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3:AM Cult Hero: Nelson Algren

By Robert O’Connor.


Algren, after being arrested for possession of marijuana. The charges were later dropped.

Simone de Beauvoir described Nelson Algren (without using his name) in one of her novels as “a mixture of modesty and eagerness.” Who had a desire to live, but who wasn’t sentimental about it. Who was well off, but identified with the poor and down-trod.

Algren was born Nelson Abraham and grew up in the South Side of Chicago, in the neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing. When he was eight, his family moved to Albany Park on the north side. He was educated at Hibbard (now Roosevelt) High School and studied journalism at the University of Illinois at their main campus in Urbana-Champaign.

After graduating from UI in 1931, he went south looking for journalism work. He ended up taking a series of odd jobs like a door-to-door salesman and working at a gas station in Texas. It was there that he sold his first story in 1933. The next year, he spent five months in jail for stealing a typewriter from an abandoned classroom. His first novel, Somebody In Boots, was based on his time in Texas.

Back in Chicago, he attended meetings of the John Reed Club, also attended by a young Richard Wright (whose earliest works were published in the chapter’s magazine Left Front). He also worked off-and-on for the Illinois WPA. When the US entered World War 2, he served as a private in the European Theater. He was a college graduate, but was denied entry into the Officer Candidate School, probably because of his criminal conviction, or perhaps due to suspicions regarding his political beliefs.

In 1949, Algren had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir, right around the time The Second Sex came out. His most famous book The Man with the Golden Arm came out that same year, depicting the existence of a morphine addict. The book won the first National Book Award for Fiction in 1950 and it was filmed in 1955 with Frank Sinatra in the lead.

In 1951, Algren wrote his other best-known work, Chicago: City on the Make, a book-length essay describing Algren’s city. It presents a gritty city full of unsavory characters in a style that is as poetic as it is accurate. He also gave Chicago another in a long list of nicknames (most of them given by writers).

While visiting Patterson, New Jersey in 1975 to write a story about boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Algren fell in love with the city and moved there. Carter had been convicted of murders he didn’t commit twice, with the second being overturned in 1985. Algren had expanded the story into a novel, The Devil’s Stocking, which was published in 1983, two years after his death.

Nelson Algren was very much like John Steinbeck. Both were from families of modest means, both came across the harsh realities of their fellow human beings and those who had missed out on the American dream. But where Steinbeck wrote of migrant workers with a poetic optimism, Algren wrote of urban dwellers with a naturalistic pen. Like Stephen Crane‘s Maggie, Algren’s Francis Majcinek is the victim of forces he cannot control, and is resigned to a tragic fate.

MORE: The famous opening titles of The Man with the Golden Arm film adaptation, designed by Saul Bass / The complete film of The Man with the Golden Arm / Interview for the Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 11 by Alston Anderson & Terry Southern. Winter 1955 / Nelson Algren Committee / Interview with Studs Terkel shortly after his movie to Patterson / Granta 108 about Chicago, with a poem by Algren ‘The Lightless Room’ (read aloud by Willem Dafoe) & a remembrance of Algren by Don Delillo.

First posted: Sunday, May 15th, 2011.

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