Follow Harriet on Twitter
A Conversation with Hugh Iglarsh
When the Nelson Algren Committee was started in 1989, most of his books were out of print, and now they are available again. There is also the Nelson Algren Birthday Party, now in its 23rd year, and even a Nelson Algren Fountain at Milwaukee and Ashland. So the purpose of the Nelson Algren Committee was to resuscitate his reputation. Please talk about the significance of Algren, and how your remarkable Committee came about? I mean, it is strictly a grassroots phenomenon, without any institutional affiliation whatsoever.
The Nelson Algren Birthday Party has become something of an institution in Chicago, continuing now for 23 years, something that none of the founders of the Nelson Algren Committee (I’m not one of them) probably would have expected. Studs Terkel, a great friend of Algren, was one of the cofounders, as was Stu McCarrell, a poet and writer very much out of the Algren milieu. Warren Leming and Nina Gaspich were also there at the beginning, and remain on the committee. The sense was at the time, I believe, that Algren had always gotten something of a raw deal in Chicago, the city in which he made his home most of his life and whose ordinary people he immortalized in his work. The public library kept his books off the stacks for many years, on the asinine charge that they were “anti-Polish.” His realism wounded the foolish pride of a town that has never quite come to terms with itself, maintaining a polite denial about its own nature. It is the town described by Lenny Bruce as “so corrupt it’s thrilling.” It’s also the home historically of many a booster and blusterer, which is the real origin of its nickname, The Windy City.
Algren is valuable not only because of the beauty and brilliance of the work he crafted in his prime — Never Come Morning, Chicago: City on the Make, The Man with the Golden Arm — but also because of his example, as a writer who refused to play the success game, the self-marketing game, the celebrity game. He did not like or trust the Beatniks, but he was something of an inspiration to them, an artist seeking a very hard-won authenticity and spiritual depth. He is treated as the best of the proletarian writers of the 1930s, which he is, but he is also a poet and philosopher of urban melancholy and loss, and his great work has a certain Russian quality, as punk shoplifters and whores and hard-bitten cops confront the limits of their freedom within a very fixed and closed and indifferent system. The work coincides with the film noir period, and has certain themes and styles in common … a kind of shadowy humanism, drawing and implicating the reader into a complexity and ambiguity that provides more questions than answers, in the style of all modern art.
Algren is a provocative writer who remains interesting and challenging. Time will tell whether his work is genuinely classic, transcending place and time. Certainly it remains alive today, despite a vicious critical attack on him during the Cold War 1950s, when social realism was seen as old-fashioned and more than a little embarrassing … because who really cares about these losers from the old neighborhood, now that suburbia and the superhighway and TV have made escaping the whole scene so easy. Algren was the bane of the New Critics and the formalism they espoused. The idea that a novel should have a compelling political point was so Thirties, so much of an era that the tenured former Trotskyites were quite eager to leave behind, except as a theme for reminiscence. Everything is so different now, right? The idea that the old issues remained, that America seen from the bottom is not quite how it appears in civics classes and Fourth of July speeches, was taboo, a sign of sour grapes and arrested development. Algren himself hated academia, always advising aspiring writers that the only way to learn to write was to learn about life first-hand. This put him in the cross-hairs of the critical establishment, who were very proud of having pulled themselves out of the old neighborhood and into the ivory tower. It was simply a conflict of populist vs. elitist. It never ends.
The Committee is an attempt to keep the memory of Algren alive, by organizing a celebration that is not a media event, but rather a spontaneous and grassroots evening that takes place in Algren’s old stomping grounds and celebrates his work and influence on today’s artists, poets and activists. We give the Algren Committee Awards to local people who embody what Nelson called “a conscience in touch with humanity” — i.e., artists and activists who side with the underdog and have not gotten the attention they deserve from the mainstream media. Not everybody likes us — we just try to remember Nelson in the spirit of Nelson, and this places us sometimes in opposition to those seeking to peg their careers on his accomplishment. But the party continues, a mix of chaos and clarifying moments, which always goes on too long, as you yourself experienced. Our goal is to tie Algren to the community, and to support a culture that is neither academic nor pop/commercial, but is genuinely counter-cultural, i.e., questioning and critical and purposeful and humane and alive. Which is our vision of Nelson.
I totally agree with you that Algren’s insistence on experiencing life first-hand, and from the bottom up, are important lessons, and not just for aspiring writers but everyone. I also agree with you in identifying the isolated, car-enabled suburb, ivory tower and television as obstacles to the direct experience, without which one’s conscience can become quite sick indeed. It is truly amazing Algren’s appetite and stamina for being among and talking to ordinary people, and it is fitting that he’s now celebrated in his old neighborhood. This sense of the local, with its specific history, traditions, flavors and speech, was very important to Algren, and also to members of the Algren Committee. Concurrent with your project of reviving Algren is your effort to reexamine forgotten history. Warren Leming has produced and published a cabaret play about the Haymarket bombing incident, for which you wrote an introduction, and the Algren Birthday Party of 2010 was dedicated to the great Howard Zinn. Studs Terkel’s interviews are also marvelous examples of revisionist history, or, rather, “guerrila journalism,” to use Terkel’s own term.
It’s also important not to glamorize Nelson … starting somewhere in the 1950s, as the culture chills and the intense love affair with Simone de Beauvoir sours, he begins to experience and to some extent radiate a bitterness and cynicism that dampen his relationships. He goes inward and loses touch with the society. He stops being a novelist and becomes essentially an essayist and journalist, increasingly recycling material, ransacking his own closet. He writes for semi-creepy skin magazines, coasting on his reputation, doing occasional interviews that drip with contempt and self-contempt.
The book-length interview with H.E.F. Donohue conducted in the early 1960s, Conversations with Nelson Algren, captures this period. Algren’s tremendous natural wit and honesty and penetrating critical faculty turn on themselves, revealing a wifeless, childless, in some ways friendless middle-aged guy struggling with insecurity, having lost his youthful resilience and cockiness, and wondering on a deep level what went wrong, and whether maybe, just maybe, the critics were right about him, that he was old news. It’s the saddest thing since Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up … and it has some of the same mordant self-dramatization. When novelists go bad, their lives turn into bad novels. So reading the Donohue book, one wants to commiserate with Nelson … and slap him at the same time. I mean, really, things were happening in the 60s that Algren could have connected to, if he had cared to. But Algren ends up an Algren character, out of place, going nowhere, by himself, like one of the “Nighthawks” in the Hopper painting.
When Algren was on top of things, he walked the city as observantly as a bad conscience, seeing its hidden life and dark beauty. He once noted with his usual deftness that compassion has no use without a setting. When the setting changed, he could not change with it, and his compassion hardened into something closer to self-pity. Not an uncommon experience in America; it’s an expression of alienation, of dealing with the ruthless impermanence and paper-thin eternal present of a commercial culture.
At least Algren always could depend on Studs Terkel. Their politics were basically similar but the personalities could not have been more different. Studs was a dynamo. Those who knew him tell me he was always “on,” always playing masterfully the role of Studs Terkel, his distinctive honking radio voice audible at half a mile. Algren had a melancholic streak, and an aura of solitude even in a crowd. Studs was the life of the party, Algren more the coolest guy there, intensely aware of what was happening, not always choosing to throw himself into it. Together, they are the yin and yang of Chicago literature. Royko and Saul Alinsky are fixtures too. It’s basically a proletarian literature, kind of a strange thing in a de-industrialized city, one that has undergone major re-gentrification over the last 25 years and has lost much or most of its neighborhood tightness and feel. It’s all about exile and conflict and survival, about atomized anonymity. Terkel was a better leftist than Algren, and wrote about organizing and solidarity and at least the possibility of positive change. As something of an optimist, he never risked or lost his audience the way Nelson did. Algren found his poetry in despair, in hitting bottom and looking around without any illusions or buffers.
Warren Leming’s play, Cold Chicago (a/k/a The Eight Hours) is terrific, a Brechtian pageant or masque about 19th-century Chicago and the Haymarket trauma, a hideous injustice that has never quite healed. Every May Day in Chicago, the martyrs are honored at the Forest Home cemetery where all the radicals are buried, and dull speeches are given by union bureaucrats. The country as a whole has lost the May Day tradition, even though it was born right here amid the chaos and cruelty and righteous anger of industrializing and immigrant-heavy Chicago. I wish the play were better known, and that theater groups would perform it on May Day.
We dedicated the 2010 event to Howard Zinn simply because, like Algren, he focused his work on real people, and fought to make history relevant to people’s real-life struggles. In contemporary terms, one could say that Zinn occupied American history the way Algren occupied American literature. Both are resented by the powers that be. When Zinn, the nation’s foremost progressive historian, died in January 2010, the Chicago Sun-Times neglected to print his obituary, but gave Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright in Bonanza, half a page. Sometimes the media are not terribly subtle.
Not to make light of Algren’s bitterness, but it wasn’t all lost, since after his fiction stopped, he wrote a fairly large amount of first-rate travel writing, and he never became a right-wing nutcase like Kerouac, who was yet another of our literary greats whose late years became farcical or tragic. In your “A Heroic Line of Losers: From Herman Melville to Nelson Algren,” published in CounterPunch, you wrote that good writers require good readers. You then defined a good reader as being not necessarily a good, but simply a functioning citizen, with the implication that if one can’t read well, then one is a dysfunctional citizen. I can’t say I disagree with you. In any case, you defined being a good reader and functioning citizen as “arming oneself against the hype machine and being willing to take chances, to wander freely, and to cultivate qualities of attention, discrimination and engagement that are not rewarded or encouraged by the larger culture. It means an ability to slow down, listen, absorb, reflect, basic concentration skills endangered in a world ruled by speed and sensory overload.” But since our speed and sensory overload culture is becoming even more insane and absurb by the day, what hope do you have for the future?
Some of the travel writing is first-rate, some of it is not, in my opinion — the Vietnam stories, for example, are somewhat disturbing in that they show a man trying to relive his past without really understanding the context, as though Saigon in 1966 or 1967 were the same as Marseilles in 1945 … as though he were the same man 20 years down the road. There’s an element of farce in the stories, but it’s flat farce, more pathetic than funny. There’s an uncomfortable self-consciousness in some of the later work, as though he were writing with Norman Mailer in mind, and a sense that his moral compass has gone just a bit wobbly, that he’s lost his bearings. No, he never became a right-wing nutcase, but he did have a strong conviction that he had been cheated out of what he deserved, sometimes reaching the point of an almost paranoid crankiness. He was conflicted, torn. He scorned conventional success, at the same time craving certain aspects of it, as all writers do. The system creates this terrific ambivalence, a fear of selling out vying with a fear of not selling at all, of becoming invisible. And Algren because of his character and politics was uniquely susceptible to this ambivalence.
As for reading and citizenship, I stand by those quotes of mine mentioned in your question. If our democracy were like ancient Athens, and the entire citizenry could assemble in a good-sized high school football stadium, you wouldn’t need high levels of literacy — everything could be intimately debated. But in our huge, highly propagandized, cash-driven and insanely bureaucratized society today, active citizenship means a willingness to read in a serious way. Otherwise one becomes another media consumer, accepting what is given without the curiosity to dig any deeper and discover the real story. And this means not just the latest political blog item, but also the poetry and novels and plays that matter, that tell us where we are from the inside. Algren was one of those writers, so was Melville. They give us our emotional and psychological history, helping explain why we are who we are.
What really disturbs me about the Citizens United decision and the whole issue of political campaign spending is the assumption — which is almost always true — that money is the decisive factor in elections, because they really are just tests of image-mongering and marketing expertise, no different than campaigns for any other consumer product. But if so, why bother with the actual elections? Just have the columnists at Advertising Age pick the winners. It would save a lot of money and trouble, and the Republicans wouldn’t even have to bother with hacking into electronic voting machines in order to steal elections, which would be risky if the Democrats were brave enough to challenge the thefts, and the media cared enough to report on such things, as opposed to Lindsay Lohan’s latest DUI.
If there is no real thinking and reading and talking — that is, if politics becomes not a shared discussion of our common direction and goals and values, but simply another expression of hyper-controlled, dumbed-down, celebrity/entertainment culture — then of course it’s not a democracy at all, it’s crapocracy, rule by the spinmeisters, the Straussian elitists who whip public opinion out of the media froth and make it dance on its hind legs. They could not do this if they were not the product of a morally and spiritually deadening educational system that teaches them to despise and manipulate the masses, and if the masses themselves were not programmed by saturation advertising to think in consumerist terms and to respond reflexively to certain emotional cues. A real reader is someone who has left the media Skinner box.
The great thing about absurdity is that it isn’t real and it isn’t supposed to be sustainable, and the fact that it’s spinning faster and faster means it will collapse all the sooner. The addictive magic of technology is wearing off. When I see the Occupy groupings around the world, I see people, mostly young, who are meaningfully simplifying their lives. They focus on talking to each other face to face and turning desolate downtown “real” estate into genuine public space, which they inhabit with their real biological bodies. They also read real books. They are in the mercantile hearts of the cities and towns not as customers or commuters or tourists or students or bystanders, but as a self-constituted, energized public, as an organized and conscious society that insists on its right to participate in power, or at least to be present and visible where power is manifested. These people read, think, converse, relate to each other as equals and otherwise learn the habits of democracy, like openness and honesty and solidarity and sacrifice and the ability to deal with and negotiate conflict.
It is a rejection of absurdity in favor of something that seems like authentic democracy, not the decorative variety favored by the one percent. There’s got to be some hope in that. It’s part of the human condition to seek authenticity and unmediated experience. History has not come to an end. Who knows … as things hit bottom, maybe we are on the cusp of a new romantic age, characterized by the impulse to reinvigorate or simply discard the hopelessly corrupted institutions and used-up pseudo-values, and return to something closer to nature and our own buried, latent humanity. We need to be on the lookout for the signs of revolutionary energy, of new life and social and cultural revival. Revolution is the ultimate expression of the empowered imagination, and it is a good question whether change is even possible in a society without a vigorous, purposeful literary and artistic milieu. It is the foundation, and it needs to be rebuilt out of the postmodern rubble. We need writers who have something to say, and readers willing to deeply consider what they read. Out of that, anything can happen. Everything has.
Hugh Iglarsh is a Chicago-based writer, editor and citizen, and is a member of the Nelson Algren Committee. He has published articles, reviews and essays in New City (Chicago), CounterPunch and elsewhere, along with more than his share of letters to the editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.