple who had been convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union and sentenced to death. Most people considered them traitors but Algren believed they had been framed. He also came out defiantly against the Vietnam War, declaring “when you have a defense industry as large as ours, you have to have an enemy.”

The skillfully-wrought NEVER A LOVELY SO REAL pays tribute to the achievements of Nelson Algren, one of the most neglected American writers, a man who once said that “literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.” It is a standard he lived up to each and every time he sat down to write.

(W.W. Norton & Co.)