(This is part 2 of a special 14-part essay series I'm writing this year, examining in detail nearly the entire ouevre of controversial Chicago author Nelson Algren, on the occasion of his 100th birthday. For an introduction to this series, as well as links to all the other essays, you can click here.)
As any artist who's gone through the experience can tell you, it can be humiliating to be publicly spanked for a high-profile yet deeply flawed project from early in one's career; thus seems to have been the case, for example, with Nelson Algren's first novel, 1935's communist apologia Somebody in Boots, which he and his radical-leftist friends had whipped themselves up into believing was going to be a controversial bestseller when finally coming out, but that the public in general ended up finding just too dour, melodramatic and politically pointed, selling only 800 copies in the entire first year of its release. And thus is it that a year later, Algren had what suspiciously seems now like a short nervous breakdown (hard to confirm, in that he voluntarily destroyed all records of the incident when older); and thus is it that more than half a decade would pass* before he was to write his next book, 1942's Never Come Morning which fans count as the practical start of his "real" (i.e. mature) career. So the question begs to be asked, then: what exactly happened in these seven years to bring about such a change? What did Algren do to make his second novel turn out to be as intensely loved as his first novel was intensely ridiculed?
Well, to start with, according to Bettina Drew's 1989 biography Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, Algren eventually rid himself of the earnest communist friends who so heavily and negatively influenced Boots; although make no mistake, this was a gradual process, and a part of why it took him so long to write his second book in the first place. And indeed, by the late 1930s, it seemed that communist-sympathizing radical leftism had invaded nearly every aspect of Algren's life, tying them together in complicated and incestuous ways: from the "Rat Alley" where he and all his friends lived (a series of leftover World's Fair storefronts at 35th and Cottage Grove, rented at a pittance as funky living spaces to poor artists); to the John Reed Club where they all socialized and discussed politics; to the League of American Writers they all professionally belonged to; to the radical New Anvil literary journal that they all published together; even to the office where they all held day jobs, the Illinois chapter of Roosevelt's Work Projects Administration (or WPA), a New Deal program designed to get small yet steady paychecks to artists during the Great Depression, where they would all spend half the day drinking and the other half writing a series of left-leaning tourism brochures concerning various Illinois landmarks.
These were the people who inspired much of the worst elements of Boots (the pretentious Marx quotes, the self-righteous preaching), a group that Algren closely identified himself with throughout the entirety of both his twenties and the Great Depression in general; but by the time of his 30th birthday in 1939, the local communist community had devolved into the two violently competing camps found in the Soviet Union in those years as well, the so-called "Stalinists" versus "Trotskyists" (with most Reed members falling squarely on the side of Stalinism), which instead of inspiring Algren to choose sides himself made him more and more disgusted with the Party in general. And mind you, this was at the same time that the entire focus of communism shifted more and more into the fight against fascism, suddenly rearing its ugly head in those years in such diverse locations as Germany, Japan, Norway, Spain and a lot more; and this suddenly turned a lot of American Communists into war-championing sabre-rattlers, a profoundly unsettling turn of events for the deeply pacifistic Algren. (And indeed, it was the gradually dawning human-rights horrors of Stalinist Russia that eventually put the kibosh on American Communism as a serious political movement, which was then officially killed by the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s.)
Now combine this with the fact that Algren's misfated youthful first marriage happened to peter out in those same years (but more on Algren's lovelife in a later essay), and that this gave him a good excuse to move away from all his earnest commie friends in Rat Alley and into his now infamous apartment in the "Polish Triangle" of the northwest side (but more on Algren's troubled relationship with the Wicker Park area in a future essay as well); and you can see why it might be that Algren found himself right around 1940 not only starting to write extensively again, but this time with a whole new attention to basic literary issues, and with not nearly as much of an insistence anymore on trying to make a political point, preach a sermon, or turn in "only projects that uphold the ideals of the State," as good little Stalinists were expected to do. But perhaps the one event in those years to have the greatest single effect on Algren starting to write again would be the 1940 publication of Native Son, the literary debut of another young Chicago author (and now New Yorker) who was one of Algren's best friends at the time, civil-rights pioneer and fellow conflicted communist sympathizer Richard Wright.
Essentially the same kind of story as Algren's own debut Boots but from a black perspective, and with a complicated series of details tying the two manuscripts together (for example, the fact that "Native Son" was supposed to have been the title of Algren's book, stolen with permission by Wright after Algren's publisher nixed it), it was Wright's novel that turned into the precise controversial bestseller that everyone had expected Boots to be, not only selling an astounding quarter-million copies in just its first six months, and getting adapted into a high-profile play by Orson Welles, but inspiring declarations nationwide of Wright being the "American Dostoevsky," and singlehandedly kickstarting the entire genre now known as African-American literature. To have all these things happen to such a good friend with such a similar book was apparently inspiring enough; but according to Drew, to have Wright then actually dedicate Native Son to Algren (calling him right on the front page "the best writer in the U.S.A.") was apparently an emotionally overwhelming experience for him, and inspired Algren to finally get serious about the new stories he was putting together, and to "live up" to the expectations that Wright had established on his dedication page.
Now, this being Algren, of course it took another two years, countless missed deadlines, the outbreak of a world war, and a story at the end barely resembling the one he started with; but in 1942 he finally made good on that Wright declaration, delivering the provocatively-titled** Never Come Morning not exactly to great fanfare, but certainly to the excitement of many literary intellectuals, the group who from the first day of his career to his last ended up embracing him more than the consuming public in general, ironic given Algren's usual company and book subjects. It's essentially set among the same group of people as his first novel, the lowest of the low in pre-civil-rights big-city America; in this case, a series of young low-class Poles spiritually centered around the tricornered intersection of Division, Ashland and Milwaukee Avenues (where the triangle in the "Polish Triangle" comes from), a "gang" of sorts made up of struggling athletes, petty criminals, the mentally retarded and more, all of them living a slippery semi-homeless life where half their time is spent in rotting crowded slums with abusive alcoholic parents, the other half in secret lean-to shelters in tucked-away corners under el tracks and the like, both environments nearly equal in both cleanliness and safety. Algren takes a broad look at a whole wide swath of these characters, plus of course the prostitutes and fellow criminals they are constantly in and out of troubled romances with, the older mafia-like fight promoter and neighborhood barber who keeps a hold over them all, and a lot of other incidental characters thrown in; but ultimately the story mostly becomes the one of Bruno "Lefty" Bicek, a dimwitted aspiring boxer and neighborhood baseball coach, and the incredibly complicated relationship he has with the vain, equally empty-headed eventual prostitute Steffi Rostenkowski.
But the first important thing to understand about Never Come Morning is just how differently he treats this environment than he did in his first novel, a reflection of a new habit in his daily life that his friends remarked upon quite regularly back then; that ever since the implosion of his first heavily-hyped book, and especially since the growing emotional distance between he and his former Reed friends, Algren had come to more and more intensely embrace the relative importance of developing complex characters and environments over developing a complex plot, starting to now refer regularly to his nights of back-alley carousing as "professional research" and the reams of notes he took while at gambling dens and bordellos as his "official data." And indeed, when reading this book like I did for the first time last week, it's quite obvious right from the very beginning of how different it is from Somebody in Boots, even while sharing many of the same tropes and settings. Gone are the pedantic little speeches, the overblown melodrama of one traumatic disaster after another after another; and in its place is an expansion of what Algren got right in Boots, a kind of sense-heavy thoroughness to the mental images he was painting along the way, now allowing us to luxuriously lose ourselves within the actual environment where all these terrible things are taking place, letting the terribleness of the actual events speak for themselves instead of the author having to continually beat us over the head with The Important Point He Is Trying To Make.
But that said, what quickly becomes the second realization upon reading this is just how much better a plotline Algren does end up putting together for this than for Boots, methodically sewing together a whole series of small, seemingly unrelated events to eventually tell a much bigger and grander story; and this is yet another ironic aspect of Never Come Morning, in that one of the biggest complaints about it from early readers as Algren was finishing up was its plotless, meandering nature. In fact, this has turned out to be one of the biggest surprises since starting this project, learning just what a dual impact both Algren and Wright had on each other's careers, given that one is now a literary legend and the other semi-obscure; because according to Drew, it was not only Wright himself to first suggest that the plot of the book needed a lot of tightening up (news that the older, calmer Algren took a lot better than the changes proposed to Boots by James T. Farrell a decade previously), but it was Wright who actually sat down and literally helped Algren hammer out this better, tighter storyline.
For example, in its original form, half of the story took place in East Saint Louis, Missouri, where Algren actually knew a similar poor immigrant streetgang of sorts who called themselves the "Fallonites" (after the tough Modernist writer Bud Fallon who recorded their exploits); it was Wright who convinced Algren to move the entire thing just to Chicago, even though many of the stories you read in it actually took place in East Saint Louis in real life. This then allowed the same small group of characters to be tied to all the dramatic events that happen throughout; instead of Steffi, for example, being gang-raped as a prostitute in St. Louis in part one and then eventually meeting Lefty in Chicago in part two, as Algren originally had it, now Lefty and Steffi are kind of going together in part one, and its his cowardly refusal to defend her when the neighborhood boys gang-rape her one night that eventually leads her to prostitution, not the other way around. And so this then let Algren add a remarkably heavy and very Modernist complication to it all that wasn't there before, Lefty's ongoing guilt over allowing something like that to happen without putting up a fight, his eventual deliberate letting-go of any hope of having a normal romantic relationship with a woman, hence a letting-go of hope altogether, even while exhaustedly admitting that this is simply the fate of the very poor in the first place, that such fancy terms as "justice" and "loyalty" and "dignity" are reserved only for those with enough money to afford them. And this is a much better way to get these points across than how Algren did it in Boots, which was to sit down and lecture us, so no wonder this second novel marks such a profound jump in literary maturity.
But perhaps the single greatest change between the two, and I'm convinced the main reason that Algren finally started getting recognized more and more by the general public with this one, is that he no longer felt the need to endlessly smack us in the face with a never-ceasing series of soul-killing tragedies; the lumpen losers of Never Come Morning, God forbid, actually manage to have a little fun at small isolated moments, actually manage to conjure up a little hope for the future for short periods of time. It's the charming yet Bukowsky-like evening out that Lefty and Steffi have in part one that makes us fall in love with them in the first place, which is why his betrayal hits us so heavily, and why his complex reaction to it keeps us so fascinated; all of these revelations are missing from Boots, precisely because Algren never gave the story a chance to breathe, never gave us these smaller and lighter moments that allow us to empathize and connect with the characters in the first place. It was an important lesson for him to learn, one that stuck with him the rest of his life, that for a general audience to sympathize with the plight of the badly-off, there has to be some sort of common connection made between them, a common yearning for a better tomorrow.
I don't think it's any surprise that Algren in those years went from being called an "American Gorky" by many to a "Yankee Faulkner" -- and in fact that's yet another difference between these two novels, that in the latter Algren finally and belatedly tries his hand a little at Modernist stream-of-consciousness dreamlike writing (er, and there's a reason why he's not known for it, either). And it's also no surprise I think that this novel did a whole lot better than Boots, both from a commercial standpoint and a critical one, and especially in terms of influence on other writers. (It was always a bitter irony of Algren's career, in fact, one that haunted him his entire life, that he had a tremendous impact on the American arts and letters, but with many of his disciples becoming much more culturally important than he.) So what perfectly bitter desserts for Algren, then, that this would be the exact time the business and religious leaders of the Polish Triangle would rise up against him, branding him a Nazi and getting his books banned in Chicago libraries for decades, for daring to expose to the nation a side of their neighborhoods they were spending so much time and money desperately trying to hide. But a lot more on this in the next essay in this series, which will take a detailed look at Algren's 1947 story collection, The Neon Wilderness. I hope you'll get a chance to join me again then.
*And a piece of trivia I never found a good place for in the main essay above: that right after the original release of Somebody in Boots in 1935 but before the disappointing sales, Algren put into motion plans for an even more ambitious "tetralogy" (four-book series) of related Chicago novels, each of them concentrating on one particular ethnic section of the city -- the Poles of the northside, the Italians of the westside, the blacks of the southside, and the Mexicans of southeast Chicago and Gary, Indiana -- a project that seems to have been permanently abandoned right around the time of Algren's supposed nervous breakdown in 1936. What a shame that he never revisited this idea later in life, I think now; it's an instantly intriguing concept, something that I could easily see coming out at an older age as his magnum opus.
**And again this being Algren, of course the title of this book went through several incarnations before its current form -- from the original White Hope (and talk about a provocative title; no wonder the eventual publisher was skittish about it), to the more pandering The Lost and the Lowly, to the headscratchingly Modernist He Shoulda Stood in Bed, to the title it now has.