Algren: A Life – book review

Robert Caro’s legendary biography of the New York city planner and builder Robert Moses, The Power Broker, is not just an incredibly granular study of its subject’s life, but is also a history of the city itself, a thorough exposition of urban development in twentieth-century America, and an insightful look at how power politics work and are practiced. There’s been some backlash against Caro’s book in recent times because it makes the case that Moses’ process was exclusionary, that a great deal of his construction was harmful to the poor and minorities, and that Moses himself was a seriously Machiavellian character. What no one denies, though, is that Moses got things done. And these days, that ability seems to many of us to be altogether absent in our government at every level. The slant against Robert Moses notwithstanding, The Power Broker remains an excellent way to study both its subject and the history of the city as well as several more ephemeral concepts.

Similarly, Alan Schom’s landmark Napoleon Bonaparte, the first comprehensive single volume study of the nineteenth-century commander and ruler, takes the view that Napoleon was likely a psychopath and maybe a sadomasochist. In the course of this lengthy examination of the man, though, the reader is treated to substantial mini-treatises on the history of France, Europe, military strategy, and the art of diplomacy. Napoleon Bonaparte also includes numerous biographical sketches of fascinating people such as Charles Talleyrand.

What reading these two books and other biographies teaches us is that biography can be more than just the documentation of a person’s life. It can also be an economical way to come sidelong at all kinds of history and ideas. In Algren: A Life, Mary Wisniewski gives us another example of how far biography can go beyond the chronology of its subject’s life. The history we come to sidelong in her book is that of Chicago, depression-era America, McCarthyism, and twentieth-century American letters. Sociological views of our underclass and the immigrant experience are here too. We also encounter historical figures like Simone de Beauvoir, who was Algren’s lover for several years, and her longtime companion Jean-Paul Sartre. In doing so, we learn a little about existentialism and just how radical feminism was a few short decades ago.

Algren himself is best known as the author of The Man with the Golden Arm, a novel of Chicago’s underclass and the city’s underside. The novel won the National Book Award in 1950 and was made into a successful film starring Frank Sinatra, despite the controversy surrounding the book’s treatment of drug addiction, morphine in the book but some unnamed substance in the movie. The Man with the Golden Arm is representative of Algren’s fiction as a whole inasmuch as it is about people who cling the very bottom rung of the ladder of the American Dream and are portrayed by the author to have limited agency in the turns of their fate.

Nelson Algren came to his knowledge of prostitutes, junkies, and crooks honestly enough. He grew up and lived in the rougher parts of Chicago, spent a month in a Texas jail for stealing a typewriter, and rode the rails during the depression in what was the then-common desperate search for nothing more than the next meal. Algren, though, was a college graduate whose own upbringing could be considered middle-class along all dimensions but the financial and though he immersed himself in the underclass experience, he was never quite a member of it. This is perhaps all the better for his readers as it likely gave him the necessary distance to portray these people objectively. Wisniewski shows us convincingly that Algren had more than enough compassion for the underclass to inure him from charges of exploitation.

Algren: A Life does verge on hagiography at times in its defense of Algren who seems to have been typically human in his imperfections such as envy, impulsiveness, and a tendency towards the transgressive in his behavior as well as the company he kept. However, Algren was a pioneer in American fiction and lived a life worthy of study. Wisniewski’s treatment of him offers just enough stylistic flourish in doing so and is in the finest tradition of approaching the history of more than just a man while looking at him in detail.

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