For a time, Nelson Algren was America’s most famous author, lauded by the likes of Richard Wright and Ernest Hemingway. This new biography reclaims Nelson Algren as a towering literary figure and unravels the enigma of his disappearance from American letters.
... a wonderfully readable, passionately partisan biography ... In the course of making the case for Algren’s neglected work, Asher does something else nearly as valuable, which is to reframe—and to free from myth and obfuscation, much of it Algren’s own—the life: a life not just entertainingly full of incident but also inspiring and exemplary in a time when questions of art’s role in resisting the enemies of democracy and economic justice are newly immediate ... Asher devotes less real estate to critical analysis of the fiction itself than another literary biographer might ... In Asher, [Algren] gets the biographer any writer dreams of: thorough, smart, literate, and unabashedly on his subject’s side—a disciple, a role that puts him, as the book itself lays out, in excellent, even august company.
Asher, the third biographer to tackle Algren’s puzzling story, was the first to see the full documentation of the agency’s long surveillance of the outspoken writer and champion of the poor and disenfranchised, and that access enables him to bring a new perspective to the unconventional, righteously literary, and rough-and-tumble life of the author ... a vigorously detailed yet swiftly flowing narrative ... As he presents Algren as a seminal American writer focused on injustice in this captivating, redefining, and sharply relevant biography, Asher also reveals how the insidious abuse of power by the federal government destroys lives.
Besides being larger in size and scope than any previous biography of this last celebrant of what once was called Proletarian Literature, Asher’s book is devotional and beautifully written, seven years in the making, its sentences capturing the very same mix of lyricism and street, hard truths and sentimentality that made Algren himself so special. It delves into Algren’s lifelong struggle to stay true to his credo, his soulful cry that the purpose of any writer is to stand up to power, to take the judge down from the bench, to give voice to the voiceless. And it delivers a wrenching portrait of a man who struggled to maintain his sanity and his spirit in a society that was well prepared to see its writers give up or sell out, but struggled to comprehend writers who persevered and paid the price as Algren did ... a terrific biography, not an easy one. With it, we welcome Asher into the circle. It is in some important way the first biography of Algren to be written, because, although it’s technically the fourth or fifth, it’s the first really long one, and it’s the first to let you walk in Algren’s shoes instead of looking at him through a microscope like a specimen in a petri dish. Walking in Algren’s shoes is hard work.