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overlooked genius

Discussion in 'Anything goes' started by writing irish, Jan 20, 2008.

  1. writing irish

    writing irish Active Member

    Thought I'd take advantage of the fact that, despite claims that SportsJournalists.com has dumbed down recently (I'm not disputing this BTW), there are some brilliant minds who post here. I'm grateful when I come across a reference that points me to something that I'd probably never have found on my own but ends up being a source of enlightenment or pleasure. Like Fenian referring me to George Vincent Higgins a while back.

    So I thought I'd ask the board for some examples of overlooked genius- writers of any sort, journalists, musicians or other artists. Often people get overlooked because they're out of sync with the fashions of their day, while people who aren't really that fantastic get all the attention because they resonate with the zeitgeist.

    I'll start us off with a couple of literary examples- Knut Hamsun and Nelson Algren. I'll color the fonts in case anyone wants to skip down to the Algren part without reading about Hamsun.

    Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian who lived from the 1850s to the 1950s is a favorite novelist of mine. He was a little ahead of his time in that he was basically a modernist before modernism happened. In the 1890s he wrote Hunger, Mysteries, Pan and Victoria, by far his best works, IMO. Each one involves the adventures of an outsider character, a sort of individualist-rebel type. Hunger, a kind of Nordic Notes from Underground is probably the strongest artistically, although I prefer Mysteries and Pan because those books have more developed characters and rely less on the narrator's internal monologue. Victoria is an utterly heartbreaking love story.

    Unfortunately, Hamsun gradually went more and more batshit as he aged and disgraced himself in his later years by supporting Quisling's pro-Nazi government and expressing sympathy for Hitler. Quite understandably, he ruined his reputation thus and is now mainly remembered for his fruit-loop political leanings rather than his art. I'm able to overlook the abhorrent things he expressed in his dotage and appreciate the work he did when he was younger and more lucid. He won the Nobel Prize in 1920 for his novel The Growth of the Soil, which I found to be somewhat plodding and not as engaging as his earlier works.

    Then, way at the other end of the political spectrum, there's Nelson Algren, a man who ranks as the guy I would most like to have a beer with if I could go back in time. He's well-known in his native Chicago, less so elsewhere. His near-total absence in the curricula of universities is a cultural felony, as far as I'm concerned.

    Algren was a Midwestern social realist in a similar tradition to that of Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, though his work is far more readable than those two. His gift for characterization and creating pathos makes him more of a cousin of Sherwood Anderson. His main topic was the life of the underclass- not the working class, but hustlers, petty criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes and so forth. He's best known for writing The Man with the Golden Arm, which was unfortunately sabotaged, first by his publisher's insistence on the book's title, which makes it sound like a pulp novel (Algren suggested several other titles). Then it was mangled in a shitty Hollywood film version, although Frank Sinatra was nominated for Best Actor as a result of his role in it. It's a story about a heroin addict in Chicago's Polish neighborhoods.

    He also wrote A Walk on the Wild Side (yup, that's where Lou Reed got the phrase), Never Come Morning, as well as a few collections of fine short works: The Neon Wilderness, The Last Carousel and Chicago: City on the Make. Algren also went kind of batshit in his later years- not politically, though- he was razor-sharp about social issues to the end. But he did get very bitter about his dealings with the business side of writing during the 1950s. He basically gave up on literature and spent the last two decades of his life writing short, semi-journalistic pieces instead of novels. He wasn't really trying at that point, I'm afraid.

    Algren was a sports fan and wrote a couple of good pieces about his beloved White Sox and was working on a project about Hurricane Carter when he died. Those notes were later published posthumously as The Devil's Stocking.

    My favorite Algren story is his unlikely romance with Simone de Beauvoir. They hooked up on one of her visits to the US and soon became very passionate. As you might guess, Sartre was more of an intellectual buddy for her- Algren reportedly gave her the first decent fuck she ever had. Sadly, it didn't work out since de Beauvoir couldn't imagine leaving Paris and Algren felt the same way about Chicago. He got pissed off when she included a fictionalized account of their affair in her novel The Mandarins. They were both kind of bitter about things, although she was buried wearing the ring he gave her.

    Studs Terkel, Terry Southern and others recognized Algren's genius, but he surely came along at the wrong time. He was at the peak of his art during our country's post-WWII reactionary freak-out and no one wanted to hear what he had to say. In another time- the 1930s or the pre-WWI era- he would have made a much greater impact.

  2. zeke12

    zeke12 Guest

    Great idea for a thread.

    I'll humbly submit Terry Eagleton, whose works on literary theory and criticism are, frankly, better than anything else around, but have largely been dismissed by both the academy and the general public because he is a Marxist.

    A great quote from one of his last books...

    "Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on. It is also, as we have suggested before, rather an awkward moment in history to find oneself with little or nothing to say about such fundamental questions."
  3. writing irish

    writing irish Active Member

    Holy shit. That deserves to be put onto leaflets and distributed to every liberal arts university department chair in the country. And I can think of a few department chairs who deserve to have that tattooed on their ass.
  4. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Great idea, wi.

    Nathanael West.

  5. zeke12

    zeke12 Guest

    I thought you would like that one.
  6. writing irish

    writing irish Active Member

    Good old West. However, in the part of the Wikipedia entry where it describes his using another student's transcript to transfer from Tufts to Brown, it doesn't mention that the reason he was able to do that was that he was banging one of the secretaries at Tufts who had access to transcripts. ;D
  7. zeke12

    zeke12 Guest

    Great call. The Day of the Locust is fantastic. And is also rumored to be the inspiration for a masterwork by another pair of overlooked geniuses -- The Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski.
  8. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Genius lights the darkness in many ways.
  9. writing irish

    writing irish Active Member

    Miss Lonelyhearts by West might be amusing reading for anyone who's ever had an asshole editor at a newspaper.
  10. Herbert Anchovy

    Herbert Anchovy Active Member


    A constellation.
  11. zeke12

    zeke12 Guest

    On the musical side, Steve Earle is criminally overlooked.
  12. Nice post...I'd like to continues to see what others have to say, so I will submit Naomi Klein and perhaps others later.

    EDIT: Oh! and Carl Spackler
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