June 18, 2009

Algren at 100: Somebody in Boots

Algren at 100: A CCLaP essay series

(This is part 1 of a special 14-part essay series I'm writing this summer, examining in detail nearly the entire ouevre of controversial Chicago author Nelson Algren, on the occasion of his 100th birthday this year. For an introduction to this series, as well as links to all the other essays, you can click here.)

The site of Nelson Algren's childhood home, 4834 N Troy Chicago, as seen in 2009

The street of Nelson Algren's childhood, 4800 block of N Troy Chicago, as seen in 2009

The shot you're looking at above is of the Chicago street address 4834 North Troy, in the Albany Park neighborhood on the city's northwest side, a crucial location for any serious discussion regarding Nelson Algren; for it was here that Algren was to live full-time from the age of twelve until the start of college, and then part-time on and off after that all the way to nearly thirty. As you can see, as of 2009 the neighborhood has become a "creative class" one, full of web designers and ad-agency execs and all kinds of other shiny happy white-collar Loop workers, but this was not always the case; back when Algren was there in the 1920s and '30s, for example, it was mostly a working-class neighborhood, full of such blue-collar immigrants as Germans and Poles, with income levels that spanned from medium to low instead of medium to high like is the case now. And this is in fact yet another important thing to know about Algren early into any examination of his life and work; that according to Bettina Drew in her 1989 biography Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, far from picking up the habit as an earnest liberal undergraduate, as is the case with so many writers who end up "championing the downtrodden," Algren just naturally preferred the company of the lowest-end citizens of his neighborhood even as a boy, from what seems to be simply a high natural curiosity about the world almost from birth, and an inherent disdain for the normal and blase.

It's an important thing to remember, because it's a big factor behind Algren's early successes; because as he traversed his early twenties (and history's 1920s) as a college student at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana, he of course fell in more and more with the growing group of young, radically liberal artists who defined the Early Modernist era, most of them squeaky-clean middle-classers with an intense desire to show off the plight of society's worst-off, but who had never actually hung out with a prostitute or stepped into a gambling hall to save their lives. Algren however was not only a regular at such haunts already, but was an intimate acquaintance of many of those whose lives revolved around such dens of iniquity, the people who Karl Marx called the "lumpen-proletariat" in The Communist Manifesto (a sort of holy bible to this group of young leftists of the 1920s and '30s); not the usual working-class but the lowest of the low, the cripples and addicts and mentally-challenged who lack even the basic faculties to become productive members of society, who in pre-Roosevelt America were essentially left to wither and die on their own, the very people that communism was theoretically designed to most help.

In fact, like it seems with so many Early Modernist artists, Algren ended up having quite an adventurous young life before becoming a full-time writer, one that kept him in close contact with the very people he would end up building his award-winning stories around. A sober and hard-working student of journalism, French and sociology at Champaign, he ended up rushing through his degree so to be able to get a job in the lucrative "Roaring Twenties" that much faster; but then he ended up graduating right at the start of the Great Depression in the early '30s, the holder of a now worthless degree who found himself in the same soup lines as everyone else. It was at this point, Drew says, that Algren spent several years actually living the full-time life of a "hobo," which to modern ears might need a bit of a clarification; because far from being small bunches of panhandling stragglers like we think of the homeless today, in the Great Depression hoboes were an entire economic class, hundreds of thousands of young people who simply roamed the countryside from day to day looking for whatever temporary labor they could find, crisscrossing the US once or twice every single month through the dangerous activity of "train-hopping," not the romantic notion we think of it today but rather a perilous and highly illegal endeavor that always carried the chance of violent injury and death.

It was during these years that Algren saw with his own eyes the kind of human indignities that his peers only read about; of young women having miscarriages in freight cars and then bleeding to death, of young boys trying to hop a rail, missing, and getting their legs cleanly chopped off by the rushing wheels. And when Algren got busted once in 1934 for stealing a typewriter from a half-empty community college in small-town Texas, the month he spent in a county jail awaiting trial was what he considered ever after as one of the most harrowing of his life, and gave him direct knowledge of the pre-civil-rights squalor, 'convict justice,' and complex homoerotic/homophobic sexual politics that were a part of the American prison system even then. So no wonder, then, when he finally got settled for a time again in Chicago, and started getting more and more involved with the local chapter of the John Reed Club (a formal network of communist-sympathizing urban intellectuals in the pre-McCarthy US), it was Algren who was most admired among his new circle of friends (including famed black author Richard Wright) for bringing such a high level of authenticity and attention to detail to his work, in a way that his ivory-towered peers simply couldn't.

Somebody in Boots, by Nelson Algren

It was at this point, in fact, that Algren's career finally started taking off, after almost a decade of on-and-off writing in a more traditional vein; spurred by his Reed friends' insistence that he write more about his true experiences as a 'bo, his melodramatic stories of Man Dispossessed started quickly striking a chord within the exact crowd of leftist intellectuals who were desperately seeking such stories. It was one of these tales, in fact -- "So Help Me," based on the real experience of Algren and two of his drifter pals once trying to re-open an abandoned gas station in the Deep South -- that brought him to the attention of Vanguard Press in New York, who supposedly sent him a simple query letter one day seeing if he just happened to be working on a full-length novel; claiming years later that he simply had nothing better to do, he ended up hopping a freight-train to New York that very week, and by the end of the visit had finagled Vanguard into a book contract, with them agreeing to front the money for him to live cheaply in Texas again for another three months, and with him promising to deliver a full manuscript at the end. In true artistic fashion, he missed that first deadline, although finally did deliver on the book; and that's how it is that we have Algren's 1935 debut novel, Somebody in Boots, which both he and his commie friends were convinced was going to make him known as "the American Gorky," and help usher in a glorious new revolution in Modernist political thought.

But there turned out to be a problem with Boots, succinctly summed up by fellow writer (and secretly-brought-on editor) James Farrell; namely, it was a barely readable mess, and destined in its original form to cause embarrassment to nearly everyone associated with it. And sure, maybe Farrell wasn't exactly the best person to be making such an assessment objectively -- although a fellow communist sympathizer, he couldn't stand what he called the simplified preaching of the "Proletariat Novel," and in fact didn't hold at all with the Stalinist idea of all artistic projects somehow needing to serve the state, a position that Reedites agreed with quite strongly. But then again, maybe this made Farrell exactly the most perfect person to come on as secret editor; because as we all know by now, no matter how noble the intentions, a book simply needs to touch something profound within the general zeitgeist in order to be a big success, and with the majority of American citizens at that time much more like Farrell than Algren himself, left-leaning but not radical and certainly in no mood for a violent revolution.

Now that I've read the book myself, in fact, I can easily see what people complained about when it first came out, and can perfectly understand the mixture of respect and frustration for the novel among those who take their Modernist literature seriously. It's ultimately the story of one Cass McKay, not an autobiographical portrait of Algren himself but rather of one of the typical "lumpens" he spent time with back then -- barely intelligent, quick to anger and with a bad taste for whiskey, he seems almost born to live the hobo lifestyle, the product of an abusive home and with almost no formal education under his belt. The novel itself, then, is a 260-page record of life taking a nearly continuous dump on Cass as he stumbles his way through the Great Depression (known among the 'boes as "the Big Trouble"), which like I said is mostly made up of experiences Algren actually had during his own drifter years; by the time our story is over, not only have all the real events I've already mentioned taken place to the fictional Cass, but also the gang-rape of a young black woman traveling by herself, the unwanted turning of Cass's sister into a prostitute, the forced feeding of rancid meat to hundreds of vagrants by a corrupt do-gooder church receiving New Deal government money, the horrific death of a prisoner from untreated tuberculosis, and all kinds of other wonderful life-affirming experiences like these.

It's when Algren gets lost inside these stories that he really cooks, when he forgets about Making A Grand Point and simply describes in exquisite, poetic detail what the experiences were actually like -- take for example his masterful description of a low-class burlesque house in Chicago's South Loop that Cass ends up working at for awhile, which I swear to God by the end made me feel like I had actually visited it in real life myself -- and in fact Algren himself came to understand more and more that this is where his true strength as a writer laid, honing this aspect to razor sharpness in such later masterpieces as The Man with the Golden Arm. But unfortunately, the highly political 25-year-old Algren did feel the need in his first novel to Make A Grand Point, and it is always at these overwritten, overanalyzed moments that the book most suffers; take for example his bad habit of writing accented regional dialogue phonetically, which threatens to make the novel utterly unreadable during several long stretches. (Confused by what I'm talking about? Take this random example: "Well, y'all see, when ah fight a man ah just go all-to-pieces like, so sometime it happen ah don' rightly know ex-acly what is it ah hev got in mah han'." UGH.)

And of course it doesn't help that each section of the novel starts with a highly intellectual quote from The Communist Manifesto itself, a jarring schism from the plain-spoken social-realist tone of the actual book; and it also doesn't help that the entire last 50 pages essentially becomes one big lefty sermon, with Algren using Chicago's real 1932 World's Fair (unfortunately planned when times were good, but not open until after the Great Depression hit) as a heavy-handed metaphor for class inequality, comparing the glittering lights on one side of the fairground fence with the trash-picking street orphans on the other, in an obvious and pandering way much more reminiscent of his experience-light academic peers, who have mostly now all fallen away into rightful obscurity. And by the way, sheesh, no wonder the Chicago Tribune ended up trashing nearly all of Algren's books when they first came out, because Algren does a real number on them here in his first novel, essentially accusing them of being the FOX News of the 1930s, not only one of the major causes of the Great Depression but also one of the groups helping to perpetuate it, so that the paper's executives can get even more filthy-rich than they were before. No wonder the paper held a grudge against Algren for nearly his entire career, and no wonder that people call it such bitter irony that the Tribune now hands out a prestigious annual literary award in his name.

It's for all these reasons that Somebody in Boots was met with a resounding "meh" when first coming out, and by the end of a year had still sold less than 800 copies nationally; not exactly a shameful showing for a debut novel by a 26-year-old in the middle of the Great Depression, and especially considering the actual good press it ended up racking up (including a fairly glowing review in the New York Times), but certainly a disappointment for this man nearing thirty and still living part-time with his parents, whose friends had been spending months falsely inflating the book's expectations, with all of them convinced that it was destined to be a controversial bestseller that would turn Algren into a household name. And it's for all these reasons that Algren not only put off writing another book for a full half a decade, but that a couple of years after Boots he was quietly hospitalized for a short time, for what seems now to have been a nervous breakdown, all records of which he thoroughly suppressed later in life, because of his general embarrassment over this entire period of his career. (In fact, Algren was to have contentious feelings about Boots for the entire rest of his life, actively refusing to speak about it at all for decades, then finally in his later years coming to see it as a noble but deeply flawed failure.) But I'll be getting a lot more into all this next week, when I tackle his much more successful follow-up, 1942's Never Come Morning, considered by his fans to be the first of his "classics." I hope you'll have a chance to join me again then.

Read even more about Somebody in Boots: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

P.S. And a piece of trivia to leave you with today, that I never found a good place for in the actual essay: Turns out that Algren's original title for the novel was Native Son, but was nixed by the publisher, because of a California politician at the time running a campaign with this same theme; it would of course later be taken by Algren's drinking buddy Richard Wright for the most famous book of his own career. Its current title Somebody in Boots comes from a great line from within the novel, where Cass reflects that there's really only two major kinds of people in the world (his words) -- those who own sh-tkicker boots, and those always getting the sh-t kicked out of them.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:36 PM, June 18, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |