Nelson Algren, Chicago Author and U of I Grad, Turns 100

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Lumpenproletariat, me
trespassed private property
wondering always how it comes
there‘s just no rest for such poor bums.
BORN IN 1909, NELSON ALGREN wrote novels of the underclass,
those who Marx described as the “lumpen proletariat.”
Before he became a celebrated writer for his book The
Man With the Golden Arm, Algren attended the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, worked as a reporter for
the Daily Illini, and graduated in 1931 with a degree in
Journalism. This year is the centennial of Algren‘s birth.
His novels brilliantly captured the experience of ethnic
Americans who lived in Chicago‘s urban ghettos.
Originally named Nelson Abraham, as a young writer
Algren changed his name to avoid the discrimination that
many Jews faced in the 1930s. Yet perhaps because of his
background, he continued to identify with the oppressed
and the downtrodden. Born in Detroit, his parents moved
him to Chicago when he was three years old and he grew
up in its working class neighborhoods playing with children
who were the sons and daughters of Irish, Polish, and
Jewish immigrants.
At the insistence of his older sister, Algren left home to
attend the University of Illinois which then had only
10,000 students. His time in Urbana-Champaign was relatively
uneventful. It is recounted in the biography by Bettina
Drew, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side. She says he
lived the life of an ascetic as a student, earning As in English
and Journalism. Eventually, he got off campus. In later
years, he recalled walking down Walnut Street looking for
prostitutes, “with a very oppressive sense of sin.” In his
senior year, he worked for The Daily Illini as a court
reporter at the Champaign County courthouse. After he
received a BA in Journalism, he became certified by the
Illinois Press Association and moved back to Chicago to
find work. The reporting skills he picked up as a student
would later help him to document Chicago‘s underworld
of gamblers, thieves, and drug addicts.
In the early years of the Depression, Algren could not
find a job at a newspaper. Gravitating toward other aspiring
young artists, he became involved with the John Reed
Club in Chicago, one of several writers’ collectives across
the country set up among writers on the left, many of
whom were in the Communist Party. There he met proletarian
writer Jack Conroy, African American novelist
Richard Wright, and the feminist writer Meridel Le Sueur.
Joining others among the unemployed, Algren took one
of the many trains out of Chicago, “hoboing” from town to
town in search of work. After being caught stealing a typewriter
at a college where he was teaching, he spent five
months in a Texas Prison. From these experiences he
wrote his first novel, Somebody in Boots (1935), set in
Texas, New Orleans, and Chicago.
Returning to Chicago, Algren took up residence in an
area known as “the triangle,” a Polish neighborhood at the
intersection of Division, Ashland, and Milwaukee. This
was the setting for his second novel, Never Come Morning
(1941), about the Polish boxer, Bruno “Lefty” Bicek. In
the introduction, Richard Wright praised the book for
depicting the “frustrated longing for human dignity residing
in the lives of Poles of Chicago‘s North West Side.”
One of the most acclaimed writers of the day, Ernest
Hemingway, said it was “about the best book to come out
of Chicago.“
While Algren had achieved critical recognition, it was
not until The Man With the Golden Arm (1949) that he
gained commercial success. Regarded as the first American
novel about drug addiction, the story focuses on Frankie
“Machine” Majcinek, who has become addicted to morphine
to forget his memories of being a soldier during
World War II. An ace card dealer, he now relies on gambling
to support his habit. Many today probably remember
the 1955 movie adaptation of Algren‘s book starring
Frank Sinatra. Algren was disappointed with the film and
originally wanted Marlon Brando to play the lead role.
In 1947, while French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir
was travelling the United States and stopped in Chicago,
Algren was introduced to her and the two had an
instant attraction. Algren gave her one of his infamous
tours through Chicago‘s seedy bars and cheap burlesques.
Indeed, his novels about society‘s outsiders were in line
with existentialist ideas. For 17 years, Algren and de Beauvoir
had an affair. In the end, she would not leave Jean-
Paul Sartre and her native France. Unlike other writers
who fled to New York or to Paris to further their literary
careers, Algren refused to abandon Chicago. Yet when de
Beauvoir died in 1986, she was buried wearing a ring
Algren had given her.
Throughout his life, Algren supported many social
causes. In defiance of McCarthyism, he signed statements
in defense of the Hollywood Ten and was honorary chairman
of the Chicago Committee to Secure Justice in the
Rosenberg Case. Miraculously, he avoided the blacklist
during the 1950s.
When hired in 1974 by Esquire magazine to write a
story about the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who had
been convicted of triple murder, Algren was finally compelled
to leave Chicago. He moved to Carter‘s hometown
of Paterson, New Jersey to follow the story more closely.
Esquire never published the article, refusing to address the
question of Carter‘s innocence. Unfortunately, Algren
never did find a publisher willing to release a book on the
case he had spent three years writing.
The last year of Algren‘s life he moved to Sag Harbor, a
small coastal town in Suffolk County, New York. On May
9, 1981, he died of a heart attack in the apartment where
he lived.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.