Algren, Hemingway, outrage and not writingPosted: Thursday, January 7, 2010
Happy post-holidays, happy new year.
Mrs. Icepick got me the best Christmas gift this year — the 50th anniversary critical edition of Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm. I was mooning about missing a talk this fall at one of the local universities on one of my favorite writers (in honor of Algren’s 100th birthday), so Mrs. Icepick bought me the novel, which of course I already owned and haven’t fully read since college. But the gem of this anniversary edition is the critical notes about post-war Chicago’s bard (even a Chicago that apparently dismissed him for so long, until it didn’t any longer, sort of) with essays from writers like Vonnegut, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and others. Russell Banks, who was one of the panelists at the talk I missed, is sadly not included here in this edition — Banks was mentored at one time by Algren and was positively influenced by him.
I was introduced to Algren’s writing by an English professor who had no use for the typical dead-white-male cauldron of Twentieth Century Writers (the first half of the century, anyway). Though she introduced us to some great works not authored by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, et al., I missed out on reading those “classic” works. Seems like there should have been two separate courses, because it turned out to be rather easy to graduate with an undergrad English degree with a concentration in American Lit without reading a lick of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and so on.
But I digress. Because the happy by-product of this was an introduction to Algren, and for that, I am eternally grateful (plus, I picked up and read from the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner nexis on my own, though it would have been nice to have some professorial guidance).
So, where was I?
It may be impolitic, I’ve found, to admit to being both an Algren and Hemingway fan, but there you have me. Hemingway was certainly an Algren fan, perhaps to the bemusement of some Algren scholars, and Algren of course visited then wrote about Hemingway.
(Digression: I loved my gift so much, but I am a piss-poor caretaker. We keep many of our opened Christmas gifts under our tree for the ensuing weeks, partly for reasons of laziness, partly to fill up the space under the slowly dying tree, partly to keep the cat from drinking the water from the damn tree stand (fail). One night, somehow, I managed to over-water the tree stand and not realize it, and the next day I was crushed to find my new book soaked. Serves me right for not putting it away, and the back pages are now all stiff and crinkly from my drying the book on a radiator.)
Anyway, geek that I am, I’m going through the essays in the new book first, rather than the novel proper. I’ve become a sucker for critical analysis in recent years. As soon as I got home well after midnight from a 10:40 p.m. showing of Avatar last weekend (awesome, by the way) I looked up movie reviews online. I do that after watching flicks on cable for the first time, too. With novels, well, who has the time to re-read the whole thing, eh, so I just jumped into the essays. So it goes.
A couple of the essays touch on Hemingway and Algren, and it is a line from John Clellon Holmes’ memoir that gave me pause. Writing about a brooding trip to the South Pacific that Algren took after Hemingway’s death (though not merely to contemplate Hemingway’s suicide), Holmes writes:
Hemingway, above all other twentieth century writers, drives other writers to brood this way on the mysteries of style—on the sequence of information release, on a word’s specific color and weight, on the subtle music, in the sentence itself—and his suicide out of the despair of personal and creative impotence silenced most of us for a while.
It’s that creative impotence line that’s got me thinking. I supposed that sort of touches on why I haven’t written here in this blog much in the last six months or so. Surely the Evil Facebook has made a hypocrite of me and I spend far too much time there in Mark Zuckerberg’s increasingly prying virtual playground. But I admit to feeling a bit of that creative impotence, too, with too little to say, with too much unfocused anger and almost all of it reactions to the extremist bullying reactionaries of our times. Being angry at angry people provides more bile than inspiration, at least to me these days. Perhaps I’m sick of being angry at bullies.
But on the other hand, I’ve never been happier. Icepick Jr. is a joy every day, and every day he grows a little more, and at age 3, I’ve still got him fooled enough to look up to me. For whatever reason, I’ve been loathe to dip into the DaddyBlog world, as funny as that world can be sometimes, and as much as I enjoy telling friends about Junior on Facebook.
Plus, I’m thinking about playing hockey again (which sounds as lame an excuse as Will “Frank the Tank” Ferrell’s in Old School: “I tried to join a new gym. And there’s other stuff. I can’t remember.”). Plus, Tropic Thunder has been on HBO almost every night for two months. Plus, I got a new hyper-caffeinated change-everything boss two months ago.
So with a shit Mets season three months in the books, what else have I got? Am I merely a writer with nothing else to say (and little to say before that)? Or does anger and outrage produce a writer’s best work, and am I just getting tired of writing about being outraged? Nelson Algren was certainly outraged about the downtrodden in his city, and he produced some of the Twentieth Century’s best literature because of it.
Wow, I’m really digressing here, and I’m not sure I like writers who write about not writing, so I’m going to bed and putting the laptop down. But stick with me, dear readers (both of you). I’ll be back, though I can’t say for sure if it’ll be because of wrath or pride or some other deadly sin. Hopefully, it will be because of what drew me to writing in the first place — because I like it.