Bettina Drew

biographer  essayist   historian

Bettina Drew is a critically acclaimed American author, essayist, and social commentator.  Her biography of novelist Nelson Algren, A Life on the Wild Side, widely reviewed in the US and Britain, was described as "magnificent" and "magisterial."  Robert Stone called her essay collection on the late-twentieth century built environment, Crossing the Expendable Landscape,  "a melancholy travelogue sustained by acerbity and wit."  Both of her books received Special Citations from PEN. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Yale Review, The Nation, The Missouri Review, The Southwest Review, and many other magazines.  She has a Ph.D in American Studies from Yale University and has written extensively on Andrew Jackson, Southern slavery, and Indian Removal.


The daughter of parents transplanted to New York from Georgia after World War II,  Bettina Drew learned the violent differences between North and South by age six.  Her maternal grandmother believed in rock-solid separation of African-Americans, with whom Drew went to kindergarten in New York City public schools.  Her historical interests concern authoritarian power forces brought to bear against individuals and groups, especially the dismissal of the human being so prominent and institutionalized in Indian removal and slavery. She has written a biography of Andrew Jackson, Indian Remover,  that concerns his lifelong need to exile red people from land whites could productively use for slave cotton, using military or political or any means necessary.  A military man, Jackson was a true authoritarian. Drew's history of Southern Indian dispossession, To Form the Cotton Kingdom, tracks the fraud and force used by the US government in dispossessing and exiling the the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaw, and Seminole peoples.  Drew is firmly committed to erasing the denial approach to our nation's history that has dominated since the end of the Civil War.


    Bettina Drew’s biography of Nelson Algren, A Life on the Wild Side, looks at the author called "the American Gorky." Algren chronicled the lives of the lost people--prostitutes, drug addicts, musicians, and card sharks--in the mid twentieth century.  Drawn to Russian and European literature by the new world diaspora in Chicago,  Algren, armed with a college journalism degree, rode the rails cross country from 1931-1933, the bottom years of the Depression, was jailed for typewriter theft and never forgot the low value of the human life in Texas. After his novel The Man with the Golden Arm won the National Book Award, Ernest Hemingway wrote Algren that he had beaten Dostoevsky.  Algren defined literature by saying that it is made upon any occasion when a challenge is put to the legal system by conscience in touch with humanity.  Algren's men and women yearn for love and security in the midst of police and social service corruption and their own poverty and addiction.  Drew's biography looks at Algren in the context of the Depression, the Cold War, and the corporatization of the publishing industry of the 1960s and 70s. It examines his works and narrates his long love affair with the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir.  Drew's edited volume, The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren, along with The Neon Wilderness, establish Algren as a master of the short story



Bettina Drew has written personal, travel, history, and true crime essays. In addition to Crossing the Expendable Landscape, (1989), she has written Travelling While American, a retrospective writer’s memoir and travelogue from 1980-2015.  It opens in Santa Fe, a crossroads for young people, moves to New York, where an alcoholic idea man succeeds in music and sees the death of Ted Berrigan and Elizabeth Smart in “Twilight of Two Poets.”  In Europe after the Berlin Wall falls, Drew looks at industrial England, the two Berlins, and magical Prague, returning to the corporate consolidation of publishing in New York. The book covers the post 9/11 national unraveling through three longer linked essays and a title piece. “Missouri’s Epidemic of Murder” tells of Richard Allen Williams, adjudged killer of 28 US veterans at the Columbia, Missouri VA hospital who lives outside St. Louis.  In Litchfield Noir”  Drew's 91 year-old father “vanishes” from swank Litchfield County, Connecticut in 2007 and it’s no body no crime all the time.  Travelling While American starts out with nostalgia but ends as a timely comment on declining national life pre-Trump.


First touched by Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, Bettina Drew began writing poetry at fourteen. She has a BA in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley and an MA in Poetry at the City College of New York and began her career as a poet and literary journalist. Her first book was a biography, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, which was a finalist for the Chicago Sun-Times Book of the Year in 1989 and received a Special Citation from PEN and a Fellowship in Non-Fiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts.   Her second book, Crossing the Expendable Landscape, received a Special Citation in the PEN New England Award 1999.  She has a PhD in American Studies from Yale University.  She has taught writing for more than twenty-five years, privately and at institutions including Yale University, the City College of New York, New York University, the University of Missouri, and the Writers’ Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

Honors, Awards, and Fellowships:

Notable in Best American Essays, 2015, “The Great Amnesia”
Fulbright Grant, St. Petersburg State University, Russia, 2004
University of Missouri Research Board Grant, 2003-2004
University of Missouri Research Council Summer Grant, 2003
Lamar Fellowship (Western History), Yale University, 2000
Special Citation, L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award, 1999
Baruch Teaching Fellowship, Wesleyan Writers Conference, 1999
Fellowship, Ledig House International Writers' Colony, May 1996
Notable Best American Essays 1995 “New City”
Nominee, Pushcart Prize, 1995, “New City”
Nominee, Pushcart Prize, 1994, “Reflections in Mirror-Skin Building”
University Fellowship, Yale University, 1994-2000
Notable in Best American Essays, 1992 “Bradford Market”
Grant for Investigative Journalism, Dick Goldensohn Fund, 1993
Judge, 1993 PEN Albrand Award for Creative Non-Fiction
Fellowship, Non-Fiction Lit., NY Foundation for the Arts, 1990
"Noted with Pleasure," N. Y. Times Book Review, Dec. 31, 1989
Finalist, Book of the Year, Chicago Sun-Times, 1989 (Algren)
Special Citation, PEN Gerard Fund Award, l987 (Algren)


PEN,1988--; Associated Writing Programs, 2001--. Gale, Ed., Contemporary Authors, 2000--; Who’s Who Among American Women—2000--;Who’s Who Among American Teachers, 2005.

Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side

Finalist, Book of the Year (1989) Chicago Sun-Times

Special Citation, PEN Gerard Fund Award, l987

"Very entertainingly narrated....Drew has written a first-rate biography that will send many new readers to Algren." --The London Times

"This absorbing first full-length a poignant, moving book."

--The New York Times

"This magisterial an instructive and entertaining work of thorough scholarship, evidently written with enthusiasm and care." --The Spectator, London

"Drew writes of [Algren] with compassion, understanding, and a keen sense of the all-important social context of his writing....The decline and death of a valuable native literary movement were encapsulated in Algren's life, and Drew has done both man and movement honor." --Publishers' Weekly

"Drew has given Algren the biography he deserves....She researched her subject masterfully, came to understand him and got him down on paper. What more could one ask of a biographer? --The Washington Post 

"Drew's biography is magnificent."--Time Out, London

"Refreshing...Drew's eminently readable life provides exactly the access to Algren's character which is needed to lure readers back to his talent." 

--The Independent, London

"Bettina Drew tells his story his biographer, Nelson Algren has been lucky at last." --The Sunday Telegraph

"Excellent...Bettina Drew's book, like Algren himself, [is] full of controlled passions but with a keen eye for the phony and fatuous."--The Guardian

"This book is a terrific and vivid biography of a man who was a lousy card player and a writer of great stature and integrity. It brilliantly reclaims the reputation of a man whose losses were our gain." --The Glasgow Herald

Crossing the Expendable Landscape

"This is a lively book, leaving moral indignation with cool appraisal. It's a frightening book too, in term of American democracy. The horrors of Stamford and the complacent rot of Hilton Head are no joke. Bettina Drew does not hesitate to denounce these things, and she begins at least to value the attempts of The New urbanism to change them." 
--Vincent Scully

"Bettina Drew's Crossing the Expendable Landscape is a sad and angry book, a melancholy contemporary travelogue sustained  by acerbity and wit. Its theme is how wealth and power heartlessly condition our surroundings, leaving those of us without those resources  to make our lives on the periphery  or in the ruins of transient corporate empires. Ms. Drew's  clear balanced prose eloquently demonstrates that American capitalism is the most fearsome revolutionary force ever let loose on the planet and that, unchecked by the public interest, it grows less socially responsible every day.

--Robert Stone

Please contact me to obtain these books for a small donation.

The Great Amnesia

                  Although today the museum words Cherokee Lands Become Georgia overtly deny any sinister past, the nation’s first gold rush in 1829 led to a forced round-up and deportation of the area’s country’s original settlers.  The American amnesia to the violence was so pronounced, however, that in his 1839 satire, “The Man that Was Used Up,”  the literary wonder Edgar Allen Poe portrayed it as denial by avoidance and patriotic cliché.  In Richmond or Baltimore our narrator seeks news of the late Indian campaigns led by Brevet Brigadier General John A.B.C. Smith, whom he has the fortune to encounter socially.  But the general speaks only of progress, and a “proper sense of delicacy” forbids our hero him from broaching the subject directly.  In later efforts, at the theater, in the church pew, etc., everyone says variations of the same thing: 
             "Smith….Why, not General John A. B. C.?  Horrid affair that, wasn't it?-- great wretches, those Bugaboos-- savage and so on--… Smith!--O yes! great man!-- perfect desperado-- immortal renown--prodigies of valor! Never heard!" 
Finally deciding to call upon the great man at his quarters, our narrator is received by the general’s slave Pompey and shown to a room where he can hear a squeak but cannot locate the general. He soon realizes, however, that the sound is the general.  John A.B.C. Smith cannot speak until his palate is inserted.  Further, he is composed of glass eye and wood leg and shoulder padding and wig, and he is a man dependent upon a slave to put him together to face the day.   Publicly presenting the extraordinary appearance of a man, the general is in truth so wounded that his main impulse is to chatter gamely about the best false limb and tooth men in America.   Our narrator sees clearly that the general is “the man that was used up” in national service that is unmentionable or forgotten.  
             From the 1780s until the 1840s, the forces of slavery and the United States systematically dispossessed the Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Seminole Indians from lands that formed the Cotton Kingdom--now Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee, .  These peoples inhabited more land—some 25 million acres, virtually the entire inland South—and were more populous than Indian peoples in the North.  Before and after the American Revolution, they encouraged their daughters to marry British and Scots traders who settled on their lands, and Anglo-Indian Christian marriages in the South produced large, prosperous clans with names like McDonald, Ross, Hicks, McGillivray, Lowrey, Brown, McIntosh, Harkin, and LeFlore.  These clans formed an English-speaking social elite with inherited wealth including slavery, though Southern Indians never had the extensively codified bondage laws of American slave states.  Further social and familial ties between the white and Indian slave-holding elite, moreover, were not unusual. Creek leader General William McIntosh was the cousin of the Indian-removing Georgia politician George Troup, for instance, while the English-speaking Cherokee Chief John Ross went to a high-school academy with Sam Houston.  
              Most significantly, with Christianization and “civilization” to the plow and loom post-revolutionary American federal policy, Southern Indians were eager for schools. From 1800 until the late 1830s their lands comprised the main operating theater for the American missionary movement, which shared the nation’s Great Awakening news that any human soul could be saved. Baptists, Moravians, Presbyterians, Methodists and other groups established permanent missions or schools in Indian Country or provided sermons by preachers on horse-riding circuits; post offices sprang up to bring parcels of books and clothes from New England, where millions of working people aided the cause through one-cent philanthropies.  Often spearheaded by the influential and interdenominational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, missions received federal acculturation funds.  In Cornwall, Connecticut, missionaries established a Foreign Mission School to educate young Native American leaders, and through Monroe’s administration ending in 1824, the education, acculturation and uplift of American Indians was the policy of the world’s first democratic republic.  This commitment to Southern Indians was part of a larger Northern social movement that included abolition, suffrage, temperance, and education.  At a time when only white men voted, this reform movement, alive with Christian underpinnings,  helped Northern states voluntarily abolish slavery by 1831 and went on to win the C
ivil War that ended it. ....

Southwest Review, 99, 4, December 2014, 556-569, 633.

Department of Development

An abandoned Victorian mansion on the Long Island Sound fell into the City's hands through non-payment of taxes. Now schooled in writing grant proposals, Kendig got money and turned it into a children's museum called Ferncliff. He ran it with a man named Kendal Tyrell and a woman named Nancy Martineau. The three of them were great friends and set up housekeeping in Nancy’s house next door to the museum. Nancy had two teenage daughters, Alice and Wendy, and the five of them traveled to Europe, looking at art and listening to orchestras in all the great cities. Then Tyrell took a job elsewhere and Nancy Martineau developed cancer and died, and through drink and depression Kenton watched the museum fall into financial chaos as government funds for the arts dried up. Finally the City took it over and he was made to run it with a powerful North End woman who had no tolerance for his incredible drinking and simply no imagination at all. When he finally emerged from an upstate sanitarium diagnosed as a manic-depressive, he was forced out, and friends in City Hall hired him as a consultant because he was, in his own words, "an idea man." And licking the last bit of martini from his gray mustache, would take my elbow. "Shall we move on to the loft, my dear?"

Down the street we entered a three story brick building with a street-level optometrist's office and climbed the wooden stairs to the second floor. Kenton's long commercial loft housed a massive private record collection, one of the largest on the Eastern seaboard, he said, including classical, Broadway shows, and spoken records. The massive floor to ceiling dignity of the LPs created an air of permanence, but I had the sense too of being in a past world. Green track lights, burning constantly because Ian couldn't be bothered to turn them off, gave the records an old, dusty feeling, and amid posters, news clippings, and painted-on murals, letters of gratitude and proclamations from city mayors covered the remaining wall space. A large framed photograph of a handsome, young, and resilient Ian, standing with an equally young-looking Kendal Tyrell before a German castle, seemed emblematic of the place as a shrine to by-gone days. A wood plank coffee table was supported by classic novels and European histories, and in the kitchen area an old stage set served as a backdrop for a cafe table where he had tea in the mornings when he wasn't drunk. There were rarely any bottles around--he drank glass by glass in the bar--but cigarette butts lay everywhere, put down in mid-sentence, left burning when a new pack appeared. When we arrived he'd put on music--usually the great sturm and drang men, like Wagner, or the Russian operas. "These are the ones the masters of which were destroyed in the RCA fire," he might say, putting on Chaliapin. Often it was the love theme from Tristan and Isolde. And as the opening surface noise filtered out across the room, he would close his eyes and listen in dream. Then he'd open them and walk to a table and grope for a cigarette, searching my face for a reaction....

Missouri Review, 40, 3, 2017, 32-48.


Take a Vacation

You never go out on weekends now,
your mother is dying of cancer, and each week
there's less of her. It's 17 degrees outside.
Even your sister, home for the end,
is as full of her bitterness as always. Well,
sit down. Imagine a stuccoed room,
the light from Spain or California,
the afternoon blowing across your throat,
across the magnificent flesh of a warm plump man
with whom you've been saturating the bed with tenderness
until the sheets, even the sheets are wasted,
and your lips, your lips have no power in them.
Watch how the blue evening rolls
over flute music and ripe plums.
Then love again, any way you want,
call out with it, head feverish, lips moving,
and the murmur of your mother's voice, it's
the beat of her heart now, or your father's arms
are rocking you. Oh the hips already know
the white innocence of big bodies--you are babies,
and all of the world is here in this room.
Later, switch on the warm lamps,
resume your visible human habits, and in the kitchen
listen to him say, "Isn't it great that we can be
the way we were in there and now be so civilized
that we drink out of wine glasses
and fix food on a plate?" Yes, sit down. Close your eyes.
You can go now. Take a vacation.


In a sweet, sweet living room,

paintings and a pine green rug,
oh books and the animals being petted,
the clairaudient foghorn saxophone
breathes out its French murder mystery sex
till the inspecteur in the derby hat,
mustached and keeping to himself,
boards the train. Oh, it's loud,
the whistle is loud and it's starting to snow,
it's Paris, you see, and the huge arcing skylights
of the Gare St. Lazare. Or Berlin, 1934,
and the widowed landlady, still in her forties,
gray hair in a bun and not bad-looking,
invites you to her wisteria wallpapered sitting room
and then gets too emotional after her schnapps.
And maybe it's New York, 1955, Frank O'Hara
leaning on the john door of the Five Spot
and Billie Holiday with a song
to make him stop breathing----.
Well, fine, but Billie and Frank are dead now,
and the first two scenes you made up from books.
Get up and turn the record over.
The shrinks'd say he was manic
that night he waltzed around the room
carried away to "On The Town"--he's
a manic-depressive, you know, and he'd been
drinking and lost his teeth.
Well, how else to live
but from one moment of ecstasy
hoping for the next, if in between
you see he's the nickel the kids put on the train rail
and then step back to watch.
It's lucky big old Brahms is your lover
these winter nights, and he sleeps on his back
as heavily as a child. In the morning he wants
coffee, and he goes out to shovel snow
wrapped up very fat in his muffler. Listen.
His arms are big to hold you. Listen.
He loves your children. Listen,
he's from here too.

Articles in Books by/with Others:

“American Outsider,” Nelson Algren: Critical Essays Fairleigh-Dickinson 2006
“Rockets and Rodeos” on Thomas Mallon, in Gale, Contemporary Lit. Crit., v.173, 200
“Balkan Express,” on Slavenka Draculic, Ibid, v.173, 200
“The Heart of the Matter,” Man With The Golden Arm, 50th Anniv. Issue, Seven Stories Press, 1999
“Why I Write Non-Fiction” reprinted in The Writer’s Handbook 1996, The Writer, Inc. Boston
Introduction to The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren, U. Texas Press, 1995
"A Biographer's Tale," The Writer's Handbook, 1993, The Writer, Inc., Boston


: “My Own Simone," Algren-Beauvoir love story, with Kevin Baggott


"Drifting Into a Career," Missouri Review, V.11, #2, 1988."Nelson Algren," Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, Sept. 17, 1989;
"A Biographer's Tale," The Writer, November, 1992; reprinted in
"Bradford Market," Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall, 1992; web-archived at:
"What We Lost in Atlantic City," Threepenny Review, Sept., 1992
"A Vote for Women," Chicago Tribune, May 10, 1992
"Heaven's Place: Central Florida," Threepenny Review, Dec. 1992
"Reflections in a Mirror-Skin Building," Boulevard, Sept., 1994;
"Please Play the Machines While You Wait," Southwest Review, Sum. 1995
"New City," Boulevard, Fall, 1995
"Der Mauer," Boulevard, (Spring, 1996)
“Why I Write Non-Fiction” The Writer (December, 1996)
“Red Rock Valley of Cowboy Westerns,” Southwest Review, Spring, 1998; web-archived at HighBeam Encyclopedia,
“Celebration: New Kind of American Town,” Yale Review, July, 1998
“Twilight of Two Poets,” Missouri Review, April 2009
“Bucking the Knowledge Factory,” Chronicle of Higher Education,, January 2012
“The Great Amnesia,” Southwest Review, December 2014
“Department of Development,” Fall 2017, Missouri Review

Commentary and Book Review

"The Blood Countess," Washington Post Book World, August 6, 1995

"The Anatomy Lesson," Washington Post Book World, October, 1995
“Facing Up to the American Dream," Chi. Trib Books, Oct.15, 1995
“Last Hotel for Women,” Washington Post Book World August, 1996
“Noncomformity: Writing on Writing,” Chi. Tribune October 6, 1996
“Leaving a Doll’s House,” Chicago Tribune Book World Nov., 1996
“My Dark Places”& “The Missing” Chicago Tribune Books Dec, 1996
“Tonto’s Revenge,” New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1998
“Bruno Bettelheim” Mich. Quarterly Review Summer, 1998
“A Transatlantic Love Affair,” The Chicago Tribune,Oct. 4,1998
“Love Between the Lines,” The Nation, Oct.26, 1998
“Seductive Poison,” Chicago Tribune Books, November 22, 1998
“Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom,” The Nation, February 1, 1999, web-archived..
“The Evil Hours: PTSD” in Chicago Tribune Printers Row Journal, Jan. 23, 2015

Commentary and Book Review

"Migrations to Solitude," Chicago Tribune Books, Feb. 1992"Pieces of Soap," Chicago Tribune Books, March, 1992
"Evolution of Useful Things," Chicago Tribune Books, Dec. 27, 1992
"Rockets and Rodeos," Chicago Tribune Books, Jan. 24, 1993
"The Balkan Express," Chicago Tribune Books, May 2, 1993
"Riding the Yellow Trolley Car," Washington Post Book World, May 16, 1993
"Spidertown," Chicago Tribune Books, July 25, 1993
"Silent Passengers," Washington Post Book World, October 3, 1993
"Shadow Play and Through the Ivory Gate," Michigan Qtly Rev., Summer, 1993
"Body and Soul," Chicago Tribune Books (September 26, 1993)
"Zlata's Diary," Chicago Tribune Books, March 13, 1994
"Delusions of Grandma," Chicago Tribune Books, April 10, 1994
"Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Happiness," Chi. Trib. Books, June 21, 1994
"Tales from Two Pockets," Chicago Tribune Books, August 14, 1994
"Rethinking Frederick Jackson Turner,"Chi. Trib. Books, Oct.19, 1994
"Speak Now Against the Day," Chicago Tribune Books, Dec., 1994