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Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren

The American author Nelson Algren (1909-1981) wrote novels and short stories about underworld characters, often set in the slums of Chicago.

Nelson Algren has been called the poet of the under-world. His characters are the pimps and pushers, clowns and con-men, hustlers and hookers, lushes and junkies, grotesqueries and freaks—in short, the born losers of the world who live in what he called "the neon wilderness." For more than half of his works the seamy streets of Chicago are his setting. His social realism has been compared to two other authors who wrote of the Chicago slums, Richard Wright (Native Son) and James T. Farrell (the Studs Lonigan series). Algren's work represents a continuation of the American realism begun with Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Frank Norris' McTeague, and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.

So downbeat is his fiction that one of his most remembered lines is the closing of his frequently anthologized short story "A Bottle of Milk for Mother" in which a young murderer confesses his crime. "I knew I'd never get to be twenty-one anyhow," he tells himself. That short story became part of his second novel, Never Come Morning (1942), about a Chicago South Side prizefighter-hoodlum. It was only a little more commercially successful than his scarcely noticed first novel, Somebody in Boots (1935), about the end of a Texas family of misfits.

Algren is best known for his novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), which won the National Book Award and was made into a successful motion picture by Otto Preminger starring Frank Sinatra. It is the story of a professional gambler with a "lucky" arm and a morphine addiction, "a monkey on his back," a phrase Algren heard in the streets and made popular by using it in his novel.

A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), also made into a film, is a sequel to The Man with the Golden Arm and, like Somebody in Boots, is about a rustic from a Texas town. Critics felt that it was more than a re-writing of his first novel in that here Algren tightened his prose and laced it with comic interludes of Rabelaisian hilarity. But still there is the loser's mentality and Algren's gloomy humor. "Sometimes I almost think it'd be money in my pocket if I'd never been born," one of his characters remarks in A Walk on the Wild Side.

Born Nelson Algren Abraham of Jewish, Swedish, and German ancestry in Detroit on March 28, 1909, he grew up in Chicago after his father, a machinist, moved his family there when Nelson was three years old. He lived in ethnic blue-collar neighborhoods of the city and worked his way through the University of Illinois, majoring in journalism and graduating in 1931.

Unable to find work during the Great Depression, he traveled south to New Orleans and Texas, visiting areas that served as the background of his first novel. During his days as a drifter he hustled at a carnival, worked in a service station, and peddled goods as a door-to-door salesman.

It was while he was in Texas that he decided to be a writer. His first step was to steal a typewriter and head back to Chicago. Like the characters in his subsequent stories, he was caught and arrested. He spent four months in jail in Alpine, Texas. The experience gave him material for future stories. When he returned to Chicago he sold one set in a Texas filling station to Story magazine.

During World War II he served in the European theater and, again in the fashion of his characters, he emerged as he had entered, a private. He was married twice and divorced each time.

At one point in his life he began a romance with Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist writer, whom he came to know through a friend who was a French translator. The night Algren met de Beauvoir, he took her to a seedy bar in the Chicago Bowery where they watched drunken old men and women dance to a small band. Later they visited a homeless shelter. The following day Algren took his enthusiastic new friend to see the electric chair, psychiatric wards, cheap burlesque shows, police line-ups, and the city zoo. Subsequently she went to Mexico with him and he visited her in Paris. De Beauvoir wrote about their relationship in several of her books and dedicated The Mandarins (1956) to him. He dedicated a book of essays to her. Although she returned to her long-time companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, she was buried wearing Algren's ring.

Algren had one other famous supporter, Ernest Hemingway, who selected him as second only to Faulkner among leading American authors of his day. Curiously, Faulkner and Algren were counterparts in another way. In 1986 the Modern Language Association reported hundreds of articles written on the southern writer with but two on Algren. Yet the Federal Bureau of Investigation's files on Algren outnumber those on Faulkner by 546 pages to 18, indicating a greater interest in the Chicago writer by J. Edgar Hoover and his staff than by literary scholars, many of whom objected to Algren's subject matter. The critic Leslie Fiedler called him "the bard of the stumblebum," and Norman Podhoretz complained that he romanticized hustlers and prostitutes. One of his works, however, The Neon Wilderness (1947), a collection of 20 short stories, received generally high critical acclaim.

Algren's last novel, The Devil's Stocking (1983), about a black boxer accused of a triple homicide and based on the life of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, was published posthumously. It had been written after Algren moved east in 1974, living first in New Jersey and later in Sag Harbor, New York.

On May 8, 1981, he complained of pains in his chest and his doctor recommended that he go into nearby Southampton Hospital, but Algren refused, saying that on the following day he was having a party to celebrate his entry into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honor which had come to him belatedly. On the morning of his party a friend discovered him dead, lying face-up on his bathroom floor.

Like Chekhov, whose dead body was mistakenly placed in a freight car marked "Fresh Oysters" on route to the cemetery, Algren suffered further indignities after he died. When his tombstone arrived, his name was spelled wrong and had to be re-cut. Then the City of Chicago named a street after him, but residents complained that the new name caused them too much bother, so West Algren Street, like its namesake, vanished from the scene.

Further Reading

Additional information on Nelson Algren and his works can be found in Bettina Drew, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side (1989, 1991); Maxwell Geismar, "Nelson Algren: The Iron Sanctuary" in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity (1958); John Seelye, "The Night Watchmen," with illustrations by Cathie Black, Chicago (February 1988); Nelson Algren, Conversations with Nelson Algren (1964); "Nelson Algren, 72, Novelist Who Wrote of Slums, Dies," New York Times (May 10, 1981); Saul Maloff, "Maverick in American Letters," New Republic (January 1974); George Bluestone, "Nelson Algren," The Western Review (Autumn 1957); and Ross MacDonald, "Nelson Algren," New York Times (December 4, 1977).

Additional Sources

Cox, Martha Heasley, Nelson Algren, Boston: Twayne Publishers 1975. □

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Algren, Nelson

Nelson Algren (ôl´grən), 1909–81, American novelist, b. Detroit. He grew up in Chicago, and much of his fiction is set in the slums. His novels, such as Never Come Morning (1942), The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), are brutally realistic. In a lighter vein are the personal sketches collected in Who Lost an American (1963), Notes from a Sea Diary (1965), and The Last Carousel (1973).

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Algren, Nelson

ALGREN, Nelson

Pseudonym for Nelson Ahlgren Abraham. Nationality: American. Born: Detroit, Michigan, 28 March 1909. Education: Schools in Chicago; University of Illinois, Urbana, 1928-31, B.S. in journalism 1931. Military Service: Served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, 1942-45: private. Family: Married 1) Amanda Kontowicz in 1936 (divorced 1939); 2) Betty Ann Jones in 1965 (divorced 1967). Career: Worked as salesman, migratory worker, carnival shill, and part owner of a gas station, 1931-35; editor, Illinois Writers Project, WPA, 1936-40; editor, with Jack Conroy, New Anvil, Chicago, 1939-41; worked for the Venereal Disease Program of the Chicago Board of Health, 1941-42; teacher of creative writing, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1967; teacher of creative writing, University of Florida, Gainesville, 1974; columnist, Chicago Free Press, 1970. Awards: American Academy grant, 1947, and Award of Merit medal, 1974; Newberry Library fellowship, 1947; National Book award, 1950; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1976. Died: 9 May 1981.

Publications

Short Stories

The Neon Wilderness. 1946.

The Last Carousel. 1973.

The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren. 1995.

Novels

Somebody in Boots. 1935; as The Jungle, 1957.

Never Come Morning. 1942.

The Man with the Golden Arm. 1949.

A Walk on the Wild Side. 1956.

Calhoun (in German), edited by Carl Weissner. 1980; as The Devil's Stocking, 1983.

Other

Chicago: City on the Make. 1951.

Who Lost an American? Being a Guide to the Seamier Sides of New York City, Inner London, Paris, Dublin, Barcelona, Seville, Almería, Istanbul, Crete and Chicago, Illinois. 1963.

Conversations with Algren, with H. E. F. Donohue. 1964.

Notes from a Sea-Diary: Hemingway All the Way. 1965.

America Eats, edited by David E. Schoonover. 1992.

Nonconformity: Writing on Writing. 1996.

Editor, Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters. 1962; asAlgren's Book of Lonesome Monsters, 1964.

*

Bibliography:

Algren: A Checklist by Kenneth G. McCollum, 1973; Algren: A Descriptive Bibliography by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith Baughman, 1985.

Critical Studies:

Algren by Martha Heasley Cox and Wayne Chatterton, 1975; Confronting the Horror: The Novels of Algren by James R. Giles, 1989; Algren: A Life on the Wild Side by Bettina Drew, 1989; "A Jew from East Jesus: The Yiddishkeit of Nelson Algren" by James A. Lewin, in Midamerica: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, 1994, pp.122-31.

* * *

Nelson Algren is best known as a novelist. His third novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, won the first National Book Award in 1950. His fifth, A Walk on the Wild Side, won high critical acclaim as perhaps the most influential comic novel to come out of the 1950s—as indeed, a precursor of the wild-sidedness of Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Both novels were successfully dramatized, Golden Arm as a popular Otto Preminger movie and Wild Side as a staged musical drama and as a less than critically acclaimed movie.

But Algren also wrote more than 50 short stories, many of which, only slightly altered, became episodes in the novels, just as certain novelistic episodes were published separately as short stories. The two interchanged readily, since the subject matter and themes of both stories and novels were hardly distinguishable and since Algren's sketchlike short story style was easily adaptable to the episodic style of the novels. Algren himself once admitted that the novel itself was simply a longer, expanded short story.

The stories, sketches, and episodes appeared in such disparate publications as The Kenyon Review and Noble Savage, The Atlantic, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Playboy, and Dude. Algren published no long fiction after A Walk on the Wild Side. The short pieces, lectures, and readings and, he insisted, playing the horses earned him a decent living.

For the most part the stories are set in Algren's Chicago, not Dreiser's or Farrell's Chicago, in the same way that The Dubliners is set in Joyce's Dublin, not O'Casey's or O'Faolain's. And in both cases Chicago and Dublin are more than settings. The cities circumscribe, are inseparable from, both subject matter and theme. Indeed, Joyce's Dublin South of the Liffey could have been compressed quite comfortably into Algren's Division Street neighborhood.

Algren's collection of short stories The Neon Wildness includes most of his best tales. He carefully chose the 18 stories in the collection, and he collected no others out of the dozens he wrote over the next nearly 40 years. He did, however, include a few previously published stories, along with essays and poems, in The Last Carousel.

Dope addiction, alcohol abuse, prostitution, gambling, prizefighting, jail—these are the subjects of Algren's stories, both short and long. The characters are generally losers who habituate (not truly live in) bars, brothels, and fleabag tenements or hotels. It is a depressing, violent naturalistic world, but the depression is palliated by Algren's sense of the gently comic, of the realistic ironic. His feeling for his people and their plight is compassionate, like Dreiser's, rather than sentimental, like Steinbeck's.

Prostitution is one of the subjects in "Is Your Name Joe?," "Depend on Aunt Elly," and "Design for Departure," which also includes alcohol and drug abuse as subjects. Other examples of Algren's subjects include gambling ("Stickman's Laughter"), prizefighting ("He Swung and He Missed" and "Depend on Aunt Elly"), and crime, arrest, and incarceration ("The Captain Has Bad Dreams," "Poor Man's Pennies," "El Presidente de Méjico," and "The Brothers' House"). And throughout the stories, among the characters and controlling them and the action, there slips and slides the con man, especially in stories like "Kingdom City to Cairo" and "So Help Me."

Although barroom scenes appear in many of Algren's stories, "The Face on the Barroom Floor" is the only true barroom story in Neon Wilderness, and it is the most viciously violent. It also is a good example of Algren's use of episodes and characters from his short fiction as parts of the novels. Railroad Shorty, the powerful legless torso on wheels who, urged on by the drunks at the bar, avenges an insult by Fancy, the bartender, by pounding his face into "a scarlet sponge … a paste of cartilage and blood through which a single sinister eye peered blindly," reappears as Schmidt in A Walk on the Wild Side, exactly the same violent terrorist with only the name changed.

Another episode from a short story reappears in The Man with The Golden Arm. This is from "The Captain Is Impaled," a story not included in Neon Wilderness. Unlike "The Face on the Barroom Floor," it shows a brief, gentle, nondramatic moment, but one that is significantly more important. In the story a defrocked priest responds to the captain-interrogator's nasty japes and gibes by stating softly, "We are all members of one another," and with those words he gives us, clearly and unmistakably, Algren's theme.

Two stories in Neon Wilderness, both of which incidentally include the book's title in their texts, are naturalistic in content and illustrate this theme and the compassion at its heart especially well. In fact, "Design for Departure" seems almost to have been written as illustration. Mary, 15 years old, runs away from her drunken, abusive tenement environment, works in the stockyards, and lives in a cheap hotel. She is seduced by Christiano, a deaf nonmute (with the symbolism of the names perhaps too obvious), who gets her to work the wrathful husband-cheating wife badger game out of a nightclub called The Jungle. Christy is caught and jailed for three years. Mary drifts into drugs and prostitution and contracts venereal disease. Hopeless when Christy is sprung, Mary convinces him to spend his $10 in release money for an overdose of drugs so that she can "depart." "The fix is in," she thinks as Christy returns with the drugs; "I'm Mary. 'N Jesus Christ himself is puttin' in the fix."

As a lineup-interrogation story "The Captain Has Bad Dreams" is the precursor of "The Captain Is Impaled." In its sympathetic treatment of the cop as well as the criminal, it is a nearly perfect example of Algren's theme.

—Joseph J. Waldmeir

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