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Works of Radical Imagination

The Man with the Golden Arm: 50th Anniversary Critical Edition

by Nelson Algren

Book cover for The Man with the Golden Arm: 50th Anniversary Critical Edition
Book cover for The Man with the Golden Arm: 50th Anniversary Critical Edition

Edited by William J. Savage Jr. and Dan Simon

The Man with the Golden Arm is Nelson Algren's most powerful and enduring work. On the 50th anniversary of its publication in November 1949, for which Algren was honored with the first National Book Award (which he received from none other than Eleanor Roosevelt at a ceremony in March 1950), Seven Stories released the first critical edition of an Algren work.

With special contributions by Russell Banks, Bettina Drew, James R. Giles, Carlo Rotella, William Savage, Lee Stringer, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, and others.

Book cover for The Man with the Golden Arm: 50th Anniversary Critical Edition
Book cover for The Man with the Golden Arm: 50th Anniversary Critical Edition

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“The finest American novel published since the war.”

“A true novelist's triumph.”

“Algren is an artist whose sympathy is as large as Victor Hugo's, an artist who ranks, with this novel, among our best American authors.”

“Powerful, grisly, antic, horrifying, poetic, compassionate . . . [there is] virtually nothing more that one could ask.”

blog — January 30

We Are All Members of One Another: Colin Asher on Nelson Algren

To celebrate the release our new paperback edition of (the first ever!) National Book Award-winning novel, The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren, we are proud to share Algren scholar Colin Asher’s foreword to this reissue, in which Asher explores Algren's dedication to the underdog, and his lifelong effort to humanize those who'd been pushed to the margins by mid-century American society.


We Are All Members of One Another

The Chicago contained within these pages both is and is not the city Nelson Algren was raised in, helped to document while working for the Federal Writers Project during the Great Depression, and then returned to after the conclusion of World War II when his service in Europe ended—thirty-six years old, single, his career stalled. The world of The Man with the Golden Arm shares geography, vernacular, and some history with that corporeal city, but every detail has been refracted through Algren’s aesthetic and moral sensibility. In here, the city’s cold beauty has been distilled to poetry, its shortcomings clarified and brought into relief, and its occupants feel more worthy of empathy than any of their equivalents you’re likely to encounter outside of these confines.

In its earliest incarnation—as an idea Algren pitched to a publisher in early 1946 in hopes of securing a contract that would allow him to write and avoid finding a job—Golden Arm was going to be a war novel. It was to begin as World War II was ending, and the narrative would focus on a protagonist living in France and supporting himself off the black market while he forestalled his return to the US. Algren had been stationed in Marseille after V-J Day, so he could see that part of the novel clearly, could remember what it felt like to live in a city hovering between the brutality and tedium of war and occupation and the promise of a future people were only just beginning to envision.

But writing about America after the war would require research. Like the New Journalists who came to prominence a generation later, Algren collected material for his writing by immersing himself in the environments he was interested in. So, he explored Chicago. He reacquainted himself with the Polish Triangle, which he had lived in and written about before being inducted. He spent time on West Madison Street, the city’s skid row, and befriended a group of petty thieves and addicts; soon he was a steady presence in their apartment, lingering in the background of their lives. And he became a regular at police lineups. He had been mugged before entering the service, and afterward, the police presented him with a card that entitled him to observe as detectives questioned detained men and women. Years later, he still used the card to collect material.

The Chicago that Algren rediscovered through that process was not the violent, Prohibition-era city he grew up in, and it wasn’t the beleaguered, war-weary, and ration-card-hungry city that he had been living in when he was drafted in the summer of 1943. Post-war Chicago was an ascendant place, a newly christened standard bearer of the America Dream—wealthier than he remembered, but colder as well. In this new Chicago, consumption and virtue were joined as one, and the sacrifices and nobler objectives of the war had been cheapened and transformed into commercial appeals: “Get Your Post-War Kitchen Now!” and “Santa Loves a Champion!”

On the city’s margins, Algren could meet or reconnect with people who had been written out of Chicago’s new narrative. He saw that their lives hadn’t changed, in material terms, after the Depression and the war ended, but that their spirits were newly burdened by the realization that they were being abandoned—people who, he later wrote, “live out their hand-to-mouth hours without friendship or love. They belong to no particular street in no particular city. They pass from furnished room to furnished room, and belong not even to their own time; not even to themselves.”

Since the beginning of his career, Algren wrote to reflect the moment in time he was living through, so he quickly lost interest in writing about the war and began to envision the book you’re holding. “[I]f you’re going to write a war novel, you have to do it while you’re in the war,” he explained later. “Two months after the war it was gone; but I was living in a living situation . . . I mean, the neighborhood I was living in, and these people, were a lot more real than the Army was.”

The Man with the Golden Arm is informed by Algren’s research, but not tethered to it. He often transcribed overheard conversations and interviews, and he would organize that material into lists of vernacular and snippets of dialog. From that raw material, he crafted characters who were amalgams of the people he knew and interacted with, and built a world for them to occupy that was constructed of mellifluous prose that transitions fluidly ix between observation and dialogue—melding characters and environment into a cohesive whole.

The war has ended in Golden Arm, and in its wake, the city has grown hostile to Algren’s people. They are grifters, card dealers, drunks, bartenders, and thieves, and each knows “the great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one.” Their lives revolve around the Tug & Maul Bar, the apartments inside Schwabatski “The Jailer’s” building at 1860 West Division Street, and the Saloon Street police station. And they have names so evocative they are almost stories in their own right. Arranged in stanzas, they read like poetry.

Frankie “Machine” Majcinek, “Zosh,” and Solly “Sparrow” Saltskin

“Record Head” Bednar, Antek Witwicki, and “Zero” Schwiefka

Molly Novotny and Drunkie John

Louie Fomorowski

Piggy-O

Most directly, Golden Arm is about Frankie Machine—a veteran, a card dealer who presides over a backroom game, and a husband. His wife, Sophie—“ Zosh,” to Frankie—is confined to a wheelchair. She had been in the passenger seat when Frankie drove a car into a light post and then a billboard. On the night in question, they had been celebrating the end of the war by drinking triple shots. Her injuries seemed minor but several days later—on the night of V-J Day—she claimed that her legs had stopped working. “The blessed, cursed, wonderful-terrible God’s-own-accident that had truly married them at last,” she calls it.

When Frankie first appears, he is twenty-nine years old and, though his service ended months earlier, still wearing a faded uniform and service brogans. He was wounded in the war, and the treatment he received for his injuries left him addicted to morphine, which he’s desperate to quit. Unlike most other characters in the book, he is attuned to the world growing skyward around him and susceptible to its judgments. He hides his addiction assiduously, and faced with authority, he seeks respect through reference to his service. (I got the “right kind” of discharge, he says, “and the purple heart.”) He often adopts a wry, self-effacing tone. In the army, he says, “I was the guy had to pick the fly crap out of the pepper with boxin’ gloves.”

Frankie is a bit of a striver, but the novel’s other characters are decidedly not. He aspires to become a professional musician, to leave his marriage, and kick his addiction. But they are content and certain of their worth. Louie Fomorowski, a morphine dealer who has outlasted most of his conx temporaries, makes no apologies for informing on friends to the police. Snitching, he says, is a racket like any other. Piggy-O, a blind man who sells for Louie and moves about resplendent in filth, asserts: “I got my kind of pride ’n you got yours.” And Solly “Sparrow” Saltskin—Frankie’s sidekick— proudly defends his lifestyle. He is a steerer for Frankie’s card game, a dog thief, and a shoplifter. But he insists his line of work is as respectable as any other. “Back me up with five grand tonight ’n tomorrow mornin’ I get a invitation to join the Chamber of Commerce ’n no questions asked,” he says.

Algren’s characters invite judgment with their choices—drinking and thieving and snitching and, in Frankie’s case, trying and failing to break dysfunctional habits—and Golden Arm gives voice to that instinct in the person of Captain “Record Head” Bednar. He is a career officer, nearing his pension, who presides over the Saloon Station lineup. When the novel opens, he is questioning Frankie and Sparrow and then quickly dismissing them. “You’re both a couple loose bums livin’ off the weaker bums,” he says.

Algren had created similar characters earlier in his career. In his second novel, Never Come Morning, a captain named One-Eye Tenczara presides over a police lineup. A version of the same character also appears in Algren’s short story “A Bottle of Milk for Mother.” And a character called simply the Captain passes judgment over a seemingly endless line of arrestees in “The Captain Has Bad Dreams.” All three had a nihilistic edge, their exposure to predation having calcified into callous indifference. But Bednar, so long into his career and so familiar with the people he encounters each night, has begun to entertain doubts about his role. He feels tainted by the guilt of the people who appear before him. In his dreams, he is pursued.

There is a priest who appears once before Bednar. The man has been defrocked, and when Bednar mocks him, asking why he had been laicized, the priest replies evenly, and in total: “Because I believe we are all members of one another.” Bednar is shaken by the line. The priest’s words plague him, and through his tribulations, Algren forces his readers to wrestle with their own culpability—dares them to deny the priest’s edict. Bednar has spent his life passing judgment, sorting the sinners from the saved, and he begins to fear that he never had any right to do so, that he has damned himself. He feels impaled, and yearns to leave his post and install himself on the other side of the jail’s bars, among the “innocents.”

Algren was no polemicist by the time he wrote Golden Arm, but he could be a scold. Eventually, Bednar comes to understand the harm he has done—realizes that the accused who paraded before him, and whom he xi had demeaned and condemned, for years, “had all along been members of himself.” But he lacks the strength to atone for his sins, and the price he pays for his weakness is severe. “All errors must ultimately be punished,” Algren wrote, and for the Captain, a man who had saved “himself at the cost of others less cunning than himself, the punishment must be simply this: more lost, more fallen and more alone than any man at all.”

In the literary traditions that Algren’s work grew out of—the naturalists and the proletarian writers movement—characters like Frankie and Sparrow and Zosh and Louie and Piggy-O would have been vessels of suffering. They would be conjured only to be destroyed and readers would be required only to pity them. But Algren’s aim is identification—he would have us reconcile ourselves to the knowledge that his people are people, no more or less a part of the human story than any others, or deny that knowledge and suffer Bednar’s fate. He had faith in the power of literature, but not blind faith. He believed that the written word could make clear the stakes for each of us, and that every person has the agency to choose whether to be a part of binding together or tearing asunder the human community—but he did not delude himself that he could convince everyone to choose well.

***

When I first encountered The Man with the Golden Arm in 2009, during the Great Recession, the aspects of the text that struck me most profoundly were its moral clarity and its prescience. Algren gave voice to his values by making Bednar suffer for excluding people and passing judgment on them for their poverty and shortcomings. And his sympathetic, detailed psychological portraits of Frankie and the Tug and Maul’s other habitués read like an assertion of their intrinsic value.

Algren’s prescience is evident in the construction of the world he has those characters navigate. In Golden Arm, irrelevance is both sin and punishment, and jails and prisons are purgatories for people who never learned a trade because they sense “no work had any point to it.” People are so divided and lacking in charity that someone in need cannot “find five dollars in a city of four million people, most of them millionaires.” The logic of wrapping “all the little troubles into one big trouble” and escaping into drink or opioids seems self-evident. And the country has begun to atomize— its people stripped of their sense of belonging, their identities. Even Frankie Machine, a veteran with the “right” kind of discharge, has been abandoned. The conclusion of the war brought him nothing but hardxii ship—his addiction is the result of a battle wound that ended his service; he wrecked a car, wounding Zosh, while celebrating the dropping of the first atomic bomb; she stopped walking on V-J Day—and now, within the country whose freedom he was ostensibly fighting for, he feels displaced, alienated.

“You know who I am?” he asks.

“You know who you are? You know who anybody is any more?”

Algren’s world seemed outré to many readers in 1949. Even one of Golden Arm’s most positive reviews referred to his people as “warped” and “twisted,” and mentioned their “depravity.” But when I first opened the book during the Great Recession—one desperate and debt-laden person among many millions of others, as the opioid epidemic, mass incarceration, and homelessness claimed headlines each day—it felt very familiar. In some ways, thirteen years later, it feels more familiar still.

“The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed,” William Gibson said in 2003. Algren, working more than five decades earlier, had the same insight. When he returned from Europe, he was not distracted by the country’s triumphalist tone. He intuited that the truest measure of the country’s moral health was not the presence of a car in every driveway or the valuation of its largest corporations, but the quality of the lives being lived at the margins—that their present was a preview of our common future, that their fates would be everyone’s.

—Colin Asher

Nelson Algren

One of the most neglected American writers and also one of the best loved, NELSON ALGREN wrote once that “literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.” His writings always lived up to that definition. He was born on March 28, 1909, in Detroit and lived mostly in Chicago. His first short fiction was published in Story magazine in 1933. In 1935 he published his first novel, Somebody in Boots. In early 1942, Algren put the finishing touches on a second novel and joined the war as an enlisted man. By 1945, he still had not made the grade of Private first class, but the novel Never Come Morning was widely praised and eventually sold over a million copies. Jean-Paul Sartre translated the French-language edition. In 1947 came The Neon Wilderness, his famous short story collection which would permanently establish his place in American letters. The Man with the Golden Arm, generally considered Algren’s most important novel, appeared in 1949 and became the first winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in March 1950. Then came Chicago: City on the Make (1951), a prose poem, and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), a rewrite of Somebody in Boots. Algren also published two travel books, Who Lost an American? and Notes from a Sea Voyage. The Last Carousel, a collection of short fiction and nonfiction, appeared in 1973. He died on May 9, 1981, within days of his appointment as a fellow of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His last novel, The Devil’s Stocking, based on the life of Hurricane Carter, and Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, a 1952 essay on the art of writing, were published posthumously in 1983 and 1996 respectively. In 2009 came Entrapment and Other Writings, a major collection of previously unpublished writings that included two early short story masterpieces, “Forgive Them, Lord,” and “The Lightless Room,” and the long unfinished novel fragment referenced in the book’s title. In 2019, Blackstone Audio released the complete library of Algren’s books as audiobooks. And in 2020 Olive Films released Nelson Algren Live, a performance film of Algren’s life and work starring Willem Dafoe and Barry Gifford, among others, produced by the Seven Stories Institute.