Entrapment and Other Writings, p.1Nelson Algren
Copyright © 2009 by The Estate of Nelson Algren
Introduction, section introductions and commentary
© 2009 by Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon
See “Publication Information” (this page) for information on original publication of individual pieces.
Frontis: front page of Entrapment manuscript, marked up by Algren, c. 1951–53.
A Seven Stories Press First Edition
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Algren, Nelson, 1909-1981.
Entrapment and other writings / Nelson Algren ; edited by Brooke Horvath and Dan Simon.
I. Horvath, Brooke. II. Simon, Daniel, 1957- III. Title.
Introduction and Acknowledgments
A Note on Text Selection
I. Out of the Great Depression, Into the War
“Forgive Them, Lord” (1934)
“A Lumpen” (1935)
“Within the City” (1935)
“American Obituary” (1935)
“The Lightless Room” (1939)
Five Poems: “Utility Magnate” (1939); “Home and Goodnight” (1939); “Travelog” (1939); “This Table On Time Only” (1940); “Local South” (1941)
II. The War and After
“Do It the Hard Way” (1943)
“Hank, the Free Wheeler” (1944)
“Single Exit” (1947)
III. The Man with the Golden Arm
“Watch Out for Daddy”
V. And All the Rest
“G-String Gomorrah” (1957)
“Ain’t Nobody on My Side?” (1957)
“Stoopers and Shoeboard Watchers” (1959)
“Afternoon in the Land of the Strange Light Sleep” (1962)
“Down with Cops” (1965)
“The Emblems and the Proofs of Power” (1967)
“Nobody Knows Where Charlie’s Gone” (1969)
“On Kreativ Righting” (1975)
“Topless in Gaza” (1978)
“ ‘We Never Made It to the White Sox Game’ ” (1979)
“No More Whorehouses” (1979)
“There Will Be No More Christmases” (1980)
“Walk Pretty All the Way” (1981)
“So Long, Swede Risberg” (1981)
“Interview with Nelson Algren”
by Robert A. Perlongo (1957)
About the Author
INTRODUCTION AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
In 1949, Ernest Hemingway praised Nelson Algren as “a man writing,” adding that “Mr. Algren can hit with both hands and move around and he will kill you if you are not awfully careful.” Concluded Papa, “Mr. Algren, boy, are you good.”1
It was not long, however, before Algren became discouraged with his personal life, the cold-war America of Joe McCarthy, and the increasingly lackluster reception of his work as the conformist 1950s wore on and wore Algren down. Soon, he was calling himself “the tin whistle of American letters”2—his version of comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s “I don’t get no respect.” It was, however, a whistle he continued to blow loudly to make sure the serious criminals—the politicians and the cops, the businessmen and the smug suburbanites, the know-nothing academics and the risk-nothing writers—did not get away scot-free. In the late 1940s, he was already warning that, for the foreseeable future, American foreign policy would be dominated by a continuing need for oil, and in 1953 he published an essay in the Nation that, with a few changes of detail, might have appeared there in 2008:
Five years have passed since we began, once again, to rearm. Do we therefore feel more safe against attack than we did five years ago? Do we find ourselves with more friends in the world? Have our rights as free men been made more secure? Or have we only demonstrated that when we keep in private hands industries which depend for profit upon war and preparation for war, we are putting a hot-car thief in charge of a parking lot?3
One can only imagine how long and how loudly Algren would have been working his whistle in response to the War on Terror and the Patriot Act, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the swords rattled in Iran’s direction, the torture at Abu Ghraib and the illegal detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the 700 billion dollar bailout of American financial institutions and the epidemic of home foreclosures hitting the already battered working and lower-middle classes, the outsourcing of jobs, the cynicism of power, the extraordinary renditions, and the hubris of American exceptionalism.
Algren, after all, was a man who—in an anecdote related by his friend, the photographer Art Shay—could read a story in the morning newspaper about the cold-blooded murder of a family of five and feel sorry for the murderer: “Can you imagine,” Algren remarked, “what it took to make a guy do a thing like that?”4 Here was a writer who, two years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, could observe compassionately of Lee Harvey Oswald, “Belonging neither to the bourgeoisie nor to a working class, seeking roots in revolution one week and in reaction the next, not knowing what to cling to nor what to abandon, compulsive, unreachable, dreaming of some sacrificial heroism, he murders a man he does not even hate, simply, by that act, to join the company of men at last.”5
From his earliest stories to his final novel, The Devil’s Stocking, Algren blew his whistle for exactly the sort of people taken in yesterday by the subprime mortgage scam that has today put them out on the street, the sort of people who put their lives on hold or hoped to find the American Dream by joining the military to fight and to sweat and sometimes to die in Afghanistan and Iraq and possibly to return home damaged, the sort of people victimized by NAFTA and Wal-Mart, the World Trade Organization, globalization, and the conviction that national health care is the slippery slope to the bugaboo of socialism—the people who live, as Algren would have put it, behind the billboards and down the tin-can alleys of America, the marginalized and ignored, the outcasts and scapegoats, the punks and junkies, the whores and down-on-their luck gamblers, the punch-drunk boxers and skid-row drunkies and kids who know they will never reach the age of twenty-one: all of them admirable in Algren’s eyes for their vitality and no-bullshit forthrightness, their insistence on living and their ability to find a laugh and a dream in the unlikeliest places.
For someone playing a tin whistle, Algren got a lot of music out of it, sometimes shrill, sometimes hauntingly beautiful. If that music has a message—and it does—it is captured in part in the epigraph Algren chose for The Man with the Golden Arm from the Russian novelist Alexander Kuprin: “Do you understand, gentlemen, that all the horror is in just this—that there is no horror!” To which the counter-theme is that voiced by the “defrocked” preacher being grilled by Man’s police captain Record-Head Bednar: “We are all members of one another.”7 When the novel’s jailed “Sparrow” Salt-skin hears a girl cry out as she is being brought in, “Ain’t anyone on my side?” Sparrow can only answer silently, “Nobody, sister. Not a soul,” for “he knew not one man on the side of men.”8 Yet—as every piece included in this volume testifies—Algren saw writers generally—and himself in particular—as being one with those who don’t otherwise have defenders. Quoting again from Nonconformity, here invoking Joseph Conrad: “ ‘A novelist who would think himself of a superior essence to other men would miss the first condition of his calling,’ Conrad tells us.”9 But Algren’s no-bullshit toughness was tender as well as tough, full-hearted in a fundamental way reminiscent of Christ’s second great commandment, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Algren titled his 1963 collection of travel writings with a question: Who Lost an American? One answer, of course, is that all of us have lost countless Americans in countless ways. We have lost the American Carl Schurz, who affirmed on the floor of the US Senate in 1872—to deafening applause from the galleries—“My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” We have lost the American anarchist Adolph Fischer, executed following Chicago’s Haymarket rally of 1886, who told us that “the strongest bulwark of the capitalist system is the ignorance of its victims.” We have lost the American socialist Eugene Debs, who, having been convicted of violating the Sedition Act of 1918, told the federal court of Cleveland, Ohio, “Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I am not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” We have lost the American Woody Guthrie, who sang in 1939, “Some will rob you with a six-gun, / And some with a fountain pen.”10
And we have lost the American Nelson Algren, who wrote, in his afterword to Chicago: City on the Make, that “literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity,” that “the hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.”11 We have not, of course, lost Algren entirely, any more than we have lost Schurz and Fischer, Debs and Guthrie and all the rest who would not be cowed. If Algren soon began to lose the literary celebrity he enjoyed briefly following the success of The Man with the Golden Arm, this was perhaps to be expected. After all, how could a man whose FBI file grew thicker than that of any other American writer12 hope to continue echoing Herman Melville’s “No! In thunder!” and remain for long the darling of the suburban matrons and zoot-suit cats—to say nothing of Life magazine, corporate America, J. Edgar Hoover, or the stuffed shirts of the New York literary establishment? Nevertheless, or perhaps because all this is so, Algren’s work lives on, its timeliness reconfirmed in every piece collected here: by the man in Entrapment carrying on a conversation with himself in a hotel mirror; by the two fourteen-year-old runaway girls of “Walk Pretty All the Way” who are headed for a future that may well prove their undoing; by the strip clubs of Calumet City, Illinois (“G-String Gomorrah”) that will never be cleaned up because they constitute “the town’s economic jugular”; by the observation that unless we know the executed Vietnamese peasant—or the executed Iraqi or Afghan—“we do not know who we are” (“The Emblems and the Proofs of Power”).
Amidst much humor, much outrage, many cutting observations, striking sentences, and memorable characters, Algren in Entrapment and Other Writings speaks to our time as few of his fellow great American writers of the 1940s and ’50s do. This is in part because, unlike Hemingway or Faulkner, or Wright or Ellison, Algren hasn’t yet been accepted and assimilated into the American literary canon despite his being held up as a talismanic figure. He is beloved, remembered, taught, discussed, read, but he is still an outsider, still misunderstood, his vast achievement still overshadowed by a sense of his personal disappointments in love and literature both. All this makes him interesting to us in ever new and surprising ways. There is indeed much sorrow in the selections that follow, as Algren whistles up America’s failures to live up to the stories it likes to tell about itself and the damage we do to one another and to ourselves through such failures.
And perhaps the sorrow here comes closest to Algren’s own. The long fragment we have included from his unfinished novel Entrapment, dealing with an abandoned lover, coincides with and speaks revealingly of Algren’s own disappointment in his love affairs. One was with the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Less well known, although longer lived, was the love and companionship he found with Margo, a some-time prostitute and junkie whom Algren helped to kick her habit, and who, like de Beauvoir before her, also turned her back on Algren in the end. An amazing early story, “The Lightless Room” from 1939, may well have been left out of his classic 1947 short story collection, The Neon Wilderness, only because it brushes up against his own self-destructive urges, as evidenced by at least one later suicide attempt and intimations that the later attempt had been preceded by one or several earlier ones.
Algren was a decidedly private person. And we believe that some of the best writing in Entrapment and Other Writings was kept quiet by Algren because he felt, consciously or unconsciously, that this was writing that cut to the bone of his own demons. Algren’s handwritten notes on the copies of some of the finished manuscripts in his archive in the Special Collections department at Ohio State University, Columbus—indicating that they were unpublished but otherwise complete—leave us with the sense that he himself was leaving the door open a crack.
Laugh if you like, contend if you can, but finally, as the gambler said, “Read ’em and weep.”
1. Qtd. Bettina Drew, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989, 210.
2. H. E. F. Donohue, Conversations with Nelson Algren. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964, 151.
3. Nelson Algren, “Eggheads Are Rolling: The Rush to Conform.” The Nation 17 October 1953: 306.
4. Art Shay, Chicago’s Nelson Algren. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007, xxiv.
5. Nelson Algren, “Preface” to Somebody in Boots. New York: Berkley Medallion, 1965, 9.
6. Nelson Algren, Nonconformity: Writing on Writing. Ed. Daniel Simon. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996, 47.
8. The Man with the Golden Arm, 287.
9. Nelson Algren, Nonconformity: Writing on Writing. Ed. Daniel Simon. New York: Seven Stories, 1996, p. 21; Joseph Conrad, in a 1905 essay entitled “Books,” reprinted in Joseph Conrad on Fiction. Ed. Walter F. Wright. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964. 81.
10. Carl Schurz, remarks in the Senate, 29 February 1872; Adolf Fischer, qtd. Z Communications (website of Z Magazine)
11. Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make. 1951. 50th Anniversary Edition. Ed. David Schmittgens and Bill Savage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, 81, 83.
12. See Herbert Mitgang, “Annals of Government: Policing America’s Writers,” The New Yorker, 5 October 1987, 47 passim (material on Algren: pages 74, 76).
We would like to thank here those without whom this project would never have seen the light of day. First of all, each other. Brooke Horvath conceived of this project and submitted a finished manuscript several years ago to Seven Stories. Dan Simon read and initially hesitated. But together we collected ourselves and began to talk and to search for the pieces of the puzzle that in the end, with patience and persistence, would produce a collection we are proud of and that perhaps even Algren himself would be proud of. Bill Savage played a key role, arguing for the merits of the book early on and staying the course for the duration. Neil Olson, on behalf of the estate of Nelson Algren, offered sage counsel and always saw his role as providing succor and sustenance. Due credit and appreciation must be paid to Bettina Drew, author of the major biography of Nelson Algren, who was the first to begin to understand the larger story of Algren’s life in all its intricacies and who, by getting down on paper the words of so many of Algren’s friends, many of whom have since died, and by exploring before we did the Algren archive, helped make possible in some sense the work that we have done on Algren’s behalf. Rebecca Jewett, of the Ohio State University Libraries, provided copies of manuscripts in a pinch and kept looking for other ones until we found them. Art Shay, irrepressible and brilliant, has ever kept us company in our work on Algren. Christine Newman of Chicago magazine always brings Algren back when she speaks of him. Martha Lavey, David New, and the Steppenwolf Theatre Company stepped forward at the mention of Algren’s name, to lend a hand. Harold Augenbraum and the National Book Foundation, and Jo Chapman, Patrick Lannan, and the Lannan Foundation all helped us ensure that the name Nelson Algren would be remembered on his birthday, throughout the 100th year of his birth, and ever after. At Seven Stories: Veronica Liu, Jon Gilbert, and Ruth Weiner all did outstanding work beyond the call of duty on this project and on the Algren Centennial Project generally. Filmmaker Hugo Perez volunteered to be a part of the Algren Centennial before asking a single question as to whether this might be a wise or a foolhardy thing to do. Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, Matt Dillon, Estelle Parsons, and, especially, Barry Gifford likewise threw themselves onto the barricades, taking action clearly before taking the time to think clearly. Our families, too, deserve thanks, since living with people making books is never as much fun as it sounds. To all these, for their reckless humanity, thank you.
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