Colin Asher, "Never A Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren"
May 2, 2019, 7:00 PM
Never A Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren is the unparalleled biography of one of America’s most celebrated and least understood writers. It is a beautifully written and rigorously researched tribute to the fraught and complicated life of a singular spirit. Celebrated by writers including Richard Wright, Don DeLillo, Simone de Beauvoir, Thomas Pynchon, Betty Friedan, Cormac McCarthy, and others, Nelson Algren (1909–1981) wrote eleven books and countless essays and won the first National Book Award for his novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which was later turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra. Yet his brilliant literary successes were shadowed by secret FBI scrutiny that spanned decades, and his promising literary career was ultimately foreshortened by the strain of the seemingly inexplicable loss of support from publishers and peers (in fact the result of the FBI investigation), and his name diminished.
Drawing on interviews, archived correspondence, and the first unredacted version of Algren’s FBI file, Colin Asher paints a vivid and nuanced picture of Nelson Algren and the family, friends, and lovers who influenced him. A bleak childhood and stoic college years ultimately led to a rambling adulthood that planted the seeds of a profound curiosity about and sympathy with the people at the fringes of society, and a belief in the dignity and value of the lowest lives that would be at the heart of his creative life. It was a belief that would also influence his politics, leading him to align himself with the ideals of the Communist Party—an alliance that would ultimately undermine his career and lead to his downfall. Algren was deeply committed to the belief that literature is a social institution, not simply an academic or artistic one, and he was a stalwart supporter of literary opposition. Attempting to answer the questions “Why do people write? Why should they?” was one of the primary concerns of his literary life.
Asher’s masterful biography restores Algren’s legacy—fully capturing the courage, generosity, and art of his life and works. Read in the current environment of cultural paranoia and suppression that echoes that of the McCarthy era, it is impossible to be unmoved by the struggles and accomplishments of Nelson Algren and his unwavering commitment to the ideals of a literature attuned to the poor and marginalized and the complicated realities of contemporary life. As Algren wrote, the truth about our society can only be discovered by studying the areas along its margins: “It is there that the people of Dickens and Dostoevsky are still torn by the paradox of their own humanity; yet endure the ancestral problems of the heart in conflict with itself. And it is there the young man or woman seeking to report the American century seriously must seek, if it is the truth he seeks.”
Colin Asher is an award-winning writer whose work has been featured in the Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle. An instructor at CUNY, he was a 2015/2016 Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography.