Review: Mary Wisniewski, Algren: A Life. Chicago Review Press, 2016
Mary Wisniewski is a seasoned pro with a long career as an ace reporter for the Chicago dailies and for Reuters, and it shows in her superb biography of Nelson Algren, the writer who made Chicago “his trade.” Like James Joyce and Dublin, Franz Kafka and Prague, and Alfred Doeblin and Berlin, Algren’s knowledge of Chicago, and his long tenure there, which ended with a dejected move to the East Coast just before he died, has sealed his status as the street level poet-laureate of the Second City.
Wisniewski draws on her expert knowledge of the city – with its tortured past and blighted present – to set Algren’s melancholic fate in the grim context that created it, especially the backstreets and alleys that he tramped in search of stories. Algren, like so many peers (Studs Terkel, Dave Pelz, James T. Farrell, Richard Wright et. al.) was a child of the Depression. He graduates from the University of Illinois in 1931, buoyed by a beloved sister who helped him through college and died young. He is thrown into a world mired in a catastrophe and he sets out on a road peopled by the memorable characters he would draw upon for his work. Algren almost immediately lands in a jail cell in Texas where he nearly wound up doing serious time but for a lawyer who luckily got him off. The indigent writer had stolen a typewriter, and proved to be as hopeless a thief as he was a poker player.
Algren is born to parents to whom a life in literature is a bewilderingly daft choice amidst the growing chaos and the scramble for existence where all must submit to the iron order of a job market looking for strong backs and muscled arms, not honest intellects bent on Truth and Progress. Wisniewski is deft in depicting the eminently captalizable forces of Capital, Greed, and the Merchant Princes that made Chicago for a time the fastest growing city in the world – and a “Hell for the workingman.”
Chicago chose to carefully forget its Haymarket Trial and the judicial murder of four working class leaders who came into conflict with the ruthless Capitalism that was to make the city infamous. Algren, product of a radical 30s culture, was determined never to forget or let anyone else do so. Memory, for the American working class, is the only revenge they would ever know, and Algren achieves part of that vengeance with Chicago: City on the Make, his homage to the rough and tumble forces that shaped the city and his own life.
Wisniewski is skillful in showing just how bleak the Depression was for the jobless Algren, and she’s even better on Roosevelt’s WPA (with its literary and theatrical arms) which tossed a lifeline to participants, preserved livelihoods, and gave hope to the thousands of artists who, like Algren, joined, got a living wage, and forged meaningful lives for themselves.
Algren was the product of a once flourishing magazine culture, long since disappeared, which paid writers like Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, and Richard Wright good money for their contributions. It is almost impossible now to imagine a universe for fledgling writers that, unlike the Internet, actually paid real money for poetry and prose. The Liberty magazine, Harpers, the Saturday Evening Post, The New Masses, and The American Mercury were but a few of the major names, further leavened by countless small magazines dedicated to ferreting out new talent and bringing it into public view.
Algren: A Life rekindles a now forgotten time when writing was the chief aspiration for many bright youngsters, and long before the art was reduced to sound bite banality by a modern media bent on “info-attainment” and advertised “filler.” Yet Algren’s personal liabilities, as Wisniewski makes clear, were formidable ones. He could never forgive a favor. He breaks bitterly with his first wife (who he marries twice), with De Beauvoir, his great love, and with Richard Wright, who supported and furthered Algren’s work before Wright himself is driven into his final exile in Paris. Wright is another victim of the Cold War hysteria, which is now conveniently lumped as McCarthyism, as if one Senatorial loudmouth drove it, when in fact it was an orchestrated campaign by the government, business, and the media.
Algren throughout his life couples his need for friends with an undefined but potent desire to denounce and alienate all those who help him. He proves himself incapable of sustaining a relationship with a woman, nowhere more completely than with his first wife who, despite her unstinting devotion, ends embittered and angry at what cannot be denied: Algren’s bedrock misogyny. Wisniewski passes over an awful episode, which Algren himself documents, involving a relationship with a Vietnamese woman in Saigon who he belittles and exploits while attempting to sell PX goods on the Black Market. The incident is evidence of the problem Algren poses for sympathetic feminist thinkers intrigued by his long affair with De Beauvoir.
The book holds fast to Chicago as the central character in Algren’s work: the “feel” of the city is always present, and its stories could only come from those ragged survivors who populate and suffer the place. Wisniewski has an impeccable ear, as did Algren, for the language of the migrants and Eastern Europeans who once populated Wicker Park and Bucktown and the Division Street bars and bordellos Algren haunted. It’s a world that has since disappeared, supplanted by trendy cafes and up market restaurants where once Roman Orlov, “the biggest drunk on Division Street,” made his dubious reputation amid many another martyrdom.
Algren’s blasted career, bitterness, and death in exile from the city that both nurtured and helped to isolate him is sad testimony to how we got where we are as a nation. We are now far removed from the world that Algren’s generation had fought to bring into being. American politics having undergone a sea change since the Depression years which, despite their trials and foibles, produced a generation of writers and artists like Algren, who looked to a Progressive America. It was an America reflected in the failed political agenda of the Roosevelt Democrats and recently echoed in the media defined “radical” agenda of Bernie Sanders whose programs were simply an attempt to revive Roosevelt’s vision.
Algren paid a terrible price for the progressive dreams he shared with millions of Americans: his passport pulled, his career left in ruins. Redbaited and marginalized, he died a bitter example of what America did to its visionaries. Algren is in that long line of American writers: Dreiser, Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright, which culminate in Kerouac who rekindles an American realism that was attacked by Cold Warriors who resented its proletarian core but could not kill off its days of beatnik glory.
Wisniewski maintains a fine compassion and balance in her view of Algren and Algren’s world, which is not always easy with a subject whose almost whimsical desire to offend was ever in play. This splendid biography ends with the writer’s lonely death in Sag Harbor, New York. Algren’s gravestone is marked with the words of Willa Cather: “The End is Nothing, the Road is All.” Algren’s final days were as bitter as the road he traveled was varied and vivid: it’s the road Wisniewski has illuminated for us in this brave book.
Warren Leming is a writer/critic, and founder with Studs Terkel of the Nelson Algren Committee. www.nelsonalgren.org) He also is a documentary filmmaker whose works include the award-winning ‘American Road,’ the new released ‘Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All, and a forthcoming portrait of actor/activist Ed Asner.