Flowers for Algernon
A Literary Frolic Friday discussion guide
PART ONE: 1953-1966
How Keyes came to write Flowers for Algernon, publishing it first as a short story (1953) and then as a novel (1966), and how Flowers ultimately attracted the attention of actor Cliff Robertson
In 1953, Daniel Keyes was hired by Martin Goodman of Timely Comics to be an editor and front man for his son-in-law, Stan Lee, who oversaw the firm’s comics division. Keyes’ responsibilities included delivering Lee’s critiques and instructions to the division’s scriptwriters, cartoonists, and letterers. Being that Keyes had previous editorial experience and already sold and published science fiction stories, Lee gave him authority over matters science fiction, suspense, fantasy, and horror related. A story of Keyes own which he tried to develop with an eye to selling it to Goodman was entitled “Brainstorm.” It featured a man with a low normal I.Q. who, through artificial means, became a genius, found acceptance, fulfillment, and love with a “brilliant, beautiful woman,” only to intellectually regress backwards to “normal.” At the story’s conclusion, he pondered whether it would have been better to have never loved at all than to love and lost (everything). Seeing promise in the concept as a full length novel Keyes filed it away for the future.
When, in 1958, as a teacher of English and Creative writing at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, Keyes was assigned to teach four classes in the same semester: two elective creative writing classes and two Modified English Classes for students with low I. Q.s. Just after the bell rang ending his very first modified class, a young boy, a linebacker on the school football team, dejectedly approached him and made this agonized plea: “If I try hard and I get smart by the end of the term, will you put me in a regular class? I want to be SMART.”
Haunted by the experience, Keyes jotted down his thoughts and reactions to the encounter to serve as the basis for a future story. Tentatively entitled “The Gifted and the Slow,” the sketch featured Stuart, a boy whose fierce struggle to succeed rarely manifested in grades above C’s, and Corey, a bright boy who, on account of his behavior, is placed in Stuart’s remedial class. After both fall in love with the same girl, conflict ensues between them—Stuart ends up killing Corey.
Pressed by necessity to set his notes aside, Keyes let the story languish until 1958 when he was pressed by Horace Gold to write a follow up to “The Trouble with Elmo” for Galaxy magazine. In sifting through a box of his early notes and writing journals, Keyes discovered “The Gifted and the Slow” as well as “Brainstorm.” Concepts from both dovetailed perfectly and broad strokes of a story began to emerge. What Keyes needed now was a protagonist. Disagreeing with Aristotle that only a society’s rich and powerful experienced tragedy (Poetics), Keyes created a protagonist who was “someone the world view[ed] as the lowest of the low, a mentally handicapped young boy” who, through artificial means, ascended to the heights of genius “only to lose it all”—having ascended to the peak, the bottom was the only place to go.
Immediately upon his having finished reading “Flowers for Algernon” (which Keyes had initially entitled “The Genius Effect”), Horace Gold said to him:
Dan, this is a good story. But I’m going to suggest a few changes that will turn it into a great story. The ending is too depressing for our readers. I want you to change it. Charlie doesn’t regress. He doesn’t lose his intelligence. Instead, he remains a super-genius, marries Alice Kinnian, and they live happily ever after. That would make it a great story.
Knowing full well that he would—could—NEVER make such changes, Keyes appealed to his new literary agent, Harry Altshuler: much to Keyes’ dismay, Altshuler agreed with Gold. Keyes then turned to a friend named Phil Kass who assured him that both Gold and Altshuler were wrong, and that if Keyes dared to change the ending, he would get a baseball bat and personally break both of Keyes’ legs. Kass showed his copy of “Flowers” to his boss, Bob Mills, the editor of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, who liked the plot, sad ending and all, and wanted to publish it—but only if it didn’t exceed 15,000 words—the maximum limit allowed authors by the magazine. Keyes would need to trim “Flowers” by at least 10,000 words. If he could manage it, Keyes would be paid $300 (two cents per word). Keyes accepted the offer: ultimately, he ended up cutting much of the story’s ending, deciding to conclude it with Charlie’s exhortation to leave flowers on Algernon’s grave. Later, finding that his revisions and edits had made much of the story’s beginning superfluous, Keyes pruned it so that the short story version of “Flowers” now began with Charlie’s March 5th progress report.
Published as the lead short story in the magazine’s April, 1959 issue, “Flowers for Algernon” was awarded the Hugo Award for the Best Short Story of 1959, an award given to Keyes personally by Isaac Asimov himself at the 18th World Science Fiction Convention in Pittsburgh. When he accepted the award, and whenever he subsequently looked upon it, Keyes regarded it as only partly his own—by right, the other part belonged to that high school linebacker who wanted to be among regular kids.
On the strength of “Flowers” winning the Hugo award, the CBS network purchased the TV rights in order to air a 60 minute teleplay on their United States Steel Hour program. Starring Cliff Robertson, “The Two Worlds of Charley Gordon,” as the teleplay was entitled, was broadcast live on February 22, 1961 as Episode 13 of the program’s 8th season. Producers and sponsors had pressed Robertson and the scriptwriter to drop the downbeat ending and come-up with something that left the audience with an inkling of better things ahead for Charlie. Robertson suggested that while kneeling at Algernon’s grave, he, as Charlie, would pick up a copy of Paradise Lost (conveniently nearby on the grass), turn a few of its pages, and visually suggest to the audience that he was able to read and comprehend bits and bobs of it. When that moment actually came in the broadcast, Robertson sat frozen, deep in character, until he was off the air. Furious, reps of the network and sponsor threatened him with never working on TV again. However, when, the next day, the positive reviews poured in and Robertson was nominated for an Emmy, he had the last laugh and the satisfaction of having remained true to the spirit of Keyes’ story. Robertson lost out on that Emmy to Maurice Evans (of Dr. Zaius fame) for his performance as Macbeth in the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of Shakespeare’s play—which, altogether, won five Primetime Emmys.
As far as what money “Flowers” had generated for Keyes and his wife, Aurea, in 1961—after the 10% deductions had been taken out by his agent— he received $300 from the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; $4.50 for it being reprinted in the February 10th issue of Best Articles and Stories; $22.00 for its appearance in The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, and $22.00 for its being reprinted by Literary Cavalcade. Needless to say, Keyes had no choice but to continue the grueling schedule of teaching high school and trying to write at night after having prepared his lectures for the next day, read and graded essays, reports, tests, and done everything else that a husband, father, and homeowner needed to do.
By this time, Cliff Robertson had fallen in a rut of playing second fiddle to such blockbuster leading-men as Jack Lemmon (Days of Wine and Roses) and Paul Newman (The Hustler) and wanted, needed a leading role. Robertson wanted to buy the movie rights to “Flowers,” star as Charlie, and produce the cinematic adaptation through his newly formed company, Robertson Associates. After his agent’s commission was deducted, Keyes received $900 from Robertson. Being the person most directly impacted by the money making (or losing) potential of a controversial property, Robertson was now the one pressuring Keyes to rewrite the downbeat ending: he suggested that Algernon, at first, appear still, lifeless, then suddenly, just before the film cut to the credits, he would lift his snout, wiggle his whiskers, and start scampering about in his maze.
Further shocking developments were in store for Keyes. From Robertson Associates, he received a script treatment for what was now entitled “Good Old Charley Gordon;” the screenwriter’s name was withheld, purged, nowhere to be found. The final pages had Charlie holding the aged Algernon in his hand, raised so that they were both check-to-cheek, with tears in Charlie’s eyes and a smile on his lips as the credits began to roll against the strains of “Charlie’s Tune.” Keyes was nauseated by the tripe and told Robertson as much. The unidentified screenwriter was fired, and the script was tossed into the trash can. It was not until many years later that Keyes discovered the identity of that first time screenwriter—William Goldman, who went on to write screenplays for Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and A Bridge Too Far.
As “Flowers” expanded, Keyes invested many of his own personal experiences into Charlie’s life: Charlie’s dropping bakery to the floor and being ridiculed by his co-workers was based upon the teenaged Keyes dropping dishes during a short-lives stint as a waiter; Oscar and Gus’ assault on Charlie was based on a gang of bullies punching, kicking, and bloodying Keyes as he walked home from his aunt’s; Charlie leaving the locket for Harriet was based on the nine-year-old Keyes having left a hard-shaped locket on the doorknob of the house where a popular girl who he had a crush was living—the school principal reprimanded Keyes the next day in his mother’s presence; Charlie’s tour of Warren was based on a tour Keyes was given of a state facility for the developmentally challenged who had agreed to help him with his research by introducing him to a few of the residents.
Keyes feared that “Flowers” would evolve so that readers would laugh at Charlie rather than feel the pain, sorrow, and outrage that he should feel if only he understood. Keyes’ structuring the novel as a series of progress reports—a diary in all but name—gave readers Charlie’s unique first person perspective. Distinguishing that perspective even further, Keyes would have Charlie write as someone with his background would—phonetically. Keyes worried if mainstream readers would accept and engage with such text. Ultimately, he was comforted by Mark Twain, who, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, prepared the reader by giving notice of his reproduction of the “vernacular of the uneducated Huck.”
In 1965, as he approached the end of his four-year, non-renewable and non-tenurable lectureship at Detroit’s Wayne State University, Keyes was confronted with the dilemma of being unable to teach again at colleges or universities unless he studied for and obtained a doctorate—either that, or he sign a contract to publish “Flowers” as a full-length novel before his last day at Wayne State. The first publisher he submitted his effort to had turned it down flat but suggested changes which might address criticism; on the strength of the story’s potential, they advanced Keyes $650: having made the requested revisions and modifications that the publisher wanted, Keyes was mortified when they refused point-blank to publish it; they also wanted their $650 back, which he repaid. Adamant that Flowers be published not as a cheap paperback but as a hardcover trade edition, and receive the respect to which such editions are entitled, Keyes was quickly running out of time and options. The stress was so much that one morning, while walking to his office on campus, Keyes felt as if he were in the process of having a stroke or heart attack. When he regained consciousness, he was seated at a table in a nearby luncheonette—someone had seen what happened to him and carried him inside. It was a month later that an editor at Harcourt, Brace, and World telephoned Keyes to welcome him to the family—they had accepted Flowers. As to his advance, though, Keyes would need to wait until the manuscript was scrutinized by their attorneys to see if anything posed a legal concern.
Two months before Harcourt, Brace, and World were scheduled to begin publication, Keyes was told by a colleague to whom he had entrusted the galleys of the novel that he had felt too awkward to review them (why all of a sudden, Keyes wondered privately) and that he had taken the liberty of passing them on to a friend of his—who happened to be an Associated Press writer. Keyes quickly understood why his co-worker had deferred to someone else when he read what the Virginia Kirkus Bulletin, in the first pre-publication review of Flowers, had to say about it—that in turning the short story into a novel, (an effort which had taken him six years to accomplish) Keyes had in fact bastardized Flowers with “Freudian psychoses” and “shapely Holly-wooden scenes.” Immediately after reading the review, Keyes had to run into the nearest men’s room to throw up. He fell into a despair so bleak he would never, never forget it. The second pre-publication review, given by Publisher’s Weekly, lifted his spirits—“Flowers for Algernon is a strikingly original first novel…” Library Journal also championed Flowers: “This is an absorbing first novel … which is going to be read for a long time to come … Purchase in duplicate is recommended.” The most praiseworthy review, by Eliot Fremont-Smith of the New York Times, made Keyes tear and choke-up. All of the reviews Keyes read were positive—except for one, the very first one, that pre-publication review by Kirkus.
Within just a few days of its release, Flowers sold out its first run of 5,000 copies. Harcourt then rushed out an additional 1,000. Bantam purchased the reprint rights for mass market publication.
PART TWO: 1968
How Flowers for Algernon came to be made into Charly, a motion picture starring and produced by actor Cliff Robertson
In respect of the cinematic adaptation of Flowers for Algernon, Robertson disappointed Keyes by resetting the story from New York to Boston where the film was shot on location. Charly’s director was Ralph Nelson, whose previous directorial credits included Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), and Lilies of the Field (1963). Wanting a modern look, Robertson had sent Nelson to EXPO-67 in Canada which showcased hundreds of experimental, multi-screen films; Nelson incorporated such techniques into Charly: generally, Keyes found the “zoom camera angles,” “split and multiple screens,” and slow motion sequences necessary “to maintain interest in a film with a less compelling story line, but they weren’t necessary for Charly.”
Charly’s box-office competition in that September of 1968 were two Columbia Pictures musicals, Funny Girl and Oliver!, as well as the films Pretty Poison from 20th Century Fox, Hot Millions from MGM, and Psych-Out from American International Pictures. Charly (whose budget was a modest $2,255,000) made $8 million at the box office. In proportion to its budget, Charly stood with his head held high: Funny Girl, whose budget was $14 million, grossed $58 million and Oliver, whose budget was $10 million, grossed $77 million. Twentieth Century Fox was the biggest loser that autumn having lost $1,525,000 when Pretty Poison flopped (the studio redeemed itself in 1969 with such hits as The Prime of Miss Jane Brodie, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but dropped the ball again when Hello, Dolly! flopped). At the 1969 41st Academy Awards, Cliff Robertson won an Academy Award for his performance as Charlie Gordon (beating Peter O’Toole who was nominated for his performance as King Henry II in Lion in Winter). At that year’s 26th Golden Globes, screenwriter Stirling Silliphant won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, beating out Mel Brooks, James Goldman, Roman Polanski, and Dalton Trumbo.
Although the public showed their favor and support for Charly by buying tickets, critical opinion was mixed. In his film review published in the Spring, 1969 issue of Film Quarterly, Dennis Hunt considered Robertson to be “quite effective as Charly, though his efforts are not sufficient to compensate for the blunders of Nelson and Silliphant.” Reviewing the film for the New York Times, Vincent Canby observed that since Charly:
… remains at a level either below or above the rest of us it’s really impossible to identify with him. Instead, we are forced into the vaguely unpleasant situation of being voyeurs, congratulating ourselves for not being Charly as often as we feel a distant pity for him.
When Scholastic Magazine designated Charly as their Best Movie of the Year, Bantam teamed with Cinerama (the film’s distributors) to promote Flowers to teachers. At their first teacher screening, in Chicago, the 450 teachers who attended were given a special teaching kit. Similar screenings were held nationwide; more than 25,000 teachers and their families saw the movie during the Bantam-Cinerama promotion and received free copies of the novel as well as lesson plans to incorporate Flowers into their curriculum.
Parents lack love for Charlie
Since 1976, challenges to Flowers for Algernon have arisen in public schools throughout the country irrespective of geographical location. The first documented case was in Plant City, Hillsborough County, Florida when, in 1976, the book was successfully challenged and removed from public schools within the district. The rationale for the challenge focused on the novel’s sexual content. In 1977, parents within the small, rural Pennsylvanian county of Cameron successfully petitioned for its removal on account of its sexual content. Such was also the complaint brought forward by parents in Glen Rose, Hot Spring County Arkansas in 1981. Flowers has also encountered a lack of enthusiasm in Oberlin High School here in Ohio where in 1983 it was challenged by parents when it was suggested for inclusion on a reading list.
In the May, 1998 issue of Educational Leadership journal, Steve Rose, an Assistant Professor in the Education Department of Simpson College in Indiana, contributed an article entitled No Flowers for Algernon concerning a challenge to Flowers for Algernon he personally experienced as a 10th Grade English teacher in a small Nebraska town. He had been approached by Mr. Jones, father of John, a student who happened to be the chief photographer of a school publication that Rose sponsored. Mr. Jones was adamant about John not reading Flowers or hearing it discussed. Even though his Flowers lectures never dwelled upon anything particularly offensive, and the traditionally driven student discussions were invariably conducted “in a high moral tone,” Rose agreed to find John a different book to study in the school library whenever his classmates discussed Flowers. The discussions went without a hitch, as they previously had, and Rose planned to include Flowers the following year as part of his sophomore curriculum (as he often had in the past).
John’s father, however, had other plans for Steve Rose and Charlie. Mr. Jones photocopied what he considered “racy” passages from the book and distributed copies to many of the churches in the community. The school principal instructed Rose to pull the book but Rose was justifiably confident that given an opportunity he could placate most of the parents. The Superintendent convened a special public meeting of the school board and instructed Rose to be at hand to address the controversy to those members of the public who raised concerns. When the day came, the invited public consisted of just one person—Mr. Jones. The board authorized Rose’s continued use of Flowers. When the following year arrived, however, Rose was unable to locate any of the school’s copies of Flowers. The principal had no idea where they went and had no money to spend to acquire new copies. Rose had just entered a doctorate program, so having a ton of extra work and responsibilities, he reluctantly caved and let Flowers wither and dry up. He never taught it again while at the school. Years later, Rose and the man who had been the school principal talked over the phone and during their walk down memory lane Rose asked about the enigma of Flowers seemingly unlamented disappearance; Rose learned that the principal had indeed collected all the copies, boxed them up, and hid them in the boiler room beside boxes of Ann Head’s Mr. and Mrs. Bojo Jones.
Cassedy, Patrice. Understanding Flowers for Algernon. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books Inc., 2001
“Flowers for Algernon.” In Novels for Students, edited by Diane Telgen, 44-63.Vol. 2. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997. For Students Online (accessed July 29, 2019).http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2591500013/GVRL.forstudents?u=clevnet_cpl&sid=GVRL.forstudents&xid=55106080.
Keyes, Daniel. Algernon, Charlie, and I: A writer’s journey: plus the complete original short novelette version of “Flowers for Algernon.” Boca Raton, FL: Challcrest Press Books, 1999.
Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1987.
Rose, Steven. “No Flowers for Algernon.” Educational Leadership 55, no 8