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Thursday
Jun182009

1950

The Man with the Golden Arm

by Nelson Algren

Original Publisher: Doubleday
Current Publisher:
Seven Stories Press

Rachel Kushner writes:

Nelson Algren graduated from college during the depression, went to Texas, rambled around with “fruit bums,” tried to run a gas station, and spent three weeks in jail for stealing a typewriter. Later, three weeks was remembered as six months, but one day in captivity can be enough to make a dent in a person; there seems to be a jail scene in every book he wrote.

This particular path is out of favor. I’m not saying Algren’s writing is out of favor—it may be, but I’m not concerned with literature’s popularity. What is no longer really tolerated, or even practiced, is living to tell the way that he did. Was it ever tolerated? By living to tell, I mean portraying a realm unfamiliar to the literary world, which mostly depicts a social class whose troubles take hold despite money and elite schooling. I’m still amazed that this dark and risky novel, The Man with the Golden Arm—it ends with a poem/epitaph!—won such high canonical praise (perhaps making way for descendants like Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, and Denis Johnson’s Angels?). There are hazards to working in realms peopled by “denizens,” and certain aspects of Algren’s novel do seem quaint and even meretricious—like Frankie Machine’s articulated aim of going “from monkey to zero” in hopes of making it “pounding the tubs” (though Algren is never as meretricious as Otto Preminger’s awful movie version of the book). Many of his descriptions are perfectly keyed, the junkies and their “rigid, panicky walk,” the women with hair “set so stiffly it looked metallic.” In any case, Algren didn’t choose his subject. It chose him, and he went along.

He was obsessed by the paradoxical guilt of those who have nothing, in a postwar America where having mattered a great deal. “If you don’t have anything you’re nothing,” Mr. Dennis tells Barbara Loden in the film Wanda. “You might as well be dead.” Algren would have been moved by Wanda’s plight, though he chose, famously, Simone de Beauvoir, and a taste for women who think abstractly leaks through in The Man with the Golden Arm. The men, Frankie and Sparrow, are all action and hustle, and their thoughts are dominated by plans, constantly modified. The women—Zosh, Violet and Molly-O—are more dreamily cut off from their environment, like the limp, white curtain, a singular image of freshness, that hangs in Molly-O’s window. When I read the book, at age twenty, it was the women who riveted me, but so did this idea of the so-called literary outlaw: Algren and also Burroughs (himself a one-time Texas fruit bum)—perhaps because my bohemian parents’ shelves were filled with issues of Evergreen Review, The Outsider, and hand-printed Lou Jon Press books in which Bukowski praises the landlord’s ass and gets fired from yet another day-labor gig. The beatnik-era writers my family knew were poets who went to Mexico for the peyote, and, perhaps most importantly, my parent’s closest friend Johnny, a machinist who practiced “action poetry”—pissing on someone’s Cadillac, say—and later disappeared (his most lyrical poem?). We looked for him door to door on houseboats, asking if people had heard of someone named Deacon, Pappy, or Johnny. As a child, “artist” meant a drifter who sleeps on someone else’s boat, has a trade, and speaks a language that is crude, elevated, and totally unique.

My parents and their friends were responding to the heartless America, as was Algren. As a young woman, maybe I felt I had to do the same. I somehow found myself working the morning shift at a rough Tenderloin bar, 6 to 10 AM. I never wrote about what I saw or experienced over the two or three years I worked there, having come quickly to suspect that if I wrote jazzy epitaphs of junky suicides, I would, by counter example, fail miserably. I don’t think I was looking for “material.” It’s a hazy era in my life, but I sense that I’d come to understand, or misunderstand, that being a writer meant immersing myself in a world where what I knew would be of no use. Again, three weeks, six months, a day: a dent is a dent. I wanted to be schooled by the lumpen and condemned, and for this I partly blame, or thank, Nelson Algren.

Rachel Kushner was a National Book Award Finalist in Fiction in 2008 for Telex From Cuba.

Harold Augenbraum writes:

Most people have forgotten Nelson Algren, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s he was one of the best known literary writers in America, lover of Simone de Beauvoir, “hero” of her novel The Mandarins, and so on. He’s still a sort of bard of the down-and-outer because of this book and A Walk on the Wild Side (made even more famous by the Lou Reed song). Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak (Kim Novak? Huh? Hey, I used to have a crush on Kim Novak, but in Frankie Machine’s Chicago?) starred in the (fairly awful) movie Otto Preminger made from the book and if you look ahead to 1952’s From Here to Eternity you might conclude that any movie made from a National Book Award Winner that starred Sinatra puts you off wanting to read the book itself. But when you immerse yourself in Algren’s language you will see why so many other writers of his time and ours have appreciated him. He takes the American idiom and bends it all around. The tone and diction of his narrative leech into his dialogue, and vice versa, style so impressively written that it pushes the story itself to the background. Each character creates a personal ethos from the great, overhanging ghost of the Second World War. Daylight seems to recede into an offset palate of grays and blacks. Even if Algren’s brand of gritty, urban naturalism of the lower class is out of fashion in a country of the middle of the road, one can still admire such powerful sentences.

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.

ISBN: 9781888363180

1950 Fiction Finalists: Not announced

1950 Fiction Judges: Mary Colum, Malcolm Cowley, Max Gissen,
W.G. Rogers, Glenway Wescott

The Year in Literature:

More Information:

  • The Book of National Book Awards Apocrypha says that one of the reasons the National Book Awards were established in 1950 was that when William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, many in the publishing industry were upset that he had never received the Pulitzer Prize, the nation’s preeminent literary award. When Algren won the first National Book Award in Fiction, it was presented by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. See a picture of Algren with Roosevelt at www.nationalbook.org.
  • The Man with the Golden Arm was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Frank Sinatra in 1955.

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Reader Comments (4)

I am struck by the attenuation of the narrative style through the decades. Would a Nelson Algren or John O'Hara or even the early Philip Roth (Goodbye, Columbus) or (heaven forfend) Erich Segal's 'Love Story' even be considered now? Such novel-novels, chock-full of story, are so out of critical fashion still, much as we do see that the emperor has no clothes in this respect. "Cold Mountain' prospered not only by virtue of its stately prose but its literary conceit as an echo of the myth. As a critical culture -- I will say it -- we seem to think that a story must tilt with character or plot but perhaps not both, at least not to enjoy respect. As a writer who believes that "the mainstream" has a whole lot more smarts going for it than we dare believe, I hope this trend is a bit of a blip.

July 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJacquelyn Mitchard

A lovely idea, Harold. I 'm going to try to read about every NBA.

I was reminded what Roger Straus said about Algren. (It's in my book.) He was talking to me about hiring Shirley Cudahy, who had come to Farrar, Straus in 1953 as editor in chief after Roger bought her late husband's Chicago book publishing company, Pelligrini & Cudahy.

"She was a goddamn good editor," Roger said. " I'll tell you what she brought in that made her reputation. She brought in Nelson Algren. She spent some time in Chicago working with him on A Walk on the Wild Side, telling him to take 'fuck' out and put 'shit' in. He listened to her and did what she wanted."

al silverman

Nice to see the consensus on Preminger's awful film adaptation. Algren also hated the movie, and (I suspect) not just because he made almost no money off of it, but also for purely artistic reasons. Great book, every bit deserving of the praise it's gotten.

July 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPete

I would love to know who the other contenders were for the first National Book Award. Does anyone know who they were why they are "not announced." I looked for this info on the NBA's own website but they only start listing all finalists a couple of years later.. a lost list?

September 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChristine Guilfoyle
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