Norman Podhoretz, in a 1956 New Yorker essay titled “The Man With the Golden Beef,” described Algren as a miscreant who believed that “we live in a society whose bums and tramps are better men than the preachers and the politicians and the otherwise respectables.” Respectable to whom? Podhoretz seemed furious at the idea that the wretched of the earth might not be wholly responsible for their wretchedness.
Because if the wretched of the earth are not wholly responsible for their wretchedness, then the good and the great and the noble are not wholly responsible for their goodness and greatness and nobility. Some people cannot interpret that as anything but an attack on their own efforts, when in fact it's nothing of the kind; it's an attack on the idea that if we can't move the earth with our bare hands, we're automatically the scum of said earth, instead of being one person in a much larger matrix that knows nothing of us alone. Like many things, Podhoretz lets one germ of truth blossom into a garden-eating weed.
We are now familiar — maybe too familiar, I'd say — with the idea that all of us secretly believe everything bad that happens to a person can somehow be justifiably called their fault. This outlook is all the easier to fall prey to when you live in a world where we can, and do, gather tons of data about the smallest personal actions. Eventually, we'll put enough of the puzzle together to see the present in perfect detail, recall the past with total insight, and predict the future with absolute certainty. Or so we tell ourselves, anyway.
None of us likes the idea that we're not in control of our lives. But I'm growing convinced that one of the hallmarks of maturity is how gracefully you can accept that and work it into your frame of reference without also turning it into an excuse to be needlessly discompassionate. The choice is not a binary between knowing nothing cheerfully and knowing everything mercilessly, but knowing enough to do what's proper, and having something greater than just knowing — like, say, plain old decency — to get us the rest of the way.
You know, It's been a long time since I read Nelson Algren. This might be the excuse I need to remedy that.