June 10, 2009

Algren at 100: An introduction

Algren at 100: A CCLaP essay series

(UPDATE: Shortly after starting this essay series in summer 2009, I was in a bad bicycle accident, which kept me in physical therapy and off my bike for over a year; and given that one of the major components of this series was to be my bike rides through the areas Algren talks about in his books, and photo essays of what the neighborhoods look like now, I decided to put the entire series on hiatus at that point, and sadly I have not yet found the time to resume it. It's my eager hope that someday soon I will have the spare time to get back to work on this essay series.)

Chicago sure has a strange way of treating its artists: we love venerating those who have either died or moved to another city, but tend to be openly hostile to such creatives when they actually live here, and are actively creating the works that make them known in the future as "Chicago artists" in the first place. Examples range all the way from Theodore Dreiser to Liz Phair to most of the founders of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company; but perhaps none is more notorious than author Nelson Algren, a man who by the early 2000s has become nearly synonymous now with the Chicago arts, but who was hated by many here when actually alive and writing the books he would become most known for. And indeed, Algren in general had what one can only call a checkered literary career overall, full of poetically ironic ups and downs: he was the recipient of the very first National Book Award (for his 1950 novel The Man with the Golden Arm, later made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Frank Sinatra), yet died in near-obscurity and with every single one of his books out of print; was a ceaseless defender of the city's Polish community (the largest on the planet outside of Poland itself), yet was essentially run out of town by the business and religious leaders of that very community; penned what is now widely considered one of the best books about Chicago ever written (1951's long-form essay City On the Make), yet was almost arrested for it by city officials when it first came out; received hackjob reviews from the Chicago Tribune regarding nearly every book he ever published, yet with this same exact newspaper now handing out an annual high-profile literary award named after him.

And like many Chicagoans, I've been spending years now name-dropping Algren at dinner parties without ever actually having read any of his books from cover to cover -- yeah, I know, shame on me -- so now that we're celebrating in 2009 the centennial of Algren's birth, I thought it'd be the perfect excuse to spend the summer finally reading nearly his entire ouevre, 14 books altogether, one a week all summer long, in the order they were first published...

Week 1: Somebody in Boots (1935)
Week 2: Never Come Morning (1942)
Week 3: The Neon Wilderness (1947)
Week 4: The Man with the Golden Arm (1950)
Week 5: Chicago: City on the Make (1951)
Week 6: A Walk on the Wild Side (1956)
Week 7: Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters (1962)
Week 8: Who Lost an American? (1963)
Week 9: Conversations with Nelson Algren (1964)
Week 10: Notes From a Sea Diary (1965)
Week 11: The Last Carousel (1973)
Week 12: The Devil's Stocking (1983) *posthumous
Week 13: Nonconformity: Writing on Writing (1994) *posthumous
Week 14: Entrapment and Other Writings (2009) *posthumous

...and then of course writing analytical essays about them all, while stirring in stories as well about what was going on in Algren's life at the time he was writing each of them (mostly gleaned from Bettina Drew's 1989 bio Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side), along with contemporary photos of various Chicago locations that were important to Algren's life and work, which for those who don't know continue to this day to be a source of local controversy just unto themselves. (For example, as recently as ten years ago, Polish business leaders mounted a massive and expensive PR campaign to successfully stop the city from naming the trisection of Division, Ashland and Milwaukee "Algren Plaza," while the continuing efforts to get Algren's last residence in Wicker Park declared a historical landmark has also faced stiff opposition.)

So what will I find when I finally read the books themselves? Well, I'm trying to keep my mind as open as possible about that question going into this, precisely because of the schizophrenic nature of Algren himself: here after all was one of the most ultra-liberal radical-leftist artists in US history, a communist-sympathizing drinking buddy of famed civil-rights author Richard Wright, who even traveled through Latin America in the late '40s fomenting dissent among the working class with French proto-feminist Simone de Beauvoir (who by the way was having a torrid affair with Algren at the same time, behind the back of her husband Jean-Paul Sartre); but someone who was accused on a regular basis of racism, sexism and homophobia, someone still despised by many women and non-Anglo-Saxons to this day. He was thoroughly a product of the tough-guy Modernist Age, yet an unsung early champion of the headier and more complex Postmodernist movement; a college-graduated journalist and semi-pro sociologist who friends claim was better-read than most professors, but who loved nothing more than a night of drinking and illegal gambling among the shady back alleys of the city's northwest side, while carousing with an endless series of petty criminals, prostitutes, cripples and junkies. Frankly, I don't know how a person manages to pick up such a bipolar reputation, and have no idea how this schism might manifest itself in his actual stories; it's one of the many reasons I've been wanting for years to do a project like this, and I have to admit that I'm glad Algren's 100th birthday this year has finally given me an excuse to do so.

Anyway, I hope you'll have a chance to join me every Wednesday this summer, for yet another chapter in this ongoing essay series; and of course don't forget that once all 14 parts are written, I will collect them into a free standalone eBook as well through CCLaP Publishing. And needless to say, I highly encourage anyone with an interest to actually participate in this reading project in real time themselves, and to leave their own extended comments at the end of each essay posted here; for those planning on doing so, don't forget that the first book I'll be discussing was the 25-year-old Algren's very first, 1935's communist apologia Somebody in Boots, a novel that nearly ruined his career before it could even start.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:59 PM, June 10, 2009. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles | Reviews |