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DYLAN THOMAS AND NELSON ALGREN – the Philosopher of Beer meets the Man with the Golden Arm

Posted on | March 19, 2012 | No Comments



On his second reading tour to America in 1952, the only visit he made with his wife Caitlin along too, Dylan Thomas revisited Chicago to give a reading for Poetry Magazine. He had read at the University on his first tour and told John Malcolm Brinnin, his unofficial ‘tour manager’,that it was the only mid-West town he wanted to revisit, although in letter to the poet John Nimms [1] he included Chicago in a list of things and places that frightened him.

His Hostess for the visit was a local grandee, Ellen Borden Stevenson the former wife of the politician Adlai Stevenson [and the woman who would make a generous offer to pay for the best independent specialists to be brought in when Dylan lay dying in St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, a little over a year later].

Ellen had arranged for one of Dylan’s favourite American authors, Nelson Algren to come and join them. Algren’s novel The Man with theGolden Arm had won the first National Book Award in 1950.

The meeting went well enough but Algren was moved to comment on the drinking of both Caitlin, who he thought had a real problem and was to be pitied, and Dylan of whom he remarked,

  ” I was neither poet nor lush enough to appreciate him fully. You have to feel a  certain desperation about everything either to write like that or to drink like that.”

In a later interview Algren was asked about his own anger and innocence, and replied,

      “‘Oh I don’t go around being angry….as for innocence I think it is a very lucky thing if its an achieved innocence, if it’s something that happens to you. I think Dylan Thomas was an innocent. You have to go through the world to get that sort of innocence.”

 But it was in a short review of John Malcolm Brinnin’s ‘Dylan Thomas in America’, which Algren wrote for the Chicago Sun Times in 1956, that he is at his most interesting and amusing and it is worth quoting at length,

   ”  This reviewers goods being prose, I was not intimately acquainted with the product being handled by the poetry trade in the fall of 1951. I felt myself on more solid ground in discussing beer than the avant garde.

              My first concern, therefore, in meeting Dylan and Caitlin Thomas was to limit the the conversation to the virtues of local brands of malt and hopsDiscoursing quietly yet commandingly – I had at that time a certain nasal quality that was not without its own peculiar charm –I advised my guests of my work with Michelob, Budweiser, Edelweiss and Schlitz.

      I would have done better to stick to poetry. Thomas’ own studies had been extended to Persian, Icelandic, Manx, Mexican, Frisian, Turkish and Moorish beers. He was a philosopher of beer, a prophet of beer, a John Foster Dulles of beer. [2]

Outclassed, I made one last weak try. “Anyhow,” I told him, “I once knew a man named Champagne who drunk nothing but beer.”

   “I knew a man named Beers who drank nothing but champagne,” Thomas assured me,

I decided I liked him whatever his trade, and we went off in search of either beer or champagne. We found both.”


Algren also offers a more serious and poignant judgement.     

  “Before he died it was at last borne in upon me that I had been greatly privileged.

              I had been with a great man, the only great man I had ever Known.  ”                                  

It is interesting to note that just a few nights later, and back in NYC, Dylan was to have his only meeting with Alan Ginsberg – from a proto beat in Chicagoto the real thing in New York in just a few days!


[1]It seems a shame not to quote the start of this letter:

 Remember me? Round, red, robustly raddled, a bulging apple among poets, hard as nails made of cream cheese, gap-toothed, balding, noisome, a great collector of dust and a magnet for moths, mad for beer, frightened of priests, women, Chicago, writers, distance, time, children, geese, death, in love, frightened of love, liable to drip.

[2] John Foster Dulles :  an opinionated political polymath.(.February 25, 1888 – May 24, 1959) served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1959. He was a significant figure in the early Cold War era, advocating an aggressive stance against communism throughout the world. He advocated support of the French in their war against the Viet Minh in Indochina and it is widely believed that he refused to shake the hand of Zhou Enlai at the Geneva Conference in 1954. He also played a major role in the Central Intelligence Agency operations. However more recently Gil Scott Heron commented “John Foster Dulles ain’t nothing but the name of an airport now” 


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