Armed with a $2,000 draft on the Guggenheim Foundation, awarded him in the form of a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative literary work, Albert Halper, thirty-year-old author of “Union Square,” will sail for England today aboard the American Banker.
During the flurry of preparations for departure in his room at the Rutledge Hotel yesterday he explained his literary credo.
Blue of eyes and light of complexion, Halper belies such preconceptions of his appearance as one might have gained from reading his earlier tales of the lives and struggles of post office clerks and shop keepers, based on collections of his Chicago boyhood.
The author of these stories, one would expect, would be a dark, intense person, super-sensitive to the crudities and confusions of a mass civilization.
Instead one is confronted with a man of non-Semitic mien and physique, seemingly phlegmatic in temperament, whose appearance is somewhat reminiscent of a Dreiser or a Mencken.
It is a far cry from the days of order picking in a Chicago mail order house and doing substitute night work in a post office to the status of an established and recognized author, who had already published two novels, while his third will appear in a week and a fourth will be written during tenure of the Guggenheim grant.
“I feel that any young writer who wants to pay the price of learning his trade and who has a story to tell, combined with a sense of the problems of modern society, can get along in the literary field,” Halper said yesterday.
The young novelist has worked in an electroplating foundry, in a jewelry store, in a clerical office. He has been a farm hand, a salesman, a law school undergraduate and a student of accounting.
After substituting as a mail clerk in the Chicago post office for a year and a half and accumulating $300 he suddenly resigned and took a bus to New York, where he almost literally locked himself in a room for six months and began his siege of the literary strongholds.
His first accepted story was taken by the now defunct Dial. The Menorah Journal also printed some of his earlier tales of Chicago.
“Ninety per cent autobiographical,” he himself says of his stories.
While his literary efforts were making the rounds of the magazines, Halper earned a living as a house painter in the Bronx, as a waiter in summer hotels, and at whatever odd jobs happened along.
He is definitely committed to living in New York. “Chicago,” he says, “is on the down grade. There is an atmosphere of depression there. The artistic life of the city is a duplicate of its financial disintegration.”
Like many modern writers Halper is obsessed with a desire to tell about life in large cities. The thought of mass humanity, of millions of human beings collected in one place, influencing each other subtly and impinging on each others’ lives in innumerable ways, as he depicts them in “Union Square,” is irresistable to him.
With acceptance of his work by American Mercury life became simpler for him. H. L. Mencken, he says, took a liking to him and was of important assistance, particularly in paying promptly for whatever Mercury purchased.
He became acquainted with Sinclair Lewis and Jim Tully, who wrote to him after reading some of his work.
“Union Square,” although it was his first novel to be published, was the fourth book-length story he has written.
His second book, “On the Shore,” a collection of his works printed in Mercury, Menorah Journal, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the New Republic, is dedicated “to my brothers” who still live in Chicago. Two of them are salesmen. A third, a graduate of Northwestern University, although a qualified dentist, is working as a barker at the World Fair, awaiting an opportunity to begin practicing his profession.
When “Union Square” was adopted by the Literary Guild, Halper found himself recognized as a coming literary light. Fannie Hurst termed the book “a fearful and wonderful piece of work.” Carl Van Doren wrote: “Few first novels are ever so rich in their raw materials.”
When recommendations were being made for the Guggenheim Foundation awards for 1934, Tully, Mencken, Lewis, Van Doren and Miss Fanie Hurst nominated Halper for a fellowship for creative work in literature.
His next book, a novel of life in New York, will be written on the proceeds of the grant. He intends to spend about ten months in England, in order to obtain a fresh point of view and a clearer perspective of his subject matter.
Although not of the “proletarian school” of writers, Halper has taken the scenes of the electroplating foundry in which he spent three years as a shipping clerk for the background of his novel to be published next week, “The Foundry.”
It is not a particularly Jewish theme. Halper believes his early stories about Jewish life in Chicago, stories of his own family and neighbors, have built up something of a misconception as to his aims. He thinks it is impossible for a writer born and educated in the United States to limit himself to strictly Jewish life.
“The world around him is not Jewish,” he says. “If he has gone to school or worked in a factory or office or in a mill, he has to record his impressions of those things. They are not particularly Jewish material.”