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H. Maragou on R. Ward’s collection of critical essays : Nelson Algren

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1Robert Ward, ed.  Nelson Algren: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007. 188 pp. (Hardcover) ISBN-0 8386 4108 3

2This collection of critical essays, edited by Robert Ward, is the first critical reader dealing with the oeuvre of Nelson Algren, an author whose rise to literary fame in the 1940s was as spectacular as his plunge into obscurity less than two decades later.  In his introduction to this collection that attempts to restore Nelson Algren’s reputation, editor Robert Ward proclaims Algren as “one of the most important, yet critically undervalued, American writers to have emerged from the literary and intellectual milieu of the 1930s.”  Possessing a vision that was simultaneously “harshly realistic and intensely poetic,” Algren became known as the writer who depicted “the underside of urban life,” but whose social vision clashed with the complacent 1950s culture, a fact which ultimately drove him into literary anonymity.  

3The collection contains essays that map out Nelson Algren’s multi-faceted literary output and approach the author’s themes and narrative techniques from a variety of critical perspectives.  To begin with, Algren’s work is considered in its historical and cultural contexts, for instance in terms of the influence of European and American Naturalism on Algren’s narrative strategies, of the impact of Cold War anti-communism on his literary reputation, and of the role of faulty marketing and packaging in the devaluation of Algren’s literary output.  But there are also essays that adopt a biographical approach to, for instance, discuss Algren’s complex social and intellectual milieu, or examine autobiographical fragments in texts within which Algren searched for “personal and authorial identities.”  Other essays adopt theoretical models such as Walter Benjamin’s theorizing of urban experience and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival to respectively explain Algren’s “intersections of urban institutional landscapes” on the one hand, and the presence of “otherness” and grotesquerie in his depiction of characters on the other.  Finally, there is an essay that provides information on Algren’s unpublished manuscripts, diaries, letters, and photographs, thus providing future scholars of Nelson Algren with invaluable resources for scholarly research.

4Nelson Algren: A Collection of Critical Essays provides a short, but comprehensive treatment of the work of an author whose contribution to American literary history has been neglected for decades.  These essays remind us of the many reasons Nelson Algren’s fiction needs to be reintroduced into American literary courses, and offer valuable insights into the historical relevance as well as narrative techniques of Algren’s fiction; simultaneously, they suggest a number of yet-to-be-explored facets of Nelson Algren’s work that future scholarship may profitably explore.

5Reviewed by Helena Maragou, American College of Greece

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« H. Maragou on R. Ward’s collection of critical essays : Nelson Algren », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2009, document 1, Online since 04 February 2009, connection on 25 May 2018. URL :

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