Saturday, November 16, 2019
November 16-17, 2019: Kent Rose’s Guest Post: How I Got to Nelson Algren
[Kent Rose is an acclaimed singer/songwriter whose new album, All That American Night, is out now. He’s also a prolific AmericanStudier, not just through his music but also on Twitter and in conversation with public scholars of all types. I’m very excited to share his thoughts and experiences with a too-often overlooked American author in my latest Guest Post!]
I learned to read before first grade. I looked at comics and the backs of baseball cards and the books of Dr. Seuss. It wasn’t something I practiced. It was one day just there. This caused me to believe that anything I could read, I should read.
I volunteered at the local library children’s department when I was twelve, like my older brother had before me. One day, after shelving, curiosity caused me to wander into the main library. I headed for fiction, starting with A. A title jumped out at me: The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren. A baseball book, I figured. Opening the pages I saw “the Captain,” and the “line up” and the “bullpen,” and a character named Frankie Machine whom I pictured as a smooth-fielding light-hitting shortstop.
I lifted the book onto the circulation desk, which I could barely see over, and offered up my library card. The librarian leaned over to see who was checking out the book. She said, “You have to be a little older to read this one.”
I said, “I can read it now,” as she pulled the book away.
Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, I knew there was more going on in the world than what was happening around home. I mean, l lived in a dry town, my parents didn’t drink, no neon lights, no wrong side of town, and even though I got hit by a car when four, it was a pretty safe place. We watched shoot-em-up Westerns on our black and white TV, but our gun play was restricted: cap guns were seldom allowed (too dangerous), squirt guns generally not recommended (lead to sibling squabbles), and rarely Tommy Burp guns (noisy, might bother the neighbors).
So, books were my windows into other lives. These seemed like more dangerous yet somehow more attractive lives. The Chicago I read about in Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, James Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, and Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door seemed like a city I wished I had experienced. This is, of course, slightly delusional, but speaks to the power of imagination and dreams.
Years later, in my mid-twenties, playing music full time, I read in the newspaper that Nelson Algren was moving to New Jersey, leaving Chicago behind. He was holding an apartment sale where the table on which he had written The Man with the Golden Arm might be available.
My father, a clinical psychologist, had his own kind of crime credibility, having run tests on mass murderer Richard Speck. Knowing my love for Nelson Algren’s work, he suggested we go, and we did.
It wasn’t a fancy place. Most of what had been there had been picked through. Remaining were a few out-of-date magazines he had autographed and one Eddy Arnold record, previously the property of the Chicago Public Library, bearing his signature.
But there, there he was, Nelson Algren, standing in a corner of the room. My father was cool, just said, “hello,” and bought a magazine. Knowing his organizational skills, it probably wound up getting recycled. I stood there speechless.
I didn’t buy anything that day, but carried home a memory and the knowledge that artists are not defined by where they live, but by the work they leave behind.
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. Thoughts on Kent’s post? Other authors or artists to whom you have a personal connection?]