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 on Nelson Algren

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 Biography Sources

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