Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit, Michigan, on March 28, 1909, Nelson Algren is usually identified with Chicago, where his family moved in 1913. His mother, Goldie, was an ill-tempered, violent woman, and his uncouth father, Gerson, a mechanic, was an often remote presence. The emotionally insecure Algren preferred to identify with the wandering grandfather he never met, Nels Ahlgren, a Swedish convert to Judaism. A normal middle-class boy in most respects, Algren began frequenting pool halls, speakeasies, and gambling dens as a teenager.
Algren’s strongest family bond was with Bernice, the younger of two older sisters. It was she who encouraged his literary interests and insisted he attend college, and her death in 1940 left a space no one ever filled. Socially aloof, Algren discovered his love of books at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and led an ascetic and “spiritual” life of study, with the occasional lapse. In college, he wrote stories which demonstrate his identification with the oppressed—an identification that his experiences on the road would deepen. In 1931, with a degree in journalism, he went in search of a job that was not to be had during the Great Depression. Taking up the hobo’s life, he traveled to New Orleans, which, together with Chicago, was one of the two major cities of his fiction. There he was a door-to-door salesman before accompanying two drifters to Texas, where he became involved in an ill-fated scheme to run a gas station and later worked at a carnival.
After further travels, gathering experiences that he would turn into fiction, Algren returned home, joined a writers’ group, and started submitting stories using Nelson Algren as his pen name (only changing it legally during World War II). Politically radical, he frequented the John Reed Club, a Communist Party organization, and met writers such as Richard Wright, the future author of Native Son (1940). Over the years, he would have close ties with the Communist Party, but it is not certain that he was ever a member.
After several rejections, he was published by Story and A Year in 1933. When Vanguard Press paid him an advance for a novel, Algren, who always wrote best from immediate experience, went back on the road. In Alpine, Texas, he spent almost a month in jail for stealing a typewriter from the local community college. Though his stories and reporting enhanced his reputation, Algren was devastated...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Termed “bard of the stumblebum” and “poet of the Chicago slums,” Algren combined an idiosyncratic style and a keen eye for detail in his compelling depictions of the dispossessed. Convinced that “lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives,” Algren created characters dignified even in defeat.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Born in Detroit, the descendant of Nels Ahlgren, a Swedish Jew who changed his name to Isaac ben Abraham, Nelson Algren was brought up under the “El” on Chicago’s poor West Side and was the “bard of the stumblebum” of the Polish community there in the Depression. He took a degree in journalism at the University of Illinois but found it difficult to get a job after graduating. He drifted to the South and to Texas, where he wrote his first short story, “So Help Me,” in an abandoned filling station outside Rio Hondo. This story led to his first novel, Somebody in Boots (1935). Algren’s novel The Man with the Golden Arm reached the top of the best-seller list. He also received praise for his 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side. Aside from some interviews, two travel books, and his collected stories, Algren wrote little after 1955. He traveled extensively, taught at various universities, and moved to New Jersey in 1975, finally settling in Sag Harbor, New York, where he died in 1981, shortly after having been elected to the American Academy Institute of Arts and Letters. This belated recognition, for Algren’s popularity had declined since the 1950’s, was appreciated by Algren, who was having trouble publishing The Devil’s Stocking, a fictionalized account of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s life. The book was published posthumously in 1983.
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Nelson Algren was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit, Michigan, on March 28, 1909, to second-generation Chicagoans; the family moved back to Chicago when Algren was three years old. From 1912 until 1928, Algren absorbed the Chicago environment that was to become the center of his fictional world. After receiving his journalism degree from the University of Illinois in 1931, he began traveling across the Southwest, working at odd jobs (door-to-door coffee salesman in New Orleans, migrant worker, co-operator of a gasoline station in Texas, and carnival worker) and gathering the raw material that he later transformed into his fiction, particularly A Walk on the Wild Side. After serving time for stealing a typewriter (an oddly appropriate theft for a writer), he returned to Chicago, where he continued his “research” on the Division Street milieu and began to write short stories, poems, and his first novel, Somebody in Boots, a Depression tale about the Southwest that became, after extensive revision, A Walk on the Wild Side.
After World War II—he served three years in the U.S. Army—Algren legally shortened his name, returned again to Chicago, and within five years enjoyed a reputation as one of America’s finest fiction writers. The Man with the Golden Arm received the National Book Award, and several of his short stories were also recognized for their excellence. It was during this period that Algren had his now-famous affair with French novelist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. A Walk on the Wild Side and its subsequent filming, as well as the cinematic adaptation of The Man with the Golden Arm, brought Algren to the height of his popularity during the 1950’s and 1960’s, but aside from some travel books and his last novel, his writing career essentially ended in 1956. In his later years, he taught creative writing before spending his last years on The Devil’s Stocking, a thinly veiled fictional treatment of the murder trial and imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a middleweight boxer. This “novel” did little to restore Algren’s literary reputation.
Nelson Algren (Nelson Ahlgren Abraham), of Swedish and German Jewish extraction, grew up in Chicago. Many of his writings, such as The Man with the Golden Arm, reflect the Polish neighborhoods of his childhood. Other works, however, such as his first novel, Somebody in Boots, and the later reworking, A Walk on the Wild Side, are based on his travels in the South and Southwest during the Depression years of the 1930’s.
Algren’s characters, whether in New Orleans, Chicago, or Calcutta, are marginal types living in subcultures that seem to be apart from the mainstream society. Carnival workers and migrant workers, pimps and prostitutes, drug pushers and addicts, gamblers and con men survive harsh environments only by exploiting one another. Algren met many of these people during his life. After being graduated from college in 1931 with a bachelor’s in journalism, he hitchhiked and rode freight trains throughout the South and Southwest. Later, during World War II, Algren served as a private in the United States Army Field Artillery and toured Wales, Germany, and France. Algren also traveled extensively throughout the world during the 1960’s.
Married in the summer of 1936, Algren worked as an editor for the Works Progress Administration’s Illinois Writers’ Project and during this time wrote short stories and poetry about the grueling dance marathons of the 1930’s and about prostitutes and brothels. Algren went into seclusion in 1940, possibly as a result of divorce and the death of his father. It was at this time that he wrote his first novel, Somebody in Boots.
During the 1940’s, Algren received grants and published The Man with the Golden Arm. The novel was made into a film, one of the first to deal with drug addiction in a serious way. Algren, however, was unhappy with changes in plot and theme. Algren also became bitter over several critics’ comments that his works were overwritten descriptions about colorful but flat characters. Other critics, however, have pointed out that Algren’s style is lyrical prose based on jazz and that his characters represent victims in the quest for survival. Algren is said to have influenced the works of Hubert Selby, Jr., and John Rechy, who also have written about the harsh life of those who live at street level.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
In his fiction, Nelson Algren (AWL-gruhn) documented the lives of the dispossessed and downtrodden. He was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit, Michigan, on March 28, 1909, the last of three children of poor native Chicagoans who moved back to Chicago when Algren was three years old. Though he is primarily associated with the Division Street neighborhood of Chicago, he did leave Illinois for a time in 1931, when he graduated from the University of Illinois with a journalism degree. In the course of his travels throughout the American Southwest, also an important setting in his fiction, he worked at several odd jobs and served time in prison before he returned to Chicago, where he renewed his studies of Division Street and began...
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