categories: Cocktail Hour
My old friend, Burns Ellison, is our featured guest this week. Burns and I met in grad school twenty years ago and this week he writes about a time–long before we met–when he played poker with Nelson Algren. “The First Annual Nelson Algren Poker Game” is a great essay, one of my favorites, and he first published it in the Iowa Review in 1988. Since I don’t know a lot about Algren, I asked Peter Baker, who does, to write a short intro. Here it is:
At some point American letters forgot about Nelson Algren. If we hear about him at all, we hear two things: he wrote about Chicago, and he wrote about life’s losers and the dispossessed. Implicit–and sometimes explicit–in our Algren non-conversation is the notion that he was an unsophisticated writer of lefty agitprop. What has been forgotten is that Algren became early in his career–after, indeed, writing some unsophisticated lefty agitprop–a great American stylist, a man capable of bringing poetry to bear on his given subject, and insisting upon the humanity of those dehumanized by the state.
Burns Ellison puts Algren where he belonged: at the center of a young writer’s pantheon of idols. For Ellison, Algren was someone to learn from and to seek, however uncertainly, a place alongside. In relatively few pages, his essay gives as good a sense as any I’ve encountered of the way Algren made his way as a writer in the world. Here’s his essay: The First Annual N. A. Poker Game