Written by: Matthew A. Werner
Nelson Algren’s writing has captured readers’ attention for decades, but few have been inspired enough to pen a biography. Enter, Colin Asher, and his thorough, freshly-published book, Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren.
Asher first tripped across Algren while thumbing through a copy of Entrapment and Other Writings on a Rust Belt road trip in Summer 2009. As the landscape of America stuck in the Great Recession rolled outside the car’s window, line after line of Algren’s words spoke to him. Here was a writer Asher had longed to read.
Asher grew up with his single mother in crowded New York City apartments and spent much of his play time in vacant lots.
“There were often homeless folks living there, and people partied at night, using the ruins of the buildings that had once been there to hide from the police, and they left behind bottles of beer and liquor, empty crack vials, and, occasionally, knives,” Asher said. “I collected these things, traded them with friends, and cherished them.”
Asher dropped out of school and moved to West Oakland. He befriended a man in his neighborhood who had fallen into addiction, but looked after Asher.
“In his trailer, I would sit around and drink, sometimes watching him and his friends smoke crack. He was a great storyteller, loquacious and loud, and I felt very privileged that he shared his stories with me. He was at least ten or fifteen years older than me. We lost track of each other when the police pulled up to his lot one day, killed the dog he used to guard his door, and arrested him.”
Nelson Algren appreciators see the connection. Most of Algren’s writing subjects were real people who struggled in life, including (but not limited to) hustlers, drug addicts, prostitutes, and hard drinkers. When Asher read Algren on that rust belt road trip, he had discovered a writer who wrote stories he could see himself in. Asher devoured Algren’s writings and his affinity for Algren’s work led him to start a biography.
His research took him to the Newberry Library in Chicago. Although the Algren collection was rather small, Asher discovered an angle that produced new insight while digging through the Jack Conroy archives.
“Until that point, I had been focusing on collecting and reviewing letters that Algren had written, or that had been written to him, but afterward, I always made a point of, when visiting an archive, trying to look at all of the letters written to Algren’s friends and acquaintances. In that way, I discovered people gossiping about Algren, or discussing events that would have affected him, as well as interesting anecdotes that helped to inform my understanding of Algren’s social and political life.”
Asher went through his research findings and wrote in the early morning hours before his son woke up and he had to go to work at the community college (CUNY). He wrote an essay for Believer magazine in 2013 that caught the attention of Leon Levy Center for Biography. The Center granted him a fellowship that proved a game-changer. Rather than slogging through three pre-dawn hours every morning, Asher was able to focus his full attention on research and writing.
“The story ended up being bigger than I thought. I kept finding more letters in archives I hadn’t been aware of. I kept noticing things in the letters I did have that didn’t seem important when I reviewed them at first, but later did,” Asher said.
The book took six years to research and write and Asher paid close attention to detail. He took extra time and money to secure copyrights to Algren passages and photos to complete the biography and do the story justice.
Asher pointed out that Algren’s time living in Miller, Indiana, wasn’t just a fleeting moment. Some of his greatest works—Chicago: City on the Make, part of A Walk on the Wild Side, and his political essay, Nonconformity—were penned here.
“And some of the most important events in his personal life occurred in the area as well,” Asher said. “He was living in his little bungalow by the lagoon when he remarried his first wife, when Simone de Beauvoir visited him for the last time in the U.S., and when he became embittered by the world of publishing and decided that he would never write another novel (He changed his mind, eventually, but not until many years later).”
“Algren moved to the area just after The Man with the Golden Arm became a success, when he was flush with cash for the first time—a turning point in his life. And he left at the end of the most productive pat of his career, at a time when he had nearly given up on literature—another turning point.”
And what do you hope readers take from this book, I asked?
“I hope people read my book and come away thinking of Algren as a serious person, and a compassionate one. Later in life, he cultivated the image of a wild and garrulous man, but when he was in his prime, people described him as quiet, serious, diffident. He read all the time, listened to blues and jazz, and usually had a cat. He was a great conversationalist, and he could be incredibly funny.”
“I would also like people to begin seeing Algren’s characters as he saw them: people. I often find that, because Algren’s characters are, largely, poor, or engaged in criminal activity, or incarcerated, that people think they don’t belong in the American literary canon. Reviewers, for a period, referred to Algren’s people as “bums” and “tramps,” and I have found that that judgement has been as resilient as it is condescending. Algren didn’t see his characters as freaks and he didn’t condescend to them, judge them unduly, or mythologize their lives. He thought their experience of our country was an important part of the broader American story, and I think he was right about that.”
Colin Asher will read excerpts from Never a Lovely So Real and answer questions at the Nelson Algren Museum of Miller on April 26 at 7:00 pm. Admission is $10.
Details about the event.
Read about Asher’s road trip discovery of Algren’s work.
The essay Asher wrote about Algren for Believer magazine in 2013.
Colin Asher’s website.