Yesterday I read Algren at Sea, two of Nelson Algren’s two books of travel gathered in one volume by Seven Stories Press in commemoration of the 2009 centennial of Algren’s birth. The two books, Notes from a Sea Diary and Who Lost An American? are simply wonderful, offering up Algren’s dry humor, quick wit, deep perceptions, graceful writing, and most of all, his very engaging humanity. Algren was a tough cookie but a big-brained and big-hearted one. He was a man I’d want in my corner as friend and defender, and the one who would most definitely point out any bullshit I might try to peddle. He dealt honestly and slyly at the same time with his readers, and with his writing. Algren is one of the great American writers, and these beguiling and moving travel stories prove it.
Who Lost An American? follows a plane of action that starts high and hilarious and then swoops downwards, the mood sobering, the humor becoming darker, the observations more pointed and aimed from and for the heart. The action starts in New York with a skewering of American literati and the New York publishing world of flirts, farts and fiascos, and then moves on to Europe. Algren travels from Ireland (recorded in a wonderfully ludicrous essay, Brendan Behan notwithstanding), then on to England where he draws on his remembrances of being stationed in Wales during WWII, and then moves onto the continent. First Paris, where Algren fell in love with the city, the existentialists, the artists, and most of all, Simone de Beauvoir. He tells of the friends he made, friendships to last his lifetime and cause him heartache (de Beauvoir loved him back but would never leave Sartre for him). His friends impressed him by their embracing of the demands of life: “to the multitudes that despair at risks involved in living, [existentialism] offers the answer that not to try is to die. It answers that there is no alternative but to assume the responsibility of giving oneself”, and they gave freely, gifts of their intellect and of their comaderie.
From Paris Algren traveled through Spain and his pieces on Barcelona and Seville are among the most piercing and most beautiful travel writings I’ve ever read. There is a wonderful rendering that turns a grove of olive tress into a sea of humanity, a deceptively simple tale of cigarette-swapping and photo-taking in Barcelona, and a strange journey to the cave people of Almeria. Algren’s writings on Spain are tinged with his humility before their suffering and his deep anger for their being left by the world unprotected against the Franco regime with its hypocrisy, corruption, and repression: “Spain is the spiritual center of humanity…when Spain loses, mankind loses. When the Spanish people were forced back into the Middle Ages in the 1930s, they pulled the world back with them. Anyone who tells you we’re out of the Middle Ages today is somebody whose mind has snapped.”
From Spain Algren traveled on to Crete, which he tolerated, and then to Istanbul. which he despised, lavishing both his blackest humor and his blackest mood to tell of his days spent there.
Who Lost An American? ends with chronologically pieces on Chicago, Algren’s true hometown. The first, “Chicago I”, relates childhood memories, both charming and sharply-drawn: “On weekdays I got a penny for candy and blew my nose into a rag. But on Sundays, I got a dime and a clean handkerchief.”
The second, “Chicago II” is Algren’s chastisement of the local press, politics, the plight of prostitutes (“what was she doing in that room that was so awful if there wasn’t somebody just as awful helping her to do something awful? If there was a pair of pants on the bedpost, where is the spendthrift who walked into the room inside them? Why isn’t he entitled to get his name in the paper and a ride downtown? Why doesn’t somebody give him a chance to stand up in front of a judge and get fined a hundred dollars or fifty days in County?“) and the blight of men with nowhere to go: “From the bleak inhumanity of our forests of furnished rooms, stretching doorway after anonymous doorway block after block, guarding stairways leading only to numbered doors, out of hallways shadowed by fixtures of another day, emerge the dangerous boys who are not professional burglars or professional car thieves or pete men or mobsters…but are those who go on the prowl without knowing what they’re after. Their needs crisscross, they’re on the hawks, and will take whatever comes alone first — a woman, money, or just the cold pleasure of kicking a queer’s teeth down his neck. Whatever wants to happen, the dangerous boys let the damn thing happen — and we’ll all read about it in the papers tomorrow.”
In “Chicago IV”, Algren takes a break from the darker side of Chicago but finds just as much to lament over in his very funny piece about Hugh Hefner and the first playboy mansion in Chicago. Written in 1962 it could serve as a corrective for current times: it is laced with wit and insight into young Americans (“more at ease with a depiction of passion than with passion itself, [wishing] to look longer upon pictures of passion, hear more songs about passion, and read more comments upon passion — anything to avoid feeling passion“) and grief for their disengagement: “young Americans are revealed as lacking any way of bestowing themselves upon the world…those who cannot bestow themselves become severed not only from the world but from themselves.” Today, 47 years later, that severance is deepened even further through the de-personalization of entertainment through computers, virtual reality, and anonymous gaming, leering, and lewding-out. Playboy is small potatoes compared to the methods out there now for utter disengagement and complete lack of connection: are we seeing a dreadful completion of Algren’s prediction of failure to “bestow”?
The second volume of travel writings, Notes from a Sea Diary combine Algren’s praise of Hemingway with his own travels through Asia as the only paying passenger on a freighter. Throughout all his travel writings Algren comments freely and with great insight about the writers he knows, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Nazim Hikmet, Camilo Cela, Fitzgerald, and Sartre, Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. In Notes from a Sea Diary, Algren reveals his true and deep admiration for Ernest Hemingway. Foisted on the public as a gun-toting, animal-killing, bull-running, wild man, Algren says in fact Hemingway was a thoughtful, big-souled, generous man and the very best of writers. Algren understands Hemingway as a man “broken in two” by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War who then “healed strangely. As though his hold on life, having been loosened, now took a grip that possessed iron control. And from it derived a tension that fixed scenes dead-still as in dreams – yet flowed with a secret life of their own.” Algren is particularly impressed by Hemingway’s ability to portray unsympathetic characters without caricature but instead as real beings, and he himself is able to do the same: inspired by Hemingway, Algren’s trip through Asia is a tale of women and girls in every port, grubby hands and fast talkers looking for the American dollar or just a taste of a cigar, and troubled men safer at sea than on land. No one presented is blemish-free, clear-souled, or easy to understand, but all are presented with a humanity that is as real as it is touching.
Algren’s gift of humanity — of writing from the heart with an acutely accurate brain — is felt most keenly in his treatment of women, particularly prostitutes, throughout his travel writings. More than any author, fiction or non-fiction, whom I’ve read on the issue of sex slavery and prostitution, Algren had a strong affinity for women out of luck, a sorrowful pity for their circumstances, and a completely realistic understanding of their lot: “How many midnight passages with the robbed drunk sleeping it off and the desk clerk waiting below? How many madams? How many jails? How many slicky-boys? How many blows? Seamen on leave or on the beach, M.P., tourist, policeman and pimp, each had taken his measure of her flesh. No one had let her go…chance had pitched her, small and weak. She’d made shore on her own strength alone.” His observations, again and again throughout the writings, surprised me by their wisdom as well as by their mercy, and by his respect for the downtrodden who keep on going.
Algren lived as he wrote, committed to the moment and committed to the existentialist guidance that “the only way to be alive was to belong to the world of men.” Throughout his writings collected in this volume, he lives and writes resolutely “in the first person” as he calls it, versus “the third person.” And resolutely versus, even worse, the dreaded “we” of “Allen Howlsburg“. Algren rejects standing shielded within a group and instead believes wholeheartedly in declaring himself as one amongst the world. And so on he traveled, engaged with the world, meeting characters everywhere he went and recording them with heart and wit. He admires Hemingway for always leaving “a door wide open for others to enter.” In these writings, Algren has left a door into the world open for us and how very lucky we are. Congratulations to Seven Stories to reissuing Notes from a Sea Diary and Who Lost An American? together in one volume, Algren at Sea.