On the Excoriating Speech Nelson Algren Delivered to College English Students
Colin Asher Guests on the Big Table Podcast
Big Table is a half-hour arts program/podcast, an exploration of art and culture as told through interviews with authors and artists, conducted and curated by writer, editor, and publisher J.C. Gabel and a small cast of contributors.
In this episode, biographer Colin Asher discusses the legacy of one of the greatest unknown American writers, Nelson Algren, a pre-Beat Generation realist who took the Underground Man to new heights from the 1930s to the 1970s, writing from the working man and woman’s perspective in Chicago and elsewhere. Here, Asher discusses his definitive biography of Algren, Never a Lovely So Real (Norton).
From the episode:
Colin Asher: [Algren] was deeply concerned about the political environment. He had worked to support the Hollywood Ten and raise money for their appeals. He had worked to defend Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. A great number of friends from his career had been blacklisted and he had seen their careers crumble. He decides to write this speech for two different colleges for their English programs who wanted him to speak to their writing students. This speech is excoriating all of them. “You cannot make yourselves comfortable. You need to be challenging authority.” He sees it as the purpose of literature is to defend the indefensible, to challenge authority, to challenge the government. He talks about how you can’t militarize a nation and you can’t criminalize speech and expect great art. These things cannot coexist.
A co-production between Hat & Beard, Dublab, and Gold-Diggers in Los Angeles, Big Table is dedicated to the interviewing style and enduring memory of Studs Terkel, the Chicago oral historian, actor, activist, TV pioneer, and long-time radio host and author. You can learn more about Studs’ work here. Big Table is the first digital initiative of Invisible Republic, a nonprofit arts organization working in coordination with Future Roots, Inc.
Colin Asher is an award-winning writer whose work has been featured in the Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle. An instructor at CUNY, he was a 2015/2016 Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography.