The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997 Page: 126
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126 Southwestern Historical Quarterly July
Often called "the poet of the Chicago slums," Nelson Algren is best known for
novels like A Walk on the Wild Side and the 1950 National Book Award winner,
The Man with the Golden Arm. But in 1932, when he was fresh out of journalism
school, Algren found himself in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas riding the rails
with the hoboes and learning about the harsh realities of Depression-era life.
The first seven stories in this book were written in the 1930s and show how un-
pleasant Texas was for hoboes, blacks, and Hispanics: "There's more bad Mexi-
cans in West Texas than good horses" (p. 82), says one Anglo, and a local
copper runs an African American out of a park by saying, "White folks' park, nig-
ger. Git a-goin 'for I fan yore fanny" (p. 59).
The stories written in the 193os are often amateurish in matters of style and
construction, but the later ones show Algren as a mature writer. The best stories
in the book are "El Presidente de Mejico" and "Depend on Ellie"-both from the
194os-and "The Last Carousel" (1972). Both "El Presidente" and "Depend on
Ellie" are informed by Algren's month-long stay in the Brewster County Jail for
stealing a typewriter from Sul Ross State in the early 193os. "El Presidente" is set
in the El Paso jail and "Ellie" takes place partly in a women's prison in Louisiana.
"The Last Carousel" is a story of carnival life that takes place largely in East Texas
(Algren was sent to Camp Maxey near Paris for his World War II training).
The piece on Bonnie and Clyde is journalism and seems out of place in a
book of fiction. But it does fit the theme of down-and-outers in Depression-era
Texas. The introduction by Bettina Drew, Algren's biographer, is useful and in-
cludes informative commentary on Algren's Texas sojourn.
University of North Texas JAMES WARD LEE
Depression Desperado: The Chronicle of Raymond Hamzlton. By Sid Underwood.
(Austin: Eakin Press, 1995- Pp. 232. ISBN 0-89015-966-1. $16.95, paper.)
Nelson Algren, the celebrated chronicler of life on the mean and dirty streets
of twentieth-century urban America, spent the early years of the Depression
working and wandering through parts of South Texas, intensely observing peo-
ple and events around him and trying to understand the power relationships
that shaped the local society. He was in the culture but not of the culture, and
the level of his detachment enabled him to view the Texas of the early 1930os
from a perspective denied most natives of the state. Many years later, he had oc-
casion to remember some of the more dramatic events of those early years, and
some, including the much-publicized criminal exploits and eventual death of
the outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker at the hands of persistent law offi-
cers, remained vivid despite the years he spent in other parts of the nation. The
Barrow Gang, he later remembered, "were outcasts of the cotton frontier. They
were children of the wilderness whose wilderness had been razed, who came to
maturity in the hardest of times" (Bettina Drew [ed.], The Texas Stories of Nelson
Algren , 119). Sid Underwood, author of this book on the brief criminal
career of Raymond Hamilton, likely would agree that Algren's description of the
two more notorious felons would be appropriate for his subject as well.
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997, periodical, 1997; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101218/m1/154/?rotate=90: accessed April 30, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.