Nelson Algren was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham on 28 March 1909 in Detroit, Michigan, but was raised in Chicago. He died days after his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his fiction out of print and largely forgotten, in Sag Harbor, New York, on 9 May 1981. Profound shifts in American political and literary culture shaped the trajectory of Algren's life and literary career. He was radicalized by the Great Depression and set out, like Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, and Walt Whitman before him, to depict America from the point of view of the outsider. His subjects were the disinherited of Texas jail cells; the wanderers of the New Orleans waterfront; and the petty thieves, strong-arm boys, hookers, and cops of Chicago's Polish-American ghetto. Like the modernist writers he admired, Algren wrote and rewrote and rewrote again, trying to create truth and beauty out of the language of shuttered barrooms and backroom card games, police lineups, and Chicago Avenue streetcars. Uniquely among American novelists, Algren melds the political eye of naturalism with the written craft of modernism and the vernacular voice of realism.
Algren was the grandson and namesake of a Swedish convert to Judaism; Algren's father was a machinist, his mother a housewife. He earned a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois in 1931, and as he traveled the country seeking work, his experiences convinced him of the fundamental injustice of capitalism. He returned home and joined Chicago's left-wing intellectual scene along with writers such as James T. Farrell and Richard Wright. Like many struggling artists of the day, he worked various jobs, including one at the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project. At the start of his career, he dropped the “Abraham” and became Nelson Algren.
Finding His Place and Voice
His first published short story, So Help Me, appeared in Story magazine in August 1933 and led to a contract for a novel with the Vanguard Press. Somebody in Boots depicted the human consequences of the Depression; it was edited in part by Farrell and appeared in 1935. Like most novels, it disappeared without making any impression on critics or readers, much less transforming the American political and economic system. In 1942 his second novel, Never Come Morning, had greater success. This work was set in the place that would be most associated with Algren: Chicago's near Northwest Side, centered around the Polish Triangle, the intersection of Division Street and Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues. While Algren found his literary voice here—a heightened and poeticized street talk, the slang of skid row bars, the in-the-know chatter of police stations and poolhalls, the inflection of first- and second-generation immigrants—he also earned the enmity of Chicago's Polish-American powers that be. They thought his depiction of the dehumanizing influences of corruption and the city on Polish immigrants and their children served as Nazi propaganda, and Algren was never highly regarded on his own turf.
After military service in World War II, Algren published his most successful books in quick succession: in 1947 The Neon Wilderness, a collection of short stories, and in 1949 his masterpiece, The Man with the Golden Arm. This novel—the story of Division Street and the doomed card dealer and morphine addict Frankie Machine, his wife Sophie, and his sidekick Sparrow—won the first National Book Award in 1950 and propelled Algren to the top rank of up-and-coming young writers. (In a letter to Algren, Hemingway said he was better than Faulkner.) In 1951 Algren published Chicago: City on the Make, a prose poem which is half love song and half history lesson about the hustlers who built Chicago and run it yet. Algren was relatively prosperous, at the height of his powers, and was involved in a romance with the French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, whom he had met in 1947.
New Rules of the Literary Game
But American literary culture had already begun to change, as the Red Scare of the postwar years festered and the McCarthyism of the 1950s bloomed. The political climate and the expansion of the university system created a new class of literary tastemakers, academics heavily influenced by various types of formalism. These canon makers did not merely emphasize formal qualities over content; they rejected any work that—as far as they were concerned—focused on a particular political situation rather than timeless or universal human nature. They defined work with political concerns, however well written, as not really Literature with a capital “L.” Form had, it seemed, triumphed over content.
It would be more productive, however, to understand this conflict by focusing on what critics and writers considered proper literary subject matter. Those novelists canonized by the same critics who downgraded Algren wrote about themselves. Their protagonists were academics, writers, or intellectuals struggling to live well in contemporary American culture. Algren's continued insistence that people who did not read—much less write—were worthy subjects of novels and stories and poems reached back beyond naturalism to the roots of realism, to the essential democratic notion that everyone, regardless of social position, is worthy of art. Algren never wrote fiction about himself. With clear-eyed compassion, humor, and humanity, he wrote of people limited—if not destroyed—by the American class structure and the material reality of their urban situation. In a prosperous postwar America, such an emphasis on the alienated and dehumanized had few fans.
In 1956, A Walk on the Wild Side, the last Algren novel published in his lifetime, appeared. In reviews published in prominent journals, famous critics dismissed Algren as someone living in the past, a purveyor of voyeuristic pulp fiction obsessed with the Depression, out of touch with his times, and so beneath the attention of the serious reader. The bitter irony of this attack is that Wild Side was a revision of Somebody in Boots, a revision crafted especially for Eisenhower's America. When contracted to do a quick revision of his long-forgotten first novel for the paperback trade, Algren reread it and saw that his tone of humorless leftist outrage would no longer work—not because the politics were wrong, but because Algren believed that an audience for such political art had disappeared. Like writers such as Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, Algren saw satire as the only way to address this new America, and so while keeping some of the characters and settings, he transformed his first book into a comic fable about the American Dream of upward class mobility, set largely in the bars and brothels of New Orleans. There Dove Linkhorn strives for success—by trying to learn how to read.
On the Skids
The process by which a writer like Algren goes from next-big-thing to would-be-has-been extends beyond the opinions of literary critics to wider aspects of literary culture and the writer's own actions. The historical moment of Algren's exile from the realm of serious literature coincided with the rise of the paperback. Such commercial and material aspects of the world of books often go overlooked, but in Algren's case it is clear that the way his works were packaged and sold to readers unfamiliar with him reinforced the critics' negative judgment. Just as the critics were dismissing him as a pop writer, his fiction was reissued in paperbacks, which confirmed this impression. Lurid cover art and sensationalistic blurbs cast Algren's work as though it were urban exposé or juvenile delinquent fiction. Film versions of his novels had the same lowbrow labeling.
Algren also contributed to some degree to his own critical fate by seeming to accept it. His critics dismissed him as a clown, and he wrote hilarious satirical essays in which he gave them comic nicknames and mocked their pretensions. His own feeling that his audience no longer existed led him to surrender rather than to soldier on, and without the steady publication of new work that marks the career of most successful novelists, he faded into the past to which his critics had relegated him.
Algren's personal life and career would never recover. The State Department, considering him a security risk, would not issue him a passport to visit de Beauvoir in Paris, and their relationship eventually ended badly. A habitual gambler, his financial situation was never stable, and he could not get an advance on a book contract to write another big novel. So he made a living with journalism and book reviewing. He published several collections of miscellaneous prose, poetry, and travel writing in the 1960s and 1970s. But his final attempt at a novel, one that told the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, remained unpublished at his death. It first appeared posthumously in German translation as Calhoun in 1981 and only in 1983 did it appear in English as The Devil's Stocking.
Developments since Algren's death suggest that he had an audience all along, as accomplished novelists such as Russell Banks credit Algren with showing them that they could write novels about people who do not attend universities. Publishers have gotten his work back in print. Other artists have produced work dramatizing his life or adapting his prose for the stage and television. American literary culture has shifted again, returning to the concerns of class, race, ethnicity, and gender which Algren grappled with throughout his career. New generations of scholars and critics have begun the process of having conferences and writing articles and books about Algren, the things that surround the creative work of any great writer. Yet the contradictions and irony that marked Algren's career continue. When the city of Chicago changed the name of West Evergreen Street, where he lived for many years, to Nelson Algren Avenue, the neighbors complained about the trouble involved. The city changed the name back and put up honorary street signs—which keep getting stolen. Then in 1999, the city dedicated the Nelson Algren Fountain at the intersection of Milwaukee, Division, and Ashland, so that now the successors to the jackrollers and neighborhood toughs whom Algren depicted with such accuracy, humanity, and humor sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling off on hot summer nights.
Somebody in Boots (1935)Find this resource:
Never Come Morning (1942)Find this resource:
The Neon Wilderness (1947)Find this resource:
The Man with the Golden Arm (1949)Find this resource:
Chicago: City on the Make (1951)Find this resource:
A Walk on the Wild Side (1956)Find this resource:
Nelson Algren's Book of Lonesome Monsters (1962)Find this resource:
Who Lost an American? (1963)Find this resource:
Conversations with Nelson Algren (1964)Find this resource:
Notes from a Sea Voyage: Hemingway All the Way (1965)Find this resource:
The Last Carousel (1973)Find this resource:
The Devil's Stocking (1983)Find this resource:
The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren (1995)Find this resource:
Nonconformity: Writing on Writing (1996)Find this resource:
Cappetti, Carla. Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. New York, 1993. Examines the relationship between the Chicago school of sociology and the sociological methods of Algren and other Chicago novelists.Find this resource:
Drew, Bettina. Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side. New York, 1989. The definitive biography.Find this resource:
Giles, James R. Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Nelson Algren. Kent, Ohio, 1989. First full-length book on Algren's fiction. Giles argues that Algren melds existentialism with naturalism.Find this resource:
Rotella, Carlo. October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature. Berkeley, Calif., 1996. Examines Algren and other writers in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City as they grapple with the transformation from industrial to postindustrial America.Find this resource: