Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is “mass” or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself — good or ill — based on specific grounds, but which feels itself “just like everybody,” and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else.
The mass believes that it has the right to impose and to give force of law to motions born in the cafï¿½. I doubt whether there have been other periods of history in which the multitude has come to govern more directly than in our own.
The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: “to be different is to be indecent.” The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated.
It is illusory to imagine that the mass-man of to-day will be able to control, by himself, the process of civilization. I say process, and not progress. The simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex, and demands incalculably subtle powers. Ill-fitted to direct it is this average man who has learned to use much of the machinery of civilization, but who is characterized by root-ignorance of the very principles of that civilization.
The command over the public life exercised today by the intellectually vulgar is perhaps the factor of the present situation which is most novel, least assimilable to anything in the past. At least in European history up to the present, the vulgar had never believed itself to have “ideas” on things. It had beliefs, traditions, experiences, proverbs, mental habits, but it never imagine itself in possession of theoretical opinions on what things are or ought to be. To-day, on the other hand, the average man has the most mathematical “ideas” on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence he has lost the use of his hearing. Why should he listen if he has within him all that is necessary? There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which he does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing his “opinions.”
But, is this not an advantage? Is it not a sign of immense progress that the masses should have “ideas,” that is to say, should be cultured? By no means. The “ideas” of the average man are not genuine ideas, nor is their possession culture. Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them, a series of standards to which it is possible to appeal in a discussion. These standards are the principles on which culture rests. I am not concerned with the form they take. What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are no standards to which our fellow-man can have recourse. There is no culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal. There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred. There is no culture where economic relations are not subject to a regulating principle to protect interests involved. There is no culture where aesthetic controversy does not recognize the necessity of justifying the work of art.
When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. And let us not deceive ourselves, this is what is beginning to appear in Europe under the progressive rebellion of the masses. The traveler knows that in the territory there are no ruling principles to which it is possible to appeal. Properly speaking, there are no barbarian standards. Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.
Under Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the “reason of unreason.” Here I see the most palpable manifestation of the new mentality of the masses, due to their having decided to rule society without the capacity for doing so. In their political conduct the structure of the new mentality is revealed in the rawest, most convincing manner. The average man finds himself with “ideas” in his head, but he lacks the faculty of ideation. He has no conception even of the rare atmosphere in which ideals live. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words.
To have an idea means believing one is in possession of the reasons for having it, and consequently means believing that there is such a thing as reason, a world of intelligible truths. To have ideas, to form opinions, is identical with appealing to such an authority, submitting oneself to it, accepting its code and its decisions, and therefore believing that the highest form of intercommunication is the dialogue in which the reasons for our ideas are discussed. But the mass-man would feel himself lost if he accepted discussion, and instinctively repudiates the obligation of accepting that supreme authority lying outside himself. Hence the “new thing” in Europe is “to have done with discussions,” and detestation is expressed for all forms of intercommunication, which imply acceptance of objective standards, ranging from conversation to Parliament, and taking in science. This means that there is a renunciation of the common life of barbarism. All the normal processes are suppressed in order to arrive directly at the imposition of what is desired. The hermeticism of the soul which, as we have seen before, urges the mass to intervene in the whole of public life. Jose Ortega-y-Gasset, “Revolt of the Masses;” an excerpt, 1930
Numero Dos—“..I used to go constantly to Adrian’s. When we came from the studio we often had dinner by ourselves in his house or he would give parties and ask me to help him arrange the table or receive his guests.
At one of these dinners I met Paul Brunton who had written a book called A Search in Secret India. When I read this book it had a profound influence on me. In it I learned for the first time about Ramana Maharshi, a great Indian saint and sage. It was as though some emanation of this saint was projected out of the book to me. For days and nights after reading about him I could not think of anything else. I became, as it were, possessed by him. I could not even talk of anything else. So much so, that as a joke, Adrian made a drawing of me peering out from behind a group of Indians and wrote under it A SEARCH IN SECRET INDIA. But nothing could distract me from the idea that I must go and meet this saint. From this time on, although I ceased to speak too much about it, the whole direction of my life turned toward India and away from Hollywood. I felt that I would surely go there although there was nothing at this time to indicate that I would. Nevertheless, I felt I would meet the Maharshi and that this meeting would be the greatest experience of my life.
Voyage to India – Conversations with Meher Baba and Sri Aurobindo
And this time I wanted most of all to go to India to see the great Indian sage and saint, Ramana Maharshi, and I felt that I must go at once.
I had very little money, far too little to risk going to India, but something pushed me toward it. I went to the steamship company and booked myself one of the cheapest cabins on an Indian ship, the S.S. Victoria sailing from Genoa to Bombay toward the beginning of October. In the meantime I flew to Dublin to see my sister Baba and her husband, Freddie Shaw, and their two children Frederick and Mercedes. Like many youngest sons, Freddie had no money, but he was a remarkably good and fine man. They were living in a modest little house and I never saw a family so devoted to each other or so happy together.
Alfredo Sides’ wife sailed with me to India. She intended to stay there several years with Sri Meher Baba, but Alfredo, when he came to the station to see us off to Genoa, said, ‘Don’t let Consuelo do anything foolish and please take care of her.’ Before Alfredo, Consuelo had been married to Charles Nungesser, the aviator who tried to fly west over the Atlantic at the same time that Lindbergh flew east. Nungesser was lost on the flight. But it was not until she married the unmarriageable Alfredo that we became close friends. I will never know what made Alfredo suddenly marry. He was out of character in doing so and was certainly not the husband for Consuelo.
I had booked passage to Ceylon intending from there to cross over to southern India and go directly to Tiruvannamalai where Ramana Maharshi lived. But when the ship called at Bombay, Norina Matchabelli came on board to see me with a message from Meher Baba saying that Consuelo and I must get off the ship and come to see him in Ahmednagar, about two hours from Bombay. I did not want to do this as my real purpose in India was to see the Maharshi, and I was impatient to get to him. But Consuelo was going to Baba and she and Norina pressed me to do the same. It was an appallingly hot day and I had a migraine headache, so I let them pack my things and, in a daze, followed them off the boat. I remember edging my way through masses of people whose dark faces stood out in the brilliant sunlight against the white which the men wore. There was also a great deal of color among the crowds — turbans and saris of brilliant pinks, blues, greens, every imaginable color, and after the incessant black one sees worn in occidental countries, Bombay gave me the impression of a gay festival.
The next day we motored to Baba’s ashram in Ahmednagar. This a place he had built a number of years ago, even before he had European disciples. He had built it for what are called in India “God-mad men and women” These are people who become possessed by God and the spiritual life, and go out of their minds. A great many of them had become insane at an early age. Thousands of them wander all over India, sleep in the fields and are fed by anyone who gives them food. Most of them are harmless, but their physical condition becomes tragic. Although they are considered holy and like the Sacred Cow allowed privileges, down through the ages nothing had been done about them by the government or by individuals.
Meher Baba is the first person in India who has taken care of them and attempted to cure them. He sends his Mandali (men disciples) throughout India to bring as many of them as they can to his ashram. Here he puts them in order physically, and then works spiritually and psychologically to cure them. He has cured hundreds of them and many of them, after coming to their senses, have become his Mandali and helped to cure others. When I arrived in Ahmednagar, Baba had a great compound where about five thousand of these mad people lived. I saw him bathe many of them, a technique he uses to work spiritually through water, which seems to calm a great many of them in an extraordinary fashion. I was very much impressed by these sessions.
I was, however, not at all happy my first night in the ashram. Baba had many times spoken to me about it, and he had always promised me that if I ever went there I would have a room or a cabin of my own. This point had been brought up because Norina had told me that all the women slept in dormitories. I am a poor sleeper and I knew that under these conditions I would not be able to sleep. Also I have a horror of a lot of women herded together. This is one of the reasons why I have always hated convents and the life of nuns and any kind of dormitory school life. So I was extremely upset when I was told I would have to sleep in a dormitory. I mentioned this to Norina, who brushed my objections aside and said that I had to be “like everyone else.” Looking back on it now I realize that I had no right to expect special treatment. Baba was possibly teaching me a lesson, but I felt that a man who was a spiritual teacher should not break his word.
In any case I spent a miserable night. The heat was terrific, many of the women snored, and all of them had pots under their beds which they used during the night. This was about the last straw for me. I arose at five and I was in no good mood when Norina told me that Baba expected Consuelo and me to stay with him for five years.
Five years!” I cried. “Are you out of your mind? I came to India to see the Maharshi and I am leaving here today.”
I went to Baba’s cabin. He was sitting on the floor in the Buddha posture with bare feet and a garland of flowers around his neck. He embraced me warmly and I sat down on the floor before him. He spelled out on his board, “I see you have slept badly.” I shrugged my shoulders. I was not going into all that again. He continued. “I want you and Consuelo to stay here with me for five years. I hope you will agree to this.”
“I regret terribly to have to refuse you this request. I could not possibly remain here and I must not deceive you, Baba – In case you don’t already know it, I must tell you I came to India to see Ramana Maharshi.”
He asked on the board, “Do you consider the Maharshi a Perfect Master?”
“I don’t know anything about such things. I am no judge of Masters or of the fact that they exist. I only know that I long to see the Maharshi with all my heart, and I must go to him.”
“When do you want to leave?”
“I would like to leave today.”
“There is no car to take you to Bombay today. You will have to go tomorrow. But Consuelo will remain.”
“I hope she will not. Alfredo put her in my care and I think after a few months she should go back to Europe.”
Baba made no comment on this and I felt dismissed. Suddenly I knew I was no longer within the inner circle. The European disciples withdrew from me and their attitude strengthened my wish to leave. I did not feel any spirituality in such a lack of understanding.
That night Norina walked up and down with me in the compound. She made one more effort to change my mind and used all her charm and force of personality–and she had an abundance of both–to accomplish this. When Norina spoke of Baba or God she became ferocious. She told me laughingly once that Professor Jung had called her a “God- beast” because, he said, he feared she might devour God. It was a dark night and as we walked she swung a lantern back and forth in her hand. She told me that by refusing Baba’s request I would face ten terrible incarnations. I laughed and said, “I’ll take my chances.” She said, “Surely you are not thinking of going back to that horrible Western world and to that terrible Hollywood!” I told her that after I had seen the Maharshi it was quite likely I would return to Hollywood. She threw her hands up in disgust. “There is nothing to be done with you. You are lost.”
The next day I had a battle with Consuelo. Norina had persuaded her to stay. But I won out. As we were leaving, Meher Baba was very gracious to us, which was more than the others were. He kissed us both good-by and enacted a promise from me that I would not go to see either Gandhi or the Maharshi before sightseeing all over India. I afterwards regretted this because it caused me to miss meeting Gandhi.
When we left Bombay, Consuelo and I kept our promise to Baba and went on quite an extensive tour of India. Among the many places we saw I was most charmed, in a worldly sense, by the little city of Jaipur built entirely of pink stone. Here was a fairy tale world–a world from a Bakst ballet. In front of the pink palace with its ornate door of gold stood Indian guards wearing only short white skirts and white jaipurs, and the most beautiful green turbans draped in a very special manner. I saw a string of elephants belonging to the Maharajah sauntering past the palace. Thrown over their backs were blankets of the most exquisite gold material, while on their heads sat naked boys in the Buddha posture wearing brilliantly colored turbans, and directing the elephants with sharp cries.
Because of the paintings and photographs I had seen of the Taj Mahal I had expected to dislike it. But we had the good fortune to arrive in Agra by full moon, and as I stood in front of the Taj I was overcome by its white beauty. It seemed to me a living thing, and when I touched it the stone was warm and lifelike. The heat of the sun on the stone did not cool off at night.
Benares, of course, is an unforgettable experience. There too we were fortunate, as we arrived for an eclipse of the moon, an event considered sacred by the Indians who are tremendously influenced by astrology and the heavens. Millions of people crowded down to the Ganges and plunged into it, many of them carrying their sick and dead. Regardless of the consequences they were determined to submerge in the river at the moment of the eclipse.
We went to Ellora, and Ajanta. Here, in the caves of Ellora, and especially Ajanta, I felt art transcended beyond art. Here was some blending of mysterious forces that went beyond the human. Here was the testimony of the divine heights man can reach. This was an experience for me beyond Greece and beyond the greatest Gothic cathedral.
Meher Baba wired us to go to Poona, and when we got there he sent us a message to go to a certain cave and meditate for several weeks. This I flatly refused to do. I told Consuelo she could do so if she wished, but that I was on my way to southern India and the Maharshi. So she came along with me. We went to Bangalore, Mysore, and Madras and then to Pondicherry, hoping to see Aurobindo Ghose in his ashram
Oddly enough, we arrived in Pondicherry on November 21 not knowing that Aurobindo always held darshan on the 22. This word, in a sense, means what Christians would call a blessing or benediction. It is derived from the Sanskrit darshana, meaning cognition or even sight. And yet it is not exact to say it is a blessing or a benediction because darshan is neither given nor received–it occurs. It may appear to be given by a saint or a sage, but it is not. It is really an experience. An experience which may occur at the sight of the river Ganges, or at the sight of a holy temple, or at the sight of a sacred hill such as Arunachala –any one of these may give darshan as well as a person. The thing to understand is that any spiritually-minded Indian will travel hundreds of miles and put up with any discomfort if at the end he is to receive darshan. Thousands of people had already arrived; many of them had been walking for six months from villages in the north to arrive in time for darshan. The town was already crowded and masses of people were sleeping in the fields. Consuelo and I, not knowing what the crowd was about, went to the ashram and rang the bell. A disciple, dressed in a sort of monk’s costume, opened the door. I asked if it would be possible for us to see Aurobindo. He could not have been more surprised. He explained that no one ever saw Aurobindo and that he lived in complete seclusion except on the day of the darshan, which happened to be the next day and was the reason for the great crowds in the town.
It would seem now that Consuelo and I should have known all this, but twenty years ago very few people outside of India knew much about the great Indian sages such as Aurobindo and the Maharshi. I had read everything that Aurobindo had written, although it had not always been easy to get his books in Europe or America. But I did not actually know about his habits as I did about Ramana Maharshi’s, in whom I was intensely interested and had taken the greatest pains to find out every- thing about. I do not wish to attempt a comparison between these two sages. Aurobindo was an intellectual and in his early years he had been in politics. In his later years, in his years of seclusion, he had, I believe, allowed himself to be dramatized by the Mother, a Frenchwoman who ran the ashram and had an enormous influence on him and who under stood the value of creating the legend around him that he never saw anyone but her, except at darshan, which he gave twice a year–November 22nd and March 22nd.
When I understood that I could not see Aurobindo alone and would have to wait till the next day to see him with thousands of other people, I asked if we might see President Wilson’s daughter Margaret, who was living in the ashram and whom Consuelo and I both knew. She was, of course, surprised to see us but immediately said she could arrange for us to go to darshan and would also find a place for us to spend the night, as the ashram and the hotels were already crowded. As we passed through corridors I had an unpleasant sensation. To me it seemed like another convent and I have always wanted to forget my convent experiences. Women in nunlike costumes were whispering in corners and the whole place had a deadly atmosphere as well as a theatrical one. This was not surprising, as the Mother, who was the supreme influence there, had been on the stage in France. She had evidently not lost her sense of theatre over the years.
I asked Margaret Wilson if she was happy. She said she was and that not for anything would she want to leave the ashram. She said she hoped to die there and only a few years later she got her wish.
That night Margaret arranged for us to stay in the house of a French lady–a Madame Yvonne Gaebele. Darshan was to be at five o’clock in the morning. Madame Gaebele graciously served us tea and cakes at three o’clock in the morning and around four we went to the ashram with our garlands and fell into line with the many people who had been holding their places all night. Madame Gaebele was well known at the ashram and because of her and Margaret Wilson we were allowed to go almost to the front of the line. There was great tension and an extraordinary silence as everyone waited for Aurobindo to appear and take his place on a huge chair on a high platform. Everything was in readiness when suddenly a disciple appeared and made the astounding announcement that Aurobindo would not give darshan. He explained that Aurobindo had sprained his ankle and was in too much pain to give it. He said the Mother would give darshan in his place. I could hardly believe my ears. Thousands of poor people who had traveled hundreds of miles, many Of whom had been journeying for months, were to be disappointed because of a sprained ankle. There was a hush, and a wave of depression ran through the crowd that was almost staggering. Many people wept, but I was angry. “If a spiritual leader can disappoint so many people how can one find fault with a government leader or a politician?” I asked out loud–but no one answered me.
The Mother appeared and mounted the platform. Made up within an inch of her life, her lips scarlet and her hair brightly dyed, she wore a trailing chiffon dress, and as she took her place on the chair I wondered if anyone in that crowd could experience darshan. But we all filed past her, placing our garlands at her feet. I felt like a first-class hypocrite. Some years later Vincent Sheean told me that when he was in the similar position before the Mother she had slyly winked at him. I was glad to hear this. It at least made me feel better to know she had some humor. But strangely enough, opinions differ. Consuelo was impressed by the Mother and by the whole place. She wanted to stay there. I, however, said good-by to Margaret, and sadly enough it was really a last good-by. As I left the ashram I wondered how such a great man as Aurobindo could have allowed himself to be so exploited. He is now dead, but the Mother still carries on in the ashram even though the Light has gone out.
Meeting The Great Sage Ramana Maharishi
I left Pondicherry and spiritually turned my heart toward Tiruvannamalai where the Maharshi lived. To get there, however, I had to return to Madras. On my way to Madras I had an amusing experience. This particular day I traveled third class in order to study the native types, but the only occupants of the coach besides myself were an old Indian (wearing a loincloth) and a well-dressed young Indian barrister. Presently the conductor appeared and began to talk very excitedly to me in the language of southern India–Tamil. I shrugged my shoulders and said in English that I did not understand Tamil, at the same time displaying my ticket and making signs that I hoped there was nothing wrong with it. The old man leaned forward and, in the most scholarly English, asked if he might translate for me and explain what the conductor was saying. I was delighted and asked if anything was wrong with the ticket. “It is not your ticket he is asking about. He is asking if you believe in the unity of the Divine and the individual soul.”
Not a little staggered by this question, I tried, however, to appear as though such an inquiry from a railroad conductor was the most natural in the world. I then replied that I was of the opinion that there is no separation between the Divine Source and the individual soul. My interpreter conveyed my sentiments to the conductor who beamed at me and nodded and bowed, making me understand that he, too, held these same views. He then mumbled something and rushed off into the other coach. “He says he is going to collect the tickets,” the loinclothed one remarked, “but he will soon return for further conversation.” He not only returned, but he settled himself down next to me, peering into my face, and until I reached my destination we four discussed the Vedas, the old man translating from time to time to the conductor.
In Madras I hired a car and, so anxious was I to arrive in Tiruvannamalai that I did not go to bed and traveled by night, arriving about seven o’clock in the morning after driving almost eleven hours. I was very tired as I got out of the car in a small square in front of the temple. The driver explained that he could take me no further as there was no road up the hill where Bhagavan could be found. I learned then to call the Maharshi “Bhagavan,” which means Lord and is a title by which he was always addressed. A religious ceremony was in progress, and men wearing bright-colored turbans and women in their festive saris were already surging into the square, carrying garlands of flowers and images of Siva. I did not linger to watch them, but turned toward the hill of Arunachala and hurried in the hot sun along the dust-covered road to the abode about two miles from the town where the Sage dwelt. As I ran those two miles up the hill, deeply within myself I knew that I was running toward the greatest experience of my life. I was no longer tired and I was unaware of the distance and of the heat of the sun on my uncovered head. I ran the whole way and when I reached the ashram I was not even out of breath.
Though only 2,682 feet high, Arunachala dominates the landscape. It looks as though a giant hand had quietly opened and dropped it into place. From the south side of the ashram it is just a symmetrical hill with two almost equal foothills, one on either side. But its aspect changes as the sun moves and the light varies. It has many faces and early in the morning a white cloud often drapes what seems to be its brow–in reality its summit.
The ashram was a small place. I remember only a stone hall where day and night Bhagavan sat on a couch. Not far from this hall, scattered around the hill, were small houses where some of the disciples lived including his brother. I am told that all this has greatly changed. Once the Sage’s great spiritual reputation began to spread, the ashram grew larger. In my time comparatively few people journeyed to see Bhagavan and only a few Western women had ever been there. In 1943 Heinrich Zimmer, the famous authority on Indian spiritual thought, wrote a book about the Maharshi called The Way of the Self for which Jung wrote a preface. In recent years, and especially since his death in 1950, Bhagavan has become widely known all over the world.
The Sage in Somerset Maugham’s book The Razor’s Edge is supposed to be Ramana Maharshi. It is possible that this is so as a few weeks before my visit to the ashram, Somerset Maugham had been there. I was told that an English author had come to see Bhagavan and had fainted when first coming into his presence. I asked his name but they did not know how to pronounce it. One of the disciples retired and came back with Somerset Maugham written on a piece of paper. A few years later I saw Mr. Maugham in New York and inquired if he had actually been to see the Maharshi. He said he had, but I did not feel I should trespass on a possible spiritual experience by asking if it was true that he had fainted.
When, dazed and filled with emotion, I first entered the hall, I did not quite know what to do. Coming from strong sunlight into the somewhat darkened hall, it was, at first, difficult to see. Nevertheless, I perceived Bhagavan at once, sitting in the Buddha posture on his couch in the corner. At the same moment I felt overcome by some strong power in the hall as if an invisible wind was pushing violently against me. For a moment I felt dizzy. Then I recovered myself. To my great surprise Isuddenly heard an American voice calling out to me, “Hello, come in.” It was the voice of an American named Guy Hague, who originally came from Long Beach, California. He told me later that he had been honorably discharged from the American Navy in the Philippines and had then worked his way to India, taking up the study of Yoga when he reached Bombay. Then he heard about Sri Ramana Maharshi and, feeling greatly drawn to him, decided to go to Tiruvannamalai. When I met him he had already been with the Maharshi for a year, sitting uninterruptedly day and night in the hall with the Sage.
He rose from where he was sitting against the wall and came toward me, taking my hand and leading me back to a place beside him against the wall. He did not at first speak to me, allowing me to pull myself together. I was able to look around the hall but my gaze was drawn to Bhagavan who was sitting absolutely straight in the Buddha posture looking directly in front of him. His eyes did not blink or in any way move. Because they seemed so full of light I had the impression they were gray. I learned later that they were brown, although there have been various opinions as to the color of his eyes. His body was naked except for a loincloth. I discovered soon after that this and his staff were absolutely his only possessions. His body seemed firm and as if tanned by the sun, although I found that the only exercise he ever took was a twenty-minute walk every afternoon at five o’clock when he walked on the hill and sometimes greeted Yogis who came to prostrate themselves at his feet. The rest of the time, day and night, and for over half a century, he had been sitting on his couch. He was a strict vegetarian, but he only ate what was placed before him and he never expressed a desire for any kind of food. As he sat there he seemed like a statue, and yet something extraordinary emanated from him. I had a feeling that on some invisible level I was receiving spiritual shock from him although his gaze was not directed toward me. He did not seem to be looking at anything, and yet I felt he could see and was conscious of the whole world.
“Bhagavan is in samadhi,” Guy Hague said.
Samadhi is a very difficult state to explain. In fact I do not think anyone has ever explained it. Doctors have tried to analyze it from a medical and physical point of view, and have failed. I have heard it described as “a state of spiritual ecstasy in which consciousness leaves the body.” But this is not the whole phenomenon, as the breath stops and so does the beating of the heart. But it is not a form of trance as in the trance state both of these continue. It is claimed that samadhi is a state attained only by highly enlightened people–people who have reached Spiritual Illumination. It is a state where the spirit temporarily leaves the body and goes into one of bliss. All the Enlightened Ones who have attained samadhi describe it as Bliss. In the last century the great saint Ramakrishna often went into samadhi. The Maharshi would go into it for hours at a time, and often for days. When I arrived at the ashram he had already been in it seven hours.
I looked around. Squatting on the floor or sitting in the Buddha posture or lying prostrate face down, a number of Indians prayed– some of them reciting their mantras out loud. Several small monkeys came into the hall and approached Bhagavan. They climbed onto his couch and broke the stillness with their gay chatter. He loved animals and any kind was respected and welcomed by him in the ashram. They were treated as the equals of humans and always addressed by names. Sick animals were brought to Bhagavan and kept by him on his couch or on the floor beside him until they were well. Many animals had died in his arms. When I was there he had a much-beloved cow who wandered in and out of the hall, and often lay down beside him and licked his hand. He loved to tell stories about the goodness of animals. He was very fond, too, of snakes and many came into the hall to pay their respects. He always had a little milk for them. It was remarkable that none of the animals ever fought or attacked each other.
The story of the Bhagavan is a simple but unique one. Born into a poor Brahmin family of South India, at the age of seventeen he asked himself “Who am I?” He said, “I am not this changing body, nor am I these passing thoughts.” Then he tried to imagine death. He stretched out and so vividly visualized himself dead that his body became cold and lifeless. This convinced him that the body was not he, but only a cloak that would be cast off at death. He decided that the goal of every life should be to find the Self and that nothing else was important. He had heard of the sacred hill of Arunachala and had long been attracted to it. He decided to go there and start the quest for the Self. He first went to the temple in Tiruvannamalai. There he meditated for several months with such spiritual absorption that the temple priest began to wonder about him. But people, sensing his holiness, became his devotees. Feeling that he was attracting too much attention in the temple, he left it and one night wound his way up the hill of Arunachala. At this early time he took up his abode in a cave and, until his death fifty-four years later, he never left the hill. Devotees found him and asked his help and guidance. Out of compassion he allowed them to live near him and from then until his death he allowed anyone–poor and rich, great and humble–to come freely to see him. He himself, through the quest of the Self, found Enlightenment, living out his long life in the egoless state but subject, nevertheless, to all the conditions of human pain and sickness. Bhagavan was asked many times about his egoless state. He explained it and said, “The Gnani (the Enlightened) continually enjoys uninterrupted, transcendental experience, keeping his inner attention always on the Source, in spite of the apparent existence of the ego, which the ignorant imagine to be real. This apparent ego is harmless; it is like the skeleton of a burnt rope–though it has form, it is of no use to tie anything with.”
After I had been sitting several hours in the hall listening to the mantras of the Indians and the incessant droning of flies, and lost in a Sort of inner world, Guy Hague suggested that I go and sit near the Maharshi. He said, “You can never tell when Bhagavan will come out of samadhi. When he does, I am sure he will be pleased to see you, and it will be beneficial for you, at this moment, to be sitting near him.”
I moved near Bhagavan, sitting at his feet and facing him. Guy was right. Not long after this Bhagavan opened his eyes. He moved his head and looked directly down at me, his eyes looking into mine. It would be impossible to describe this moment and I am not going to attempt it. I can only say that at this second I felt my inner being raised to a new level–as if, suddenly, my state of consciousness was lifted to a much higher degree. Perhaps in this split second I was no longer my human self but the Self. Then Bhagavan smiled at me. It seemed to me that I had never before known what a smile was. I said, “I have come a long way to see you.” He said, “I knew you were coming and I have been guiding your steps.” There was a silence. I had stupidly brought a piece of paper on which I had written a number of questions I wanted to ask him. I fumbled for it in my pocket, but the questions were already answered by merely being in his presence. There was no need for questions or answers. Nevertheless, my dull intellect expressed one.
“Tell me, whom shall I follow–what shall I follow? I have been trying to find this out for years by seeking in religions, in philosophies, in teachers and teachings.” Again there was a silence. After a few minutes, which seemed to me a long trine, he spoke.
“You are not telling the truth. You are just using words–just talking. You know perfectly well whom to follow. Why do you need me to confirm it?”
“You mean I should follow my inner self?” I asked.
“I don’t know anything about your inner self. You should follow the Self. There is nothing or no one else to follow.”
I asked again, “What about religions, teachers, gurus?”
“If they can help in the quest of the Self. But can they help? Can religion, which teaches you to look outside yourself, which promises a heaven and a reward outside yourself, can this help you? It is only by diving deep into the Spiritual Heart that one can find the Self.” He placed his right hand on my right breast and continued, “Here lies the Heart, the Dynamic, Spiritual Heart. It is called Hridaya and is located on the right side of the chest and is clearly visible to the inner eye of an adept on the Spiritual Path. Through meditation you can learn to find the Self in the cave of this Heart.
It is a strange thing but when I was very young, Ignacio Zuloaga said to me, “All great people function with the heart.” He placed his hand over my physical heart and continued, “See, here lies the heart. Always remember to think with it, to feel with it, and above all, to judge with it.”
But the Enlightened One raised the counsel to a higher level. He said, “Find the Self in the real Heart.”
Both, just at the right moment in my life, showed me the Way.
Bhagavan was not a philosopher and he did not set himself up as a teacher, a master or a guru. He made the same statement all through his life–that there is no use knowing anything if one does not know the Self. He said, “Without knowing the Self, of what avail is it to know anything else? And, knowing the Self, what else remains yet to know? all else but the Self is ignorance.” He pointed out a path to Liberation through the practice of “Self Enquiry” and the question “Who am I?” If this question is pursued and narrowed down, the questioner will arrive at understanding that there is no “I” because I am not my hands, my feet, my body, my so-called personality, or even my brain. I am certainly not my physical sum total, because, when I am dead, where am l? Does some success flatter me? I must ask the question “Who is flattered?” Am I sad? I ask the question “Who is sad?” By remembering that I am not the doer it is possible to understand the illusion of the world. Bhagavan gave as an example a bank clerk who handles money daily, but without agitation because he knows it is not his money. So, too, it is not the Real Self that is affected by changes of states or fortunes.
People said to Bhagavan, “I would like to find God.” His answer was: “Find the Self first and then you won’t have to worry about God.” And once a man said to him, “I don’t know whether to be a Catholic or a Buddhist.” Bhagavan asked him, “What are you now?” The man answered, “I am a Catholic.” He then said, “Go home and be a good Catholic and then you will know whether you should be a Buddhist or not.”
Bhagavan pointed out to me that the Real Self is timeless. “But,” he said, “in spite of ignorance, no man takes seriously the fact of death. He may see death around him, but he still does not believe that he will die. He believes, or rather, feels, in some strange way, that death is not for him. Only when the body is threatened does he fall a victim to the fear of death. Every man believes himself to be eternal, and this is actually the truth. This truth asserts itself in spite of man’s ignorant belief that the body is the Self.”
I asked him how to pray for other people. He answered, “If you are abiding within the Self, there are no other people. You and I are the same. When I pray for you I pray for myself and when I pray for my- self I pray for you. Real prayer is to abide within the Self. This is the Meaning of Tat Twam Asi–I Am Thou. There can be no separation in the Self. There is no need for prayer for yourself or any person other than to abide within the Self.”
I said, “Bhagavan, you say that I am to take up the Search for the Self by Atman Vichara, asking myself the question Who Am I? I say I ask Who Are You?
Bhagavan answered, “When you know the Self, the ‘I’ ‘You’ ‘He’ and ‘She’ disappear. They merge together in pure Consciousness.”
I understood then that Bhagavan, being egoless, could not speak for himself in terms of “I” or “We.” His nearest approach to a direct answer was “Pure Consciousness” which to a discriminating mind did not answer the question, though it could not be answered in any other way. Bhagavan, abiding in the egoless state, was awake only to Truth and the Real Self. He was asleep to the world, the appearance of which is false, being born out of and sustained by ignorance.
Noticing one time what I thought were some evil-looking priests who had come from the temple, I remarked on them to Bhagavan. He said, “What do you mean by evil? I do not know the difference between what you call good and evil. To me they are both the same thing just the opposite sides of the coin.” I should have known this. Bhagavan was, of course, beyond duality. He was beyond love and hatred, beyond good and evil, and beyond all pairs of opposites.
To write of this experience with Bhagavan, to recapture and record all that he said, or all that his silences implied, is like trying to put the Infinite into an egg cup. One small chapter cannot in any way do him justice or give an impression of his Enlightenment, and I do not think that I am far enough spiritually advanced–if at all–to try to interpret his Supreme Knowledge. On me he had, and still has, a profound influence. I feel it presumptuous to say he changed my life. My life was perhaps not so important as all this. But I definitely saw life differently after I had been in his presence, a presence that just by merely “being” was sufficient spiritual nourishment for a lifetime. It may have been that when I returned from India undiscerning people saw very little change in me. But there was a change–a transformation of my entire consciousness. And how could it have been otherwise? I had been in the atmosphere of an egoless, world-detached, and completely Pure Being.
I sat in the hall with Bhagavan three days and three nights. Sometimes he spoke to me, other times he was silent and I did not interrupt his silence. Often he was in samadhi. I wanted to stay on there with him but finally he told me that I should go back to America. He said, “There will be what will be called a ‘war,’ but which, in reality, will be a great world revolution. Every country and every person will be touched by it. You must return to America. Your destiny is not in India at this time.”
Before leaving the Ashram, Bhagavan gave me some verses he had selected from the Yoga Vasishta. He said they contained the essence for the Path of a Pure Life.
Steady in the state of fullness which shines when all desires are given up, and peaceful in the state of freedom in life, act playfully in the world, O Bhagava!
Inwardly free from all desires, dispassionate and detached, but outwardly active in all directions, act playfully in the world, O Bhagava!
Free from egoism, with mind detached as in sleep, pure like the sky, ever untainted, act playfully in the world, O Bhagava!
Conducting yourself nobly with kindly tenderness, outwardly conforming to conventions but inwardly renouncing all, act playfully in the world, O Bhagava!
Quite unattached at heart but for all appearance acting as with attachment, inwardly cool but outwardly full of fervor, act play- fully in the world, O Bhagava!
I sorrowfully said farewell to Bhagavan. As I was leaving he said, “You will return here again.” I wonder. Since his physical presence has gone I wonder if I shall. Yet often I feel the pull of Arunachala as though it were drawing me back. I feel the pull of that Sacred Hill of which he was so much a part, and where his mortal body lies buried.
Guy walked with me down the hill into the town. We went to the temple and saw the spot where Bhagavan had first attained samadhi. Then I went by car to see the beautiful temple in Madura, stopping on the way to see other temples in southern India. From Madura I went to Ceylon, stopping first at Colombo. I went, of course, to Kandy and to a number of places and temples throughout the island sacred to Buddhists. In Anuradhapura I had a deeply spiritual experience. I sat beneath the sacred Pipal or Bo-Tree under which Buddha often sat and preached his sermons. It was transplanted from Buddhgaya, in India, to Anuradhapura by the Princess Sanghamitta around 288 B.C. It is the oldest historical tree existing. To me it was more than a tree. It was the living essence of Buddha himself. It had sheltered the Tathagata and surely drunk into its very roots the Supreme Holiness of the Blessed One. I touched its trunk and leaves and felt purified. And I sat beneath its shade and meditated.
While visiting a Buddhist monastery, a monk asked me if I came from America. When I told him that I did he said there was a monk in the monastery who was an American, but that, unfortunately, she was in India on the road with the begging bowl. In Buddhist monasteries no distinction is made between men and women. They both wear the yellow robe, shave their heads, are considered monks and are known only by the name they take when they enter the order. When I inquired this monk’s name, he said he would go and look it up in the book. He came back with it written on a slip of paper. It was Constant Lounsbery. This was a great surprise to me as I had been looking for Constant Lounsbery since Rita’s death in 1929. I had wanted to thank her for the very touching piece she had written about Rita then in the Paris Herald Tribune. I left a note for her there in Ceylon.
And there in Ceylon I received word from Gandhi that he would see me. I had written him before coming to India, but his answer had followed me around from one place to another and now, sadly enough, I did not have the money or the energy to retrace my steps and go north to him. Besides I felt that having seen the Maharshi, my cup was already filled and, in a sense, brimming over. I wired my regrets, thinking I would see him the next time I went to India. Alas. Had I known I surely would have made the effort.
Consuelo was there in Ceylon with me. Together we sailed on the S.S. Victoria from Colombo, the same ship we had arrived in India on. Two days later it stopped in Bombay. Consuelo couldn’t make up her mind whether or not to get off and stay on in India a few weeks longer. At the last minute she got off and I sailed alone back to Europe.
Before leaving the ashram I wrote down several questions for Guy to ask Bhagavan that I had not had a chance to ask myself. I had been bothered by the fact that so many saints and enlightened people had been ill and suffering physically. I asked, should they not have perfect bodies and why do they not cure themselves? In Europe I got a letter from Guy saying he had discussed my question with Bhagavan. He wrote, “Bhagavan told me to tell you that the spiritually perfect person need not necessarily have a perfect body. The reason, as he explained it, is very simple- You see, the ego, the body and the mind are the same thing. The spiritually perfect person, like Bhagavan, is above these three things. Consequently he has no body to heal, neither a mind–or ego–to heal it with. He is beyond all this because it is illusion. He is living in Reality. Christian Scientists can take the mind and heal the body–for they are the same thing. American Indians heal, too, in this manner. It is faith healing. But if the spiritually perfect person is sick in body it is because the bodyis working out its Karma. Bhagavan gave an illustration of Karma, which he says is like an electric fan and must just run its course, only gradually ceasing even after it has been turned off. He says the mind is born into illusion and builds a body and a world to suit it–that is, a world that it has earned and deserves (by its Karma). Bhagavan, knowing the body and the mind to be illusion, cannot experience any bodily ailment or discomfort. We make him suffer pain, loss of weight, etc. It is in our minds not his. He is bodiless, actually is, though you and I cannot realize this as a fact.”
In another letter Guy answered my questions, which led to others. He wrote down my questions and Bhagavan’s answers.
Question: Is reincarnation a fact?
Bhagavan: You are incarnated now, aren’t you? Then you will be so again. But as the body is illusion then the illusion will repeat itself and keep on repeating itself until you find the Real Self.
Question: What is death and what is birth?
Bhagavan: Only the body has death and birth, and it [the body] is illusion. There is, in Reality, neither birth nor death.
Question: How much time may elapse between death and rebirth?
Bhagavan: Perhaps one is reborn within a year, three years or thousands of years. Who can say? Anyway what is time? Time does not exist.
Question: Why have we no memory of past lives?
Bhagavan: Memory is a faculty of the mind and part of the illusion. Why do you want to remember other lives that are also illusions? If you abide within the Self, there is no past or future and not even a present since the Self is out of time–timeless.
Question: Are the world, the mind, ego and the body all the same thing?
Bhagavan: Yes. They are one and the same thing. The mind and the ego are one thing, but there is no word to explain this. You see, the world cannot exist without the mind, the mind cannot exist without what we call the ego [itself, really] and the ego cannot exist without a body.
Question: Then when we leave this body, that is when the ego leaves it, will it [the ego] immediately grasp another body?
Bhagavan: Oh, yes, it must. It cannot exist without a body.
Question: What sort of a body will it grasp then?
Bhagavan: Either a physical body or a subtle-mental-body.
Question: Do you call this present physical body the gross body?
Bhagavan: Only to distinguish it–to set it apart in conversation. It is really a subtle-mental-body also.
Question: What causes us to be reborn?
Bhagavan: Desires. Your unfulfilled desires bring you back. And in each case–in each body–as your desires are fulfilled, you create new ones. You must conquer desire to be absorbed into the One and thus end rebirth.
Question: Can sex change in rebirth?
Bhagavan: Oh, surely. We have all been both sexes many times.
Question: Is it possible to sin?
Bhagavan: Having a body, which creates illusion, is the only sin, and the body is our only hell. But it is right that we observe moral laws. The discussion of sin is too difficult for a few lines.
Queston: Does one who has realized the Self lose the sense of “I”?
Question: Then to you there is no difference between yourself and myself, that man over there, my servant, are all the same?
Bhagavan: All are the same, including those monkeys.
Question: But the monkeys are not people. Are they not different?
Bhagavan: They are exactly the same as people. All creatures are the same in One Consciousness.
Question: Do we lose our individuality when we merge into the Self?
Bhagavan: There is no individuality in the Self. The Self is One–Supreme.
Question: Then individuality and identity are lost?
Bhagavan: You don’t retain them in deep sleep, do you?
Question: But we retain them from one birth to another, don’t we?
Bhagavan: Oh, yes. The “I” thought [the ego] will recur again, only each time you identify with it a different body and different surroundings around the body. The effects of past acts [Karma] will continue to control the new body just as they did the old one. It is Karma that has given you this particular body and placed it in a particular family, race, sex, surroundings and so forth.
Bhagavan added, “These questions are good, but tell de Acosta [he always called me de Acosta] she must not become too intellectual about these things. It is better just to meditate and have no thought. Let the mind rest quietly on the Self in the cave of the Spiritual Heart. Soon this will become natural and then there will be no need for questions. Do not imagine that this means being inactive. Silence is the only real activity.” Then Guy added, “Bhagavan says to tell you that he sends you his blessings.”
This message greatly comforted me.
On my way back to Europe my boat stopped at Port Said. I landed there and motored across the desert to Cairo where I stayed three days and then caught the ship again when it docked at Alexandria.
In Cairo I stayed at the old famous Shepheard’s Hotel. I spent one day in the museum seeing the Tut-Ankh-Amon collection, and the second day I rode out by camel to see the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. When I reached the Pyramid it was nearly sunset. There was no one around except my own dragoman and one or two Arabs sleeping against their kneeling camels. I decided to climb to the top of the Pyramid. Although it towered above me, tapering off into the sky, and looked terribly high, I did not realize how high it was until I started climbing. I started out briskly but after a certain distance I grew tired and my pace slackened. The steps of the Pyramid are very narrow and eroded, but I was determined to reach the top. Thoroughly exhausted, I finally did. The sun had already gone down. I turned and looked down the steep and awesome slope of the Pyramid. Suddenly I was overcome by the most frightful vertigo. My head swam and I felt that I was going to plunge to my death. I crouched on the narrow steps and clung to the top of the Pyramid so fiercely that my nails broke against the stone and my fingers bled. I could not bring myself to look down again. An agonizing fear took hold of me. I felt cold sweat pouring over my face, neck, and back. I became hysterical. What was I to do? I knew if I let go I would fall, but I also knew I could not hold on much longer. I closed my eyes. I remembered what the Maharshi said – to dive deep into the Spiritual Heart. I summoned every faculty and all power within me and concentrated on the Heart. Suddenly I saw it, like a great light, in my mind’s eye. In the center I saw the Maharshi’s face smiling at me. Instantly I felt calm. I turned and looked down. Far below I saw a man waving at me. I loosened one hand and held it over my head, then I waved back. The man began calling someone else. Another man ran to him. Swiftly they began to climb. They climbed expertly and fast but it seemed hours to me. Probably it took them about thirty-five minutes to reach me. One man had a rope. He tied it around my waist and gently stroked my face. He mumbled some words that I could not understand, but I knew they were kind words to encourage me. Between them, each one holding the rope as though we were mountain climbing, we began to descend. Eventually we reached the bottom safely.
Some time after this I was told by an enlightened person that climbing the Great Pyramid was considered in ancient Egypt one of the ‘fear tests’ which students had to pass in order to be initiated into the great religious mysteries. Aspirants were required to climb to the very top of the Pyramid, and if on reaching the top of it he or she could conquer fear, this particular test was won.” Mercedes de Acosta, Here Lies the Heart; an excerpt from The Maharshi, 1960, 1994
Numero Tres—“Nelson Algren was the son of a no-luck working stiff and the grandson of a religious zealot turned grifter, and he was a type of loser we can’t stomach in this country. Algren made his living as a writer for forty years, occasionally to great acclaim. At the height of his career, wealth, leisure, and the lasting respect of his peers were on offer, but Algren shrugged at those prospects and kept going his own way. For Algren, the decision was as much a question of constitution as it was of rational choice, and he paid for it dearly. America has always been able to countenance beggars, short-con men, and nine-to-fivers who just can’t get ahead, but we’ve never known what to do with the type of person who could have been really big but chose not to make the concessions required.Algren wrote eleven books in his lifetime: one polemical, amateurish, and overwritten; five brilliant; one bitter, satirical, and unfocused; and four very good; more or less in that order. From the publication of his first book, in 1935, until his death, in 1981, every word Algren wrote was guided by the belief that writing can be literature only if intended as a challenge to authority. He didn’t compromise that position when Hollywood called, or the FBI, or Joseph McCarthy, junior senator from Wisconsin, or even for the sake of his own sanity after he decided that his life’s work had been in vain. Which may be why all of his books were out of print when he died, alone in the bathroom of a $375-a-month Long Island rental, at the age of seventy-two. Only a few friends, no family, and a single black-clad fan were present at his funeral to hear Joe Pintauro, a young writer of short acquaintance, read seven lines of Algren’s poetry as a pressboard coffin was lowered into the ground:
Again that hour when taxies start deadheading home
Before the trolley-buses start to run
And snow dreams in a lace of mist drift down
When from asylum, barrack, cell and cheap hotel
All those whose lives were lived by someone else
Come once again with palms outstretched to claim
What rightly never was their own
Algren was born Nelson Algren Abraham in Detroit in 1909, where his father, Gersom Abraham, worked at the Packard plant. Gersom was a plodding, uneducated, inarticulate man who married young, regretted leaving the family dirt farm in Indiana, and felt most at ease with mechanical objects. ‘Other men wished to be forever drunken,’ Algren once wrote. ‘He wished to be forever fixing.’ Gersom made a living as a mechanic, mostly, but had a regular habit of hitting his superiors without warning, for reasons he never could verbalize. At one point he opened a garage, and ran it with so little guile that his teenage son, Nelson, felt obliged to tell him that when he sold parts he should mark up their price. Gersom declined the advice, and eventually lost everything to repossession or foreclosure.
The family moved to Chicago in 1913, and settled in a South Side Protestant neighborhood, where Algren had a sandlot sort of childhood. He delivered the Abendpost with a pushcart, and picked up discarded corks and bottles for pocket change. When the White Sox were in the World Series, Algren began calling himself “Swede,” after Swede Risberg—the Swede walked pigeon-toed and so did Algren. In 1921, the family moved to the Near Northwest Side and Algren, then twelve, began sneaking into the local pool hall. When gamblers connected to Capone opened the Hunting House Dancing Academy on the same block as his father’s garage, Algren talked his way past the doorman and went upstairs, where he learned to gamble and watched police officers collect bribes. By seventeen he had ditched his childhood friends and begun exploring Prohibition-era Chicago, knocking on the unmarked doors of speakeasies and offering the phrase “Joe sent me.” 
In September 1927, Algren began attending the University of Illinois, Urbana. His parents couldn’t pay, or understand why he wanted more schooling, but his older sister Bernice could. She had married into a small amount of money, and offered to help finance his four years at Urbana. To cover living expenses, Algren worked for the university, hustled pool, and set pins in a bowling alley. Later he claimed that he spent his free time in Chicago’s slums and never socialized on campus. In his sophomore year Algren decided to become a sociologist, and then resigned himself to journalism because he couldn’t afford a master’s degree. He graduated the next year, possessed by the very American dream of making a living writing respectable, sociologically informed journalism.
Never mind the bleak 1931 economy, Algren believed he was going to have an easy time finding work. He borrowed money for an interview suit, passed a test administered by the Illinois Press Association that qualified him as a reporter or editor, and set off hitchhiking through the Midwest clutching a card certifying he was a newspaper man. He stopped in Minneapolis, where he lived in a whorehouse and then the YMCA, and wrote headlines for the Minneapolis Journal. He was there for a few weeks before asking for his check and learning there wouldn’t be one. The paper had been doing him a favor, he was told, by allowing him to gain experience. Defeated and broke, he hitched back to Chicago and the home his parents had just mortgaged. He was depressed and directionless, and when his family pressed him to find work, he headed south.
Among the tens of thousands of hobos hitching and hopping freight that summer in search of work they never did find, at least one wore a suit bought with borrowed money. Algren still thought he could find work with a newspaper, and applied to every one he found as he drifted through Illinois, down the Mississippi, and through east Texas. His tramping ended in New Orleans, where he slept under the stars, on park benches or in alleys, and lived off chicory coffee and bananas given to him by a local mission.
By the end of the summer, Algren submitted. He pawned the suitcase but kept the suit, which may have been the thing that attracted the Luthers. The Luthers were a pair of confidence men who shared a pseudonym and needed a legit-looking patsy. One was a Texan with a steel plate in his skull, a remnant of a World War I injury; the other was a Floridian, long on get-rich-quick schemes and short on work ethic. Algren met them while working door-to-door sales on commission and rarely earning enough to eat. He was young, pretty, and poor enough to demean himself: exactly what the Luthers were looking for.
The new trio printed counterfeit certificates for free hairstyling that they distributed, for a small gratuity, to every New Orleans housewife who answered when they heard a knock. The scam earned one of the Luthers a beating from a group of angry husbands. After that, the group fled the city for the Rio Grande Valley, where they picked fruit for seventy-five cents a shift, until the day the steel-skulled Luther returned to the picking shed holding a pistol and informed the other two that they were going to rob a supermarket called the Jitney Jungle. Algren and the Florida Luther ran again, and stopped next in Harlingen, Texas, where Luther convinced a Sinclair agent to lease them an abandoned gas station on a road no one drove. Algren signed the papers, took responsibility for the station, and bought gas with money provided by a friend from Chicago. As a sideline, he shucked and canned black-eyed peas, received on credit from local farmers. Luther disappeared and then returned only long enough to siphon gas and vanish again, leaving Algren to answer to the farmers and account for their debts to Sinclair; he nearly starved.
“Well, here you get to be a writer when there’s absolutely nothing else you can do,” Algren told the Paris Review in 1955. Harlingen was the place where he realized there was nothing else he could do. Hungry, alone, and having just been hustled, he limped home. He was picked up for vagrancy in El Paso, and walked out of the drunk tank through the cell’s unlocked door.
When Algren returned to Chicago, by way of a thousand small towns, he possessed nothing but a few angry letters written on the road and a new dedication to writing. His vagabondage had divorced him of his middle-class pretensions. He had tried to play by the rules and hadn’t made good, and maybe, he reasoned, the same was true of the people he had met in Chicago’s slums, New Orleans’s whorehouses, and Texas’s hobo jungles. He had witnessed enough predation during his year on the road to last a lifetime. All of it troubled him, but none more than the violence committed under the guise of authority: the police who beat train jumpers for reward money, or locked Algren up for being broke in the wrong town. From that point forward, no matter his sporadic moments of fame, Algren identified himself with society’s losers. Even near the height of his influence, in 1953, he described a writer’s proper stance toward the status quo by writing: “If you feel you belong to things as they are, you won’t hold up anyone in the alley no matter how hungry you may get. And you won’t write anything that anyone will read a second time either.”
In Chicago, Algren lived with his parents and associated himself with a group of young writers. He produced a consistent string of rejects before Larry Lipton, a friend and fellow author, suggested that he rework one of his Texas letters into a piece of short fiction. The result, “So Help Me,” is a retelling of Luther’s plan to rob the Jitney Jungle that results in the death of Algren’s fictional counterpart. The piece was accepted by Story magazine around the time Algren joined the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club, which was part of a national network connected to the Communist Party. Richard Wright was also a member. He and Algren became close; six years later, Algren would give Wright the title for his most famous book, Native Son.
Algren received a letter from Vanguard Press in late 1933, asking whether he was working on a novel. Not knowing how to respond and too excited to play it cool, he hitchhiked to New York City and presented himself to James Henle, Vanguard’s president. At twenty four, Algren assessed himself as a promising new commodity and demanded what he imagined to be a professional rate. A hundred dollars, he figured, would be enough to get him back to Texas and pay for room, board, rolling tobacco, and liquor for four months, at the end of which he would have a book. Henle gladly gave him what he asked for.
Algren headed south from New York City, traveling rough, and paying close attention to the men he hoboed with. By the time his freight passed the spires of a college building in a small southwestern Texas town called Alpine, he had the main character of his first novel. The book was written, for the most part, on the campus of Sul Ross State Teachers College, which Algren accessed by presenting his commission letter from Vanguard Press to the college’s president. He wrote frantically for four months, occasionally holding court for students, and then, because part of the story took place in Chicago, he headed home. Along the way he spent a few weeks in jail, and nearly died after being trapped inside a refrigerated train car. 
The book produced as a result of Algren’s hoboing, incarceration, and return to Chicago’s left-wing literary circles was a polemical mediocrity. Two of the four sections of Somebody in Boots were introduced by quotations from the Communist Manifesto. The main character, Cass McKay, a petty criminal who desires only a tattoo and the love of a woman named Norah, experiences or witnesses violence and exploitation so severe they supplant the plot. In the introduction to a paperback reissue of Somebody, published thirty years after the original, Algren himself assessed the book as “an uneven novel written by an uneven man in the most uneven of American times.”
Somebody in Boots was Algren’s big chance, but when he stepped into the ring he swung and he missed. It was released in March 1935, and a year later it had sold only 762 copies. Algren hadn’t found a straight job, and after his publishing failure it seemed he wouldn’t be able to make it as a writer. He had nowhere to go, and no idea what to do next, and so resigned himself to nothingness. In the apartment of a girlfriend whose name has been forgotten, Algren removed the gas line from the back of a stove, placed it in his mouth, and breathed methane. The girlfriend discovered Algren nearly but not quite dead, and handed him over to Larry Lipton and Richard Wright, who looked after him for months. Eventually they had him committed to a hospital, which discharged him to his parents’ apartment. He spent the remainder of his life denying his suicide attempt.
Seven years passed between the publication of Algren’s first book and his second, and during those years he grew into himself and became the stubborn, hilarious, fiercely loyal, brilliant, pugnacious, and fickle person he would be until his death. He met a woman named Amanda Kontowicz at a party thrown by Richard Wright, and they began living together in desperate poverty.  Algren stole food so they could eat, and he and Amanda sometimes lived for days on milk, potatoes, and onions.
When she could find work, Amanda cleaned houses. Algren stacked boxes in a warehouse and then worked in a health club, where he hosed off businessmen as they completed their workouts. During those years he cultivated friendships with literary types, and also nickel-ante gamblers, criminals, and his peers, the undistinguished poor. Eventually Wright secured a job for Algren with the Works Progress Administration, first as a writer and then as an editor. After hours he went bowling with Studs Terkel and Howard Rushmore, and drank and caroused with a gang of small-time criminals who called themselves the Fallonites.
Writing came in fits and starts. Algren founded and edited the New Anvil, a journal of “proletariat” literature, with his friend Jack Conroy, and published poetry, once in Esquire. He placed a few short stories. For material, he corresponded with inmates in Illinois prisons, haunted lineups at Chicago police stations, and observed criminal trials. In 1939 he created a pretext for leaving Amanda so he would have more time to write, and by ’40 he was living in a flat without a telephone, near the heart of Chicago’s Polish triangle. Emboldened by Wright’s success with Native Son, he had begun a new book. When he wasn’t writing, he played cards in backroom games, spoke with the residents of the transient hotels lining South State Street, and visited the psychiatric institution at Lincoln.
That year marked the beginning of a stretch during which Algren would produce his greatest works. He wrote five books in quick succession: Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, The Man with the Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, and Nonconformity. With each one he advanced and expanded upon his conviction that the role of the artist is to challenge authority. He pressed that refrain throughout his life, at every opportunity he found. The formulation that best captures his intention and method is: “The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.” After his first book, Algren never traded in the idea that the poor are purely victims. Sometimes the accused were guilty, he believed, sometimes innocent, either way their perspective deserved consideration.
His publisher didn’t like it, but Algren took his time writing Never Come Morning, the book that redeemed him. He delayed for artistic reasons and because both his sister and his father died before his deadline. By 1941 he had completed his manuscript; it was published the next year.
Morning contains a complete world bounded by the limits of Chicago’s Polish triangle and populated by characters who resist simple categorization. The book’s protagonists, Bruno “Lefty” Bicek and his love interest, Steffi Rostenkowski, are young, poor, self-serving, and ignorant of the world beyond the few blocks they grew up on. But neither is a caricature. Steffi, Algren wrote, is “one of those women of the very poor who feign helplessness to camouflage indolence. She had been called upon, as a child, following her father’s death, for so many duties, the family’s circumstances being so precarious, that she had early learned evasion.” Bruno Bicek is a sandlot baseball player and sometimes-boxer who lives with his widowed mother and desires fame in the uncomplicated way a child longs for birthday presents. Bicek is a tough guy, to be feared—that’s the word he puts around—but his self-image is never certain:
Bruno Bicek from Potomac Street had his own cunning, he’d argue all day, with anyone, about anything, in daylight, and always end up feeling he’d won, that he’d been right all along. He’d refute himself, in daylight, for the mere sake of an argument.
But at night, alone, he refuted no one, denied nothing. He saw himself close up and clearly then, too clear for any argument. As clear, as close up, as the wolf’s head in the empty window.
That was the trouble with daylight.
Rough as he claims to be, Lefty is a coward when it counts. One night, Bicek’s gang follows him and Steffi to a shed where they plan to have sex. The gang waits outside while Bruno and Steffi drink and make love, and when the deed is done they connive to rape Steffi. At first Bicek protests, then he pleads, then he tries to negotiate, offering the gang’s leader, Kodadek, a better position on their baseball team the following year. “Next summer we’ll both be dead,” Kodadek says, dismissing him. Rather than lowering himself in his friends’ estimation by admitting that he loves Steffi, Bicek abandons her. He leaves the scene and returns drunk. Among Steffi’s attackers he spots a stranger, a Greek, and beats him to death because he doesn’t know what else to do, because he was too cowardly to defend Steffi or fight the man fair.
By turns brutal, terrified, disenfranchised, and murderous, Bicek is a far more nuanced and challenging protagonist than any Algren had created before; and he is evidence that Algren had, in the seven years separating his first two books, decided that bearing honest witness was a more effective means of challenging authority than protest was. The world of Somebody in Bootshad been a high-contrast, good-and-evil place, populated by two-dimensional characters who existed to advance Algren’s thesis. But the world of Never Come Morning is a finely rendered, gray-hued, fatalistic place populated by angry, hungry young people whose lives are governed by rules that are clear, though impossible to abide by. Not one of them is innocent. They prey foremost upon each other, but also upon the wider world, and they acknowledge responsibility for their actions and pay for them. The reader might empathize with or fear them, but they are above pity, victimhood, or stereotype.
With this book Algren got his due. The New York Times called Never Come Morning a “brilliant book and an unusual book,” and Malcolm Cowley declared Algren “not by instinct a novelist. He is a poet of the Chicago slums, and he might be [Carl] Sandburg’s successor.”
Morning went into a second and then a third printing. Algren had made a name for himself, but though he was finally confident in his ability to make a living as a writer, he couldn’t bank on his potential yet; he was broke again almost immediately. By that summer he was in East St. Louis, hanging around with the Fallonites and working as a welder, a trade he was not skilled in. He returned to Chicago after a few months and took a position with the Venereal Disease Control Project, working alongside Jack Conroy. Together they scoured the city’s brothels and transient hotels, looking for people who had contracted syphilis. Algren, of course, took notes. He supplemented his income by writing reviews for Poetry and the Chicago Sun-Times.
Algren and Amanda became a couple again, and then he was drafted into World War II. His induction form was stamped SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT, most likely because the FBI had been investigating him, at J. Edgar Hoover’s personal request, for the past two years. Algren was under suspicion of being a leftist agitator, and was never trusted to be anything more important than a litter-bearer as his unit traveled to Fort Bragg, then liberated France, the Netherlands, and Krefeld, Germany. He returned to Chicago in late 1945, rented a two-room flat on Wabansia at Bosworth for ten dollars a month, and began writing. Doubleday approached him, and off the lingering prestige of Never Come Morning Algren was promised sixty dollars a week to write a collection of stories and a war novel.
The Neon Wilderness, the resultant collection of short fiction, was published in 1947 to good sales and better reviews; its prestige would only grow with time. Six years after its publication, Maxwell Geismar judged the collection “perhaps one of the best we had in the 1940s.” In the introduction to the ’86 edition, Tom Carson declared it the book that established Algren as “one of the few literary originals of his time.”
His second success turned Algren into a public figure. Jack Conroy interviewed him on TV, then a new medium, and local cognoscenti groups like the Friends of Literature began calling. His profile was such that when Simone de Beauvoir passed through town that year, friends provided his number and told her to call.  He was, for the first time, in demand, well paid, and confident enough to begin shaping a few hundred pages of notes into his greatest work, The Man with the Golden Arm.Through 1947 and ’48 Algren worked out of his Wabansia flat and split his social time the way he always had. He spent nights with a group of morphine addicts, going to jazz clubs. His days, when he wasn’t writing, were spent with the intellectual set, sometimes onstage giving speeches that railed against the Taft-Hartley Act, Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, and the Hollywood blacklist.
Golden Arm, which was published in September 1949, opens slowly, revealing itself a sliver at a time in the personae of its characters: Frankie Machine, a veteran with the “right kind” of army discharge “and the Purple Heart,” who returned from the war with a piece of shrapnel in his liver and a morphine addiction. In his puddle-size world, he’s a big fish, though his only bankable skill is his ability to deal cards, which he does in a backroom game run by Zero Schwiefka. “That’s me—the kid with the golden arm,” Frankie brags. Sparrow Saltskin, “a kid from nowhere,” steers suckers into Frankie’s card game, and fills the daytime hours shoplifting and stealing dogs. Record Head Bednar, the police captain, a man “filled with the guilt of others,” picks up either of them anytime the neighborhood’s equilibrium requires it. Sophie, Frankie’s wife, who everyone calls “Zosh,” sequesters herself in the couple’s room, trapped by a psychosomatic injury and the idea that infirmity will keep Frankie from leaving her. Violet, Zosh’s only friend, cuckolds her husband with Sparrow, and justifies his thieving ways by declaring, “Lies are just a poor man’s pennies.”
If Golden Arm had a purpose, it was to challenge the idea, then congealing into ideology, that an individual’s social value is related to his or her wealth. Its message is that lives lived in the twilight hours, after swing shifts, in the shadows of newly erected towers, or beneath the tracks of the El, are as passionate, as meaningful, as funny and pointless, and as much a part of the American story as any. In Golden Arm, the war has ended and transformed the country. Postwar affluence has brought the world to Division Street in the form of billboards and handbills, television and neon signs, and an ethos that wrote the also-rans out of the script. Algren’s characters feel themselves diminished by everything new. Even the presence of a Division Street bar that serves mixed drinks is a dark portent.
In earlier books, Algren’s criminals were proud, angry, dangerous young people. Now they are older, and know they are a threat to no one but themselves. They don’t have words to name the ways their world has changed, and in place of rage they have self-pity. “‘I never get nowheres but I pay my own fare all the way,’” Frankie Machine boasts pathetically. The characters that populate Golden Arm live in closet-size rooms tucked inside weekly rate hotels; most work, drink in a dark bar called the Tug & Maul, and then retreat to Frankie’s card game, where they glance at each other, speak vaguely, and hide from the thing haunting them:
The great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. Guilt that lay crouched behind every billboard which gave each man his commandments; for each man here had failed the billboards all down the line. No Ford in this one’s future nor any place all his own. Had failed before the radio commercials, by the streetcar plugs and by the standards of every self-respecting magazine.
For my money, no book more elegantly describes the world of men and women whom the boom years were designed to pass by. In the decades after Golden Arm, the country obsessed over the behaviors and fates of women and men like Algren’s characters—and dedicated millions to altering them through wars on poverty and drugs—but in 1949 Algren was nearly alone in reminding the country that having an upper class requires having a lower class. For the skill and elegance of its prose, its compassion, and its prescience, I’d rank Golden Arm among the very best books written in the twentieth century. Before Algren’s fall from favor and the onset of his obscurity, many people agreed with that assessment. The book received glowing reviews from Time, the New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune, even the New Yorker. Doubleday nominated it for the Pulitzer, and Hemingway, who had declared Algren the second-best American writer (after Faulkner) when Never Come Morning was published, wrote a promotional quote that went too far for Doubleday’s taste but pleased Algren so much he taped it to his fridge:
Into a world of letters where we have the fading Faulkner and that overgrown Lil Abner Thomas Wolfe casts a shorter shadow every day, Algren comes like a corvette or even a big destroyer… Mr. Algren can hit with both hands and move around and he will kill you if you are not awfully careful… Mr. Algren, boy, are you good.
A. J. Liebling, a writer for the New Yorker, followed Algren around Chicago for a story, and Art Shay, a young photographer, spent months taking pictures for a Life magazine cover story. Irving Lazar, a Hollywood agent, called to offer Algren work writing dialogue for ten times what he made writing books. John Garfield, then a leading Hollywood man, wanted to play Frankie Machine on the big screen, and he had a producer lined up. In March 1950, Algren won the first National Book Award. It was presented to him in New York City, by Eleanor Roosevelt, in a ceremony that required Algren to don a tuxedo for the first time in his life. Writing in the introduction to a fiftieth-anniversary edition of Golden Arm, Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press, describes a picture of Algren from that night. “He is biting down on a cigar and grinning to himself like a hard-boiled Mona Lisa, unmistakably a man who has taken on the world and won, and even more surprisingly, a man who had expected to win all along.”
And that was the acme: not of Algren’s talent, but of his career. The fall came fast and the landing was hard. That fact may lead you to associate this story with the now-common artistic sin-and-redemption cliché, the type that requires its talented star to succeed only so his moral failings—maybe women, maybe drugs, usually both—can unravel his career and chasten him, so that once his talent returns him to prominence he will be grayer, wiser, and much more humble. But that’s not how this story goes. Algren had his vices—he never did see a dollar that wouldn’t look better at the center of a poker table—but it was virtue that unwound his life.
Before Golden Arm was published, Algren had a profile, but not much of one outside Chicago. In the years after, anyone interested would have been able to dredge up dozens of facts that unequivocally disqualified him from being a leading cultural figure in 1950s America. In ’48 alone, he stumped for Henry A. Wallace, the Progressive Party nominee for president, helped run the Chicago Committee for the Hollywood Ten, and signed an open letter to Soviet artists decrying “the exploiters who hope to convert America into a Fourth Reich.” When he got to Hollywood in 1950, he kept company with men like Albert Maltz, who would soon be sentenced to jail for his role in the Hollywood Ten affair. More damningly, Algren had been a communist for years.  Worse still, he didn’t regret anything he had done and didn’t intend to change his persona or his politics.
Over the next few years, Algren paid for his intransigence in ways large and small. The FBI trailed him in Hollywood. Art Shay laid out the Life cover story and waited by the presses for the finished product; the story never ran. Algren sold the film rights to Golden Arm, and shortly afterward his Hollywood agent went underground to avoid jail. John Garfield, also under investigation for his leftist sympathies, died of a heart attack at thirty-nine. Before his death, he sold the rights to Golden Armto Otto Preminger, who used the book to get Frank Sinatra his only Academy Award nomination for a lead role. The deal was more than a little questionable, and Algren’s biographer estimates Algren was cheated out of about $42,000 (about $360,000 today), which was far more than he had ever earned writing a book. Algren later claimed that he spent half the amount Garfield paid him for film rights and a complete script suing Preminger for control of his story. Algren had bought a small house with his proceeds, and by the end of the Hollywood debacle he had lost it to legal fees.
But it was his diminished ability to publish that cut closest to the bone. In the three years after Golden Arm, Algren wrote two short books, both nonfiction, both brilliant, unique, and unflinching in their critique of the country’s changing ethos. The first, Chicago: City on the Make, is a book-length prose poem that relays Chicago’s history through the lens of criminality. It may be among the most beautiful and brutally honest love letters ever written. The book opens with the theft of land from the Pottawatomie Indians, and ends in 1951, when “we do as we’re told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance to prove ourselves more abject than anyone yet for expenses to Washington and return.” Surprisingly, City on the Make received critical praise—“The finest thing on the city since [Carl] Sandburg’s Chicago Poems,” the Chicago Sun-Times decided—but unsurprisingly, it didn’t go beyond a second printing of five thousand copies.
The idea for Algren’s next book came in the summer of 1952, over drinks with a Chicago Daily News editor who asked Algren to write an essay for the paper’s book section. That winter Algren delivered a two-thousand-word anti-McCarthy essay that ran under the headline GREAT WRITING BOGGED DOWN IN FEAR, SAYS NOVELIST ALGREN. The essay ran fifteen months before Edward Murrow made his famous pass at McCarthy, and Algren’s was almost the only discordant voice. To his surprise, and his editor’s, the essay struck a chord. The Nation reprinted it, and progressive clergy members in two states introduced it into their sermons.
The essay had been extracted from a short book Algren had been writing on and off for more than a year, and in response to the attention it received, Doubleday asserted its contractual right to publish it. That was January 1953. In March, Algren was denied a passport. In April, two informants told the FBI he had been a communist in the ’30s; another came forward in June. Algren delivered his manuscript to Doubleday the same month. The book was to be published with an introduction by Max Geismar, who had assisted with the editing. Privately, Geismar wrote to Algren, “This will be one of the first books they will burn: congratulations.” In September, after delaying and then giving Algren the silent treatment, Doubleday refused to publish the book. Algren sent the completed manuscript to his agent for placement elsewhere, and it disappeared. Either his agent lost it, it was lost in the mail, or it was taken en route by the FBI—its fate has never been clear.
In 1956, Algren gave the carbons from the manuscript to Van Allen Bradley, the Daily News editor who had commissioned the essay that spawned the book, over somber drinks at Ricardo’s. After Algren’s death, Bradley delivered the carbons to Algren’s archive, where Bettina Drew, Algren’s biographer, found them. Algren’s lost manuscript was finally published, in 1996, by Seven Stories Press, as Nonconformity: Writing on Writing. In it, Algren argues that anyone can write, but literature can be created only by people who do not see themselves as part of “things as they are.” It had always been possible for the casual reader to think of Algren as a stylist whose characters were a matter of convenience or an attempt to entice a voyeuristic public. In Nonconformity, Algren set the record straight.
The book is grounded in its historic moment—“Between the pretense and the piety. Between the H Bomb and the A”—but timeless in its vision. For Algren, writing is not a trade or a hobby. It is a calling that requires practitioners give more of themselves emotionally than they can afford, and demands they tell the truest stories they possibly can, the kind that make the teller partner to the actions of their subjects, and create complicity in the telling. Everything else is just words on a page. In exchange for these sacrifices he guarantees no reward. Instead he promises commercial failure and the risk of emotional collapse, yet keeps faith with his vision and claims the other side asks more. They demand conformity.
Algren believed in the equality of ideas—not that all ideas are equal, but that the value of an idea bears no relation to the social status of the person who formulated it. That belief shapes the narrative of Nonconformity. Algren develops and challenges his argument using his own voice and the voices of dozens of others—Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald, Carpentier, Dooley, de Beauvoir, and Durocher among them —before arriving finally at the conclusion that the only vantage from which to write about America is the vantage of the impoverished. “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,” he wrote. That was a unique vision in 1953, and it still is; its suppression weakened our literary tradition.
Because he needed the money, Algren accepted a contract from Doubleday to rewrite Somebody in Boots. After stalling for three years, he went to work, not rewriting it but writing a new book that shared just enough scenes with Somebody to meet his contractual obligations. It was the first time he had written purely for the need of a check, and he judged himself harshly for the compromise. While working on his manuscript, he wrote to Millen Brand, a writer and friend, and declared that all the writers of the ’30s “gave up, quit cold, snitched, begged off, sold out, copped out, denied all, and ran.” He included himself in the category: “[Kenneth Fearing] is hacking, Ben Appel is hacking, I’m hacking too. Nobody stayed.”
Hacking or not, Algren abided by his own rules. The book was expertly written and comical, but, as in Somebody in Boots, the main character was a drifter who didn’t pretend at the American Dream. Doubleday returned the manuscript for rewrites, fearing that its publication would result in obscenity charges. Algren rewrote it, and Doubleday refused to publish it. The book went to Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, which published it as A Walk on the Wild Side in May 1956. This time the critics savaged Algren, not for the quality of the writing but for the book’s content. The vision that had made him a sensation in 1950 made him a pariah in 1956. “What he wants to say is that we live in a society whose bums and tramps are better men than the preachers and the politicians and the otherwise respectables,” Norman Podhoretz wrote in the New Yorker. Exactly right; but Podhoretz didn’t mean it as a compliment. In the Reporter, Leslie Fiedler declared Algren “a museum piece—the last of the proletarian writers.”
By September of 1956, Algren was so depressed by his reviews and his publishing prospects that his friends Neal Rowland and Dave Peltz had him institutionalized. He checked himself out two days later, and that December he walked across a partially frozen lagoon near the house he was about to lose in Gary, Indiana. He fell through the ice and was rescued by a group of working men who threw him a rope and dragged him to shore. He denied it had been a suicide attempt, but few of his friends were convinced.
History might have been kinder to Algren if he had died in 1956. Dead, he would have been a good candidate for rediscovery in the late 1960s or early ’70s, after the political pendulum had swung back the other way. He could have been framed as a heroic figure whose career—and life—had been cut short by McCarthy and the stifling conformity of 1950s America. You can almost see the modern-classics reissues being printed, and hear the PhD theses being typed. But he didn’t die, never quite went away, and refused to be championed.
About a year after he fell through the ice, Algren moved to a third-floor walkup at 1958 West Evergreen, near where he had lived when he wrote Never Come Morning, and a stone’s throw from where he’d grown up. He stayed in the apartment eighteen years, and for those years he ground out a steady-ish income giving speeches; selling reprint, foreign translation, and movie rights; and writing book reviews, magazine features, and three books.
From time to time the rehabilitation of his career seemed to be on offer, but he was never willing to cede the ground necessary to make that a possibility and he was too vulnerable to admit he was interested. In 1965, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop offered him fourteen thousand dollars to teach, a significant increase over its previous offers. He accepted because he needed the money, but taught on his own terms. He critiqued papers at the bar, or over a card table, and told his students that living life was the only way to become a writer. The next year he received and accepted a spate of lecturing offers, something he referred to as “Going on the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” because creating literature in ’66, as he saw it, required speaking out against the Vietnam War. Onstage Algren played a recording of Hemingway reading “Saturday Night at the Whorehouse in Billings, Montana,” and then inveighed against the war. The Tet Offensive was still two years away; the first large national protests wouldn’t happen for three.
In his thirties Algren had been beautiful. He had looked like a boy from the poor side of the working class, all grown up and pretending to be an intellectual who was pretending to be a tough guy. He was trim, and had the gently angular features of a European mutt; a dramatic widow’s peak centered attention on eyes that were kind, but two clicks shy of forthright. But as he aged, as Chicago and the country grew wealthier and more refined, Algren became more disheveled and idiosyncratic, as if in defiance of the times. He grew a gut and took to wearing polyester pants, often unzipped. If he spilled gravy on his tie, he dashed salt on it as well. And when a young fan sought him out to discuss literature and receive learned counsel, Algren met him at a bar, and the only advice he provided the young man in earnest was that he should visit the animal house at the Lincoln Park Zoo, and a girl named Candy who worked the corner of Kedzie and Sixteenth.
Much of Algren’s later work is brilliant, but he was never again a sensation and didn’t aspire to be one. He socialized with people he liked at the expense of people who could advance his career, and stopped taking himself seriously, at least outwardly. He began calling himself a journalist, and a “loser,” like Melville, and swore he’d never write another big book. When asked, he framed his new life the way his father would have framed his, if he had ever felt the need to explain himself. “If I could get by without writing, I’d be very happy,” he told an interviewer. “I write for financial reasons. I don’t figure I’m changing the world… I’m satisfied with this trade, which I do very easily—and because there’s really nothing else I can do.”
Most of that was bluster, designed to protect himself from the sort of criticism that had nearly killed him twice. Algren did see himself as a tradesman, but he did more than make a living; he kept creating literature, as he defined it. In 1964, he published a sort of sloppy autobiography called Conversations with Nelson Algren. And he wrote two travel books, Who Lost an American? and Notes from a Sea Diary, in ’63 and ’65, respectively. In ’73, a collection of Algren’s magazine writing, essays, and short fiction was published as The Last Carousel. These later books were uneven—sometimes lazy, often brilliant—but not one of them elided Algren’s conviction that it was his responsibility as a writer to challenge authority with “conscience in touch with humanity.”
Algren was still living in his West Evergreen flat in 1974 when the American Academy of Arts and Letters called to say it had voted unanimously to present him with the Award of Merit for the Novel—an honor shared only with Dreiser, Mann, Hemingway, Huxley, O’Hara, and Nabokov. He was in his mid-sixties, almost retired, and unwilling to become excited by an honor that would not enhance his ability to publish. Algren accepted the award graciously, in writing, but on the day of the awards ceremony he lectured to a garden club in Chicago. Years later, when Kurt Vonnegut, a friend and member of the Academy, asked what happened to the medal, Algren said it must have “rolled under the couch.”
Algren spent part of 1974 in Paterson, New Jersey, on assignment for Esquire. The magazine wanted a story about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a middle-weight boxer who had been convicted of multiple homicides. Carter’s guilt was unquestioned at the time, and Esquire wanted an Algrenesque piece about the psychology of a murderer. After reporting the story, Algren wrote a feature suggesting Carter’s innocence. Esquire rejected it on those grounds, and in so doing delivered Algren his last lost cause.
Despite his recent award, by 1975 Algren was sinking ever deeper into obscurity. Chicago was no longer the “drafty hustler’s junction” he had helped define, and few people living in the affluent present were interested in Algren’s tales of the shabby past. Though he had, during his travels, found his books in libraries in Asia and Europe, he couldn’t find a single one in Chicago’s main library. And when Playboy hosted a Chicago writers’ conference, he wasn’t even invited. Using the Carter case as his cover, Algren decided to leave the only city he really knew and exile himself to Paterson, a city he could still understand. Shortly after leaving Chicago, Algren was caught on camera at a party, deadpanning with Studs Terkel about his move. “Downtown Paterson is really… something you shouldn’t see after midnight,” he says. “It’s my kind of town. I like it, I like it.”
Four years into his exile, Algren, by then a poor old man, had a heart attack, which he hid from his friends. He had started shopping around a nonfiction book documenting the miscarriage of justice in the Carter case, but no publisher wanted journalism from Algren, they wanted fiction. He rewrote it as a novel, but when the time came to part with the manuscript, he refused to sell for the amount he was offered. (It was eventually published posthumously.) Hurting from rejection, sick from a bad heart and a shelved book, with no projects on the horizon, Algren left Paterson to enter unofficial retirement in Sag Harbor, Long Island.
Algren rented a small bungalow hard by the Atlantic, and kept his writing desk clear. Free from the pressure to outwrite his younger self, he was happier than he had been in decades. He spent weekends holding court at a small local bookstore, and reconnected with Kurt Vonnegut, who introduced him to Peter Matthiessen. Betty Friedan lived across the street, and often drove Algren around in a hundred-dollar wreck of a car that once spilled him onto the street when she took a sharp turn.
Fat and happy was how the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters found Algren when they called in February 1981, this time to say he had been inducted as a full member. It was an honor he had felt entitled to for decades, and however belatedly, it returned him to the spotlight. A German press bought his book about Rubin Carter, as well as the rights to republish all his major works. And the New York Times and Newsday called for interviews. ‘I’m going on half a century in this ridiculous business,’ he said. ‘You know, Hemingway said the main point is to last. And I guess I’m still here,’ he finished, with his signature mix of spite, pride, and self-effacement.
Algren had often compared himself to Melville, who had been ‘banished’ for writing Moby-Dick and died earning less then twenty-five dollars a week as a customs inspector. Like Melville, Algren insisted, he would be denied the recognition he deserved from the literary establishment during his lifetime.
And he was right, if just barely.
On May 8, 1981, Algren felt chest pains. He visited a doctor, who insisted he check in to the hospital for observation, a demand Algren refused. He was hosting a party to celebrate his induction into the Academy the next day, and he was not going to miss it. That night he gave a long, stressful phone interview. A few hours later, at 6:05 a.m. on May 9, he had another heart attack, this one deadly. There was no will and no known next of kin. Algren’s body went unclaimed for two days. Chicago friends, not knowing who else to contact, called Joe Pintauro, who had known Algren well for only a year, to express their sympathies. Candida Donadio, Algren’s agent, had to order the headstone, and when it arrived, Algren’s name was misspelled. His name is correct on the replacement, which sits on a plot near the edge of the cemetery, chosen by Pintauro so Algren could be ‘near the people.’ And below his name is an epigraph perfect for a man who preferred fighting to winning, and gambled without regard for the consequences: THE END IS NOTHING. THE ROAD IS ALL.” Colin Asher, “But Never a Lovely So Real;” Believer Magazine, 2013