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Lost and Found Books: Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity: Writing on Writing (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998)

Lost & Found Books

Lost & Found Books is a new and occasional Logos series of review essays (3000-3500 words) devoted to reconsiderations of books that reviewers argue were lost in the shuffle, fell unjustly by the wayside or are otherwise worth a revival of interest. Submissions are welcome but it is always wise to propose pieces first.

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Conformity sounds like a plight you would only find debated earnestly on a Mad Men episode, a throwback to a bygone era of calculated timidity, of learning to peddle yourself shamelessly in the social scene, of cookie-cutting yourself to employer expectations in a tight job market, of . . . Hmm. Hang on, yes, conformity is back, though probably less sincerely so than in the 1950s. People still conform and they do so for all the obvious reasons. You just don’t notice because they are acting like everyone else around you. In most milieus, being a conspicuous oddball or lone dissident can still get you hurt, fired, ridiculed or shunned. Protective coloration, not ripeness, is all.

The advantages of ‘going along to get along’ are dangled for the clever ones, the potentially anarchic ones, to consider. The proving ground in middle-class professional culture is smooth transition from University campus (where you never inhaled) to a shiny pseudo-zeitgeist concocted by dead-souled corporate cretins in the ever leaner and meaner workplace. Once upon a time passing this pallid test with flying colors resulted in bigger paydays, more opportunities, approval of similarly slick self-seeking peers, and affirmation that you are an enviable topnotch climber. You even can be hailed as a daredevil for perfectly tepid acts, if it makes you feel better. They got it covered. They? They are the guardians of the status quo, whatever it is, in any time, any culture or subculture, any place.

Increasingly in our brazenly and systematically swindled world, though, you can maneuver through “twenty years of schooling,’ as Dylan rasped, and all the suits do is “put you on the day shift.” Be glad you got a job of any kind at your master’s whim. Over the last few decades, those ‘straight’ people, who Fox News serves and celebrates, diligently rigged the economy, deranged the legal system and purchased Congress so as to deny benefits to anyone except the lobbying bank buzzards and corporate cronies. Every ounce of your added energy and ingenuity results in productivity gains that flow straight to the top 1%, not you.[1] This radical rearrangement didn’t happen overnight or by accident. The best that the vast majority of wage slaves can hope for economically is to run in place, and be glad of the chance to lick a shiny loafer or two. Well then, why bother?

Is conformity innate? Is there a gene? The social cues at play are way too powerful for a crucial test ever to be performed that separates the cultural from the physiological influences. It’s no surprise that as youngsters grow up in a postindustrial society they ache to form, or scheme to enter, cliques ranging from clubs to secret college societies to ‘epistemic communities’ to gain an edge in a race they are taught not to question. Ivy Leaguers over the last few decades flocked into Wall Street jobs where they lay their prostituted pedigrees at the feet of shimmering Mammon, managed to sabotage the Western hemisphere’s economy, and called it progress.[2] How smart was that? Nonetheless, the staple-faced denizens in the Goth bar, no less than the fashionistas lounging in the posh Manhattan bar, are about as non-conformist as a school of fish. Each little social system nurtures and protects its eager minions, so long as they are useful.

Why it’s positively unhealthy to misbehave. Richard Kraft –Ebbing in 1892 concocted the diagnosis “political and reformatory insanity” to label wayward souls who exhibited “an inclination to differ from the mass opinion.”  The “incubation period is long, often reaching back to childhood, he solemnly noted.[3] So science, such as it is, marches on. Still, it’s hard to hold any pose for long – the Victorian era was the longest and spawned rancorous Freud – so a rupture was inevitable. Must You Conform? is the title of a mutinous tome that I recall long ago plucking from a library shelf in Champaign-Urbana.[4] That the question needed to be asked said a lot. The University of Illinois in the late 60s was the largest “Greek” (fraternity- and sorority-infested) campus in America. Kids competed to please Cro-Magnon post-pubescent committees and to smooch the right rear ends: networking, as it is sanitarily termed today. Paul Goodman in Growing Up Absurd fretted scathingly about a “dangerous conformity” as a toxic aspect of modern life.[5] Even billionaire J. Paul Getty deplored a conformity that “can do the Free World’s cause more harm than a dozen Nikita Khrushchevs.”[6] In its pre-Beatles heyday Mad Magazine thrived on lampooning the mania for conformity. All this changed somewhat in the late 60s and many crew-cut frat boys suddenly sprouted Sergeant Pepper mustaches and hair as they hurried to catch up, usually quite cluelessly, with what most regarded as the latest fashion to conform with.

The days of in loco parentis, dress codes, and looking alike are long gone, aren’t they? Now it’s rainbow hair, nose rings, requisite tattoos and punctures. But marketers got it outflanked, issuing opaque slogans about the ‘hip transgressive,’ ‘urban chic’ and so on.[7] Still, things were different in those heady days of yore. Out of savings from summer construction jobs I paid nearly all tuition, room and board at a flagship state university. Couldn’t happen anymore. That older generation wasn’t shackled by the massive debts of today’s students, and thus their latitude to experiment and to disagree scared the hell out of vengeful ‘squares’ who, as Tennessee Williams experienced, ‘hate anything not in their book.’ Squares always lust for, and cower to, power. Check the Nixon tape transcripts and you find Tricky Dick and his soon-to-be-penitentiaried pals plotting to uproot the economic sources of affordable University education so as to undermine youth protest movements. How do you question what you’re told when the creeps in control keep you deep in hock?

Give in. As Lieutenant William Calley’s high school principal approvingly observed, “Rusty wasn’t a bright boy but he did what he was told.” Obedience was the only saving grace of this dull but willing instrument for mass murder at My Lai. Nick Turse’s recent book affirms what any unblinkered student of the Vietnam War knew, that atrocities were commonplace; war crimes, and cover-ups, were the norm.[8] Trust the authorities and that’s what you wind up with. It is conformists who commit atrocities, not misfits. (To a request for a piece on a local multiple murderer, to be entitled “Crime of the Century” Algren dryly replied, “I don’t want to go to Vietnam” – though he later did.)[9] As historian Andrew Bacevich, a welcome defector from that normative realm, observed, the military profession ‘did not look kindly on nonconformity. Climbing the ladder of career success required curbing maverick tendencies. To get ahead, you needed to be a team player.”[10] Colin Powell, yet to answer for his likely role covering up My Lai, spoke of the “pragmatics” required in getting ahead – as if ambition by itself excused sheer indecency. Yet Americans have always been conformists. Tocqueville wrote in 1835 that he ‘knew of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”[11] It’s as American as Dutch apple pie.

In the early 1950s in a slim manuscript Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, Chicago novelist Nelson Algren, fresh from winning the National Book award for a volume that started out as war novel but transfigured into the tragedy of a card sharp junkie, delivered a jeremiad about middle class conformity greasing the skids into the paranoiac McCarthy era. What conformists strived for ‘was an eternally elusive secure zone in which to live what authorities ordain as a normal life,” lamented Algren. Yet there is no such thing. Life “is never lived that way, though many people persuade themselves to the contrary.’[12] Good writers remind us of what we forget or never noticed. Life in the Father Knows Best mode was abnormal, a televised fiction, such that this blithe candy-coated vision was worth chewing up in semi-horror movies like Pleasantville, Blue Velvet and A Boy and His Dog. Why do audiences root for the Jim Carrey character to burst the backdrop illusion of his intricately ordered artificial ‘life’ in The Truman Show? What we call conformity was a myriad of forms of sly concealment of socially unacceptable impulses and practices. And many taboos then are waning today for having been stubbornly confronted.

At the National Book Award ceremony for The Man with the Golden Arm in 1950 Algren, who signed a New York Times letter entitled “Speak up for freedom,” and chaired the Chicago Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg case, was already a marked man, on the FBI’s list and that of every snoop around. (Check Keywiki – a rightwing web account book charting any senselessly progressive and humane act they can detect.) Reactionary lamebrains cherish their lists, from the ‘Hollywood Ten’ on down, tracking who’s been naughty and who’s not been nice to them. It’s yet another device for inducing us to buckle to moronic rules. Anyway, Algren’s thoughts on conformity first saw light in an essay in the Chicago Daily News in 1952.[13] Doubleday commissioned a book and then declined to publish it in 1953 – the same year the FBI yanked Algren’s passport.[14]  In Nonconformity Algren was assessing the impact of this true “big chill’ on writers, but every single intimidated American was his potential audience.

Algren commences by examining Scott Fitzgerald’s archetypal American ‘struggle to write with profundity and at the same time live like a millionaire”- a doomed acrobatic act. Fitzgerald at the end was left ‘wondering and blinking, as he contemplated his Savoy Hotel bill, whether one could be both a good writer and a good person.” Algren feared that writers were slipping – or being shoved – into the ‘inert whirlpool of egotism that is world of the average businessman.’ Cautious writers, Algren accused, were forgetting the “problem of the heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing.” The new crop of ambitious scribes see “the way things are going, the main things are not problems of the heart but to keep one’s nose clean.’ As one scans the mainstream media’s book review pages today one finds that Algren’s complaint still carries considerable heft.

Algren was a devout chronicler of the 1% – that is, of the 1% scrabbling at the rock bottom of the social scale “where everyone has to win every round just to stay alive.” He acquired the savoir faire of the streets, but only so much. “I was a fairly good mark, not too good a mark,” recalls Algren ruefully about his sometimes costly mingling with junkies and hustlers.[15] Returning to his theme of conformity, Algren’s words resonate with other critics such as dissident shrink Erich Fromm. “The average individual does not permit himself to be aware of thoughts or feelings that are incompatible with the patterns of his culture, and hence he is forced to repress them,’ Fromm observed, a bit too clinically. “To that degree to which a person – because of his own intellectual and spiritual development – feels his solidarity with humanity, can he tolerate social ostracism, and vice versa.” Fromm’s next sentence, however, captures Algren: “The ability to act according to one’s conscience depends on the degree to which one has transcended the limits of one’s society and has become a citizen of the world.” Presto, the nonconformist.

Algren revisits the emetic spectacle of director Elia Kazan, actor Jose Ferrer and playwright Maxwell Anderson on bended knees before the loathsome House Committee on Un-American Activities. Algren warns those tempted to do cringe likewise that “he knows enough of the heart that it cannot conform” – at least not without exacting a high price.[16] Are there extenuating circumstances? Algren invoked Finley Peter Dunne’s  fictitious sage barkeeper Mr. Dooley as to “turning on the gas [light] in the darkest heart you’d find they had a ‘good raison for th’ worst things it done’ which include “needin’ th’ money’ or profits.” While Algren had a soft spot for what he termed ‘lonesome monsters,’ clearly the profit motive was no excuse.[17] Sociopathic traits were no alibi either. Look at Hervey Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity, written around the same time, and you’ll find acute prophetic descriptions of the psychopathology of a Dick Cheney and just about any Wall Street honcho.[18]

Nonconformity, posthumously published in 1998, was composed during the Korean War or near enough to it, about “five years after we have begun to rearm.”[19] Algren rhetorically asked about the incipient military-industrial complex: Are we more secure for ‘putting a hot-car thief in charge of a parking lot?” No nation today comes close to the US level of misnomered ‘defense’ and ‘homeland security’ expenditures. Iran terrifies our timid policy makers. Really? Algren also mauled “long-remaindered intellectuals on short leashes” who say things are “worse in Russia, as if it helps.” Things are worse in Greece and Spain today. Feel better? (Well, Greece is coming to a neighborhood near you if aficionados of austerity continue to get their way.) Contemporary ‘intellectuals on short leashes’ infest Sunday morning news programs: George and David and Cokie and all the glossy fizzy corporate cheerleaders. A forerunner in the 1950s, by the way, arch-conservative Norman Podhoretz, whose first book Making It celebrates himself as a envious outsider aching to become a WASP establishment jerk, attacked Algren for his ‘boozy sentimentality.’ Scorn from odious quarters is inevitable and welcome.

Rather than smarmy beady-eyed Horatio Algers, Algren lauds Dreiser, Mencken, Veblen, Steffens, and Lewis. Our singular American genius Mark Twain towers among even that splendid company. Algren skewers popular novelists who disingenuously yearn only ‘to give pleasure to the reading public” and plead they have “no right to impose [their] views on race and religion.” So then, Algren deduces, ‘if it isn’t the writer’s task to relate mankind to the things of the earth, it must be his job to keep them unrelated.’ Repelled by the businessman’s creed that “no values are greater than thrift, self-preservation, and piety,” Algren speaks of outward show, of a ‘neon wilderness’ (an Algren title) dominated by whitewashed high-rise sepulchers full of schemers. He flatly accused the American middle class of adoring “personal comfort as an end in itself” which “is, in essence, a denial of life.”[20] He detested cozy ingrown literary cliques, pulling themselves up the ladder by each other’s Gucci bootstraps. “When [a writer] sees scarcely anyone except other writers,” says Algren,  “he is ready for New York” and what Algren terms “bellhop writing” – writing to order.  “No book was ever worth writing that wasn’t done with the attitude that ‘This ain’t what you rung for, Jack – but its what you’re damned well getting.”

Fitzgerald put “one little drop of something – not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story.” What Algren looked for in writing was not just pity but “vindictiveness” of a certain kind. (For Algren too it didn’t count if the cause you championed was just your own interests.) “A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery’- summed up in the frank urge ”to get even.”[21] Of course, Algren concedes, he won’t but it’s worth trying. “The artist must approach his work in the same frame of mind in which the criminal commits his deed.” In this moneychanger’s paradise, it’s easier to make people mean than to make them kind [and] society is organized so meanly that man cannot help but perpetrate villainies.” (Consider here Algren’s pulverizingly poetic Chicago: City On The Make.) The late Joe Bageant later wrote brilliantly and in the same spirit about these crushed and dyspeptic denizens in small towns and rural America.[22] “Americans everywhere face gunfire better than guilt.”[23] Indeed.  Moral courage may not be in shorter supply than physical courage, but it certainly gets less publicity and approval. Maybe it’s why we hear so little of Algren today.

No one is entirely immune to the allure of the bright lights blazing around this remorseless cutthroat system of getting and spending. “From the coolest zoot-suit cat getting leaping drunk on straight gin to the gentlest suburban matron getting discreetly tipsy on Alexanders, the feeling is that of having too much of something not really needed, and nothing at all of something desperately needed. They both want to live and neither knows how,” he writes, and “that is the trap.” As for most therapists, we may ask, “Doctor, what’s my problem?’ And the doctor cannot speak the truth [because] to stiff-arm a customer with the alarm that his trouble is something as simple as cowardice. or as hopeless as a spiritual void, would be only to lose that [fee] to a competitor with a more flattering tale to tell.” Few resist “the advantage of “being on the side of the house.” As for the other end of the scale where junkies and down-and-outs dwell, when authorities “bear down they make our risk bigger, and the cost goes higher . . . So the junkies got to come up with more gold than ever, and the only one place to get it. Off the square.” So much for our straight-laced wars on drugs. The conformists, as usual, know not what they do.

“We presume the accused to be guilty by the act of having been accused” – all the better to strike them with sneaky drones or imprison them via a new Star Chamber. McCarthyism stank of ’the same sickness as that of Salem’ where we ‘exorcize our devils by destroying the dissenters or odd fish of the tribe.’ The syndrome that ‘We boast about our strength yet display our fear’ has never dissipated. Nor have ‘the smokescreens with which we ingeniously conceal our true condition from ourselves.” And “our assumption of happiness through mechanical ingenuity is nonetheless tragic for being naïve.”[24] It’s taken a generation or more to soak that one in. Ultimately, “when we get more houses than we can live in, more cars than we can ride in, more food than we can eat ourselves, the only way of getting richer is by cutting off those who don’t have enough,” diagnosed Algren. He didn’t need a crystal ball to discern what the 1% were up to.

Algren was no saint in the threadbare cassock sense of the word, but he stuck, sometimes crankily, to his vocation. Perhaps he might have treated his women, including great passion Simone De Beauvoir, a tad better. The supposedly streetwise author got his pockets picked by Hollywood hucksters. Algren too was a poker addict who always aimed to ‘fill the inside straight,” a mentality any worthwhile writer knows.[25] In all the arts this gamble is the supreme aim, and it remains the case even in our Mahagonny world where no motive other than gain is deemed sane. (Conformists always play the percentages.) Societies, as one mordant wit remarked, honor their conformists when they are alive and their troublemakers when they are dead. Yet no one remembers conformists, snivellers and sycophants, except as such. What Algren spotted in Irish playwright Brendan Behan’s chubby face reflected his own soul: Behan ‘deploys defiance while concealing pity” and so “his intellectual belief in the class struggle is modified by his emotional conviction that the only class is Mankind.”[26] Literature is fundamentally a rebel’s trade because, as Algren urged, it ‘is made on any occasion when a challenge is made to the legal apparatus by a conscience in touch with humanity.” Algren is one of those cantankerous nonconformists who reward, and deserve, rediscovery.

 

Notes

[1] “Recovery in US is lifting Profits, But not Adding Jobs.” New York Times 3 March 2013.

[2] See Karen Ho, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Durham: Duke University, 2009).

[3] Thomas Roder et. al, Psychiatrists – The Men behind Hitler (LA: Freedom Publishers, 1995), p. 23.

[4] Robert Lindner, Must You Conform? (New York: Rinehart, 1956).

[5] Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (Random House, 1960 , p. 80

[6] Quoted in Erich Fromm, May Man Prevail? (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1962), p. 79 fn1

[7] Elizabeth Wilson, Bohemians: The Glamorous Outsiders (London: IB Tauris, 2000), p. 233.

[8] Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013)

[9] Nelson Algren, Algren at Sea: Notes from A Sea Diary & Who Lost an American?    (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008), p. 332.

[10] Andrew Bacevich, ‘The Unmaking of a Company Man’ accessed at http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/08/26-6

[11] Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America, Volume 1 (New York: Aeterna, 2011), p. 208

[12]  H. E. F. O’Donohue, Conversations with Nelson Algren (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 22.

[13]  Nonconformity, p. 99

[14]  Bettina Drew, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991), p. 237.

[15] “Nelson Algren Interview” Paris Review (Winter 1955), p. 6.

[16]  Nonconformity, p. 4

[17] ‘The stories that follow have the common hope that every man, no matter how lonesome nor what a monster, is deserving of understanding by us other lonesome monsters.’ Nelson Algren, Nelson Algren’s own Book of Lonesome Monsters  (New York: Lancer Books, 1962)

[18] Hervey Cleckley, The Mask Of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (St Louis: Mosby, 1955).

[19] Nonconformity, p. 10

[20] Nonconformity, p. 20

[21] Nonconformity, p. 34

[22] Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (New York: Crown, 2007) and Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir (New York: Scribe Publications, 2011)

[23] Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make (Garden City: Doubleday, 1951), p. 95.

[24] Nonconformity, p. 76.

[25] Drew, Nelson Algren, p. 257.

[26] Algren, Algren at Sea, p. 57

 

Kurt Jacobsen is book review editor for Logos.

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