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The Life and Work of Nelson Algren

by Colin Asher

Pub Date: April 16th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-393-24451-9
Publisher: Norton

A champion of the downtrodden and marginalized was celebrated and reviled in his own time.

A fervent admirer of Nelson Algren (1909-1981), essayist Asher, a 2015/2016 fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, makes his book debut with a thoroughly researched, empathetic look at the life of the irascible, controversial writer. Drawing on sources from nearly 50 archives, including audio interviews and other material deposited by Algren’s previous biographer; Algren’s writings, letters, and interviews; and a “very lightly redacted” copy of Algren’s 886-page FBI file, Asher aims to correct the “misunderstandings and inaccuracies” that have sullied Algren’s reputation: notably, that he was an alcoholic, a “loner who burned every bridge he crossed,” and a writer whose publishing problems were largely his own fault. Many of those inaccuracies derived from Conversations with Nelson Algren, published in 1964, in which Algren himself conveyed an image of “a shallower, tougher, more careless, more misogynistic, less emotional, less intellectual, and lonelier person than he had ever truly been.” Although Asher tries mightily to counter that image, his findings often confirm them. Algren was certainly a hard drinker, thin-skinned, and sometimes paranoid. He “spent the first six decades of his life trying, and mostly failing, to balance a long list of competing and contradictory desires.” He yearned for critical acclaim but also “the freedom to express controversial ideas.” He wanted “devoted friends and the stability and comfort of a home, a wife, and children,” but he could never settle down with a woman without feeling stifled, and he wanted to go out whenever and wherever he pleased. “Chasing those urges,” Asher admits, “had left Nelson feeling lonely and regretful.” Because of his communist sympathies, the FBI kept a file on Algren beginning in 1940, creating professional and personal obstacles. Without knowing the FBI’s involvement in his career, Algren blamed his own shortcomings and became anxious and depressed. Asher chronicles Algren’s marriages and affairs, especially with Simone de Beauvoir, who, much to Algren’s dismay, publicized intimate details in her memoir, and he offers evenhanded readings of Algren’s works.

A brisk, well-documented homage.