Sunday, November 6, 2011

Writers who've stood up to the "Grindles" of the world

(To the left is Nelson Algren)

When the inspiration’s getting low, I usually don’t have far to look before I find it. It’s right there on the bookshelves in my office at home. I just round up the usual suspects, and there they are, words on paper, in the books that have been milestones in my life, written by the writers I’d admired most, the ones who cut through the fog the best and got to the hard, cold stone of reality that each of us faces in his or her own way.

At or near the top of the list is Nelson Algren, the great Detroit-born Chicago writer who has never gotten his due from the American literati, but, hey, who’s surprised by that? As with many writers I admire, it’s not his best-known novel that really struck me to the core. It’s one of the others. In this case, Never Come Morning, Algren’s 1942 novel about the Polish ghetto in Chicago, the neighborhood around Milwaukee Avenue and West Division Street, where the evil Bonifacy Konstantine ran his Tonsorial Palace of Art & Barber Shop.

The book is full of lines where Algren just nails it. I’ll pick one: “The lower the wage the greater the morality demanded of you off the job.” We got echoes of that 60 years later when Barbara Ehrenreich went to work waiting tables, cleaning rooms, and sorting clothes at Walmart in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. If blue-collar workers aren’t getting tested for drugs, they’re taking tests to make sure they’re not trouble-makers. “You weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality `surveys’” and get “a uniformly servile and denatured workforce, content to dream of the distant day when they’ll be vested in the company’s profit-sharing plan.”

Jack London was one of the writers who inspired me to take up the profession. This was way back when I was fourteen years old. The former oyster pirate, gold prospector, and tramp whose philosophy was a curious mix of socialism and Nietzschean individualism wrote like a fiend during his brief 40 years, and the writing holds up well even a century later. My favorite was not his dog stories but The Sea-Wolf, a great adventure tale that pits the brutal Captain Wolf Larsen against the effete intellectual Humphrey Van Weyden.

(Below is a 1905 photograph of Jack London)

Here’s Larsen’s contemptuous assessment of Van Weyden’s soft life before he came aboard the captain’s ship, Ghost: “You have slept in soft beds, and worn fine clothes, and eaten good meals. Who made those beds? And those clothes? And those meals? Not you. You never made anything in your own sweat. You live on an income which your father earned. You are like a frigate bird swooping down upon the boobies and robbing them of the fish they have caught.”

Would make a nice poster for “Occupy Wall Street”, wouldn’t it? London wrote it more than a century ago, and it still resonates today.

Want to read some real anger at the “frigate birds” on Wall Street and in the corporate executive offices? Read William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, a 1946 classic of the hard-boiled genre that was made into a film noir classic movie. The novel is a phatasmagoric, hallucinatory trip via literature through the world of carnivals, séances, and mentalism that nevertheless never loses sight of the naked-eyed greed at the dark heart of unhinged capitalism. Embodying that dark heart is Grindle, a name worthy of Charles Dickens and with the same rank arrogance and heartlessness of Mr. Bounderby in Dickens' Hard Times.

(To the right is Charles Dickens)

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at Dickens. Here’s Mr. Bounderby talking about the workers—the “Hands” in his words--in Coketown, an industrial city not unlike Algren’s Chicago: “There’s not a Hand in this town, Sir, man, woman, or child, but has one ultimate object in life. That object is to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Now, they’re not a--going—none of them—ever to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.”

How many Wall Street executives in the privacy of their sanctuaries high in the sky have said much the same? Wouldn’t we like to know?

I could go on and on. I’ve done this before as you early readers of this blog recall. I’ve written about Hammett, Cain, Thompson, Woolrich, and the other hardboiled writers who stood side-by-side with the working class, and produced great literature in the process. Lots of males here, but I've also paid homage to female writers who stand shoulder to shoulder with every one of them, none moreso than Dorothy Day.

They're all inspiring, and their words are still with us even if they aren't, and we don't need to forget them.

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