Monday, September 09, 2019

Proletarian Roadkill: Colin's Asher's bography of Nelson Algren- Never a Lovely So Real

WITH THE PROLETARIAT, to a large degree, having morphed into today’s precariat, midcentury writers who sought to align themselves with the dispossessed tend to be a forgotten, if not extinct, species. Which is unfortunate because, until the onslaught of McCarthyism, they were a vital force in American cultural life. These days few people read the work of radical authors like Benjamin Appel, Tom Kromer, Meridel Le Sueur, Josephine Herbst, and Mike Gold, all of whom depicted the conditions of those surviving on the margins — indeed, declared their solidarity with those unfortunates, extolling their virtues and idiosyncrasies. Writers who survived that tradition with their proletarian credentials intact were, to a large degree, those — like Jim Thompson and David Goodis — who were able to convey their portrayals of the underclass via hardboiled pulp fiction. After all, they were themselves working writers, laboring in obscurity, grinding out paperback originals to make a living. By contrast, left-leaning authors such as John Dos Passos, James Agee, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright had literary connections and writing ability that allowed them access to the upper realms of respectability. Rarer still were those writers who found themselves stranded between proletarian fiction and mainstream literature, yet who could nonetheless sidestep the pay-by-the-word pulp market. Notable among such talents was Nelson Algren, who, no matter how celebrated in his day, would eventually pay the price for adhering to that precarious position.

Born in 1909 in Detroit, Algren (née Nelson Ahlgren Abraham) moved with his family at the age of three to Chicago, where he remained for most of his life. Like many of his fellow writers during that era, he was briefly a member of the Communist Party, dividing his time in the 1930s between professional writing and organizing work for the Communist Party–inspired League of American Writers and the John Reed Club (and later, during the New Deal, for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project). Always a dedicated, if individualistic leftist, he went on to raise funds for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), then, some years later, for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; not to mention voicing his opposition to creeping conformism (code for McCarthyism), the Vietnam War, and the false promise of consumerism. It was during the Great Depression that Algren, inspired by books like Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Aleksandr Kuprin’s brothel-set novel The Pit (Yama, 1915), as well as by witnessing the plight of ordinary people, kicked off his writing career. Like many during that era, he took to the road, riding the rails and hitching rides, ending up in Texas, where he hooked up with some petty criminals and eventually manned a rural gas station. It was at the local teachers’ college that Algren, seeking to hone his literary chops, stole a typewriter, was arrested, found guilty, and given a two-year suspended sentence.

(You can find the remainder of the review at the LARB website) http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

No comments :