Watching the documentary on the acclaimed American writer Nelson Algren you can’t help but think that he was a man who knew how to live life. Not only a talented writer but someone who experienced just about everything over the course of his life. Maybe all this experience was what brought his talent forward. Living life to its fullest being a source for the stories he wrote.
A man whose life can aptly be described as gritty, full, hard knock, and varied. All this was reflected in his writing. A man of the people who wrote about the lower classes of American society. Wrote about them without looking down on them. He showed that there was beauty in the working classes and even more downtrodden sections of society. He wrote of prostitutes, drug addicts, gamblers, fighters, and others which many of us cross the street to avoid.
Nelson Algren was born and grew up in Chicago. It was a middle-class upbringing that was filled with violence, poverty, people of different cultures, and laughter. Algren attended the University of Illinois where he graduated from in 1931. He planned to become a journalist. But he could not find a job so he stole a typewriter in Texas, for which he was arrested and spent a few months in jail. It was during this period that he met and began to relate to types like druggies, criminals, immigrants, and other outsiders.
He was known by his friends for his sense of humour. He was very sardonic which served his writing. Everything he wrote was incredibly authentic. Using plain and simple language yet still was poetic. Algren had the ability to capture the lives of people in words. Giving the reader a clear picture of the characters in his stories. Became a kind of hero to the misfits of society. Though he did not produce much – 5 novels and a couple of short stories collections – he had an impact.
Despite all that is said about him by other writers and literary critics he is underrated as a writer. People talk of Faulkner, Hemmingway, Steinback, Miller, and Fitzgerald, but not much is said about Algren. That is a shame. This documentary goes a long way towards reminding us of what an authentic, different and talented man Nelson Algren was.
Such an interesting artist, he was even greatly admired by his peers. Hemmingway deemed as the second best American writer to Faulkner. Vonnegut said his writing was groundbreaking. he even caught the eye of Simone de Beauvoir. The two became lovers while she was still in a relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, someone who also praised his writing.
What many do not remember is that he was the winner of the very first National Book Award for his novel The Man with the Golden Arm. After this win, Hollywood came calling and a film was made based on the book. Otto Preminger directed and Frank Sinatra played the lead role. It was a story about heroin addiction. The film was not as successfully rendered as the novel in that it shaved off all the rough edges. Edges which gave the novel its authentic nature.
Using old interviews with Algren and new interviews with people who knew him and literature critics along with archival footage which had previously never been seen before, director and co-screenwriter Michael Caplan constructs a picture of the man and writer which is incredibly appealing. Before our eyes, Algren becomes a man who we want to know. A documentary meant to reintroduce the writer and man to folks today.