Nonconformity: Writing on Writing

Nonconformity: Writing on Writing

5.0 1
by Nelson Algren
     
 

The struggle to write with deep emotion is the subject of this extraordinary book, the previously unpublished credo of one of America's greatest 20th-century writers.
"You don't write a novel out of sheer pity any more than you blow a safe out of a vague longing to be rich," writes Nelson Algren in his only longer work of nonfiction, adding: "A certain

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Overview

The struggle to write with deep emotion is the subject of this extraordinary book, the previously unpublished credo of one of America's greatest 20th-century writers.
"You don't write a novel out of sheer pity any more than you blow a safe out of a vague longing to be rich," writes Nelson Algren in his only longer work of nonfiction, adding: "A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery."
Nonconformity is about 20th-century America: "Never on the earth of man has he lived so tidily as here amidst such psychological disorder." And it is about the trouble writers ask for when they try to describe America: "Our myths are so many, our vision so dim, our self-deception so deep and our smugness so gross that scarcely any way now remains of reporting the American Century except from behind the billboards . . . [where there] are still . . . defeats in which everything is lost [and] victories that fall close enough to the heart to afford living hope."
In Nonconformity, Algren identifies the essential nature of the writer's relation to society, drawing examples from Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Twain, and Fitzgerald, as well as utility infielder Leo Durocher and legendary barkeep Martin Dooley. He shares his deepest beliefs about the state of literature and its role in society, along the way painting a chilling portrait of the early 1950s, Joe McCarthy's heyday, when many American writers were blacklisted and ruined for saying similar things to what Algren is saying here.

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Editorial Reviews

Bart Schneider

In 1953, Nelson Algren, the great Chicago author of The Man with the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, was set to publish the extended essay that makes up the heart of this volume. But, in the midst of the McCarthy era, Algren became a named name. Doubleday forfeited his small advance and washed its hands of the book.

Now, 40-odd years later, after a decade of dogged sleuthing by publisher Daniel Simon and his associates, this splendid volume has finally been issued. The manuscript that Algren (1909-1981) left behind is a pastiche of rantings on the ethics of the modern writer, cobbled together with longish quotes from novelists Algren favored and despised. A tough-guy populist, Algren was fascinated by F. Scott Fitzgerald's moral plight and uses Fitzgerald to set the tension for this essay. "The struggle to write with profundity of emotion and at the same time to live like a millionaire," Algren writes, "so exhausted F. Scott Fitzgerald that he was at last brought down to the point where he could no longer be both a good writer and a decent person."

At times, Algren's rambling essay is closer to notebook jottings than to a meditation by Montaigne. But where else can you find such bully bursts of hyperbolic language, demanding to be read aloud? "From the penthouse suspended silently so high above the winding traffic's iron lamentation, forty straight-down stories into those long, low, night-blue bars aglow below street-level, a lonely guilt pervades us all." And who else mixes quotes from Simone de Beauvoir (the lover who broke Algren's heart) and Leo Durocher into a single essay? De Beauvoir may have stolen his heart, but Durocher's was the kind of mug Nelson saw when he looked in the mirror. What kind of advice was Algren offering writers when he provided the context for Durocher's nice-guys-finish-last riff? "Say I'm playing short and Mother is on first and the batter singles to right. Mother comes fast around second with the winning run -- Mother will have to go down. I'll help her up, dust her off and say, 'Mom, I'm sorry, but it was an accident' -- but she won't have scored."

At 16 bucks and beautifully bound -- it may be among the best coffee table books of the year -- Nonconformity is a steal, a few strokes of wonderful writing combined with an excellent bit of literary archeology. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In works like The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren (1909-1981) looked at the rough-and-tumble lives of petty criminals and drug addicts, writing with a tough compassion without romanticizing his subject matter. These same characteristics inform this odd and passionate manifesto, which he wrote in the early 1950s but which is seeing publication for the first time now, edited by Simon, the publisher of Seven Stories. While in part a look at the writing life and American literature, the book's central obsession is with the political pressures put on artists during the '50s and the larger pressures toward conformity Algren saw in American life. While at times rambling and at other times dated, the depth of feeling running beneath Algren's words is palpable, and his demand that American artists fully engage with their culture remains relevant. Anyone seeking to understand how the McCarthy era affected the inner lives of artists will find much material here. FBI informants who denounced Algren to his then-publisher Doubleday helped prevent this book from being published at the time it was written. Readers will find much that bears thought in this wise, courageous and humane book. (Sept.)
Kirkus Reviews

A previously unpublished work from the author of The Man With the Golden Arm and other masterful portraits of the seamy underside of urban America.

This volume, essentially a lengthy essay in book form, was written by Algren in the early 1950s, at the peak of his fame and the height of the McCarthy era. At the time, his lengthy affair with Simone de Beauvoir was coming to an unhappy end and he was throwing himself into the public arena in reaction to that private pain. Nonconformity shows its origins in those multiple traumas. Opening with a brief and mournful recollection of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "crack-up," Algren jumps into a passionate defense of the writer as someone who must live out the emotions of his characters, no easy thing in an era in which all the forces of the state and the market seem to be calculated to produce conformist writing that commits nothing, dares nothing, and achieves nothing. It is a time, he writes repeatedly, in which Americans are caught "between the H bomb and the A," with the threat of internal destruction greater than any threat from the so-called Red Menace. At such a time, Algren says defiantly, a writer's attitude to his readers should be "this ain't what you rung for, Jack—but it's what you're damned well getting." That's certainly the mind-set that dominated Algren's best writing. The afterword and notes by Simon are useful, placing the essay in a larger biographical and historical context. However, the editor's claim that this is "Algren's only book-length work of non-fiction" is dubious; Algren also turned out two substantial travel books and an essay of similar length on his native Chicago, each of them filled with thesame corrosive writing on the American scene. That said, this is a typically refreshing breath of cigarette-smoke-filled air from one of our most underrated writers, angry and funny as Algren usually is.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781888363050
Publisher:
Seven Stories Press
Publication date:
09/28/1996
Pages:
130
Product dimensions:
5.86(w) x 8.53(h) x 0.62(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


THE STRUGGLE TO WRITE WITH profundity of emotion and at the same time to live like a millionaire so exhausted F. Scott Fitzgerald that he was at last brought down to the point where he could no longer be both a good writer and a decent person.

"So... I would cease any attempts to be a person—to be kind, just or generous," he planned. "I felt like the beady-eyed men I used to see on the commuting train.... men who didn't care whether the world tumbled into chaos tomorrow if it spared their houses..., who said: `I'm sorry but business is business.' Or: `You ought to have thought of that before you got into this trouble.' Or: `I'm not the person to see about that....'

"This is what I think now," Fitzgerald continued: "that the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness. I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are... only adds to this unhappiness in the end...."(1)

An observation so melancholy as to recall Mark Twain, after one of his last lectures, turning to a friend to say, "Oh, Cable, I am demeaning myself. I am allowing myself to be a mere buffoon. It's ghastly. I can't endure it any longer."(2)

The writer's lot, like the policeman's, is never a happy one. A hardy life, as the poet says, with a boot as quick as a fiver. But it isn't till now, in the American Century as we have recklessly dubbed it, that tribal pressures toward conformity have been brought to bear so ruthlessly upon men and women seeking to work creatively.

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained bynow that we can even bear it," William Faulkner puts it. "There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: when will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing...."(3)

I purely doubt that the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the heart in conflict with itself. I doubt he's forgotten a thing. And knows as well as any man that he labors under a curse. But how can a young unknown be expected to risk that consultation of the heart from which the older hands flee? The spectacle of artists like Elia Kazan, Jose Ferrer and Maxwell Anderson(4) leaping through the hoop at the first sight of the whip doesn't encourage the younger man to hold his ground. He knows enough of the heart to know it cannot conform. He knows there is no Feinberg Law and no Broyles bills(5) for the heart; that the heart's only country is the earth of Man.

But what, when Howard Hughes discovers that somebody on the payroll once belonged to ADA,(6) will the accused be able to say in self-defense? Whether he's in writing, TV, radio, teaching or lecturing, he sees very well, the way things are going, that the main thing is not problems of the heart, but to keep one's nose clean. Not to trouble oneself about the uneasy hearts of men. But to pass, safe and dry-shod, down the rushing stream of time.(7)

Between the pretense and the piety of American business in praising peace everywhere while preferring profits in warplanes anywhere, between the H Bomb and the A, the young man or woman whom you remind of the eternal verities this morning will only reply, "You ought to have thought of that before you got into this trouble."

...Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: when will I be blown up' Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His grief grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail. —William Faulkner, Address upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Stockholm, December 10, 1950(8)

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Meet the Author

One of the most neglected of modern American authors and also one of the best loved, NELSON ALGREN (1909–1981) believed that “literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.” His own voluminous body of work stands up to that belief. Algren’s powerful voice rose from the urban wilderness of postwar Chicago, and it is to that city of hustlers, addicts and scamps that he returned again and again, eventually raising Chicago’s “lower depths” up onto a stage for the whole world to behold. Recipient of the first National Book Award for fiction and lauded by Hemingway as “one of the two best authors in America,” Algren remains among our most defiant and enduring novelists. His work includes five major novels, two short fiction collections, a book-length poem and several collections of reportage. A source of inspiration to artists as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme, Studs Terkel and Lou Reed, Algren died on May 9, 1981, within days of his appointment as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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