Category Archives: Nelson Algren

Links: The Names

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Here’s Don DeLillo, winner of the 2009 Common Wealth Award, along with three fellow winners who, unlike him, don’t seem to mind smiling: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kevin Spacey, and Buzz Aldrin.

Growing up bookish in Chicago meant, at least for me, that Nelson Algren was all but unavoidable, but apparently that’s not true in the rest of the country, according to a Los Angeles Times report, which includes comments from DeLillo and Russell Banks. Just wait until everybody gets a load of Stuart Dybek.

The Great Gatsby: the ballet.

Alice Walker‘s papers are now available at Emory University. The university’s Web site includes a slideshow of some of the more interesting holdings, including the invoice of Walker’s purchase of a headstone for Zora Neale Hurston‘s tomb.

Andrew Seal has what I’m hoping will be the last word on the Walter Benn Michaels foofaraw. I’m grateful that somebody’s willing to marshal the intellectual rigor to dismantle Michaels’ bloviations, and get in a few good zingers too. (“To say that Michaels is being absolutist is like saying an elephant is heavyset.”) Seal also points to video of the New York Public Library event that inspired all the chatter.

Literary agent Eric Simonoff, whose roster includes Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, and many other heavy hitters, discusses his recent jump to the William Morris Agency in Crain’s New York Business. He points to the recent six-figure sale of Danielle Trussoni‘s debut novel, Angelology, to Viking as proof that the publishing industry isn’t completely off the rails: “It was viewed as a test case, to see if we can still fall in love with a book and pay lots of money,” he says. “The answer is yes. There are still enough publishers, and few enough great books, that we can.

Q&A With David A. Taylor, Soul of a People

David A. Taylor‘s Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America is an excellent study of the personalities behind the Federal Writers’ Project, which attracted a host of writers to work on guidebooks, oral histories, and folklore collections during the Depression. Some of the participants later became very well-known—among those who worked for the FWP in some capacity were Nelson Algren, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Jim Thompson, John Cheever, and Richard Wright—but as the book makes clear, doing government work left many of the writers feeling conflicted, and the project was consistently under scrutiny by Congress for potentially harboring Communists, a hint of the McCarthy hearings that would come years later.

Taylor, who’s also a fine fiction writer, is working on a documentary related to the WPA book; the American Library Association is sponsoring a related project for libraries around the country as well. For more on the book, see Taylor’s Web site and the lengthy interview he recently conducted with George Mason University’s Art Taylor for his Art & Literature blog.

If you’re in D.C., David A. Taylor will speak about the book on Tuesday, April 28, at 3 p.m. at the Library of Congress. He answered a few questions about the book via e-mail.

The book concentrates on a handful of states where FWP projects pulled in some well-known writers—John Cheever contributed to the New York WPA guide, Zora Neale Hurston to Florida’s, Nelson Algren and Richard Wright to Illinois’. Were there any less-well-known states (or writers) that you wish you had more time and space to spotlight?

It’s true that the stories of the later-famous writers form the book’s core but most of the characters are intriguing lesser-knowns: Anzia Yezierska, a 1920s screenwriter and “Cinderella of the Tenements” who captured the weirdness of the FWP experience in New York; Rudolph Umland, the hobo editor of the Nebraska WPA guide; Lyle Saxon, the New Orleans novelist who lived and breathed the city for the WPA while he drank himself to death; and Hilda Polacheck, who documented Chicago history in personal stories, including survivors of the Great Fire of 1871. Polacheck, like some of the others, left a memoir and I interviewed her daughter Dena. With others I wasn’t so lucky and the trail went cold.

I liked finding people who never expected to be writers or great writers most of us never heard of. Juanita Brooks found her inner investigative reporter on the FWP, and through old-timers uncovered the Mountain Meadows Massacre of the 1860s. Jon Krakauer called her 1950 book about it “an extraordinary work of history” that shaped every other book about the Mormons in 1800s Utah, including his own Under the Banner of Heaven. There are tantalizing loose ends to her story and others, like Eluard Luchell McDaniel, a black hobo writer and partisan in the Spanish Civil War. And Meridel Le Sueur in Minnesota: The Girl is a noir novel centered on a woman caught up in a bank heist. She pieced it together from stories of women she interviewed. It’s The Wire in 1930s St. Paul.

The WPA guides have a reputation for being hit-and-miss when it comes to readability. Cheever, somewhat famously, described his work for the WPA as “twisting into order the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards.” As you were researching the book, what struck you about the quality of the writing? Were there any particular gems that you discovered?

There’s a collection of gems from the WPA guides collected in a book called Remembering America. Archie Hobson, the editor of that book, did a great service. His selection highlights local stories from all the guides—many funny as hell—that show the idiosyncrasy of what happened in a bar or when two or three people came together. The humor, often dark, struck me. Among the individual WPA guides, the Oklahoma guide still has the imprint of Jim Thompson’s noir sensibility (even though he left before the guide was done, his folklore essay and some of the tours still stand out). More than the style, for me, are the weird surprises of history—like the fact that Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel prize winner, was living in Illinois for several years while his son studied agriculture there. Then you have some ringers, like Kenneth Rexroth’s hiking notes for the Sierras in the California guide, and Aldo Leopold’s essay on conservation in the Wisconsin guide, years before he wrote Sand County Almanac.

You mention a few cases where WPA leadership edited provocative statements out of guides. (For instance, Idaho guide editor Vardis Fisher’s comments about a former Idaho governor were removed from a draft of the book.) Was there any consistency to what kind of material was cut? How much of it reflected concern about Congressional opposition to the FWP?

Nationally there was a huge reservoir of public fear, and Congress responded by watching for any hint of dissidence. When the first House Un-American Activities Committee (Joe McCarthy’s predecessor and role model) was bearing down on the FWP in 1938 and ‘39, the FWP chief felt the pressure and had a few internal censors weed out political red flags—especially communist and socialist leanings. Labor history was a powder keg, and discontent, so they could draw the censors’ pen. But there was so much coming in, the censors weren’t consistent.

Headquarters also struck out some things in an effort to give a consistent and ‘objective’ tone to the whole guidebook series. So Rexroth’s rant against California timber barons—which interestingly bleeds into a sort of Eastern-flavored portrayal of earth and water—didn’t make it into the California guide. I was happy to find his typescript manuscripts, and publish selections in the book.

One of the most compelling personalities in the book is Hurston, who did a tremendous amount of research on Florida folklore, occasionally putting herself in harm’s way to do it. You note that she had written a book for the FWP called “The Florida Negro,” but it wasn’t published. What happened?

Besides the overt censorship, there was, as Stetson Kennedy notes, the implicit censorship of local mores—including Jim Crow segregation in the South, hanging over the guide editors. The Florida WPA guide did challenge that with accounts of lynching and unfair employment practices—cheek to jowl in a book about Florida tourist spots!—but still there were projects planned that never saw the light of day. In the case of The Florida Negro, it was a combination of that and the kind of mundane editorial merry-go-round that a script might experience in Hollywood—no greenlighting, a U-turn to rewrite, etc. Sterling Brown, the remarkable poet and professor at Howard University who oversaw black studies in the FWP, planned a whole series—and some like The Virginia Negro did get published as amazing glimpses of black history. Hurston took over The Florida Negro when a version had been drafted, and she reworked it. When she left for a teaching job in North Carolina, it sort of died. A decade ago, The Florida Negro was finally published by the University Press of Mississippi, and essays Hurston wrote for it appeared in Pam Bordelon’s Go Gator! And Muddy the Water. There’s still a lot of Zora’s genius coming to light. A few years ago a musical version of Polk County, her play about life in the turpentine camps she uncovered for the FWP, was staged here in D.C. and won a Helen Hayes award for best new musical. Hurston would have loved that.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the WPA guides of late, perhaps as a function of the material becoming available online through the Library of Congress—last year there are books like America Eats! and State by State, which both pay tribute to the FWP’s efforts, and now your project. What do you think people are searching for by revisiting the guides?

I think part of it is actually a continuation of the flowering of local stories that started with the FWP and unfolded in the decades afterward, like Studs Terkel’s oral histories, which just kept bubbling out. Then others took up the idea with permutations like StoryCorps. A lot of writers came across the WPA guides in used bookstores and found in them authentic voices and experiences. Even where the writing is musty, the guides can be exotic because of the time that’s passed. Some have a Ghost World quality that fits with an aesthetic popular now too. For me it was a shock of recognizing a tone and voice that I didn’t expect to find. Many FWP writers wanted to get beyond industrial and commercial treatments of life. They wanted to scratch beneath the surface and see what made people tick and where the pressure points were. I think we’re seeing that again.

Algren at 100

Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Algren, and if you’re lucky enough to be in his native Chicago that day, the Nelson Algren Committee will host a party at St. Paul’s Church in his old West Town stomping grounds. The site notes that “Admission is $10, $7 students and seniors, less if you’re broke,” the kind of sliding scale that Algren could certainly get behind. (The rate makes me feel somewhat better about stealing a copy of The Neon Wilderness from my high-school library back when I was a cheap and irresponsible teenager.) Booklist‘s Donna Seaman has a good overview of Algren’s career to commemorate the anniversary (h/t Frank Wilson), though the piece doesn’t dive very deeply into his complicated relationship with Chicago. Few authors have had such a love-hate relationship with their home the way Algren did. Tom Wolfe could satirize New York City; William Faulkner‘s characters could despair at the transition from the old South to the new; Armistead Maupin could mock the foibles of San Francisco’s gentry. But Algren fumed at Chicago, was both angry at and helpless about it, like a guy who kept going back to a girlfriend who only takes him back to have somebody to kick around. Algren, of course, had the better romantic metaphor: Loving Chicago, he wrote, was “like loving a woman with a broken nose.”

That line comes from his 1951 prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make, which doesn’t make Seaman’s short list of “Essential Algren.” Make it second, after Wilderness, if not first. I haven’t read anything that matches Algren’s tone in the book—it’s a mash note that throws its elbows around, proud of the city but still outraged at its inherent corruption:

For Paris and London and New York and Rome are all of a piece, their tendrils deep in the black loam of the centuries; like so many all-year-round ferns tethered fast in good iron pots and leaning always, as a natural plant ought, toward what little light there is. But Chicago is some sort of mottled offshoot, with trailers only in swamp and shadow, twisting toward twilight rather than to sun; a loosely jointed sport too hardy for any pot. Yet with that strange malarial cast down its stem….

New York has taken roots as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. Detroit is a parking lot about a sports arena. New Orleans is mellow where it isn’t sear. St. Louis, albeit still green in spots after lo these many springs, has gone as far as it can go. San Francisco is complete. San Francisco appears finished.

But Hustlertown keeps spreading itself all over the prairie grass, always wider and whiter: the high broken horizon of its towers overlooks this inland sea with more dignity than Athens’ and more majesty than Troy’s. Yet the caissons below the towers somehow never secure a strong natural grip on the prairie grasses.

Why so cynical? Blame bad poker games, blame his frustrating affair with Simone de Beauvoir, blame the hustlers and low-lifes he hung out with who inspired his fiction. The newspapers, though, played an especially strong role. As Bill Beuttler‘s fine 2001 article in Chicago magazine points out, when City on the Make came out, the Tribune dismissed it: “A more distorted, partial, unenviable slant was never taken by a man pretending to cover the Chicago story.” Algren got his revenge ten years later, in an afterword to the book, giving the paper both barrels and equating its disrespect to him to the same disrespect the city as the whole gave its citizens:

This journalistic gypsy-switch, this trick of substituting counterfeit values for true ones, leaves few readers, of the multitudes who read the Tribune‘s Sunday book-review, aware that they are really reading, not book-reviews, but editorials.

Nor is the gypsy-switch, as used by the Tribune, limited to that paper. It is the tone that now dominates Chicago in the arts as well as politics. Mediocrity is wanted. Mediocrity is solicited. Mediocrity is honored. And mediocrity will not put up with originality.

To the professional mediocrity, therefore, Chicago is today a city of golden opportunity; whether he reviews books on television or for the Tribune. But to the writer seeking to work creatively, it is a kick in the palatinate.

Arrogant, to be sure—the passage would come across as sour grapes from any other author, and even Algren doesn’t look especially dignified there. But with the passage of time it’s clear that he’s in the right, and Algren was too much the Chicagoan to ever think that calling out the authorities for their mediocrity would change anything; like any good writer, he didn’t worry much about what people would think, just took pride in finding the right words to make his anger known.

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).