Algren Redivivus

SPEARHEADED by two small New York publishing houses, there is a Nelson Algren revival going on. Algren (1909-1981) was the highly praised Chicago novelist whose books The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side were made into movies and who was a main character in Simone de Beauvoir's novel The Mandarins.

The 6-year-old Thunder's Mouth Press is reissuing Algren's Somebody in Boots, originally published in 1935. It is a story of the American Depression set in hobo jungles, boxcars and the streets of Chicago and New Orleans. Also imminent from a fledgling publishing house called 4 Walls 8 Windows is Algren's Never Come Morning (1942), whose central character is Bruno Bicek, a would-be Chicago boxer. It has an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and an afterword and interview with Algren by H.E.F. Donahue. After it was issued, this book was translated into French by Jean-Paul Sartre. In addition, the University of Chicago Press is reissuing this fall Algren's prose-poem paean to his home town, Chicago: City on the Make.

Thunder's Mouth Press, whose publisher is Neil Ortenberg, is doing Somebody in Boots in a marvelous little collection it calls its Classic Reprint Series. Among other books in the series are Richard Wright's collection of short stories, Eight Men (1961), and the two volumes of Langston Hughes's autobiography -- The Big Sea (1941) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956).

Out next spring in the series is 12 Million Black Voices (1941), a book of photographs depicting the lives of black Americans in the Depression with a text by Hughes. Also in the series is A Chocolate Soldier, a novel by Cyrus Colter, a Chicagoan and lawyer who held the Chester D. Tripp Professorship in the Humanities at Northwestern Univerity. Previously reprinted in the series are Chester Himes' first two novels -- If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade.

Thunder's Mouth Press also has another collection called the Contemporary Fiction Series. This fall it is bringing out two novels by John A. Williams, Jacob's Ladder and !Click Song. Williams, the author of 16 books and professor of English at Rutgers University, is also represented in the Classic Reprint Series with the novel The Man Who Cried I Am (1967). The reprint of The Man Who Cried I Am will be an October selection of the Quality Paperback Club.

The owners of 4 Walls 8 Windows -- an offbeat name seems de rigueur for an avant-garde press these days -- are Dan Simon and John Oakes. Their first list has three other books in addition to the Algren volume: Xman, a new novel by Michael Brodsky; The Egg Project: Gary Null's Complete Guide to Good Eating; and American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late, selected and edited by Andrei Codrescu, who is a commentator on National Public Radio.

Set for the fall of next year by 4 Walls 8 Windows is yet another Algren volume, The Collected Prose of Nelson Algren, a selection of essays and short fiction chosen by Dan Simon. The H.E.F. Donahue interview with Algren included in Never Come Morning is excerpted from a 1964 book Donahue did called Conversations With Nelson Algren, published by Hill & Wang. Donahue, a native of New Jersey, graduated from the University of Chicago and settled down there for some years, running a bookstore near the university that became a gathering place for Algren and other Chicago writers. And as long as people are reprinting things, someone should take a look at Donahue's neglected 1964 novel The Higher Animals, published by Viking to much praise. It is about a young bookstore owner in -- you guessed it -- Chicago.

Poor Richard's Output

THE LIBRARY of America, the nonprofit group publishing a uniform edition of the great American authors, issued the Writings of Benjamin Franklin to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution Sept. 17. The 1,605-page Writings was the 37th volume in The Library of America, which began five years ago this month.

The volume contains the first accurate version of Franklin's autobiography, the aphorisms from Poor Richard's Almanack, much of Franklin's journalism for the Pennsylvania Gazette, essays composed while a diplomat in Britain and France and a selection of personal letters. Included are some of Franklin's best-known scientific writings, such as his kite experiment, as well as material on his proposed phonetic alphabet, his magic circles and squares (the Rubik's Cube of their day), his economic theories and his satires on British imperial policies.

Editor of the volume is J.A. Leo Lemay, professor of English at the University of Delaware. The text of the Franklin autobiography in the volume is based on the one prepared by Lemay and P.M. Zall from Franklin's original manuscript at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., with the original spelling retained. The Writings contains 60 pieces newly attributed to Franklin by Lemay.

Franklin is, of course, the author of many aphorisms that have become part of our culture ("Little strokes fell great oaks"; "God helps those that help themselves"; "Fish and visitors smell in three days", etc.), but here is one that I had not met before, and cold comfort it is:

If you wou'd not be forgotten As soon as you are dead and rotten, Either write things worth reading, Or do things worth the writing.

Where's Garrison?

If you've been wondering what's happened to Garrison Keillor since his retirement as host of his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, he has moved with his Danish wife, Ulla Skaerved, and their family to Copenhagen. However, we'll not be completely deprived of Keillor's writing. He is working on several projects.

Keillor's next book, Leaving Home, will be published in October by Viking, with a first printing of 750,000. It contains 36 monologues from his radio show, including the one from his final program June 12, when he left many of his characters sitting and having lunch in the Chatterbox Cafe. It will also contain an introduction that Keillor describes in an interview with Publishers Weekly as "a long, rambling essay," that he wrote soon after arriving in Copenhagen in June. "I wanted to be able to have the first word before the characters came in," Keilor said.

Among the projects Keillor is pursuing in Copenhagen is a novel set in a radio station, "which I started almost 10 years ago. I'm going to throw out the characters and keep the radio station -- fire the staff and start again. They just didn't interest me long enough." He also has been working on a piece for the New Yorker "about coming to Denmark and the experience of feeling stupid."

Also on Keillor's agenda is a screenplay for a movie set in Lake Wobegon. "I've never written a script before and it feels awkward . . . . People who listened to the stories on the radio claimed they could see the town, but I only had a hazy view. I wanted to put the characters up on screen so I could take a look at 'em. But I'm finding it hard to move them in and out. They tend to walk in and just hang around, same as I do in real life. I never know how to leave a party."

There may also be another book about his fictional place. "I think that it's possible that I will do another book about Lake Wobegon," Keillor says. "To me, if the characters can live in writing, then they have a real life that can be extended."

And there seems to be a possibility that Keillor may doing some kind of live performance again soon. He did Prairie Home Companion in front of a weekly live audience of 900 as well as a national radio audience estimated at 4 million. "I keep having ideas," says Keillor, "for things I could do and songs I'd like to sing on the show. I'll have to get back to doing something in front of an audience in the near future, or else accept that I couldn't do it anymore."

Ave Atque Vale

I STARTED doing the Book Report column two years ago this month, and I have never enjoyed any writing more. Book publishing is an interesting business, and I think Book Report has done justice to its diversity and liveliness, particularly the creative efforts of smaller firms. But I have taken on a new challenge and this, alas, must be my last column. I will be editing a new weekly newspaper called Travel Today for the Fairchild Publishing Co. in New York. My thanks to all those who have helped me write this column, and to all those who have read it.