Nonfiction | March 01, 1988
Drifting Into a Career
Nelson Algren, author of The Neon Wilderness, A Walk on the Wild Side and the National Book Award-winning Man with the Golden Arm, made himself a voice for the urban dispossessed. Algren graduated from the University of Illinois in 1931, the most stagnant year since the crash. That year, he escaped the mounting financial troubles of his parents — a Chicago mechanic and his domineering wife — to pursue respectability as a journalist. The following selection from A Life on the Wild Side, a forthcoming biography of Algren, describes how his search for work led to poverty, desperation, and finally jail, experiences which enriched his last-resort but inevitable career as a writer and determined forever his resolute stance against the status quo.
AMONG THE MULTITUDES hitchhiking along the highways in 1931, Nelson Algren Abraham, standing alongside the road in his graduation suit, must have looked naive and somewhat out of place. Wherever he went, his attempts to find work ended in failure. The newspapers in the small towns suggested he try the big cities; the big cities told him to try the small towns. By now he probably suspected the card from the university certifying him as a journalist was just a gimmick: what did they care if he carried it in his pocket like a fool, waiting at the edge of Route 66 with his thumb stuck out? He seems to have drifted south, through “Little Egypt,” where the Mississippi meets the Ohio River in southern Illinois.
By boxcar or highway, through East Texas or due south along the Mississippi, he made his way to New Orleans, a city known to tramps as the cheapest in the nation. It was a city that beckoned the jobless: men who came to ship out to sea and women who came to be prostitutes without hope of anything better. They slept in the parks if they were flat broke and in the day walked past balconies with curved iron railings and large windows shuttered against the sun, courtyards alive with flowering vines, the laughing babble of Creole and French. Despite its poverty, there was a slow sophistication about New Orleans that could never stomach the fanaticism of Huey Long, a European atmosphere that had long attracted writers and painters.
It was a sensual city and nothing like Chicago. On the wharves, enormous bunches of bananas and huge crates of lemons were unloaded daily, scenting the air and splashing the dockside with color. An aroma of coffee wafted from a now-declining market. There were restaurants “acrawl with the living smells of lobster and shrimp, steaming with simmering oyster stew and awash with gumbo.” One of Nelson’s first memories was of hitting the old French Market at its opening one morning. Eating a poorboy sandwich, he watched a muscled black man, naked to the waist, decapitating huge snapping turtles for soup. He looked on in amazement as the executioner stacked the still-moving bodies into a huge, headless pyramid. Elsewhere in the city jukeboxes played “Walking the Wild Side of Life.” Another recollection, of buying a coke in a New Orleans store: a pretty girl came out to serve him — topless. “I just kept looking, like this” (standing rigidly erect, eyes forward). “I said, ‘Have you got a Coca-cola? . . . ‘I’ll drink it here.'” And he drank it, his eyes still staring, unaware of where he was. He was, it seems, in a whorehouse.
But to those without money, the gumbos and the pretty girls were beside the point, which was finding a job. When the newspapers as usual yielded nothing, Nelson was willing to do any reasonable work. But there wasn’t any. Was he carrying a suitcase? It could always be pawned. He too could sleep on the park benches, but in the morning they were cold and wet with dew. If he hit rock bottom there was a mission serving chicory coffee and coleslaw, but though he may have lived for days on bananas in those early days of 1932, the optimism of his college education, while somewhat tarnished, had not worn off.
And then he did find work that seemed worthy of his suit and education: he became a door-to-door seller, one of a growing army during the Depression. They worked on commission; the company could then pay them, not an hourly wage for their walking and hawking, but a percentage only when a sale was made. At first Nelson made the rounds for Standard Coffee, luring housewives with a brightly colored percolator. But sales, unfortunately, were slow. He switched firms and was soon a Watkins man, with a suitcase full of powders, lotions, and hairbrushes.
But there was no job to which he could have been more poorly suited than sales. He just couldn’t believe in a product. Years later, he remembered these days in a notebook:
[There was] a squad of door-to-door sellers and the squad leader . . . told me . . . to let the housewives talk — just stand there and listen as they talked — they all wants someone to talk to.
So one day he stood in the shade of a woman’s porch and listened and listened to her interminable jabber:
It was hot . . . I wanted to groan but I couldn’t. I wanted to sit down but I couldn’t. I wanted her to stop and buy but she wouldn’t.
So I passed out.
Not from hunger. But from boredom.
It was impossible not to notice all the whores in New Orleans in 1932, in bars and alleys, behind shuttered doors on darkened streets. From farms or cities and ever-replaceable, they went for almost nothing and lived m constant fear of incurable venereal diseases. Nelson had never seen anything like this, so acknowledged, institutionalized, so cheap and sad. The Depression had put the once-legal red-light district of Storyville back into use. In those days, before they were destroyed so that the city might deny and forget its past, there were cribs. Built along the front of low, cheap wooden buildings, they were tiny shuttered stalls, in rows almost like cages, where worked the cheapest whores, those too diseased or too skinny or too black or too drunk or just not lucky enough to work in a house. “Honey! come on over here!” They might beckon passing men from the shadows. To novelist Edward Anderson, “it was like flipping the leaves of a book, passing the crib-like brothels, escaping from the hawking voices.” Yet later, in his jail notebook and in one of his early, very autobiographical stories, Nelson would wistfully remember a brown-skinned girl on Franklin Street who would help him if she could. Perhaps he visited the whores out of curiosity, still fearful of disease, but if for sex, it was apparently not a visit to be forgotten. Later, Algren certainly went to prostitutes, and often became emotionally involved with them, frequently using them for literary material. Notes written many years later, in thick magic marker in a random notebook, hardly legible, slurred, as if taken from a dream-like memory of an old, old time: “I remember a girl . . . with . . . a red light above her … blood-red light on a girl naked to the waist . . . and the southern Pacific stars in New Orleans . . . a Negro dance hall . . . the girls were so hard-pressed that if you bought one a pork sandwich for ten cents you could sleep with her.”
In the spring he met two other drifters named Luther. One man was a Texan with a steel plate in his skull from a World War I injury. He was willing to work now and again, but the other, a tall Florida cracker, was “just a promoter,” constantly dreaming up ways to make money. They were hustlers, ex-cons, small-time shysters, and they probably sized Nelson up by his suit and accent: a legitimate-looking front, maybe money, and certainly someone to help share the rent on their cheap Camp Street room. Nelson, whose sales job paid next to nothing, was in dire need of their hustling skills and probably, to say the least, curious. He moved in.
They were an odd trio. To judge from Nelson’s remarks, the Luther with the steel skull, apparently nicknamed Fort from a long prison stint at Fort Myers, was violent, manipulative, and not always friendly, while his partner talked Nelson into schemes with a sly confidentiality. Yet their dire circumstances connected them, and they worked together to collect the few dollars rent and keep food in their stomachs. Once Nelson remembered “. . . sitting around a little kitchen in New Orleans with three other guys . . . one was an old man, I was the youngest, and then two middle-aged men. Sitting around a little, a little kind of night bulb, with four bowls of soup somebody had cooked with this one little piece of meat in it. Everybody knew he was going to try and keep that. We all knew there was one piece of meat in there. We were wondering who was going to get it. We assumed that he was going to keep that piece for himself. When he poured mine, I noticed that he just tilted that ham just enough so that the meat didn’t slip out, and he did the same for the other guys, but he slipped with the old man. I don’t know what the old man was doing there except for a free meal or something. And he slipped. Over-confidence, I guess, and the meat went right into the old man’s plate. We just looked at it there. We couldn’t take it back but it just seemed such a shame that it was only one piece of meat.”
But then without warning, good times came to the Camp Street room: Luther the promoter had a plan. One day he came in with a stack of papers in his hand. “We’ve just done turned that corner,” his fictional counterpart in A Walk on the Wild Side announced. The papers were certificates to a downtown beauty salon entitling the bearer to a free marcel wave and shampoo. As Luther saw it, what woman in N’Awlins wouldn’t want a marcel wave and shampoo for free?
Not many, it seemed, and though the beauty salon didn’t know about these certificates, it sure beat lugging around the store-at-your-door suitcase. Since selling was by now Nelson’s metier, it became, as he recalled, quite a successful little operation: “We had . . . certificates for this beauty parlor saying all they had to do was go down and get this finger wave and shampoo … free because it is a new thing and they’re just giving away one to a block. But it said in small type, you know, that this whole thing actually costs three-fifty when she gets down there. So she says, ‘Well, I don’t understand why it should be for nothing.’ And we say, ‘Well, we don’t know any more than that about it, but you know you can call up.’ We always checked the house. There was only about one phone to a block. You can tell if it’s wired. And then we’d say, ‘Just call up, but we’ll give it to your
next-door neighbor! That always got them — the other woman. None of them had had a finger wave since they’d been married, and . . . the woman next door might, just might, get her hair done when she could have the same thing by paying us twenty-five cents-charity charge, courtesy charge, or something.” The salesmen made themselves “ten dollars a day, day in and day out, for two days,” Nelson recalled. “We had our pockets full of quarters, jingling.”
But these salad days were short-lived: “One of these fools went back and a couple husbands were waiting for him. They beat the shit out of him. So we got out of there. We went down to the Rio Grande Valley with about eleven bucks between us, which was like a thousand.”
In the mid-summer of 1932, he traveled by boxcar toward the grapefruit fields of southern Texas. Time passed without meaning under the blistering Texas sun; no routine could measure the passing days and weeks. Memories of these days merged into a blur, blended into one another, were faded, lost. He got off a train in East Texas, where the legendary H. L. Hunt was making his fortune buying oil-rich land at Depression prices, On August 16, an oilman named Isidor Achinofsky gave him a handwritten introduction to a nearby newspaper. ” . . . Please try and get this young man, Nelson Abraham, a job on your newspaper as a heavy advertiser I believe you can help him a lot. Anything you can do for Mr. Abraham will be appreciated.” “It was just his way of shaking me off,” Nelson said later, for there were no jobs to be had. So he got on yet another train, past Fort Worth and San Antonio to the Rio Grande Valley, where one of the Luthers knew someone who owned a packing shed.
“And so we got down to the Rio Grande Valley and picked oranges and grapefruit down there for a while — made about seventy-five cents a day at the most and tried to get work in a packing shed — that was the best job you could get, it seemed the ultimate thing, the most fortunate thing that could happen to anybody. I didn’t get that.” Somehow, the Florida Luther had promoted or borrowed a Studebaker, and the three of them seem to have travelled around the Valley staying in different places. But Nelson was becoming uncomfortable with the Luthers. “I was always getting conned by these guys. They conned me out of a watch. I don’t know. I was always putting up security for these guys.” It must have seemed better than being alone, until the steel-skulled Luther suggested the three of them rob a supermarket. “He had a gun and wanted to stick up this jitney Jungle store. ‘And how are you going to get out?’ He says, ‘We’re going to take Luther’s car’ . . . I thought to myself, ‘Boy, you better pick up that steel strip in his head and see what’s underneath it.’ The guy was nuts.”
Fortunately, Nelson and the Florida Luther took off in the Studebaker and left the steel-skulled man behind. They were looking for a better way than grapefruit picking or robbery to make money; and were so desperate that an abandoned gas station between Rio Hondo and Harlingen looked like a real opportunity. The plan was to persuade the Sinclair agent in Harlingen to let them live at the station in exchange for fixing it up. This made the agent look good: he could write up to Dallas and say he’d got the station going.
“It was all falling apart,” Nelson said in an account he would shamelessly and repeatedly embroider. “There were no windows in it. It was a jungle . . . there were also deer and wild hogs. There were giant mosquitoes in droves. We fixed it up. We dug the pits [for gas] . . . Of course there was no gas to be sold, you understand. It was just an ad for the company and we got to stay in it. We had to walk a ways down the road to get water, but we existed. The guy I was with, he had the idea to use the joint. His idea was that I would be there in charge of the station and he’d run around the Rio Grande Valley picking up produce.”
And now Nelson’s version of events differs sharply from the truth and the far grimmer reality of the Texas fruitbelt in 1932. For, though as Nelson tells it, he lived alone with Luther at the station, in fact he invited his friend Ben Curtis down from Chicago, partly because he was lonesome for someone intelligent and familiar, partly because Ben, whose father had also run a mechanic’s shop, knew something about cars, and partly because he would bring money with him. Ben did indeed go down to Texas to live at the station, which he remembered as a normal, unremarkable gas station with windows. And Ben remembers Nelson not as the foolish innocent that Nelson would later portray, but as a very serious young man well aware of what he was doing.
Perhaps optimistically, Nelson did apparently think that the gas station could earn them a livelihood. It was on a main thoroughfare, and he reasoned that with their combined knowledge of cars, he and Ben could indeed make the station function, while Luther would supplement their earnings with fruit and vegetable sales. But Nelson could hardly have thought the station would earn them a fortune, just as he was no longer the naive young man who believed he had a future in newspaper work. Instead, the sociologist in him had become fascinated by the migrant camps and dusty down-and-out transients called fruit bums. “They would move from area to area along the Valley wherever anything matured — they went to pick tomatoes or grapefruit or whatever they had to,” Ben recalled. “They had no regular home life . . . Nelson wanted to stay in that area because there was a chance, I think, to see the people who lived down there. That was the bottom of the barrel.”
Ben also noticed Nelson’s detached interest in the tall, thin, hollow-chested Luther, who had no belief in the work ethic and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes one after another, twenty-four hours a day, it seemed — “You’d wake up in the middle of the night and he’d be sitting up, smoking.” To Ben, Nelson didn’t seem to have any feeling for Luther at all except to look at him as if he were “under a microscope. It was as though he were doing another project for school.” And Ben was also aware that part of Nelson’s attachment to this bizarre character was that he was a source of food.
“He surprised me with the way he talked about things and about people,” Ben continued. “I was an innocent . . . [but] Nelson was sharp. He knew what was going on all the time . . . We were down there for several weeks and never had a bath. Nelson said, ‘Come with me, I know a guy in town, he’s got a bathtub.’ The man had a hard-working wife and a family, [and] we each had a bath. I [asked Nelson] ‘How come this guy’s got a house?’ And he said, ‘Well, black people used to live there. Now they can’t rent it to white people unless they get rid of the idea that anybody black had lived there, so they let this white family live there for a year … and then they let it to white people.’ All these things he knew about, he told me.” Another time Ben realized that there was incest going on between one of the migrant workers and his twelve- or thirteen-year-old daughter. “I was greatly upset by this. I was shocked. But he had taken it for granted. He had seen a lot of this, even at that early age.” But though Nelson was compelled to this intense scrutiny of devastation, he got no pleasure from the joylessness around him, and did not seem happy with the life he lived there.
Business at the station was practically non-existent. They sold two or three gallons of gas a day, fuel which had not been obtained on Nelson’s credit, as he would later claim, but with money Ben Curtis had brought from home. Apparently Ben confided in Nelson that he had some funds left over, but life was so bleak Nelson didn’t even want to hear about it. “Don’t ever show me that money, don’t ever show anybody that money,” Nelson warned Ben sharply. It was tomato season, and through Luther’s grace, their diet consisted mainly of tomatoes. “We ate ’em raw, we ate ’em cooked, we ate ’em boiled, we ate ‘ern chopped,” said Ben, who soon tired of the fare. “We’d been eating this junk here, and I said, ‘Let’s go out and eat something good.’ He said, ‘Forget it. If anybody discovers you’ve got any money, they’ll kill you for it.”‘
It was Nelson’s awareness of the repressed violence surrounding them that finally brought an end to these dismal weeks at the station, and it all began with Luther and a huge load of black-eyed peas. “This Luther went to a Mexican and bought all his black-eyed peas,” Ben recalled. “I don’t remember the exact figures, but . . . let us say that the stores in town were selling them for $0.16 a pound. Luther went and sold [the peas] to them for $.012 a pound and he promised the poor farmers $0.20 a pound. He didn’t care what he promised them because he wasn’t going to pay them. The stores were glad to buy them because they were cheaper than they could buy them elsewhere.” And, as Nelson remembered packing the peas into Mason jars, what was on Luther’s mind was to keep the money and move on. “I’m packing black-eyed peas until I’m blind and this guy don’t show up,” goes Nelson’s account. “Then I hear a car drive up in the middle of the night . . . It was [Luther] . . . he had come up in another car which he’d promoted from somebody else, and then he had figured we had all this gas at the station — we had two tanks with about ninety gallons in each out there — and now he wants to get out of this station deal . . . so he’s going to leave me there, you know, picking and packing black-eyed peas.” And waiting for a posse of poor angry Mexican farmers who’d be looking for their money.
Ben Curtis: “That’s when Nelson said to me, ‘We better get out of here. We’re known to be with him, and we’ll wake up with a knife in our backs.’
So that’s when I left, but he kept on travelling.”
For.years, whenever he was asked how he started writing, Nelson would invariably tell the story of the gas station, with some of the details changed, characteristically, to accommodate his fiction and, more importantly, his own intense need for personal secrecy. It was a turning point in his life. In his telling, the tale was one of disillusionment, but he never revealed the extent of it. He never mentioned Ben’s presence in Texas either in a Paris Review interview or in Conversations with Nelson Algren, or in his fiction: he preferred to present himself as a lone wanderer, more innocent than he really was, so that the depth of his come-down would not be exposed. He never described Luther’s real scheme, because to do so might have revealed that his disillusionment came not just from being swindled for gas, as he described it, but from being set up for a beating or possibly worse. To reveal the depth of the change he had undergone there would have been distasteful. For those who cared to read it, he had already recounted what had happened, after a fashion, in “So Help Me,” a story about a naked exploitation which ultimately results in death.
Because, for all his sociological observation, he hadn’t seen until now how inexorably the grim poverty he was witnessing could lead to death. Perhaps he had once thought of Fort’s plans to stick up the Jitney Jungle as the crazy scheme of a demented individual. And he seemed to have absorbed the idea, as he warned Ben, that a stranger might be killed for his money. But after living with Luther for several months, who’d have thought the man would see him as a mark who could take the rap whenever it became convenient? To realize that Luther would sacrifice him as willingly as Fort just to make a little money, was not only to see himself, to borrow from Joyce, as “a creature driven and derided by vanity,” though that is certainly behind his cover-up of events, but also to see a world for which even he was not prepared: a world where relationships meant nothing, where money was more important than life and life was so cheap as to be valueless. There was no humanity in such a world. He too could have lain dead and dumped on a desolate Texas road like any other too-trusting loser.
At the gas station he had hit rock bottom: and what he had seen there was horror. He had seen the truth, and he realized now with a perfect clarity that he’d been lied to all his life. His parents lied, the journalism school lied, Luther lied, the squad leader, Achinofsky . . . all the way down the line it was a different world from what he’d been told. And this difference went far deeper than the Depression: there was something deeply, sickly wrong with the whole society. “Everything I’d been told was wrong. I’d been told, I’d been assured it was a strive and succeed world. What you did: you got yourself an education and a degree and then you went to work for a family newspaper and then you married a nice girl and had children and this was what America was. But this is not what America was. America was not socialized and I resented very deeply that I’d been lied to. I’d been lied to even insofar as the information Ihad about journalism. I’d been told how to write headlines for newspapers . . . but the way you’d been taught, this got you fired immediately from a newspaper. You had to reverse everything you’d been taught, mechanically as well as morally.
He had not been ready to go back to Chicago with Ben. He would continue on the road by himself. In a world of duplicity and falsehood, each man went alone.
Wandering around the Valley, perhaps near La Feria or further up the Southern Pacific tracks toward Hebbronville, he found himself with a dozen or so unemployed people in a big old house with a sign out front saying HOTEL. Here the people seemed decent. “It was a curious hotel because it was made up of people who were taken in, who had no money and whom the proprietor hoped would get some. He himself had a job in the grapefruit shed. His wife cooked in the kitchen and everybody lived in the hopes that someone would get some money.” These hopes seemed fulfilled when a passing county fair took Nelson on as a carnival shill.
The carnival was the epitome of duplicity and falsehood, but all his jobs on the road had been like that. He didn’t mind as long as he wasn’t conned, and the phony chance wheel where he now worked may have also appealed to his love of gambling. By his own account, it was a big horizontal wheel rigged by a crude wire system the New York operator worked with his foot, while his partner, a big Texan, looked out for trouble. Nelson and the other shills stood around the wheel with a half a dollar or so apiece, ready to kick up a commotion when a mark came sauntering down the mid-way. “Then almost everybody would win … the guy would say, ‘Another winner, another winner,’ and then you would get five half dollars back or five silver dollars back for the one, and whenever that happened one of the more trusted shills would hit you in the side to get the money back and then you’d play it again … the mark … he plays and wins until the barker tells him, ‘I wouldn’t pick that money up because … now is your chance to win a hundred . . .’ And it costs him two dollars to play the hundred and so on, and he’s got a fantastic amount of money coming and then all of a sudden he loses. He might be three or four hundred dollars in debt. They even accepted checks, so he might write out a check for his losses right there. You couldn’t win. There was a Navajo blanket back of the wheel that was supposed to be a prize, but it was nailed up so it didn’t look like they expected any winners.”
Unfortunately, Nelson’s nightly take at the wheel just didn’t stand up to the big bucks the operators were raking in. Sure, he made enough money to buy a couple of hamburgers and coffee every night, and sometimes the shills could get free hot dogs at the concession, but that was it. Every night silver dollars and five spots, tens, singles, and plenty of change passed through his hands, enough money to get out of Texas, but then he’d get that punch in the side. If the other shills were willing to work for hot dogs, fine, but he was tired of being taken while someone else made the money. Luther was enough. He wanted a raise.
By his own perhaps embellished recollection, one night he saw the sheriff making his nightly tour of the midway. Then he won six or twelve dollars and when the guy hit him he shoved the winnings deep in his pockets. They couldn’t say he hadn’t won it fair in front of the sheriff, and after a frozen moment he backed off. He strolled with the sheriff past the freaks and the girlie shows, the two-hearted cats and the strong man. Then he melted into the crowd, slipping through a fence in the darkness to head for the railroad tracks.
He remained angry over the gas station fiasco. Maybe he’d been set up for the fall guy all along, even before Fort’s robbery plans or Luther’s gasoline theft. But the only place to direct his rage was to paper. Somewhere he stopped and wrote a long letter to a friend in Chicago, probably to Larry Lipton, complaining about the Confederacy from Perdido Street to La Feria.
Now he entered what another hitchhiker called “a new social dimension, the great underground world, peopled by tens of thousands of American men, women, and children, white, black, brown, and yellow, who inhabit the jungle, eat from blackened tin cans, find warmth at night in the boxcars, take the sun by day on the flat cars, steal one day, beg with cap in hand the next, fight with fists and often razors, hold sexual intercourse under a blanket in a dark corner of the crowded car, coagulate into pairs and gangs and then disintegrate again, wander from town to town, anxious for the next place, tired of it in a day, fretting to be gone again, happy only when the wheels are clicking under them, the telephone poles slipping by.”
He went along from city to town, sQmetimes held overnight on a vagrancy charge, in the morning just told to keep moving. “He moved, moved, everything moved; men either kept moving or went to jail. Faces, like fence-posts seen from trains, passed swiftly or slowly or were no more … And there were always such faces. In a sullen circle they stared for an hour, neither hostile nor friendly nor kind … they moved aside to make place for him or silently turned away; he stood among them in silence, stared unhostile in his turn. Then it was move, move —Don’t come here any more –and the faces were gone again.”
He wandered down through Mexico and then back through Texas to forget the names of the towns–Waycross, Carzozo, Fort Worth, La Feria. Maybe he worked in exchange for food; maybe he ate in a jungle or mission. But whatever he did he was alone. Once, he later told Dorothy Farrell, while crossing a shallow river dotted with islands, a flock of birds–were they blackbirds–swooped down to attack him. They dove at his head, screeched into his ears, and he beat them away, flailing wildly with his hands.
He remembered gambling once, hoping for the win that would change his luck or get him out of Texas. He went broke in a crap game in what he remembered as El Paso–though it may have been Brownsville–and was walking down the street when a cop accused him of breaking a nearby window. In the county jail with eight drunks, he walked out the open cell-door and past the sleeping turnkey. On the front steps he ran into the same cop who’d put him in, and this time the cop made sure the door was locked. Then he offered to get him off for two hundred dollars. Nelson waited for the judge and was fined five dollars for vagrancy. Maybe he got off on time served.
Now he was always at the mercy of the law, and it was not a fair law that fined a man for being broke or took him off a train for the railroad company’s reward. They were in cahoots, the railroad companies and the police, and boxcar riding, the only way across the endless expanse of Texas, could be a dangerous game. Freighthoppers could be shot off trains by cops or fall between the moving cars. Even just getting to the tracks was a problem because they didn’t want the homeless on the highways, and once at the tracks the trains might be coming real fast with all the doors closed–and hobos had to get on with nobody noticing. Officially unrecognized, they had to pretend that they didn’t exist. Stay out of sight–and be able to duck in and out to get water when the train stopped.
As winter came on, he passed through Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was snowing. “I remember eating at a kind of a home–I don’t think it was a Salvation Army home … Army Veterans’ God’s Blessing Station, or something like that … I remember it must have been around Christmas and that it was awful cold,” and he was just another bum.
But he was drifting toward Chicago, where he could have, at least, a roof over his head and people around him he could trust. He was also drifting unconsciously, with a new-found sense of purpose, literary and intellectual circles–like the John Reed Club–where he could make sense of what had happened and channel his opposition to a system that had created the devastation he had witnessed. Everything he’d seen convinced him that the brutalities of that system had to be exposed at all costs. In a world swimming with deceit, to be able to speak the truth was the only thing that mattered.
* * * *
When he reached his parents’ home in Chicago, he began writing, and not long after he saw an ad for the Writers’ Circle at the Jewish People’s Institute on Douglas Boulevard. He gathered his manuscripts and took the streetcar down. It was an interesting choice of organizations for a young man whose first published story would accentuate anti-Semitism and who would shortly drop his Jewish name for a Swedish one; yet it provided just the encouraging atmosphere he sought. The Writers’ Circle was run by Murray Gitlin, known as an up-and-coming writer who had recently had a story inEsquire. Gitlin remembered the twenty-three-year-old Nelson as mild and modest, “a fine gentle person. He didn’t put on an air … He had a sensitive face, a good, interesting face, [and] he spoke softly … I liked him immediately.” When Nelson showed him the manuscripts he’d been working on, Gitlin saw right away that he had no need to join the group. “The man could already write. I said, ‘You’re a writer. Just go to it.'”
But his ego, damaged by the emotional and physical humiliations of the road, was not, apparently, completely prepared for the job. The Abrahams, reshuffling loans and liens in an effort to hang on to their house, had taken Nelson in, but they could hardly have been proud of him or pleased about his decision to write, which showed so little promise of providing a living. Though Joffe vehemently denied it, Nelson recalled that he wasn’t allowed to use his brother-in-law’s typewriter, and whatever the truth of this, Nelson clearly felt so uncomfortable about using it that he rode an hour by trolley to a typewriter Gitlin said he could use in his office. He worked on the machine consistently for several weeks. “He didn’t feel he had it in him,” Gitlin recalled. “He didn’t have a high opinion of himself … He was on the edge. Had I said, ‘Well, I don’t think you’ll make it,’ he might have accepted it.” Instead, Gitlin assured him that his work was both good and publishable. When the stories Nelson began sending out came back rejected, Gitlin told him, “That’s just the way it is. Keep going.”
Around this time Nelson wrote “Forgive Them, Lord,” the story of a black man who witnesses a lynching. More polished than earlier stories, it developed the theme of betrayal that now preoccupied him. The protagonist makes the mistake of confiding what he has seen to the prostitute he cares for and sees each week. He is unaware that she has little feeling for him and that, perhaps damaged by her life, she feels no obligation to protect his secret. Instead, she betrays him to the white murderers, insuring his death. However, like Nelson’s earlier efforts the story seems somewhat contrived.
Short but successful, “The Brothers’ House,” a throwback to his college prison stories, made better use of his experiences on the road. In it, a young man released after twenty months in a county jail makes his way home on foot, sleeping in fields and walking eighteen days through the American countryside. Though his mother is dead and his brothers have beaten him cruelly in the past, he yearns for them and the community they represent. But his lighthearted hopes of family love are swiftly, brutally crushed by his brother’s complete indifference. Like “Forgive Them, Lord,” this is also a story of betrayal, and central here too is the failure of love, a theme that would mark not only many Algren stories, but Algren’s life.
Still missing in his fiction, however, was an intense and direct application of all he had seen and heard. Then Larry Lipton, whose literary gatherings Nelson had probably begun attending, apparently felt that the long complaining letter he’d written about the South could be rewritten into an effective story. The result was “So Help Me,” an imaginary account of what would have happened had the steel-skulled Luther’s plan to rob the Jitney Jungle been carried out. As in “The Brothers’ House,” the hero’s name is David, and the villain, as in “Forgive Them, Lord,” is named Luther. Strongly autobiographical, much of the story is an evocation of Nelson’s travels with the Luthers. The hero is always being conned by the pair of vagrants. Separated from them by an incredible gulf in values and expectations, the hero David is also, like Nelson, a Jew.
In the story, which takes the form of a monologue, the drifter Homer is giving an account of events to a “big-league lawyer.” His tale begins in New Orleans, where he and Luther, an ex-con from the state farm at Wetumpka, meet the innocent “Jew kid” David, fresh out of high school and come south to find work so he can marry his pregnant girlfriend. Homer, who has a hunch he can “wrangle a meal out of him,” assures David there is plenty of work picking fruit in the Rio Grande Valley, so the trio travel by boxcar to Southern Texas. But only David is willing to work in the fields. The others, under the guise of friendship, pawn his watch and suitcase, later convincing themselves with tequila that he can grab the money while they hold up a drugstore with cheap guns. With David sweating at gunpoint, they narrowly avoid capture and escape by train. As they sleep fitfully in the moving car, David’s recurring screaming nightmare returns, and the steel-skulled Luther, edgy and frightened, shoots him dead. At least that is the story the narrator Homer, hoping to avoid a murder rap, tells the district attorney.
Completely different from anything he had written before, “So Help Me” went far beyond Nelson’s own story to evoke a whole, contemporary world of outcast people, with its own customs and values. In an American cracker idiom replete with the slang terms of the criminal bum, Homer reveals his story against the background of his life: floating from prison to city street to railroad jungle, staying in migrant camps and eating in missions. Circumstances have obviously helped stunt his humanity; and he is only aware of his lack of morality to the extent that he realizes he needs to sound reasonable and respectable to the lawyer. His desperation to clear himself and blame his partner becomes obvious; his vulnerability is completely exposed. He is a powerless, penniless loser, and whether or not he murdered, stands accused of it with only his inevitably unsatisfactory wits to clear himself. Though Homer is ultimately pathetic, he is also frightening, and his striking characteristic, as James T. Farrell saw it, was “his lack of sentiments and value for love, his almost complete divorcement from the middle-class conceptions of success, and his lack of substitution of any other concepts for them.”
There is no doubt that writing “So Help Me” was a new, deeply satisfying experience for its author, who thought highly of the story. It was his first serious attempt at portraying the trapped criminal, remarkable in its detail and depth of psychological and sociological insight. From a biographical standpoint, it is also important that the theme of anti-Semitism runs so deeply through the story. Homer, who knows David’s name, never thinks of him as anything but the “Jew kid” and refers to him that way, or as the Jew, constantly, only mentioning his name once. David is considered inferior solely because he is Jewish: “O’course, I wouldn’t never have picked up with him if I’d knowed,” Homer explains easily. As a Jew, David is to be exploited, starved, victimized, and finally, one suspects, deliberately killed: “Now … maybe you will even think that Fort really wanted to get rid of the Jew kid so’s we would only have two ways to split instead of three,” Homer stupidly suggests to the lawyer. The abundance of these references suggest strongly that Nelson was preoccupied with David’s ethnic background, and in fact on top of one draft he wrote “jew kid,” twice, in exceptionally large handwriting. As he sent out stories, Nelson dropped the name Abraham for the more lyrical and Swedish Algren. Using his middle name was an easy switch comprehensible to his family: pen names were not unusual, and even they had noticed Nelson’s affinity for his grandfather’s “socialisme.” But he was also casting aside his family’s hold on his writing identity, separating himself from them, as the year on the road had already done. The new name had more literary appeal. It also masked his Jewish origins, protecting him from painful anti-Semitism, a marked theme that would almost completely vanish from the later fiction. Abraham was itself an assumed name, and it brought with it a burden he saw no point in bearing: he had no religious leanings or desire to be typed as a Jewish writer. He had visions of literary greatness and Abraham was a name he “didn’t figure could get on a theater marquee.”
Probably Larry Lipton, who knew Martha Foley and Whit Burnett, suggested Nelson submit his work to Story magazine, then publishing young artists like William Saroyan, Erskine Caldwell, J. D. Salinger, and James T. Farrell. Nelson had never heard of Story, but he sent off “The Brothers’ House,” “Sweat,” “A Woman Called Mary,” and the new, lengthy “So Help Me.” On May 22 he got a letter from Whit Burnett: “We have been very favorably impressed with the longest of the four stories you sent us a few days ago and we are considering the possibility of using it in Story, possibly in the next issue.” Burnett was also hanging on to “The Brothers’ House” and a twenty dollar check would be forthcoming. One can only imagine Algren’s joy: his vision of the world had been redeemed: and he was no longer a bum but a writer, risen from the anonymity of thousands of vagrants. When “Forgive Them, Lord” was accepted for publication in A Yearmagazine, he had definitely found a career — and on his own terms. Nothing was more satisfying than writing, and the idea that he might now make a living took hold of him.
Thinking of himself as a writer brought a sense of purpose and much needed self-esteem, for though he ate regularly at his parents’ house, he still had no job. But he was hardly alone in this. By the fall of 1932, Chicago had almost as many unemployed people as workers, and though Roosevelt’s March, 1933 bank holiday had restored some confidence in the business community, to the unemployed it made little difference. Social unrest continued throughout the city: breadlines and demonstrations remained despite the establishment of federal relief. In May, 1933, anarchist bombs shook the Chicago offices of five downtown companies.
As if to further alientate the jobless, the Chicago World’s Fair opened that May to commemorate “A Century of Progress.” Promoted by mottoes like “Business is Booming” and “The Worst is Over,” the fair sported a large “No Help Wanted” sign at its front gates. The commercial extravaganza usurped the one black beach in Chicago, readying it for white patrons by removing rocks and other “unsafe” conditions heretofore, apparently, safe enough. Just outside the grounds prostitution flourished, and miserable Hoovervilles of packing box houses sprang up nearby, their citizens scavenging for food in garbage cans.
Amidst such poverty and contradiction, with a government that never seemed to be helping fast enough, the left, with the American Communist Party at its forefront, at least offered a coherent analysis of the economic situation while promising to destroy forever the kind of system that brought about such deprivation. Along with its effort to unionize workers, fight discrimination, and educate people to the gross disparities between rich and poor under capitalism, the Party was also organized on the cultural front, considering art an important weapon of class warfare. Established writers favoring revolution published in New Masses and gathered at an International Writers’ Congress held in the Soviet Union in 1930. Now the party encouraged younger working-class artists and writers through a nationwide network of John Reed Clubs. These clubs arranged art exhibits, wrote strike pamphlets, sponsored speakers at union meetings, and in general arranged events to protest racism, war, fascism, and imperialism.
The Chicago John Reed Club met on the second floor of 1427 So. Michigan Avenue, where Nelson was soon dropping by. There were both visual artists and writers in the club, and the writers’ group, of which the young Richard Wright was increasingly a mainstay, oversaw the publication of Left Front, a revolutionary magazine of art, literature, and politics. There was something alive in its unpretentious atmosphere. Long benches served as seats and cigarettes were crushed out on the floor. Along the walls vivid murals depicted huge victorious workers raising streaming banners. “The mouths of the workers were gaped in wild cries,” Wright recalled, “their legs were sprawled across cities.”
Well-known writers like James T. Farrell came in to speak. The New Masses, on sale at the club, introduced members to Kenneth Fearing, Langston Hughes, and Archibald MacLeish. Though most of the club’s writers came to socialize and rarely brought manuscripts to meetings, members read aloud John Reed’s “America 1918,” criticized the works of William Carlos Williams, discussed and–probably–repudiated T. S. Eliot (Nelson thought him elitist), and dissected the revolutionary message of Walt Whitman. Perhaps Algren now discovered the lines he loved and would use as an epigraph for his second novel, lines that serve perfectly as an epithet for his life:
I feel I am of them–
I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself–
And henceforth I will not deny them–
For how can I deny myself?
In addition to Wright, Nelson also met Abe Aaron, a young socialist from the Pennsylvania coal mines working his way through the University of Chicago. Aaron, like Wright, was one of the more serious members of the club. He had won prizes for his political essays and published in Jack Conroy’s magazine for proletarian writing The Anvil. And, while holding down three jobs, he worked actively for the Communist Party and social justice, often sacrificing writing time to put furniture back into the homes of people thrown into the street for non-payment of rent. He was articulate, well-read, sensitive, and highly moral. Abe, who was also Jewish, was one of the few people Nelson trusted enough to invite over to his parents’ house, and he came over half a dozen times to breakfasts served by Goldie in the dining room. Abe had the vague impression Nelson was getting help from his family, especially his sister Bernice; he saw Nelson as a loner who didn’t seem to have many friends.
“Nelson was a tall, gangly shuffling sort of guy,” Abe recalled, “amused by life, amused by the idiosyncracies of humanity around him, about how people were not what they seemed to be, and we would constantly, he for the most part, be conjecturing about what a person actually meant when he said something.” Sometimes they went to a hash house and sat all night talking about writers over a cup of coffee. Nelson loved Carl Sandburg and Maxim Gorky and the Englishman George Gissing, all of whom wrote about the lower depths of society. He also liked Jack Conroy’s just-published novelThe Disinherited, impressed by both the realistic portrayal of the unemployed transient and the title “American Gorky,” which a critic had bestowed upon its author.
Given his subject matter and his disillusionment with society, it was almost inevitable that Nelson found himself within the Communist movement, though his ambitions were far more literary than political. Abe and Dick Wright, by contrast, were inclined to see their writing as an instrument for social change. In Abe’s view, he and Dick were political writers, but Nelson was just the opposite: “He was a poet more than a political animal, and he had a vision of the truth.” But if Nelson was unsure of whether or not he believed in an imminent Communist triumph, his vision of the world was very similar to that of the left. That there was a class system at work in the United States he had seen with his own eyes, had seen the injustice of it in the misery of the thousands of homeless stumbling around the country, the black vagrants carted off to chain gangs, the maimed discarded veterans unable to work. He knew that this system, based on acquiring profits rather than providing for human needs, was immoral; it was a system that kept people’s faith by an intricate system of lies like the Illinois Journalism School or the Chicago World’s Fair. If the Communists wanted to overthrow this system and its racism, misery, and greed, then he was all for them.
But if his vision of American society was similar to that of those who worked in the Communist Party, his loyalty was to the vision itself; ascertaining the truth was more important than working for a political party. While he always felt himself a man of the left, his dedication was to his art before the revolution; his ambition was to be a great artist, like Gorky. Still, more than anything he had ever known, this political community nourished him, allowed him a place to think and breathe. And through his political friends he was meeting literary people who could help him, like Jim Farrell and the proletarian writer Jack Conroy. He and Conroy liked each other right away. Conroy was a self-taught working-man whose brother and father had died in the mines, and there was no doubt about either his politics or his commitment to literature about oppressed people. The Disinherited had established him at the forefront of the emerging genre of proletarian literature, and his magazine was to publish the unknown Richard Wright, Frank Yerby, and Nelson Algren. Conroy knew talent. When Nelson began writing to him, it was the beginning of a friendship that was to last more than thirty years.
In those days, Abe was one of the few guys who could afford his own place. He worked as a desk clerk in exchange for his room at the Troy Lane Apartments hotel, and on Friday nights his writing friends dropped by for a salon of sorts. Abe’s friends Harvey Kier and Harold Jacobson came regularly, along with Nelson and Dick Wright, who was just beginning to publish poems in small leftist magazines. They took up a collection for coffee and potato pancakes and then talked deep into the night, lounging on the bed that served as a sofa. The debates concerned politics, the black underclass, Roosevelt, the World’s Fair, literature. Here Nelson felt enough at ease to talk about what he’d seen on the road. Dick, who wanted to write about poor, uneducated blacks, shared his interest in thelumpenproletariat.
But Abe suddenly lost his job, though Dick and Nelson never knew why. After the first few meetings, Abe’s boss had taken him aside. It wasn’t himself, he assured Abe, but someone higher up who objected. It just didn’t look right having a black man come into the hotel. Might give the place a bad name. Why not just move the meeting or tell the man not to come? But Dick was a published writer, a serious man, Abe protested. Still the boss was unmoved. Friday came again and so did Dick. The following Saturday the boss warned Abe again: “One more time and I’ll have to let you go.” Since Abe wouldn’t forbid Dick to come or capitulate to racism by ending the meetings, he held another the next Friday night. On Saturday he was looking for a place to live. “I would never have told Dick,” Abe said later, “because he would have been furious that I had lost my job over him.” A job was something nobody could give up lightly in 1933.
Those summer evenings, if Nelson wasn’t at a literary or political meeting, he seems to have been out exploring the city, sometimes asking Ben and Jerome Hannock and Ralph Zwick to come out “sightseeing.” “I had lived in Chicago all my life,” Ben said, “and I’d never heard of such places.” One was a dime-a-dance hall of the variety Nelson would later describe in Somebody in Boots. “You’d buy a string of tickets for ten cents each,” said Ben, who, along with Nelson, mostly watched from the sidelines. “The girls wore very sleazy dresses and when you danced they’d hold you very close,” the music only lasting a few seconds before the girl would want another ticket. Among Algren’s writings from this time is a sketch of a tattoo man waiting for the girls who came in “because of the pain the needle gives”; another of a man scorned while trying to make a human relationship with a hooker. But whether he went to tattoo parlors or brothels is unclear. It is certain that he spent time with Barbara Bein, the shy, moody “flower child” who understood vagabonds-turned-writers: her brother was Albert Bein, a road-hewn playwright and novelist just beginning to have success on the New York stage. She and Nelson seem to have been lovers, but something went wrong in the relationship. Shortly before leaving for New York, Nelson wrote her a long, bitter letter; and whatever the trouble was between them, she was, it seems, more than partly to blame: a mutual friend lectured her mightily about it, “bearing in mind Nelson’s experience.” But his emotions over this seem to have been swallowed up in his enthusiasm for his new role as a revolutionary artist. He later joked, somewhat seriously, that the appearance of his first story in August, 1933 was one of the greatest influences on his literary career. There was something magical in the success of his writing that seemed to overcome all disappointments and hurts. His self-confidence seemed to soar almost overnight to new heights. Writing gave him a future.
In early September, Algren recalled, “I was twenty-four and I get this letter from Vanguard Press: ‘Are you working on a novel? We are interested in a novel on the basis of this piece in Story magazine.’ I had nothing else to do so instead of answering the letter, I rode to New York. I was so used to hitchhiking by that time, I was so used to walking out the door and getting on Route 66–it was just as easy as getting into a car, and although I never knew exactly what route I was going to take, I never had any trouble. By that time I was a professional transient so I knew all the places to go … Some kids … two guys with lots of bedding in the car–picked me up and they were going to New York by way of Niagara Falls.” He’d never seen the falls. What he looked for and found was the reality behind the romance: “the colored spray of Niagara, the rapids and the roaring, the Maid of the Mist and the rats by those rapids.”
But what to tell Vanguard? He hadn’t even been thinking of a novel before the letter. Maybe he could go back to Texas and do something similar to “So Help Me,” and hopefully there’d be some good money in the deal. In the plush, paneled Madison Avenue office of Vanguard’s president James Henle, he realized there probably was.
The novel? Well, he had one in mind about the Southwest and would like to go down there to write it.
“How much would you need?” Henle wanted to know.
As much as he could get, but he couldn’t tell Henle that and he knew nothing about the going rate for advances. He calculated his expenses in the Rio Grande Valley: ten dollars to get down there, twenty dollars a month for room and board, ten dollars for tobacco and whatnot. He put the stakes as high as he dared:
“One hundred dollars.”
An agreement was, needless to say, reached. He would finish the novel in six months and show Henle what he had in three. Both men were pleased. Henle had commissioned a book from an obviously talented young writer at little or no risk to his company, and Nelson had gotten a cool hundred bucks, more money than he’d seen in ages, just by throwing out a title and some vague details. He couldn’t believe his luck. A contract for The Gods Gather was typed and signed. Henle gave him a ten-dollar bill from his wallet and a handshake. Later Algren would receive thirty dollars a month for three months and a hundred dollars more if Henle liked what he saw. He also got a letter saying he was employed by Vanguard Press, a document he planned to use when pulled off trains.
He left the office congratulating himself, and according to one memoir, broke the bill in Hubert’s Wax Museum. Then he paid a call on Barbara’s brother in the Bronx. Albert Bein, a run away from his Chicago home at thirteen, had fixed himself a meal in an empty farmhouse and drawn five years in a reform school. It was here he began writing and sent a poem to Clarence Darrow, who, with the help of Jane Addams, brought about his release. Still hoboing in his early twenties, he fell asleep standing between two moving boxcars near Ash Fork, Arizona and lost a leg. A two year stint in a penitentiary followed. Then he went back to Chicago and wrote a novel about reform school, carrying it by boxcar to New York, where it was published in 1930. When Nelson visited him, his play “Little Ol’ Boy” had opened six months before to favorable reviews.
Bein, whose political sympathies were also to the left, must have seemed like the master, and Nelson, seven years younger, the apprentice. The name of Maxim Gorky came up frequently in their conversation, amid tales of Bein’s life and travels. But, Bein recalled, “It soon developed that he was uncertain of what to write about and we spent most of the time trying to hit upon story ideas for his promised book.” They weren’t successful, but the meeting ended cordially enough, and after seeing a few other friends in New York, Nelson once again took the long American road to Texas, this time no longer broke or purposeless.
As George Orwell had just done in England, he travelled through the country as a sociological observer. He moved almost entirely by boxcar, more openly friendly with the hobos, travelling as one of them, asking questions as he went, getting thrown in jail with them, recording their stories and expressions with an observation sharpened by political perspective. He wrote down what he saw in a back pocket notebook. It was a harrowing and exhausting experience, perhaps worse than he’d remembered tramp life before. Sometimes, if there were no boxcars, he rode the rail rods–rows of pipes along the underside of trains that supported a man who could hold himself rigid, careful not to fall asleep and through the bars to the moving wheels.
These tramps he met were powerless, and whatever rights they once possessed had been long since devoured by the police and railroad companies. The railroad bulls had hose length, bat, rope or gun; they might beat a man for nothing, but mostly they just wanted their money: bums brought twenty-five cents a head in some places, two dollars in others. Bums who refused to come out and hid in the boxcars could be locked inside; they could burn their way out or be picked up in the next town. Bulls became legend from city to city: avoid “Hook” Kelly and Texas Slim; beware “Hobo” Brown, dressed like a bum. Penalty for riding the manifest from Washington to Florida, 61 days; 90 days on a pea farm if caught in Beaumont, Texas. Penalty for breaking a seal: twenty years or so.
But in most places you got through with no trouble: there were so many hobos the bulls just got you for the head count and took you off the trains for a while. In Greenville, North Carolina, they drove up and took everyone off. “The colored guys, I think they separated them and sent them on to the labor camps,” Nelson remembered later. “The white guys they let go to the Salvation Army and warned them that if they caught them trying to get out of town in the train again, they would pick them up. How you got out of town was your problem.” Your problem; and if you went to jail it was a cell of green sheet iron with a kangaroo court to secure edible food.
The physical wretchedness of day-to-day life was overwhelming. In late September it was already cool, and there were days of lying in the jungle, cold and hungry, others without rest when you hurried to move the enormous boxcar doors. If kicked off a train, freezing, you took shelter in the depot until ejected, and when kicked out of restaurants you climbed into the first waiting train–even if it was just a switch engine. There were jungles in the South that were swarming with mosquitoes, and if you moved off by yourself you might wake to find you’d slept on poison oak. And keeping clean–it was harder than eating: baths were twenty-five cents. Bums could sometimes bathe in animals’ water–but it could not be sullied by soap.
There were men whose eyes were dust-rimmed, their mouths covered in sores; a man’s foot might be so calloused that if a nail from his thin-soled shoes pierced his foot, he withdrew it with neither pain nor blood. And the hunger, the endless hunger of the men. “Ah’m so hungry if you put a ham sandwich mah mouth’d slap my brains out trying to get it,” somebody might say. Nelson watched a fair-haired boy vomit from emptiness above Monroe.
When the Crescent Limited went by, people were eating in the warm cars, from silver on clean, linen-covered tables.
Worse than anything were the accidents. You might watch a kid make a try for a train going just a little too fast, and he’d miss and suddenly all the blood in his body was pouring out, running black in the sun from a sliced-off arm. Nelson never forgot how a boy with a blue bandana ran for a train and flung himself into a coal car, not seeing its bottom was open to the wheels. Nelson, on the car’s outside ladder, stepped on his hand in the dark. And how long did they ride like that, a boy clinging to life by fingertips smashed under a shoe until the train finally, mercifully, stopped?
Only brief friendships could be made in such a world. For a while he traveled with John Jennings, a sixteen-year-old, possibly the boy whose life he’d saved. Dodging a warrant, Jennings had once gone home to stand by his girl in church. He had apparently stolen a chicken, was caught, and for his crime received five months and two days working dawn to dusk in a labor camp, getting fifteen cents and a plug of tobacco a week. “For fools and the unfeeling, this is all well enough,” Nelson wrote in his notebook. Jennings was destined to endlessly flee the authorities. Once a marine recruiter tried to sign Jennings up to fight Sandino in the Nicaraguan jungles, and the boy, knowing that even the road was preferable to armed combat, said he had a deformity, though he had none. In his novel, Nelson would describe the bayonet-slung recruiter who got a price for every head he signed up.
Nelson saw men who followed him like dogs, others who lived on the road because they were too deformed for “civilized” society. “A Negro, 29,” he noted, “stricken with typhoid when one, goes about on all fours about the land, like an animal. Enormous chest and head.” Another man, jumped in Greenville, South Carolina by a brass?knuckled trio, had a history of bad luck reaching back much further than the mugging. “This man was twenty-three, had been ten years on the road. Ran away from reform school when he was thirteen–there three years. Brother killed in an accident when he was ten.”
As he moved within the murky complexity of this underground world, the novel began to take shape in his mind. He might call it The Gods Gather, Native Son, Decadence under the Sun, or any of a dozen titles he listed in his notebook. He would describe the life of a man like John Jennings who lived no place but the road. Called Cass McKay, his hero would be a harmless youth moving blindly within a world of violence, a man of no skill, ignorant and illiterate. He would be, as Algren later described him, “utterly displaced, not only from society but from himself, unable to tell what to love or to hate, what to cling to and what reject, adrift in a land that no longer had any use for him. Where crossing bells announced the long freight moving past lonely stations in the Georgia Pines, I had seen him riding shoeless on a boxcar roof. I had seen him holding onto cell-bars in the El Paso County Jail; I had seen him taking charity in a Salvation Army pew: a man representing the desolation of the outlaws as well as the disorder of the great cities, expatriated within his own frontiers as well as exiled from himself … A man of no responsibility, even to himself … a man who might belong to [the] revolution one day and the reaction the next–it wouldn’t matter, as through it he might, however blindly, save himself, a southern youth unable to bear scorn, and yet who had borne it all his life: he cannot endure his life, yet he shall endure it, moving within the great city’s aimless din, in perpetual search of something to belong to, in order to belong to himself.” He would be the final descendant of crackers forced west from the plantations as slavery expanded, with no stake in cotton, cattle, or oil; who put their backs against the cabin wall, brought out the fiddle and jug and spit on both the Confederacy and the Union; who now had no cabin wall at all; nothing but the swarming cross-current of humanity along the rails.
Deciding, for whatever reason, to bypass the already too-well-known Rio Grande Valley, Algren headed west through San Antonio and picked rocks out of beans to pay for a beanery meal. He wound up in El Paso and crossed the bridge to Mexico for a bullfight. “The arena was shaded, and a dusty, uniformed band began playing … before the bull was dead the foolish pink caudillos hung on to his great neck while he tossed his head, tongue lolling.” He wandered through Juarez to the red-light district; he may have seen a cock-fight in a clearing. Perhaps he started his novel across the border. Years later he wrote that he stayed, free of charge, at a small hotel run by a woman who called herself the Angel of the Americas. In this account, the angel seemed to like him, for it seems she gave him breakfast too.
* * * *
From El Paso, Nelson caught an east-bound freight, riding on a boxcar roof as the train worked its way into the rocky Davis Mountains. Texas stretched ahead, an endless, desolate country in itself, and he needed an address where Henle could send his first monthlv installment. If he was too choosy about where to go he’d end up crossing the state again and losing another two days. Passing through a town called Alpine, he saw the spires of what looked like a college on top of a hill; then the train descended through the Glass mountains to the dry Texas plains toward Sanderson. The freight pulled to a stop in the small town, he remembered, and the bulls scrambled up the ladder to pull down the hobos. Nothing to do but go along peaceably and hope they didn’t throw you in jail, feel grateful, just like they wanted you to, when the train pulled out and left you standing, free and unhurt, to wait for the next one. That was what awaited him in Texas. Ninety miles back at that college, if it was one, there might be a typewriter and something to read, so he stuck out his thumb and hitch-hiked back to Alpine.
This mountain town of several thousand was the main population center of Big Bend County. Well above sea level, Alpine was refreshing and cool, if somewhat barren. It lay in a valley surrounded by craggy mountains; the land was extremely arid. But the strong mineral content of the grasses and its location at the junction of the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads made Alpine the center and shipping point for a large ranching area known as “Cows’ Heaven.” In the 1930s, legendary cattle barons of the Old West still reigned, operating their enormous ranches by occasional inspection trips and keeping mostly to their property. Their cowboys, by contrast, labored long hot hours in the pastures and shipping pens and thronged the streets on weekends in Stetson hats and high-heeled boots, giving the town a distinctly Western feeling.
The town, which had sprung up around the railroad, had only one paved street, with a barber shop, post office, and two or three stores, cafes, and banks. The Southern Pacific ran through the center of town, flanked by the omnipresent Texas water tower. To the east was the hilltop campus of Sul Ross State Teachers’ College; to the south, on the other side of the tracks in the shadow of a large mountain, lay Mexican town–not really a bad place, Alpine told itself, but simply the other side, with a couple of bars, stores, restaurants and a filling station, arranged around the Catholic Church.
By the time Nelson arrived, Alpine was no stranger to hobos. The town was the switching point for those who made the Great Depression migration by rail because it was the cheapest way to go. Thousands of homeless vagabonds headed for the golden fruit fields of Arizona and California, and then, finding themselves little more than slaves if they could get work at all, headed back again. At times there were a hundred and fifty on each train that passed through Alpine, a caravan of souls outlined against the sky like sparrows on a telephone wire, or with their feet hanging out the open boxcar doors. They descended from the trains begging, and the townsfolk generally fed them: they were far more pathetic than frightening. But by the winter of 1931 and 1932 the town, inundated with hungry destitute beings waiting for connecting trains, had converted an abandoned food warehouse into a shelter for the homeless. It was more to keep the poverty contained than an act of humanitarian concern, however, for the vagrants were taken off the train by local officials and then led there to keep them out of town. Inside, by a fire roaring in a tin drum, they were given a blanket, a can of beans and a loaf of bread. But by the fall of 1933, the number of hobos had begun to drop. The shelter, the town decided, was no longer needed. Roosevelt had been in office the good part of a year, and while there was as yet no recovery, the fear that motivated the vagrant migration had somewhat subsided.
Nelson Algren’s fortunes had also improved: now he could afford his own room. Still, when he looked for a place to live, his hobo instincts led him away from the center of town and toward the Santa Fe tracks to what he described as “a deteriorated ranch.” Actually, Mrs. Nettleton’s was a working-class boardinghouse for railroad men, cowboys, stray transients and high school students whose folks lived out of town. A rambling wood structure in need of some paint, it had a couple of cows in the backyard who provided milk for the guests and a bit of regular income. The landlady was a matter-of-fact widow who took Nelson’s word for it, perhaps upon seeing Vanguard’s letter, that he had money coming. Room and board would be twenty a month; and he had a small room with a stove, a cot-like bed, and a table for writing. The place had once been lit by kerosene, but now a bare electric bulb hung on a wire from the wooden ceiling.
When he walked up the hill to the Sul Ross campus, he found not one, but a whole room full of typewriters, unused except for an occasional typing class, for enrollment was down due to the Depression. The sight of all those typewriters in a forgotten West Texas town, when he’d traveled over an hour by streetcar to use one in Chicago, must have angered him with a sense of despicable waste. Did Dick Wright or Abe Aaron or any of the others in the John Reed Club who wrote seriously and with vision, have a typewriter? And yet here were all these machines for people who didn’t even need them.
“I would simply walk in and use one of the typewriters. Nobody else was using them,” Nelson recalled in an interview, as if he were striding through a ghost town, an indication of how distanced he was from these Texans. In memoirs of this time he often portrayed himself as the aloof, free-thinking anarchist, rarely revealing his vulnerability or innermost feelings, so that these writings are both a fiction and as a measure of the extent to which he really did not, whether consciously or unconsciously, recognize the authority of the people in charge. But for history’s sake he had the permission of the school’s president to use both the typewriters and the library, and he probably obtained it by once again flourishing the letter from Vanguard.
Once settled, he found himself faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, stuck in a foreign and apparently barren culture. Aside from the ease with which he’d set himself up, the town had little to recommend it. There was nobody to talk to; politics as Nelson knew them, as a direct response to the environment, didn’t exist here. Nobody even mentioned the Depression, seeing it as a burden to be borne without complaint. For companionship he wrote to political friends in New York and Chicago, venting his hatred of Texas as his personal, cultural and political alienation, unfettered by self-analysis, reached new heights. Referring to the Texans as “burros and Baptists,” he was disgusted by Alpine’s hypocrisy: the town was segregated but self-righteous. Angrily, he banged out poems on the typewriter. One, “As Walt Might Have Put It,” he dedicated to the “ten ranting millions of pimply-souled patrioteers, those effervescent boils called Legionnaires.” “I sing my country, and the thing Democratick,” it began, parodying Whitman. But the poem’s smug, superior tone alarmed Nelson’s friends who saw the situation in more perspective. On October 15, less than two weeks after his arrival in Alpine, he received a letter, which he would keep until he died, from a Booklyn comrade named Milton who admonished him bluntly:
…You tell me these people are indescribable, that it’s very dull, etc. Well, that should be no obstacle. Describe their indescribability. I’m sure you don’t know them well enough. Their very ignorance, their very boorishness should all the more fill you with an intense hatred of this chaotic system (paradox?). Yes, Nelson, slums, ignorance, poverty, Baptists, class struggle, they’re all part and parcel of capitalism. As such we must study and analyze these phenomena. I know that you hate slums and see that the removal of slums is only through proletarian revolution. Hate the culture and ideology of these Texans in the same manner. There are definite reasons and causes for their objective situation. You must discover, interpret, and propagate the revolutionary way out. After all, Nelson, Bob Miner was a Texan, T. E. Barlow, a C. P. organizer, was murdered in that county. One can make a novel out of anything. I’m sure you can do it. Drop your city sophistication, and your sectarianism, and I’m sure you wouldn’t find these Texans indescribable.
Your letter showed a dislike, a sort of Menckenite snobbery. That is not good. You must go farther than Mencken, much farther. Ridicule is comparatively easy and does not commit one to anything. To be a revolutionary artist means commitment, alliance with the proletariat and the impoverished farmer. I repeat, Nelson, forget you’re a city-bred man, eliminate your sectarianism and come to the political level that these people are minsinformed, ignorant, and that these elements can wreck havoc on the proletariat, on the Negro masses with only the slightest provocation. Yes, Nelson, you are more educated, you have revolutionary leanings, you are essentially a realistic, materialistic artist. What is your job then as an artist? To teach, to propagate the views that you and millions are fighting for, are being tortured for. On to the great American Revolutionary Novel! Buck up, pal!
Chastised so encouragingly, he began his work in earnest. His enthusiasm was such that he believed he would wrest from Jack Conroy the title of “American Gorky” that party literary critics wanted so badly to bestow upon a literary champion of the downtrodden. For he seems to have believed he was writing a “proletarian novel,” informed by Marxist analysis and exemplified by Conroy’s The Disinherited. In the early thirties, this type of novel was considered an important weapon of class warfare, actively encouraged by the John Reed Clubs through the Communist Party, in turn influenced by the Soviet emphasis on the worker novel. Most of these radical works, however, focused on the plight of the working classes, who would lead America out of its present darkness and into the light of a classless society. But though he had once had middle-class aspirations and working-class roots, Algren had at least partially, after living on the road as a vagrant, come to see himself as a marginal outsider in relation to society, and this in turn influenced his work. While he was acutely aware of the exploitation inherent in the capitalist-worker relationship, this theme, rather than being central to his work, was only a gateway to exploring thelumpenproletariat, the social scum” even lower than the working class.
He set the novel along the same route he had travelled between Texas, New Orleans, and Chicago, allowing him to draw on his knowledge of transient boxcar life and the cities he knew best. He used specific adventures witnessed during the recent trip from New York: his main character would burn his way out of a boxcar, see human arms severed by moving trains, nearly lose his life by jumping into an open-bottomed coal car, and learn a cross-country constellation of safe places to sleep and towns to avoid.
He made hero Cass McKay a naive and illiterate Texas cracker, raised motherless in a shack where “poverty, bleak and blind, sat staring at four blank walls.” A sensitive child, Cass lives amidst violence but never becomes immune to it. Gawky and unattractive, afflicted with an almost idiotic Texas twang, he has neither enough looks, brains, or luck to enter any social class higher than that of the hobo and criminal he eventually becomes. Nelson set Cass’s childhood in Mexican town, along a “broad dust-road that led east to the roundhouse and west to the prairie, a road hung with gas lamps leaning askew above lean curs asleep in the sun, where brown half-naked children played in the ruts that many wheels had made.”
Wandering through Alpine, Nelson watched the railroads, shipping cattle and sheep, saw the town’s poor gather at the stopped trains in the hope of stealing coal there. He saw the maintenance crews in the section houses and listened to the railroad men at the Nettleton House. Around the shipping pens or in the streets he heard of the great cattle ranches and their barons. He wrote a number of scenes, from the cow hands’ viewpoint, involving a powerful, intimidating rancher named Boone Terry. These sketches emphasize the economic disparity between the ranchers and the hands. But this was not a schema that Algren had to impose on his fiction. It was a glaring social reality he saw everywhere he turned.
Fascism was also on his mind those autumn days of 1933. He now wrote “An American Diary,” the never-to-be published story of a frustrated unemployed worker who becomes a Bible-thumping, anti-communist Jew-hater. The story does not blame the worker for his actions; rather, Nelson portrays his feelings as a logical outcome of his circumstances. Although the worker is presented somewhat simplistically, he could just as easily have become a Communist firebrand, illustrating Algren’s belief that political affiliation required a stability the lumpenproletariat could rarely attain. He also began a poem called “Nazi.” By late 1933, Communist circles were well aware of Hitler’s tyrannical, racist, union-busting policies, as the left in general took the Nazi threat more seriously than did mainstream America. Nelson obviously felt strongly enough about the threat of fascism to write about it seriously; and, in the South, still using the name Abraham except for publication, he was still writing and thinking about anti-Semitism.
But stories like “An American Diary” and occasional poems were temporary diversions. He worked furiously on the novel. He was constantly on the typewriter at Sul Ross and rarely had time for the occasional students who wandered in to talk or ask questions. He had the setting and the main character now, and as he wrote the story began to emerge. By the middle of November he commented in his notebooks:
Native Son lacks:
1. roundness: there is a feeling of haste in it, as though it were patched up in a race against time. “Decadence” is leisurely.
2. lacks humor of Disinherited–humorless due in part to lack of folk knowledge.
3. Characters should speak more.
4. If a man kicks a scarecrow no one is indignant.
5. The story turns jerkily–I’m afraid to dwell on small incidents for a long time.
6. Don’t use present enough.
7. No restraint.
8. I am being individualistic because I look at Cass constantly in the social situation of which he is part and parcel. Talk through other mouths, look through other eyes than Cass’s eyes and Cass’s mouth.
He had four months until his deadline of March 15.
Some people in Alpine weren’t so bad after all. Mrs. Nettleton invited Nelson to Thanksgiving dinner, and an eighty-year-old lady named Mrs. James also arrived to eat. She was the widow of Jesse’s brother Frank, dead since 1915. “She ate more than any three people there,” he would exaggerate later. “If she could eat like that at eighty, I could see why Frank had turned outlaw when she was young.” He loved nonconformists, and if this woman had lived with one of the most famous of American misfits, then he was proud to know her.
Nelson was also becoming a local celebrity at Sul Ross. Students began dropping by the typing room, drawn to his dedication, knowledge of literature, matter-of-fact opinions and unwillingness to engage in small talk. He didn’t discourage them, and it was not long before three or four students started coming by the Nettleton House once a week or so to talk about writing. Nelson “craved companionship,” said Paul Forchheimer, at sixteen one of the youngest members of the group. “He enjoyed the role of being looked up to.” He seemed very, very intense. His hardened face told them that he had lived though what he was writing about, and he had a certain reserve along with shrewd powers of observation. He talked about the things he’d done and seen without bragging, discussing only how a writer might react to them. “He was really as much of a sociologist as a writer,” Paul remarked, bringing to mind Nelson’s earlier college ambition.
“From a personal standpoint he was very reticent,” said Paul, “but he had no hesitation in talking about what he wanted to do, and of course the writing of this novel was uppermost in his mind. He used us, and we were grateful for it, as a sounding board,” asking their opinions on parts of the novel he was submitting to small magazines in the hope of being paid. They might occasionally bring him their own writings to criticize, but they were quite willing to be a audience for his views. “We were the aspirants and he was the real thing,” Paul recalled.
These informal gatherings naturally led to more formal associations with the college, where he was invited to speak to a freshman literature class. Asked for an example of social realism, he looked out the window to a gang of laborers at work on the railroad tracks. “If one of those workers hits his hand with a hammer,” Nelson said, “I’m not going to have him say, ‘Goodness Gracious!’ He’s going to say ‘sonofabitch!'” His frankness was disarming, and from then on he was included in the activities of the college’s Writers’ Club. At one meeting at the Forchheimer’s house, he talked about proletarian writing to a small, rapt group of students and adults. An article in the Sul Ross Skyline, summarizing the substance of a later talk on “The Culture of the Proletariat” provides insight into his as-yet dogmatic views on literature and his admiration and literary dependence on Conroy:
The literature of the proletariat originated just prior to the World War, and has gradually gained recognition since that time. It is Mr. Abraham’s opinion that when the history of American literature is written, the name of Jack Conroy, the outstanding proletarian writer of America, will be placed far above that of Sinclair Lewis and other popular contemporaries.
But this was the extent of his talk about politics with them. He told a campus reporter that his novel was to deal with “the working-class in Southeastern Illinois,” a sign that he was keeping the purpose of his stay in Alpine secret. He may have enjoyed duping those who thought he was a prominent writer when he knew he was nothing of the sort (“I think I told them I was Theodore Dreiser’s nephew or something,” he joked later;) but there was also that part of him he’d discovered in Urbana, that wanted to live inside his head, isolated from people. Keeping things to himself was one way to do this. He did not connect to the world by allowing people to know him personally; he connected through his writing. The first thing he did in Alpine was buy Spanish boots and a ten gallon hat, he wrote in a memoir, and the town’s foreignness for a Northerner comes through, though he would never have spent his writing money on such luxuries. “I lived on the outskirts of town in a stove-heated room on a deteriorated ranch. I used to walk through that town to a local teachers’ college into an empty classroom that had thirty desks equipped with typewriters … Nobody else was using them.” And where are the tumbleweeds? For the Alpine of Nelson’s memory is unpeopled, but people were there. The students, attending college in the midst of the Depression, came from the upper-middle class of the community; and Nelson’s residency among the outcasts created a gulf between him and the students that was almost impossible to bridge. But it is more likely that his memoirs of Alpine seem desolate for the same reason those from the gas station did: in fiction, he could make himself a lone hero, pitted against an unnatural environment; but more fundamentally, there were very few times when he was not emotionally alone.
As part of the novel would be set in Chicago, in January he began to think about heading north. His money was almost gone. Deciding to leave town on Saturday, January 26, he planned to stop in Moberly, Missouri to have Jack Conroy make suggestions on the manuscript. This way he would reach Chicago by February 1, giving him six weeks to revise and complete the book. In the meantime, by leaving on Saturday he could get in a full week of typing at Sul Ross.
He worked through the remaining days. On the Thursday night before leaving, he wandered the streets one last time, as if he were haunted already by nostalgia. He opened his eyes to the nocturnal unaffectedness of Alpine: 1/2 moon night of January 24–1,000 blue stars and a white waving washline … ghost cats walked that night … cats cut across the moonlit schoolyard … cheesecloths hung lopsided over windows stained like streetcar windows in Chicago … kerosene lamps behind them … wooden fences, littered dooryards, and wooden gates afar.” In spite of its Baptists and Legionnaires, its ignorance and religion, there was, in its unabashed landscape of poverty and isolation, something beautiful about Alpine after all.
But the prospect of returning to Chicago without a typewriter nagged at him. He was not going to ask Joffe again; and buying a machine was out of the question. Moreover, he had developed “almost a compulsive attachment, a sort of possessiveness, about typewriters,” especially the upright Royal he’d been using. With all those typewriters sitting up at Sul Ross and no one using them, “liberating” one was not hard to imagine–it was hard not to. If he went that evening before the college closed but when most everyone had gone home, no one would realize that it was missing until Monday, and even then not right away. By that time he’d be well out of the state. It was a beautiful, foolproof plan.
The next morning his freight left at 10:15, so he said good-bye to Mrs. Nettleton and, according to one memoir, to the Widow James too, and took the newly stolen typewriter, now crated, down to the freight depot shortly before his train was due in. There he addressed it to 4834 N. Troy, Chicago, Illinois, and got on the Southern Pacific freight that was heading toward Sanderson.
But Nelson Algren Abraham was, for all his travelling, a city man, and there was one aspect to the whole affair that he hadn’t considered, as he congratulated himself on the perfect crime all the way to Sanderson: in a small town like Alpine, people talk.
At Sanderson, “the train slowed up and I got out. It was sort of sunny and I’d been in the boxcar and I put my back up against the wall there and started rolling a cigarette with one hand. Everybody had to do that in the South. You had to roll a cigarette one-handed and the string–the yellow string had to hang down from your pocket. This was ritual. I noticed the sheriff coming along. He looked like he was looking for somebody. I said, ‘Good morning/ and he asked me who I was and I told him. Well, then I was on my way back to Alpine.”
Q. “Was he nice about it or rough?”
Algren: “Oh, no, no. He had a deputy there, There was no need to be rough.”
Theft of personal property over fifty dollars was punishable by two years on the state pea farm at Huntsville. But before the sentence good old Texas justice called for a trial. Before the trial he had to wait in jail for the circuit-riding judge. Right now, the sheriff told him, the judge was about a month away from Alpine. The horror and finality of his situation came to him He was scared.
That night he wrote or wired to his mother. “Dear Ma, I’m not leaving after all. Don’t send money to Moberly. Nobody will arrive. I’m here at least a month longer. Letter will follow.” Deciding what to tell Henle was more difficult. Crossing out every few lines for it had to sound just right, he wrote: “Dear Mr. Henle, . . . I will be here in Alpine for a month at least, perhaps even longer. I seem oddly irresolute at this time and please bear with me. A letter will follow.” It must have sounded too vague, for he apparently gave up this draft and wrote that he was going to a mining camp further south to gather material.
Incredibly, a month and perhaps two years of his life were going to be taken to pay for a crime that had hurt no one. The typewriter had been found within hours; no one had really suffered any loss. Nelson was bitterly aware that his stay in jail was not for rehabilitation, but merely the result of daring to defy the unshakeable American laws of private property. But by throwing him in jail they also told him he was a bum and not of their class, as he had, as a writer, briefly felt. A notebook entry in poem form: “Lumpenproletariat, me/ trespassed private property/ wondering always how it comes/ there’s just no rest for such poor bums.”
The Brewster County Jail was little more than a cage. There was one cell-block of iron bars whose cell doors, always unlocked, opened onto a hallway where a communal toilet was flushed with a bucket. Adjoining the cell-block was the run-around, a locked outside hall from which the trustees doled out food on trays known as “troughs.” The floors and walls were cement, and an unidentified “wet filth” sometimes sopped parts of the floor and occasionally froze. In the winter, when Nelson was there, it was cold.
On his first morning, Nelson learned an unwritten jailhouse law. The jailer and his family lived on the floor below, and on Sunday mornings they liked to sleep late. The communal “thundermug” roared like Niagara when flushed and for an hour after made strange seeping noises. Therefore the men waited, uneasily restraining themselves until the family got up. The toilet was also off limits at night. For flushing at the wrong time, Cass McKay had to go without food; one can only hope that Nelson was luckier.
Later in the day he was brought downstairs to make a statement. The theft was so obvious there was not point in denying it: when the freightmaster called the sheriff, it hadn’t taken much ingenuity to figure out that this was the same machine reported missing, in spite of Nelson’s plans, that morning from Sul Ross. Undoubtedly he was told that things would go easier if he made a statement. All he could do was tell the story that showed him in the best possible light:
THE STATE OF TEXAS,
COUNTY OF Brewster
DATE January 27, 1934
TO WHOM THIS MAY CONCERN:
After I have been duly warned by…C.E. Patterson …to whom this statement is made that I do not have to make any statement at all, and that such statement I make may be used in evidence against me on my trial for the offense concerning which this statement is made, I wish to make the following voluntary statement:
My name is … Nelson Abraham …and I am…24…years of age; I was born in …Detroit, Michigan…and at present I consider the following address my home:……………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Tho names and addresses of some of nearest relatives are:………………………………………………………………
Mr. & Mrs. G. Abraham. Chicago, Illinois
and I wish to further say:
I went up to the College between 5;30, and 6;00 in the evening or afternoon on 25th of Jamiary this year, I walked in the south door and it was in my mind to do some typing, I had permission of Dr. Morelock to use the typewriters, and the door to the typewriting room was locked, but the door to the office was open and there was a typewriter there, I assumed that this typewriter was property of the school, the same as the other typewriters as in the room that was locked, I typed on it XXXXXXXXXX for about 15 minutes in this office, I don’t know where I went up there just to type or to take a typewriter, this is not clear in my mind.
I wanted a typewriter very bad because I am a writer by profession, I’ve never owned a typewriter of my own, I was eager to finish a manuscript on which I’ve been working in Alpine since October 3, 1933, since it was necessary for me to return to Chicago, since it was also necessary that I have a typewriter to finish my book, I decided to take the typewriter.
A typewriter is the only means I had to complete a book which means either a few dollars or utter destitution. There is nothing that is more vital to my mere existence as a typewriter, it is the only means I have to earn a living. If I can write I can earn my own living.
I am not certain of the make of the typewriter. I was nervous, I had idea in my head, and I put cover on the typewriter, I opened the drawer to put in the desk where it belonged, but instead of this I put it under my arm, and walked out of the door. I came out the front door and took the typewriter to the Nettleton House to my room, when I got to my room I put it into a wooden box, the box was taken to the depot the next morning, and at that time I arranged for the shipment of this box, and I knew that the typewriter was in the box, the box was billed to my parents’ address in Chicago. I left town on a freight about 10;15, after I had mailed receipt of this box to my parents’ address, and I was going to Chicago, at Sanderson, Texas, I was arrested. I didn’t have the feeling that I was stealing from an individual, I felt like I was taking it from the school.
C. E. Patterson clearly didn’t know where a sentence ends, but Nelson, in no position to correct the grammar, signed it.
There was nothing to do in the jail. Every day one of the three or four prisoners was allowed into the run-around to sweep it clean, catch a patch of life through the window, and be that much closer to the outside. The other prisoners watched him jealously, for they too wanted to be doing something, even just sweeping. They stood around listlessly and argued, listening to the chimes from a nearby clock tower ticking off the hours. There was nothing to do in the jail and nothing to read.
Boredom and frustration created a pecking order within the tank, a “play-pretend of underdogs aping the wolves on top,” Nelson described it, by which the men sought to raise their self-esteem. Blacks and Mexicans were the lowest of the low. “They made Piedmonts and Camels to keep niggers from smoking Chesterfields” someone might call out laughing, and whores too were always the subject of cruel mockery by this crew of thieves, vagrants, and murderers. “Charlotte the harlot/ queen of the whores/ scanned the eastside/ covered with sores” was a favorite saying. Jews were also ridiculed.
There were beatings by the prisoners among themselves. Belt buckles were the favored instrument, and Algren remembered one particularly perverse jailhouse game that was used to pass the time. One of the men was blindfolded. Then he bent over so that the others could, in turn, whip him on the buttocks with their belts. If he guessed which man had hit him, then that prisoner would take his place. This cruel inanity could go on all afternoon, because fear of a fight on the jailhouse floor, on cement and iron with no one to stop it, kept men playing.
Naturally, cell-block justice, ruled by a kangaroo court, flourished in such an atmosphere. When a new man came in, court would convene, and as the officials looked the other way, the prisoner, depending on his color, crime, or other status, might be searched, robbed, beaten, or simply told to behave according to the RULES OF COURT:
Man found guilty of breaking and entering this jail will be fined $2.00 a day or 40 days on the floor at the rate of 5 cents a day. Every man entering tank must keep cleaned and properly dressed. Each day of the week is washday except Sunday. Every man must wash his hands and face before handling food. Any man found guilty of marking on the wall will be given 20 licks on rectum west. If the man breaks these rules he will be punished according to the justice of the court. On entering this tank each and every man must be searched by the sheriff, he will search everywhere.
Each and every man must turn his spoon into the court as he goes out. Each and every man must make his bed when he gets up in the morning and he must also sweep out his cell. Each and every man using the toilet must flush it with bucket. Throw all paper in the ash tub. Do not spit in the coal tub or through the windows. When using dishrag keep it clean. Any man caught stealing from any of the inmates of the tank gets five hundred licks. Any man upon entering this tank with venereal disease, lice or crabs, must report same to the court.
The “judge” of this court seems to have been Nelson’s cell-mate Jack O’Drummond, a vagrant who had somehow lost one of his hands. He had developed the remaining nub into a calloused piece of flesh that could bend tobacco tins or be used as a hammer. A small man with a large ego, he claimed to be the brother of the silent movie star Art Accord. In Somebody in Boots he appears as “Judge” Nubby O’Neill, whose “highly feigned hatred of anything not white and American was the high point of his honor.”
While Jack proclaimed himself boss of the tank, a homicidal rodeo rider named Jess, reincarted by Algren in “El Presidente de Mejico,” bided his time. After killing a Mexican in Texas, Jess had fled to Mexico. But there he’d killed a Mexican women, so as a choice between being tried for killing a Mexican in Mexico or killing one in the U.S., he’d taken his chances on the American side. Besides, Jess was from Alpine, and no doubt he’d have friends on the jury. And killing a Mexican in Texas was, according to Algren, not much worse than stealing a horse, “a legal hangover from a time when stealing a horse meant leaving its rider helpless in the desert.”
The value of a Mexican was very low, judging from Nelson’s notebook: “They hit the Mex’s head against the spoonholder and then with the boot knocked him out.” Other, more vicious acts, were also officially sanctioned. One was the death of a Mexican prisoner whom Nelson called “P.” in his notebook. A religious man with a romantic nature, Sunday mornings he would call out to his pregnant wife on her way to church, then pace back and forth on the cement floor, praying. He was mysteriously released, but shortly after was carried back to the jail, in agony from a gunshot wound. He had been shot resisting arrest, the story went, and now, instead of being in a hospital, he lay in shock on the cell-block floor, unable to consent to surgery. Nelson gives an account of his death in “El Presidente de Mejico”:
I had never seen a man dying of such a simple thing as a gunshot wound through the stomach. His face was grayer than I had ever seen a living face, and the eyes were dilating with shock. They stared fixedly and without understanding at the monstrous and ragged navel of his wound … the fingers wandered, aimlessly as a madman’s, about the wound’s gray edge, tracing the torn tissue.
“We’ll have to op’rate, Poncho. Say OK. Say si,” [the doctor said].
“Should’ve brought him to a hospital instead of up here,” Jess complained to no one in particular.
“His wife’s downstairs with Martha,” the sheriffs son offered. “Maybe she’ll say yes for him.”
The doc rose heavily.
“Cordin’ to mah understandin’, so long as he’s conscious, he got to say it hisself. Elts ah’m liable. Ah give him first aid and that’s all I can do for him within the law.”
Along with the callous violence came hunger and weakness. The jail was often cold, the cement-confined air close and thick. The food, just coffee, oatmeal, cornbread, and beans, with an occasional turnip or tomato, was never sufficient. “It was a very sparse diet because I think the warden was allowed sixty cents a day for each prisoner, but his own take came largely off how much he could save on that, so there were two very thin meals a day,” Nelson recalled. “Hunger our enemy, how can we quell it?” he asked in his notebook. And answered himself by drinking warm water.
Then he caught the travelling hives: huge itchy lumps from head to foot, transferred at a touch like poison ivy. No doctor was brought in to examine him, and to his jailers’ proffered “cure” he had the same reaction to the hapless Creepy in Somebody in Boots: “The spray was used as a disinfectant and rat killer . . . ‘It’ll singe yore hide a mite, but it’ll cure it, I reck’n,’ [the jailer assured him] … but Creepy declined, for he had witnessed the spray gun’s potency against vermin and his rash did not happen to be itching him at the moment.”
There was no one to appeal to in the outside world. No one who could have helped him would have understood the single-minded determination that had made him take the typewriter. Though he must have at times experienced homesickness, he had withheld his parents’ address on his confession: he did not consider their house his home. To them he would be a “bum” and a “thief,” and if they did begrudgingly lend him bail money, he’d only have to pay for it pscyhologically later on. And even if he made bail, how could he write while waiting for a trial that might send him to Huntsville? Nor could he jeopardize the novel by telling Henle anything about the theft.
With all possible contact with the outside world severed, he now sat in a cell and listened to his nutty one-armed cell-mate prattle on about his conquests, punctuated by an anti-Semitism it was hard not to find belittling. But any evidence of frailty was taboo here. He was never a man to bare his soul, but in an unguarded moment he recorded in his notebook “one terror: being alone. One word: home. I do not know what it is that strangers mean by this word ‘home.’ I know what they do not mean: being alone. Two ways of cursing one unlike yourself: call hirn ‘Jew;’ call him ‘fool.’ I am alone, I am a Jew, in all the world I have no home.”
“Very few people went to see him,” Paul Forchheimer said. “When the crime was committed, we were all shocked … in those days maybe you just didn’t go to jail. But I felt compassionate and I must say I was a little curious because I’d never been in a jail before. I went by myself and brought him candy and cigarettes.” Paul was saddened by the gloomy scene, and Nelson seemed depressed. “He was shamefaced and hated for anybody to see him in that predicament. You could imagine–he had known these people and then he had stolen from them.” Paul sensed that there was no point in talking about the crime.
“How’re they treating you?”
“Are you getting enough to eat?”
“Would you like some cigarettes?”
“Can I get you anything?”
“The amazing thing,” Paul recalled, “was that he never, at any time, asked for anything. He could have asked any number of people, myself included, sure, if you want to borrow my typewriter, go ahead, take it and send it back when you’re finished with it. This is, and was then, a small, trusting community, and it’s not unusual for a friend in need to ask. If we’d known the circumstances we would have said take mine, I’ve got another or I can use one up at the college.” But Nelson never said that he needed a typewriter, just as he now told Paul Forchheimer that he needed nothing, in spite of his hunger and boredom. “A P.R. guy he wasn’t,” remarked Paul, and in that short sentence summed up a trait around which, to Algren’s great resentment, his literary career in some sense depended.
An intellectual activity like writing must surely have roused the scorn of Jack O’Drummond, but both Nelson and Jesse the rodeo rider managed to churn out a few forgettable verses describing their plight. “Unite, unite!” Nelson urged the imprisoned underclasses, and thinking about prison revolt probably brought some mental relief. But the real problem was the novel. Every day grew closer to the March 15 deadline. Despite his earlier resolve not to tell Henle of his predicament, in the middle of February he drafted a letter in his notebook:
Dear Mr. Henle,
This may come to you as a mild shock, to say the least. My letter of January 26 was wholly a fabrication, deliberately calculated to mislead you. I have not been for the past three weeks in a mining camp south of here–I’ve been in jail.
Although I could crawl out of this myself, if I was to have a telegram addressed to the sheriff, this might result in having my case tried … [my crime] is not political, and more it is a first offense, thus good reason to hope for a suspended sentence. Such a telegram need only say the date of publication of the book on which I am working is dependent on the length of time I [stay] here. Whatever experience you–
But apparently he thought the better of it. On Friday, February 16, a grand jury convened to review his case, and trial was set for Wednesday, February 21. The sheriff’s office began to subpoena witnesses.
The trial, held in the ornate and imposing Brewster County Courthouse, took up most of the day. It was a formal event, attended by Paul Forchheimer and his entire English class. Surprisingly, Nelson had been given a public defender, a white-haired old man with the improbable name of Wigfall Van Sickle. Like many lawyers in the West, he was commonly known as “Judge.” Rumor had it that he drank, but he was polite and verbose and instructed Nelson to enter a plea of not guilty. Various witnesses were called: the sheriff, the railroad clerk, the justice of the peace, the typewriter’s owner. The signed confession was produced. The district attorney, addressing the white, all-male jury, described Nelson as a “militant, defiant man,” and the state rested. Things looked bleak for our hero.
But then old Judge Van Sickle rose to speak. Calling Nelson “the youth with the mysterious brain,” he asked the jury, in a surprisingly literary plea, to consider the ancient English common law that held that a mechanic is entitled to the tools of his trade. According to one account, he liked Nelson to the hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables: “What is a carpenter without his tools? What is a writer without the use of a typewriter? This man was not stealing because of any criminal intent. In these troubled times of economic depression this man was stealing for the same reason that Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread, to survive. You would not be hard on a carpenter or craftsman if he stole the means of work to earn his daily bread.” Was there not some justice, he continued, in Nelson’s claim that the law and society owed him the tools, the means by which he can make his living? Besides, he added shrewdly, if novelist Nelson Algren Abraham became famous, the jury would disgrace Alpine and Brewster County by making it known as the place that had put him behind bars.
“. . . Then I got on the witness stand,” Algren recalled. “I was on the stand to hear the verdict and the verdict was guilty and the sentence was two years at Huntsville … But then … one of the jurors recommended mercy and then the judge–I had to stand in front of the judge–he said we are recommending mercy. He impressed on me that I was going to serve the time but it wasn’t necessary for me to serve it in Texas. He said I could go home and serve it. They don’t want to keep you in Texas. There were too many, you know … the understanding was that if I got out of the state within twenty-four hours and went back home–that if at the end of two years I would come back to this court and swear that I had not been in any more trouble, then it would be considered that I had served the two years.”
He was freed, only to go back to the evening session of the Brewster County Court to see the fates of Jess and O’Drummond. It was a throwback to his old days covering the city court for the University paper; it was akin to a ritual he would repeat observing endless Chicago police line-ups. The newspapers thought it was very strange. He was a “glutton for punishment,” as if, now that he was free, jail was something he should just shut out of his mind, when in fact it was something he could never shut out. A man was in jail in every novel he wrote. Years later, he would invariably remember having been in the Alpine jail for four or five months rather than the three and half weeks he was really there. His perception of time apparently became confused, and it was not so much because he tended to portray himself as the tough guy, although there was some of that; it was because his experience in jail so affected his imagination and assumed such proportions in his mind that he knew he had really been there longer than he physically was.
The next morning he drafted a letter to Henle saying that despite being jailed on a house-breaking charge, he planned, though he needed more time, to continue with the novel. Then he climbed on top of an east-bound freight. By coincidence Paul Forchheimer happened to be downtown and they waved to each other. It was poignant to see him leave town like that, his body outlined against the Texas sky. But Algren was glad to be going. It had been scary, a near-miss, but a farce. “Had I been black, of course, I would have gone to Huntsville,” he commented later.
[Quotations from Nelson Algren’s unpublished manuscripts and out-of-print books by permission of Robert Joffe. Quotations fromSomebody in Boots by permission of Thunder’s Mouth Press and from The Neon Wilderness by permission of Writers and Readers. Quotations from unpublished manuscripts by permission of the Ohio State University Libraries. Eric Sevareid quote used by permission.]
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