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Nelson Algren: left alone


Bettoma Drew. Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 1989. Pp. 416 with notes, photographs and index. $27.95 (cloth).

Chicago's Nelson Algren encountered in his city as much indifference as the bums in his novels found on the road. When Algren died in Sag Harbor, N.Y., in 1974 — he had hit the road himself for much of his life — Chicago changed the name of West Evergreen Street, in Algren's old neighborhood, to West Algren. But as Mike Royko documented in some powerful columns at the time (author Bettina Drew does not cite them), the residents rejected the hassle. They had never heard of Algren, and they wouldn't mess with a new address for some dead writer. So the name was changed back, and Nelson Algren disappeared from Chicago in death as in life.

Drew knows almost all the facts of Algren's life, but she offers painfully little understanding ...
In writing a book about the failed life —not a wild one, as the misapprehension of Algren's novel title A Walk on the Wild Side here implies — of this misplaced author, Drew, a New York English professor, took on something that she, like Algren, failed to get right. She had fabulous support: the help of Anne Geismar (her husband, Maxwell, had been Algren's best-known critic for many years) and Algren's friend Art Shay (his own book on Algren appeared in 1988): Algren's papers, collected at Ohio State University (not the first or last time Illinois libraries have failed to collect the work of Illinois writers): interviews with a galaxy of publishing cognoscenti: Algren's books; the critical literature written and published as she did her work (Algren is currently a growth industry, and the scholars are a friendly group). This was a book much anticipated by Algren's readers and publishers. It was bound to sell.

Which may have been the problem. Drew knows almost all of the facts of Algren's life, but she offers painfully little understanding of the many items she carefully, lovingly writes down. Drew chronologically follows Algren from birth to death, laboriously detailing his life, but drawing few conclusions. This is a book full of facts and serious, generous attention to an under-known subject. It simply does not go far enough. Drew treats the important "Entrapment" years of Algren's life. (For nearly a decade, Algren worked on a novel based on his frustrating affair with Simone de Beauvoir. He could not obtain an advance for the work and eventually could not continue it. Algren's working title, Entrapment, thus well sums up the years and the hook.) Drew's narrative also moves from the relative simplicity of his time in Chicago to the comparative

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Illinois Issues Summer Book Section

Photo by Bob McCullough

complexity of his engagement with the wider world; but she does not venture to suggest why the "community that Algren craved . . . was in Sag Harbor after all those lonely years in New Jersey and Chicago" (and Gary, Ind., and Europe and Mexico). Nor does she suggest reasons for Algren's maladroit behaviors: why when he reached college he became self-denying and ashamed; why he thought it necessary to steal a typewriter from Sul Ross State instead of asking the already indulgent college for the loan or gift of one; why he washed his dentures in water glasses in restaurants or at dinner parties; why he was so blunt with publishers that he could not keep one; why he fought for the affections of his lover Simone de Beauvoir and his friend Jean-Paul Sartre (also her lover) when they proved that he could never understand their precious, quixotic ways; why he set himself up.

Maybe Drew herself was set up. G.P. Putnam's Sons, knowing it had here a property with a certain, if small, audience, gave Drew — and thus her readers — little support. Drew's sometimes awkward writing is lightly edited. Her frequently unsophisticated generalizations go unchallenged; Life in the Midwest is portrayed by Drew, an easterner, as "idyllic", untroubled; the theft of that typewriter from a perennially impoverished college in the most isolated part of Depression-era Texas is judged "a crime that hurt no one"; behavior by Algren's mother is described as demonic but never connected with his later unsuccessful and naive relationships with other women. Drew's language is at times a near-imitation of what she feels Algren's perceptions may have been, but it also inconsistently bows to modern sensibilities. Once she refers to a "crazy" relative of Algren's, for example, but in the same paragraph calls the institution where he frequently went, Elgin State Hospital, a "psychiatric hospital." People did and do say crazy. In 1920, however, people did not say psychiatric hospital. And in 1920 Elgin was not a psychiatric hospital. Nelson Algren knew this and understood it.

Drew and Putnam also fail us with the scholarly apparatus. The index is of no value since many subjects that informed Algren's life and work are not included. There is no list of the photographs scattered throughout the book. There is, incredibly, no bibliography.

'One terror: being alone. One word: home. I do not know what it is that strangers mean by this word 'home.' I know what they do not mean: being alone'
Nelson Algren, who suffered from a life incompetently and unfully lived, had great love for some people, and that transforms him from a dead Illinois writer to the somewhat beautiful man he was. Drew neglects his personal development, early documenting his deccitfulness, for example, but not noting its increase or disappearance. Algren wrote in prison (his deceitfulness in part had led him there), "One terror: being alone. One word: home. I do not know what it is that strangers mean by this word 'home.' I know what they do not mean: being alone." This is the Nelson Algren readers must know if they are to respect him — the lonely, contentiously honest, self-defeating, isolated, terrified man who could feel such terror in others and who could care and grieve for them, laugh with and about them. Regrettably, Algren is in a sense left alone in this first biography.

Formerly managing editor of the Northern Illinois University Press, Wiinda H. Giles is a freelance writer and editor living in DeKalb. She has taught in three universities and administered four programs in the courts and community mental health system of Illinois.

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