Category Archives: Nelson Algren

Links: For Art’s Sake

Artist Cindy Kane apparently has an easy time making friends with her writer friends in Martha’s Vineyard: For the past few years she’s been working on a series called “Mapping Writers”, for which Ward Just, Tony Horwitz, Geraldine Brooks, Jules Feiffer, and others contributed pages from their notebooks. (If you happen to be in the Boston area, the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Mass., is showing work from the series through May 17.)

The organizers of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award have broken with tradition and put a couple of non-Canadians on the judging panel, including Russell Banks. Not everybody is pleased.

New Hampshire author Emily Winslow‘s debut novel, The Whole World, doesn’t come out until next year, but you can moon over her sweet pad in Cambridge, England, in the meantime.

The next issue of PEN America looks great. Included is an excerpt from Colum McCann‘s forthcoming novel, Let the Great World Spin. I very much enjoyed his 2007 novel, Zoli, so I’m looking forward to this one.

Also looking good: The new issue of Stop Smiling, which is thick with interviews with writers, including Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz. The entire Diaz interview is available free online.

Not available free online but worth chasing down is a piece in the April Harper’s about New York whorehouses by author (and alleged inhuman turd) Nelson Algren. The piece, written in 1979 and included in the forthcoming Algren collection Entrapment and Other Writings, is an almost tender defense of johns, written in the wake of a crackdown on Manhattan brothels:

[The mayor] assumes that the average fellow, in search of sex, wears shades and a false beard and lurks in the shadows near the whorehouse door. When he sees there is no cop in sight, he makes a run for the door, disguises his voice to the girl at the desk, and keeps his coat collar turned up while waiting.

That isn’t how it is. The man walks up to the window in the same way he would walk to the mutuel window at the racetrack, gets his ticket, and hopes for a winner. The mayor makes a false presumption of guilt that causes not only whores to suffer but johns as well. Because it forces both to employ extraordinary means to have an act that is good only when it is kept simple.

Links: Scribble Scrabble

Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities, the blog of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, is full of all manner of interesting literary arcana, from lesbian pulp novels to old Raymond Pettibon drawings. The Hartford Courant catches up with the blog’s minders, with a particular eye toward its collection of writer’s notebooks.

Henry Kisor, mystery author and former books editor at the Chicago Sun-Times (where he gave my so-called critical career a boost a few years back), is going through his old files and digging up some fun stuff, including letters from Art Buchwald, and a vicious missive from G.P. Putnam’s Sons editor William Targ calling Nelson Algren an “inhuman turd.”

Esquire deems Colson Whitehead‘s John Henry Days a candidate for great American novel of the new century. Which is….interesting…considering the magazine didn’t think much of it when it came out.

Sherman Alexie has a whole bunch of works in the pipeline. He tells the Northern Arizona University Lumberjack: “I’ve got a new book of poems coming out shortly called Face. This fall, I have a book of short stories coming out called War Dances. Next spring is the release of the sequel to my young adult novel. The sequel’s called The Magic and Tragic Year of my Broken Thumb. And I have a novel coming out fall of 2010 called Fire with Fire. And then I have another young adult novel coming out the Spring after that called Radioactive Love Song, and then I have another novel coming out the fall after that called Thunder and Lightning.”

I’m still thinking about novels about motherhood, a subject that D.G. Myers raised recently. Seems to me that Sue Miller‘s The Senator’s Wife, and a few other Miller novels besides, should enter the discussion.

But this novel? Not so much.

Nelson Algren’s Food Writing

WPA guides have enjoyed a profile boost lately—last week, for instance, the New York Times had a fun article and interactive feature about a road trip based on the 1941 Washington state guide. A little more off the radar was Michael Nagrant‘s nice piece in New City Chicago about Nelson Algren‘s work as a food historian for the WPA; in the late ’30s the novelist traveled throughout the Midwest gathering recipes and interviewing cooks. Nagrant writes:

Algren may have derided it as government work, but the book is a fascinating examination of Midwestern ethnic foodways. It features interesting etymology, including the story of how getting “stewed” became a term for getting drunk. There are sections about the box social, an event whereby the young women of East St. Louis cooked up box lunches for an auction whereby male homesteaders who bid the most for the box also acquired the company of its cook for the evening. Such events led to particular mythologies including the idea that a fancy box was usually made by a homely girl.

Algren’s book is out of print, but as it happens a collection of WPA food writing by the likes of Algren, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and more is out now.

Roundup: Looking Backward

At the Washington Post‘s Short Stack blog, Marie Arana goes hunting for books that expose unfamiliar corners of Washington D.C., “rather than grouse about how Washington has never produced a classic tome that truly nails the city the way Tom Wolfe did New York or Dashiell Hammett did San Francisco.” (Was it something I said?) Coming up empty, she calls on Christopher Buckley (Boomsday, Thank You for Smoking), who concludes his list with “any White House memoir”: “They all have two themes: 1.) It wasn’t my fault! and 2.) It would have been so much worse if I hadn’t been there. Now that really tells you something about this town.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Fuller lists her five favorite books about the modern American West.

Romance publisher Harlequin is getting big on Web 2.0 tools—readings on Second Life, short erotic novels readable on cellphones (“because size doesn’t matter”). Says the company’s internet guru, Brent Lewis: “We chunk down most stories [designed for cellphones] so you’re only getting about 500 words per day. I believe strongly that mobile will become an important delivery mechanism for publishers in North America.”

Attention Chicagoans: The Museum of Contemporary Art is exhibiting photos of Chicago from 1949 to 1968 by Art Shay, in conjunction with a new staging of Nelson Algren: For Keeps and a Single Day at Lookingglass Theatre (which has a preview video of the show).

Roundup: History Lessons

Bookslut points to a great Wisconsin Public Radio feature called “Author! Author!” (not to be confused with this). Last year’s “Pulp Fiction” segment is especially rich, including Chris Ware, Tom Wolfe, John Wesley Harding, and Studs Terkel discussing Nelson Algren‘s Chicago: City on the Make, number two on my personal list of great books about Chicago. (Here’s number one, immortal.)

Kevin J. Hayes, author of American Literature: A Very Short Introduction, is back again, this time looking for advice about autobiographies. Not my bailiwick, but a few personal favorites that spring to mind: John Updike‘s Self-Consciousness, Paul Auster‘s Hand to Mouth (one of my favorite being-a-writer memoirs), Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home, Woody Guthrie‘s Bound for Glory. Tough one. What’s the distinction between an autobiography and a memoir? Can you not write about James Frey and still claim you were comprehensive in discussing this?

Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s house doesn’t appear to be in the same dire straits as Edith Wharton‘s, but it still needs help.

In relation to its recent “What I’ve Learned” feature on Gore Vidal, Esquire dusts off Vidal’s 1962 review of Robert Gover‘s first novel, One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding:

And he has written a tragedy, for all of us; he reveals the emptiness and banality of a bored society’s emotional responses, not to mention the poverty of its dialogue. There is always a division between what a society does and what it says it does, and what it feels about what it says and does. But nowhere is this conflict more vividly revealed than in the American middle class’s attitude toward sex, that continuing pleasure and sometimes duty we have, with the genius of true pioneers, managed to tie in knots. Robert Gover unties no knots but he shows them plain and I hope this book will be read by every adolescent in the country, which is most of the population.

Your Guide to the Depression

As somebody who cherishes his Illinois and California WPA guides, it’s hard to argue with David Kipen‘s plea to revive them online:

I’m calling for the creation of a free, route-based, readily searchable online repository of all the text and photography from every last American Guide, with the Center for the Book’s literary maps to all 50 states thrown in for good measure. Copyright law here should prove less of a headache than usual, considering that the American taxpayer already paid for this priceless treasure house a lifetime ago.

The WPA guides, somewhat famously, helped support many writers during the Great Depression, including Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Eudora Welty, and more. (A 2003 New York Times piece captures the breadth of the contributions.)