Nonconformity: Writing on Writing

Nonconformity: Writing on Writing


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Nonconformity: Writing on Writing 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The struggle to write with deep emotion is the subject of this extraordinary book, the previously unpublished credo of one of America's greatest 20th-century writers.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 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.

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)

About 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.

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)

The Origin of New Species

By Andrew Leonard


Copyright © 1997 Andrew Leonard. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Historical Note and Acknowledgements98

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