Sunday, October 19, 2014

Nelson Algren Renaissance ...

Many years ago, I wrote a post about an interview I'd conducted many, many years before.

I mentioned that I had read in my research that we're experiencing a Nelson Algren renaissance. He shook his head.

"We're not experiencing a James Farrell renaissance, either. A renaissance can only begin at the university and the university can only teach books they can get their hands on. And with certain writers, the computer at the publisher says it's not worth keeping them in print." I asked if he thought there was any way to keep these writers' names alive.

"We live in a disposable culture where 40 million people can't read. That is one Spain, that is one South Korea. Talk about keeping something alive? Talk about a huge corpse. You don't need a fire to burn down a library. Apathy'll do it."

He thinks that Algren will vanish entirely, and he thinks he'll vanish entirely, too.


That Kurt Vonnegut said that he thought he'd vanish entirely too struck me as preposterous at the time. It still does.

But indeed, Nelson is not widely known.

I was reminded of Vonnegut's words today, though, because what feels like a Nelson Algren renaissance has arrived at last.

He's had a following – however small – for years now. His books, once banned, have been reissued and appreciated once more.

But now two documentaries are finally in the world and both at the same time.

Willa Cather's "The end is nothing; the road is all" is Nelson's epitaph. I use it on my web site and in my email signature, not because I am much of a fan of Willa's but because I am very much a fan of Nelson's.

And so today, as I wandered around the Internet and watched clips of the documentaries, I thought about the photo I'd taken of Nelson's grave.

Some people visit the graves of well-known musicians or actors. And some of us don't.

I flipped through a box of photo envelopes and my brain said, "They're in your Nelson box."

I hadn't opened my Nelson box for a very long time.

It is stashed in the corner on the floor of the closet off my office most of the time. Today, I hauled it out and put it on my desk.

Another time capsule.

The box contains a jumble of note cards and newspapers and Xeroxes and cassette tapes and books. Nelson's books. Some of which I'd forgotten I owned.

Could these be any cooler?

I can't remember where I bought them.

I don't think I bought them at Canio's in Sag Harbor, but I must have, I guess.

Nelson used to hold forth at Canio's, the Nelson Algren Saturday Salon, if memory serves.

When I was there, of course I took a picture of "his" chair:


I also interviewed Joe Pintauro, a playwright who owned several properties – at the time; he may still – in Sag Harbor. We talked inside Joe's house and then took a short stroll down to the house where Nelson lived. This was his porch:

I hope that Nelson found some peace in his final days. Peace seems feasible in a place like that.

There was a manila envelope in my Nelson box. I pulled out the contents and burst into tears. Jeff's handwriting. I'd forgotten he'd sent this to me:

And then I laughed at the newspaper itself, for the way it's folded. It's such a perfect representation of Jeff. Jeff's offices were, in a word, a mess. I love that he didn't bother to take the time to fold the paper precisely. He made it small enough to fit into the envelope. Mission accomplished:


I found other notes, too, from Nelson's friend Stephen Deutch and from Linda Landis Andrews, one of my teachers at UIC. The cassette tapes contain interviews from the radio, I presume? I talked to Studs Terkel for the paper but I didn't record our conversation. I should find a cassette player and given them a listen.

And maybe I should hook up my VCR again and watch "The Man with the Golden Arm." Though, really, I should reread the book instead. Nelson really got screwed on the movie deal.

I'm glad that Nelson is finally getting more love, at least in documentary form. I hope more people discover or rediscover his books. His wrote about the people behind the billboards, as Studs had said: drug addicts and prostitutes and gamblers, the down-and-out and everyday folks he saw where he lived, the city he loved for as long as he could. In Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson wrote, "Once you've become a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."

But he headed east at the end of his life. He's not buried in Chicago. He's buried on Long Island.

"The end is nothing; the road is all."

But that's not entirely true. Nelson lived a fascinating if not altogether public life, fascinating enough to compel a 19-year-old student to interview Kurt Vonnegut as a means to an end, the end being the opportunity to stand at the grave of a man she never knew so she could use a description of his grave site as the opening to a college paper and provide her with memories to last a lifetime.

The end is something, too.

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