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"...I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself..."

Nelson Algren's 1941 novel Never Come Morning was the second of his career, and the first to garner establishment backlash for his audacity at realistically characterizing the underclass and the ways they struggled in their daily lives. Specifically, the Polish establishment of Chicago's Northwest Side was particularly incensed that the underclass that Algren depicted included characters named Benkowski, Konstantine and Bicek. That politically influential bloc eventually succeeded in getting Algren's book banned from the Chicago Public Library for many years, before Algren's renown in the rest of the world (particularly Europe) helped correct the travesty and put the reactionaries in their place. Today Algren is widely celebrated in his former home city, even by the establishment, but it wasn't at all that way during the prime years of his writing career.

Algren understandably took issue with the censorship of his book, but reserved even more venom for the well-heeled and self-righteous community leaders who not only failed to identify with the underclass but condemned the poor for "immorality" or, even worse, refused to admit they existed at all. Throughout Algren's career he held as a credo Walt Whitman's moving phrase, "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?", which he used as the epigraph for Never Come Morning. In his preface to the 1963 edition of the book, Algren quite memorably expounds on Whitman's theme:

The source of the criminal act, I believed twenty years and ago and believe yet, is not in the criminal but in the righteous man: the man too complacent to feel that he - even he - belongs to those convicts and prostitutes himself.

And how completely the righteous have failed here is plain enough when we recall that the greatest change that twenty years have brought in our police work is that, while police were then splitting fifty-fifty with ex-cons for whom they set up scores, today they do the stealing themselves.

Nor all your piety nor all your preaching, nor all your crusades nor all your threats can stop one girl from going on the turf, can stop one mugging, can keep one promising youth from becoming a drug addict, so long as the force that drives the owners of our civilization is away from those who own nothing at all.

It's that very empathy and compassion that Algren shows - in all of his writings - to the unfortunate and forgotten members of society which makes him my favorite writer.

April 11, 2008 in Books | Permalink