Never a Lovely so Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren
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About the Book
This definitive biography reclaims Nelson Algren as a towering literary figure and finally unravels the enigma of his disappearance from American letters.
For a time, Nelson Algren was America’s most famous author, lauded by the likes of Richard Wright and Ernest Hemingway. Millions bought his books. Algren’s third novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, won the first National Book Award, and Frank Sinatra starred in the movie. But despite Algren’s talent, he abandoned fiction and fell into obscurity. The cause of his decline was never clear. Some said he drank his talent away; others cited writer’s block. The truth, hidden in the pages of his books, is far more complicated and tragic. Now, almost forty years after Algren’s death, Colin Asher finally captures the full, novelistic story of his life in a magisterial biography set against mid-twentieth-century American politics and culture.
Drawing from interviews, archival correspondence, and Algren’s 886-page FBI file, Colin Asher portrays Algren as a dramatic iconoclast. A member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, Algren used his writing to humanize Chicago’s underclass, while excoriating the conservative radicalism of the McCarthy era. Asher traces Algren’s development as a thinker, his close friendship and falling out with Richard Wright, and his famous affair with Simone de Beauvoir. Most intriguingly, Asher uncovers the true cause of Algren’s artistic exile: a reckless creative decision that led to increased FBI scrutiny and may have caused a mental breakdown.
In his second act, Algren was a vexing figure who hid behind a cynical facade. He called himself a “journalist” and a “loser,” though many still considered him one of the greatest living American authors. An inspiration to writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Martha Gellhorn, Jimmy Breslin, Betty Friedan, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Russell Banks, and Thomas Pynchon, Algren nevertheless struggled to achieve recognition, and died just as his career was on the verge of experiencing a renaissance.
Never a Lovely So Real offers an exquisitely detailed, engrossing portrait of a master who, as esteemed literary critic Maxwell Geismar wrote, was capable of suggesting “the whole contour of a human life in a few terse pages.”
Photo by Art Shay, courtesy of the Art Shay Archive
Praise for Never a Lovely so Real
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.
-Jonathan Dee, writing in The New Yorker
[A] brilliant new biography... [a] vivid, vastly insightful book...
-Andrew O'Hagan, writing in the The New York Review of Books
[A] well-written and scrupulously researched biography... One can only hope that efforts of remembrance like Never a Lovely So Real will help to return the author’s star to the literary firmament where it belongs.
-Woody Haut, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books
Absorbing ... Asher … scrupulously attempts to separate facts from myths (some created by Algren himself) as he explores how a writer who produced prose-poetry of such a high order could now be largely forgotten.
-Susan Jacoby, writing in the New York Times Book Review
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.
-Dan Simon, founder and publisher of Seven Stories Press, writing in The Nation
[A] definitive portrait ... By a combination of meticulous research and a smooth prose style, Asher has fashioned a narrative that is both a joy to read and is utterly convincing. ... Through three-dimensional portraits of the people and places key to the man’s life, Asher has fashioned as full a picture of Algren as any of his long-suffering fans could hope for ... Anyone who reads Asher’s book will be convinced that Nelson Algren deserves a place in the canon.
-Dmitry Samarov, writing in Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Never A Lovely So Real is a work of love and prodigious research and, as such, deserves to be honored. Asher has a talent for delivering a great deal of anecdotal information with the kind of relish that feels delicious...
-Vivian Gornick, writing in The New Republic
[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.
-Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist (starred review)
With vigorous, poetic detail, Asher reconstructs Algren’s formative experiences of poverty during the Depression and Army service during WWII, his burst of fame during the Cold War and subsequent struggles, and his twilight years as a mentor to writers such as Don DeLillo. ... The result is a generous, stylish portrait of an impulsive, directionless outsider who nonetheless established a place among the lions of mid-20th century American literature.
[C]arefully researched and beautifully written … Nelson Algren is now an obscure name in the canon. But in “Never a Lovely So Real,” the biographer Colin Asher has set out to explore the genesis, the inner workings of this complicated author who sold millions of copies of literary short stories and novels, deeply influencing dozens of writers, notably Richard Wright and Simone de Beauvoir.
-Lou Ann Walker, writing in The East Hampton Star
Nelson Algren is one of those fascinating, almost-mythical figures in 20th Century arts and letters, and Colin Asher’s fine biography brings him to life with breathless intensity. It also provides the necessary corrective to Algren’s hitherto misrepresented and misunderstood life and work, and restores him to the rightful position he should occupy in American literature.
-Deirdre Bair, National Book Award-winning author of Samuel Beckett: A Biography, and Simone de Beauvoir: a Biography
A magnificently thorough and sensitive study of one of the great authors in twentieth century America. Nelson Algren, the instinctive rebel, troubled personality, object of liberal and conservative attacks in the Cold War era, rose above it all in his often brilliantly poetic prose. Colin Asher’s engrossing biography explores why Algren spoke for those who could not speak for themselves, and demonstrates why we desperately need a voice like his today.
-Paul Buhle, retired Senior Lecturer, Brown University, author of Marxism in the United States and co-editor of Tender Comrades: The Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist
Colin Asher has written a deeply researched, moving account of a great writer’s life. Nelson Algren was a titanic talent, a mid-20th century comet of a novelist who lit up the literary landscape for two decades, then mysteriously darkened and all but disappeared. Asher’s biography goes a long ways towards explaining why.
-Russell Banks, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, and author of The Sweet Hereafter, Continental Drift, Cloudsplitter, and many others
In straightforward yet graceful prose and with deep insight—let alone an immense amount of meticulous research—[Asher] has produced a major literary biography. Never a Lovely So Real testifies to the richness of Algren’s genius as a writer and explains the misunderstood nature of the man. It reveals what made him tick, exposes the legends, and brings him to life in a way no previous biography has. ... And if there’s any justice, it will put Algren’s books back at the heart of the 20th-century American canon.
-Jan Herman, author of the Z Collection, and A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler
About the Author
Colin Asher is the author of Never a Lovely so Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren, a literary biography written as a work of creative nonfiction. Born in Morgantown, WV, but raised in Brooklyn, NY, Colin dropped out of high school after the ninth grade and spent more than a decade in California, where he worked in warehouses, drove a truck, and spent four years as a bicycle messenger. Eventually, he began working in homeless services, and enrolled in the City College of San Francisco. He received an undergraduate degree from Northeastern University in 2009, and an MA from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2010.
Colin began writing in 2007, and since then, his work has appeared in The Baffler, The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Republic, Literary Hub, the Washington Independent Review of Books, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many others. He began researching and writing Never a Lovely so Real in 2013, and during its composition he received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Leon Levy Center for Biography. An essay describing Colin’s first encounter with Nelson Algren’s work can be found here.
Colin is represented by the Frances Goldin Literary Agency. His second book The Midnight Special: Policing, Prisons, and American Popular Music is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.
July 13, 2022: Reading, Les Bleus Literary Salon, New York, NY
March 10, 2020: Reading and Discussion, NYU Biography Seminar, New York University, NYC, NY
February 11, 2020: Reading and Discussion with Carla Kaplan, Northeastern University Center for the Arts, Ryder Hall, Boston, MA
June 9, 2019: Panel Discussion (with Rick Kogan and Mary Ann Cain), Printers Row Lit Fest (C-Span Stage), Chicago, IL
May 18, 2019: Reading and Q&A, Canio's Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor, NY
May 2, 2019: Reading and Q&A, Community Bookstore, 143 Seventh Ave., Brooklyn, NY
April 26, 2019: Reading and Q&A, The Nelson Algren Museum of Miller Beach, 541 S. Lake St., Miller Beach, IN
April 23, 2019: Reading, Les Bleus Literary Salon, New York, NY