Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

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Afterword by Dan Simon

Notes by Dan Simon and C. S. O’Brien

Nonconformity is about 20th-century America: "Never on the earth of man has he lived so tidily as here amidst such psychological disorder." It is also about the trouble writers ask for when they try to describe America: "Our myths are so many, our vision so dim, our self-deception so deep and our smugness so gross that scarcely any way now remains of reporting the American Century except from behind the billboards … [where there] are still … defeats in which everything is lost [and] victories that fall close enough to the heart to afford living hope."

In Nonconformity, Nelson Algren identifies the essential nature of the writer's relation to society, drawing examples from Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Twain, and Fitzgerald, as well as utility infielder Leo Durocher and legendary barkeep Martin Dooley. He shares his deepest beliefs about the state of literature and its role in society, along the way painting a chilling portrait of the early 1950s, Joe McCarthy's heyday, when many American writers were blacklisted and ruined for saying similar things to what Algren says here.

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Buying options

“A handbook for tough, truth-telling outsiders who are proud, as was Algren, to damn well stay that way.”

“In the never-before-published, book-length essay Nonconformity … [Algren] articulates an American literary world view that should guide the generations of writers to follow him—a quest so ambitious it is hard to think of any other American writer who attempted it since, perhaps, Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self-Reliance.”

“A passionate defense of the writer … Angry and funny as Algren usually is.”

“This extended essay on what it takes to be a writer—and by extension a man—provides a corrosive antidote to any fin de siecle sentimentalizing of the American midcentury.”

Nonconformity underscores the beliefs of Algren, Dreiser and an army of intellectuals that it is the duty of the serious writer to serve as society's moral conscience … Simon has done a great service in bringing this book into print.”

“Wise, courageous and humane.”

blog — March 22

Why Nelson Algren Matters

One of America's best loved writers, Nelson Algren won the first National Book Award for Fiction in 1950. But his star faded following harassment by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI during the McCarthy era and changes in literary fashion. Now there's a Nelson Algren revival going on. Colin Asher's epic biography Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren arrives from Norton in April and is already receiving rave reviews from the likes of the New Yorker.

Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon's essay in the current Nation details why Nelson Algren matters so much—not just as a literary figure, but for us all, right here, right now. According to Simon, Asher's biography "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."

And speaking of right here, right now, take 75% off all e-books by Algren on the Seven Stories website. Click on any of the books below, or check out the collection right here.

Algren and Kurt Vonnegut were good friends, having taught together at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1965–7. See Malcolm Jack's piece in today's New York Times on the 50th Anniversary of Slaughterhouse Five.

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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. 

Other books by Nelson Algren