Nelson Algren, 1956
March 28, 1909|
Detroit, Michigan, US
|Died||May 9, 1981
Long Island, New York
|Genre||Novel, short story|
|Notable awards||National Book Award
|Spouse||Amanda Kontowicz (m. 1937; divorced)
Betty Ann Jones (1965-1967; divorced)
Nelson Algren (March 28, 1909 – May 9, 1981) was an American writer. He may be best known for The Man with the Golden Arm, a 1949 novel that won the National Book Award and was adapted as a 1955 film of the same name.
According to Harold Augenbraum, "in the late 1940s and early 1950s he was one of the best known literary writers in America." The lover of French writer Simone de Beauvoir, he was featured in her novel The Mandarins, set in Paris and Chicago.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Literary career
- 3 WWII military service and Vietnam
- 4 Death and honors
- 5 Personal life
- 6 Political views and FBI surveillance
- 7 Algren and Chicago Polonia
- 8 Hoax broadcast
- 9 References in popular culture
- 10 Nelson Algren Award
- 11 Quotes
- 12 Bibliography
- 13 References
- 14 Further reading
- 15 External links
Algren was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Goldie (née Kalisher) and Gerson Abraham. At the age of three, he moved with his parents to Chicago, Illinois, where they lived in a working-class, immigrant neighborhood on the South Side. His father was the son of a Swedish convert to Judaism, and his mother was of German Jewish descent. (She owned a candy store on the South Side.) When he was young, Algren's family lived at 7139 S. South Park Avenue (now S. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) in the Greater Grand Crossing section of the South Side.
When he was eight, his family moved from the far South Side to an apartment at 4834 N. Troy Street, in the North Side neighborhood of Albany Park. His father worked as an auto mechanic nearby on North Kedzie Avenue.
In his essay Chicago: City on the Make, Algren added autobiographical details: he recalled being teased by neighborhood children after moving to Troy Street because he was a fan of the South Side White Sox. They were fans of the North Side Chicago Cubs. This teasing increased when White Sox players were implicated in the 1920 Black Sox Scandal. Despite living most of his life on the North Side, Algren never changed his affiliation and remained a White Sox fan.
Algren was educated in Chicago's public schools, graduated from Hibbard High School (now Roosevelt High School) and went on to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in journalism during the Great Depression in 1931. During his time at the University of Illinois, he wrote for the Daily Illini student newspaper.
Algren wrote his first story, "So Help Me", in 1933, while he was in Texas working at a gas station. Before returning to Chicago, he was caught stealing a typewriter from an empty classroom at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. He boarded a train for his getaway but was apprehended and returned to Alpine. He was held in jail for nearly five months and faced a possible additional three years in prison. He was released, but the incident made a deep impression on him. It deepened his identification with outsiders, has-beens, and the general failures who later populated his fictional world.
In 1935 Algren won the first of his three O. Henry Awards for his short story, "The Brother's House." The story was first published in Story Magazine and was reprinted in an anthology of O. Henry Award winners.
His first novel, Somebody in Boots, was published in 1935. Algren later dismissed the book as primitive and politically naive, claiming he infused it with Marxist ideas he little understood, because they were fashionable at the time. The book was not a success and went out of print. Algren later said that was for the best, after he reworked the material into his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side, which he claimed was superior.
His second novel, Never Come Morning (1942), portrayed the dead-end life of a doomed young Polish-American criminal. Ernest Hemingway, in a July 8, 1942, letter to his publisher Maxwell Perkins, said of the novel: "I think it very, very good. It is as fine and good stuff to come out of Chicago...." The novel offended members of Chicago's large Polish-American community, some of whose members denounced it as pro-Axis propaganda. Not knowing that Algren was of partly Jewish descent, some incensed Polish-American Chicagoans said he was pro-Nazi Nordic. His Polish-American critics succeeded in getting Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly to ban the novel from the Chicago Public Library.
Algren is best known for his 1949 novel The Man With the Golden Arm, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1950. The protagonist of the book, Frankie Machine, is an aspiring drummer who is a dealer in illicit card games. Frankie is trapped in demimonde Chicago, having picked up a morphine habit during his brief military service during World War II. He is married to a woman whom he mistakenly believes became crippled in a car accident he caused.
Algren's next book, Chicago, City on the Make (1951), was a scathing essay that outraged the city's boosters but portrayed the back alleys of the city, its dispossessed, its corrupt politicians and its swindlers. Algren also declared his love of the City as a "lovely so real".
The Man With the Golden Arm was adapted as a 1955 movie of the same name, starring Frank Sinatra and directed and produced by Otto Preminger. It was a commercial success but Algren loathed the film. He sued Preminger for monies he claimed he was owed.
In 1956, Algren had his last mainstream success with the novel A Walk on the Wild Side. He reworked some of the material from his first novel, as well as picking up elements from several published short stories, most notably his 1947 "The Face on the Barroom Floor". The novel was about a wandering Texan adrift during the early years of the Great Depression. It was adapted as the 1962 movie of the same name. Some critics thought the film bowdlerized the book, and it was not commercially successful.
Algren articulated the world of "drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums". Art Shay wrote, years later, about how Algren had written a poem from the perspective of a "halfy", street slang for a legless man on wheels. The protagonist talks about "how forty wheels rolled over his legs and how he was ready to strap up and give death a wrestle". Shay wrote that Algren later commented that this poem was probably key to everything he had ever written.
In the fall of 1955, Algren was interviewed for the Paris Review by rising author Terry Southern. Algren and Southern became friends through this meeting and remained in touch for many years. Algren became one of Southern's most enthusiastic early supporters, and when he taught creative writing in later years he often used Southern as an example of a great short story writer.
Hurricane Carter and Paterson, New Jersey
In 1975, Algren was commissioned to write a magazine article about the trial of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the prize fighter who had been found guilty of double murder. While researching the article, Algren visited Carter's hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Algren was instantly fascinated by the city of Paterson and he immediately decided to move there. In the summer of 1975, Algren sold off most of his belongings, left Chicago, and moved into an apartment in Paterson.
The article about Carter had grown into a novel, The Devil's Stocking, which was published posthumously in 1983.
In September 1996, the book Nonconformity was published by Seven Stories Press, presenting Algren's view of the difficulties surrounding the 1956 film adaptation of The Man With the Golden Arm. Nonconformity also presents the belief system behind Algren's writing and a call to writers everywhere to investigate the dark and represent the ignored.
Seven Stories Press later published the novel fragment Entrapment, along with other unpublished Algren fiction and reportage, as Entrapment and Other Writings in 2009.
WWII military service and Vietnam
Algren served as a private in the European Theater of World War II as a litter bearer. Despite being a college graduate, he was denied entry into Officer Candidate School. There is conjecture that this may have been due to suspicion regarding his political beliefs, although his criminal conviction would have most likely excluded him from OCS.
According to Bettina Drew in her 1989 biography Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, Algren had no desire to serve in the war but was drafted in 1943. An indifferent soldier, he actively dealt on the black market while stationed in France. He received a bad beating by some fellow black marketeers.
Ironically, according to Drew's biography, Algren angled for a journalism job in South Vietnam. Strapped for cash more than a decade after his only two commercially successful novels, he saw Vietnam as an opportunity to make money, not from journalism fees, but from dealing on the black market.
Death and honors
Medal of Merit and Academy Membership
In 1980, he moved to a house in Sag Harbor, Long Island. Three months before he died of a heart attack at home on May 9, 1981, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He previously had been awarded the Award of Merit Medal for the novel in 1974 by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the forerunner to the Academy. (Algren previously had won an Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the Institute in 1947.)
O. Henry Awards
Algren won his first O. Henry Award for his short story "The Brother's House" (published in Story Magazine) in 1935. His short stories "A Bottle of Milk for Mother (Biceps)" (published in the Southern Review) and "The Captain is Impaled" (Harper's Magazine) were O. Henry Award winners in 1941 and 1950, respectively.  None of the stories won the first, second or third place awards but were included in the annual collection of O. Henry Award stories.
Nelson was also honored in 1998 with a fountain dedicated in his name located in Chicago's Polish Triangle, in what had been the heart of Polish Downtown, the area that figured as the inspiration for much of his work. Appropriately enough, Division Street, Algren's favorite street as well as the onetime Polish Broadway, runs right past it.
Nelson Algren married Amanda Kontowicz in 1937. He had met her at a party celebrating the publication of Somebody in Boots. They eventually would divorce and remarry before divorcing a second and final time.
Algren had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir. The couple summered together in Algren's cottage in the lake front community of Miller Beach, Indiana, and also traveled to Latin America together in 1949. In her novel The Mandarins (1957), Beauvoir wrote of Algren (who is 'Lewis Brogan' in the book):
At first I found it amusing meeting in the flesh that classic American species: self-made leftist writer. Now, I began taking an interest in Brogan. Through his stories, you got the feeling that he claimed no rights to life and that nevertheless he had always had a passionate desire to live. I liked that mixture of modesty and eagerness.
Algren expected the world's most famous feminist to love him in a traditional way, with the man being dominant, but Beauvoir's relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre dominated her life. Algren and Beauvoir eventually became disenchanted with each other, and a bitter Algren wrote of Beauvoir and Sartre in a Playboy Magazine article about a trip he took to North Africa with Beauvoir, that she and Sartre were bigger users of others than a prostitute and her pimp in their way.
In 1965, he met Betty Ann Jones while teaching at the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop. They married that year and divorced in 1967. According to Kurt Vonnegut, who taught with him at Iowa in 1965, Algren's "enthusiasm for writing, reading and gambling left little time for the duties of a married man."
Political views and FBI surveillance
Algren friend Stuart McCarrell described him as a "gut radical," who generally sided with the downtrodden but was uninterested in ideological debates and politically inactive for most of his life. McCarrell states that Algren's heroes were the "prairie radicals" Theodore Dreiser, John Peter Altgeld, Clarence Darrow and Eugene V. Debs. Algren references all of these men – as well as Big Bill Haywood, the Haymarket defendants and the Memorial Day Massacre victims – in Chicago: City on the Make.
Despite its appeal to artists and intellectuals during the Great Depression, Algren told McCarrell that he never joined the Communist Party. Among other reasons, he cited negative experiences both he and Richard Wright had with party members. However, his involvement in groups deemed "subversive" during the McCarthy years drew the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Among his affiliations, he was a participant in the John Reed Club in the 1930s and later an honorary co-chair of the "Save Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Committee" in Chicago. According to Herbert Mitgang, the FBI suspected Algren's political views and kept a dossier on him amounting to more than 500 pages but identified nothing concretely subversive.
During the 1950s, Algren wished to travel to Paris with his romantic companion, Simone de Beauvoir, but due to government surveillance his passport applications were denied. When he finally did get a passport in 1960, McCarrell concludes that "it was too late. By then the relationship [with de Beauvoir] had changed subtly but decisively."
Algren and Chicago Polonia
Algren described Ashland Avenue as figuratively connecting Chicago to Warsaw in Poland. His own life involved the Polish community of Chicago in many ways, including his second wife Amanda Kontowicz. His friend Art Shay wrote about Algren, who while gambling, listened to old Polish love songs sung by an elderly waitress. The city's Polish Downtown, where he lived for years, played a significant part in his literary output. Polish bars that Algren frequented in his gambling, such as the Bit of Poland on Milwaukee Avenue, figured in such writings as Never Come Morning and The Man With the Golden Arm.
His novel Never Come Morning was published several years after the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a period when Poles, like Jews, were labeled an inferior race by Nazi ideology. Chicago's Polish-American leaders thought Never Come Morning played on these anti-Polish stereotypes, and launched a sustained campaign against the book through the Polish press, the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, and other Polish-American institutions. Articles appeared in the local Polish newspapers and letters were sent to Mayor Ed Kelly, the Chicago Public Library, and Algren's publisher, Harper & Brothers. The general tone of the campaign is suggested by a Zgoda editorial that attacked his character and mental state, saw readers who got free copies as victims of a Nazi-financed plot, and said the novel proved a deep desire to harm ethnic Poles on Algren's part. The Polish American Council sent a copy of a resolution condemning the novel to the FBI. Algren and his publisher defended against these accusations, with the author telling a library meeting that the book was about the effects of poverty, regardless of national background. The mayor had the novel removed from the Chicago Public Library system, and it apparently remained absent for at least 20 years. At least two later efforts to commemorate Algren in Polish Downtown echoed the attacks on the novels.
Shortly after his death in 1981, his last Chicago residence at 1958 West Evergreen Street was noted by Chicago journalist Mike Royko. The walk-up apartment just east of Damen Avenue in the former Polish Downtown neighborhood of West Town was in an area that had been dominated by Polish immigrants and was once one of Chicago's toughest and most crowded neighborhoods. The renaming of Evergreen Street to Algren Street caused controversy and was almost immediately reversed.
In 1998, Algren enthusiasts instigated the renaming after Algren of the Polish Triangle in what had been the center of the Polish Downtown. Replacing the plaza's traditional name, the director of the Polish Museum of America predicted, would obliterate the history of Chicago ethnic Poles and insult ethnic Polish institutions and local businesses. In the end a compromise was reached where the Triangle kept its older name and a newly installed fountain was named after Algren and inscribed with a quotation about the city's working people protecting its essence, from Algren's essay "Chicago: City on the Make".
A passage featured in Algren's 1983 book The Devil's Stocking was broadcast on TV some six years earlier during the Southern Television hoax which generated international publicity when students interrupted the regular broadcast through the Hannington transmitter of the Independent Broadcasting Authority in England for six minutes on 26 November 1977. Issue No. 24 of Fortean Times (Winter 1977) transcribed the hoaxer's message as:
"This is the voice of Asteron. I am an authorized representative of the Intergalactic Mission and I have a message for the planet Earth. We are beginning to enter the period of Aquarius and there are many corrections which have to be made by Earth people. All your weapons of evil must be destroyed. You have only a short time to live to learn to live together in peace. You must live in peace or leave the galaxy."
The Devil's Stocking is Algren's fictionalized account of the trial of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a real-life prize-fighter who had been found guilty of double murder, about whom Algren had written a magazine article for Esquire in 1975. In the book, as a period of unrest within the prison begins, the character 'Kenyatta' gives a speech closely mirroring the Fortean Times transcript of the 1977 hoax, and those of other American newspaper reports of the broadcast. The passage in Algren's book says:
"I am an authorized representative of the Intergalactic Mission," Kenyatta finally disclosed his credentials. "I have a message for the Planet Earth. We are beginning to enter the period of Aquarius. Many corrections have to be made by Earth people. All your weapons of evil must be destroyed. You have only a short time to learn to live together in peace. You must live in peace" - here he paused to gain everybody's attention - "you must live in peace or leave the galaxy!" 
References in popular culture
In literature and publications
- In his 1967 novella, Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan writes about crating up and mailing a crippled wino (Trout Fishing in America Shorty) to Nelson Algren.
- In Jerry Kamstra's 1975 book The Frisco Kid, Jerry's mentally challenged friend Scott pulls him aside and forces Jerry to promise to him that he will read Nelson Algren because "he is the one American author that hasn't sold out yet, kid."
- In 2011, literary publication 3:AM Magazine named Algren a cult hero.
- The 2002 album Adult World by guitarist Wayne Kramer (founding member of the Detroit band MC5) contains a song titled "Nelson Algren Stopped By," in which guest band X-Mars-X provides a shuffling jazz background while Kramer reads a prose poem about walking the streets of present-day Chicago with Algren.
- In 2005, The Hold Steady mentioned Algren in the song "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" from the Separation Sunday album. The first line of the song is "Nelson Algren came to Paddy at some party at the Dead End Alley/He told him what to celebrate" and toward the end the song goes "Hey Nelson Algren. Chicago seemed tired last night/They had cigarettes where there were supposed to be eyes." The name 'Paddy' in the song is a reference to Patrick Costello and the 'Dead End Alley' is the name of the house where the Dillinger Four's members used to live.
- According to the liner notes of The Tubes' second album, Young and Rich, A Walk on the Wild Side is the inspiration for their song "Pimp".
- Leonard Cohen used images from The Man with the Golden Arm in "The Stranger Song", from his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967): "you've seen that man before: his golden arm dispatching cards, but now it's rusted from the elbows to the finger."
- The Minnesota-based punk-rock band Dillinger Four quote Algren as an inspiration in the song "Doublewhiskeycokenoice" from their album Midwestern Songs of the Americas. In that song Patrick Costello sings "Nelson Algren came to me and said, 'Celebrate the ugly things' / The beat-up side of what they call pride could be the measure of these days."
- In the documentary Classic Albums: Lou Reed: Transformer, musician Lou Reed says that Algren's 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, was the launching point for his song of the same name.
- In 1988, A Walk on the Wild Side was staged as a musical at the Back Alley Theatre in Van Nuys, California. Will Holt, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, went on to win the Los Angeles Dramalogue Critics Award for his work.
- In 2000, John Susman's play Nelson & Simone was produced at Chicago’s Live Bait Theatre, directed by Richard Cotovsky, and starring Gary Houston and Rebecca Covey. The play dramatizes the love affair between Algren and Simone de Beauvoir.
Nelson Algren Award
Each year the Chicago Tribune gives a Nelson Algren award for short fiction. Winners are published in the newspaper and given $5,000. The award is viewed with more than a little irony by Algren admirers; the Tribune panned Algren's work in his lifetime, referring to Chicago: City on the Make as a "highly scented object." In an afterword to that book, Algren accused the Tribune of imposing false viewpoints on the city and promoting mediocrity.
Studs Terkel, writer Warren Leming, and three others founded the Nelson Algren Committee in 1989. At the time, there was a renewed interest in Algren's work. Somebody in Boots and Never Come Morning, both long out of print, had been republished in 1987. The first biography of Algren, Bettina Drew's Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, was published in 1989 by Putnam. All of Nelson Algren's words are now back in print.
The Committee awards community activists an annual Algren award and sponsors an Algren birthday party. Leming's song "Algren Street" can be downloaded from the Committee's website. The site also contains the short film Algren's Last Night, written by Leming and directed by Carmine Cervi.
"It is strange how fragile this man-creature is.....in one second he's just garbage. Garbage, that's all."
"I don't recommend being a bachelor, but it helps if you want to write."
"The avocation of assessing the failures of better men can be turned into a comfortable livelihood, providing you back it up with a Ph.D."
"(Chicago is) the only major city in the country where you can easily buy your way out of a murder rap."
"Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own." From A Walk on the Wild Side (1956)
"Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch [Chicago], you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." From Chicago: City on the Make (1951)
"My feeling was although the Nazis had to be beaten, because of what they stood for, this didn't necessarily mean that we believed in exactly the opposite, that, if we won the war, then everything was going to be as it should be." From Conversations with Nelson Algren (1964)
"The Devil lives in a doubleshot" Roman Orlov in "How The Devil came down Division Street"
- "National Book Awards – 1950". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
(With essays by Rachel Kushne and Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- "1950". Harold Augenbraum and staff. 60 Years of Honoring Great American Books (book-a-day blog), June 18, 2009. National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-31.
Augenbraum was the executive director of the National Book Foundation, marking the 60-year anniversary of the National Book Award for Fiction, as resumed after the war. Algren won the first one.
- Bettina Drew. Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-06-22.
- "Nelson algren biography and notes". Biblio.com. Retrieved 15 July 2011.
- Louise Frank (28 March 2009). "Happy 100th Birthday Nelson Algren". WFMT. Retrieved 15 July 2011.
- Jeff Huebner (19 November 1998). "Full Nelson". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 15 July 2011.
- Illio. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois. 1931. p. 46.
- Shay, Art. Nelson Algren's Chicago, University of Illinois Press 1988, p. 118
- Hill, Lee - A Grand Guy: The Life and Art of Terry Southern (Bloomsbury, 2001), pp.63-64
- Springer, Mike. "Nelson Algren, the Exiled King". Open Culture. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
- Liukkonen, Petri. "Nelson Algren". Books and Writers (kirjasto.sci.fi). Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 10 February 2015.
- “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” January 30, 1968 New York Post
- "O. Henry Award Winners 1919-1999". Random House. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
- "Public Building Commission of Chicago | PBC Projects". Pbcchicago.com. 2007-07-18. Retrieved 2012-06-22.
- Vonnegut, Kurt (December 31, 2004). "Funny side of the street". Guadian.co.uk. London: Manchester Guardian. Retrieved 7 September 2011.
- Stuart McCarrell, "Nelson Algren's Politics," in Algren, Nelson (9 November 1999). Savage, Jr., William J.; Simon, Daniel, eds. The Man with the Golden Arm: 50th Anniversary Critical Edition. Seven Stories Press. pp. 377–379.
- Horvath, Brooke (1 March 2005). Understanding Nelson Algren. University of South Carolina Press. pp. 5, 15.
- Daniel Simon, "Algren's Question," in Algren, Nelson (9 November 1999). Savage, Jr., William J.; Simon, Daniel, eds. The Man with the Golden Arm: 50th Anniversary Critical Edition. Seven Stories Press. pp. 411–415.
- Mitgang, Herbert, Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors, NY: Donald I. Fine, Inc. 1988
- Shay, p. 119
- Lévy, Bernard-Henri. In the Footsteps of Tocqueville, The Atlantic Monthly, May 2005
- Paulu, Burton (October 1981). Television and radio in the United Kingdom. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 179–180. ISBN 978-0-8166-0941-3.
- "'Galactic' hoax startles viewers". The Daily Collegian. 2 December 1977. Retrieved 2009-09-13.
- Diary of a Mad Planet: Fortean Times Issues 16-25. John Brown Publishing Ltd. 1995. ISBN 1-870021-25-8.
- Algren, Nelson (September 1983). The Devil's Stocking. Arbor House Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-87795-548-1.
- O'Connor, Robert. "3:AM Cult Hero," 3:AM Magazine.
- Nelson Algren at the Internet Movie Database
- "Live Bait Theater production history". Livebaittheater.org. Retrieved 2012-06-22.
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Nelson Algren|
- Works by or about Nelson Algren in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Alston Anderson & Terry Southern (Winter 1955). "Nelson Algren, The Art of Fiction No. 11". The Paris Review.
- Flanagan, Richard (29 January 2006). "Prophet of the neon wilderness". The Daily Telegraph. London.
- Algren: The Movie
- Writers Influenced By Algren
- Clips of Barry Gifford and Willem Dafoe reading from Algren's work
- Nelson Algren Papers at The Newberry Library
- Nelson Algren quotes on Twitter
- Mim Udovitch - a contributing editor for Esquire (December 6, 1988). "Hot and Epistolary: 'Letters to Nelson Algren', by Simone de Beauvoir". New York Times. Retrieved June 9, 2012.
- Louis Menand (September 26, 2005). "Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoir (Book review of new edition of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir)". The New Yorker. Retrieved June 9, 2012.
- The Man With The Golden Pen
- Fearless Frank at the Internet Movie Database