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Rediscovering Nelson Algren | The Nation

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Literary rediscoveries come in waves, and always mean something. In the postwar period, Lionel Trilling from his perch in the Columbia University English department brought back E.M. Forster, Matthew Arnold—and Sigmund Freud!—and made them foundational again. He was responding to what he saw as a crisis of morality in the wake of two world wars and the untold destruction of life and culture that they had wrought.

Today it’s another historical moment of leveling and rediscovery, for complex reasons. Online, old books can be as visible as new ones. The cultural present tense isn’t limited to what’s new, and this particular present is fraught—the book-publishing community frightened, the community of writers sorely challenged and inadequately supported, the latest blockbuster often disappointing, and our best new voices often the ones you’re not hearing about—published, almost invisibly, at the independent publishing houses that carry disproportionately the responsibility for translation and discovery of what’s new around the world in terms of literature. So we rediscover voices from the past that satisfy us more than the latest blockbuster. Lucia Berlin, Eve Babitz, George Orwell. We can include Vonnegut, and even though a good decade or so younger, Atwood, two towering figures that have never gone out of style, and that young people are rediscovering now in droves.

Into this maelstrom comes the first three-pound excavation of Algren, Colin Asher’s Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren, which Norton is bringing out, with some fanfare, in April. Besides being larger in size and scope than any previous biography of this last celebrant of what once was called Proletarian Literature, Asher’s book is devotional and beautifully written, seven years in the making, its sentences capturing the very same mix of lyricism and street, hard truths and sentimentality that made Algren himself so special. It delves into Algren’s lifelong struggle to stay true to his credo, his soulful cry that the purpose of any writer is to stand up to power, to take the judge down from the bench, to give voice to the voiceless. And it delivers a wrenching portrait of a man who struggled to maintain his sanity and his spirit in a society that was well prepared to see its writers give up or sell out, but struggled to comprehend writers who persevered and paid the price as Algren did.

In 1950, the year he won the first National Book Award for Fiction for The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren stood out as the best of American character: virile, direct, taciturn and also very funny, identified not with the American worker but with the man in the street who was denied the dignity of work yet had dignity nonetheless—a subversive notion if ever there were one. Algren’s characters were the men and women who were left behind by the striving, upwardly mobile American middle class.

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