Nelson Algren is probably best known for films made from his novels The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), but his work ranges through those violent novels and short stories to Hemingwayesque essays, verse, work on the avant-garde “little magazine” Anvil, sketches on life in major cities, travel sketches, journalistic reporting, and other factual and fictional pieces about places and people who have “a weakness.”
Best known for his novels (The Man with the Golden Arm won the first National Book Award in 1950), Nelson Algren was both a popular and critical success with his short stories, which closely resemble his novels in character, setting, and theme. His stories have appeared regularly in both the O. Henry Memorial Prize Stories and The Best American short Stories, but his popularity waned as the American reading public lost interest in naturalistic fiction. For the most part, his stories are slices of life, packed with details and dialects, grotesques and losers, yet marked with a glimmer of idealism. Influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Crane, he has served as an influence on later naturalists as John Rechy and Hubert Selby, Jr., who resemble him in their lower-class characters, urban settings, violent themes, and nightmarish vision.
Although Nelson Algren (AWL-gruhn) is known primarily as a novelist, some critics believe that the short story, because it does not make the structural demands the novel does, was a more appropriate genre for him, and his The Neon Wilderness (1947) has been acclaimed one of the best collections of short stories published in the 1940’s. Chicago: City on the Make (1951) is a prose poem that has been variously described as a social document and a love poem to the city that serves as the center of Algren’s fictional world. Similar nonfiction writings include Who Lost an American? (1963), a self-described “guide to the seamier sides” of several cities, including Chicago, and Notes from a Sea Diary: Hemingway All the Way (1965); both books combine travel writing and personal essays. What little poetry Algren wrote that is not included in his novels (The Man with the Golden Arm, for example, concludes with a poem of the same title that Algren terms an “epitaph”) is included in The Last Carousel (1973), along with some unpublished stories and sketches. He also collaborated with H. E. F. Donohue on the book Conversations with Nelson Algren (1964), a series of interviews. Nelson Algren’s Own Book of Lonesome Monsters (1962), an anthology to which he contributed a preface and the concluding story, sounds Algren’s recurring theme: Human beings are always alone.
Although Nelson Algren’s first novel, Somebody in Boots, failed commercially, it drew the attention of serious literary critics, who were even more impressed by his second novel, Never Come Morning, which won for Algren in 1947 one thousand dollars from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Also in 1947, he received a grant from the Newberry Library to assist him in the writing of The Man with the Golden Arm, which subsequently received the National Book Award in 1950. Since many of the stories in The Neon Wilderness had previously appeared in the O. Henry Memorial collections or in The Best American Short Stories, Algren’s stature as a first-class writer of fiction was assured by 1950. Because his fictional world, for the most part, was Chicago, Algren is frequently linked with James T. Farrell and Richard Wright, who belong to what some critics have termed the “Chicago school.” While he denied any literary indebtedness to Farrell and Wright, Algren admitted that his work was influenced by Carl Sandburg, partly because Algren’s prose tends to the poetic, so much so that he was termed by the famous literary historian Malcolm Cowley “the poet of the Chicago slums.”
Maxwell Geismar termed Algren a “neo-naturalist” with roots in the American realistic tradition of Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Ernest Hemingway (Algren acknowledged his debt to Hemingway, who in return hailed Algren as,...
Algren, Nelson. Conversations with Nelson Algren. Interviews by H. E. F. Donohue. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964. Collection of conversations between Donohue and Algren about Algren’s life and work, arranged chronologically, provides interesting biographical information. Valuable also for Algren’s comments on writing, writers, and politics.
Cappetti, Carla. Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Includes a chapter on Algren that focuses primarily on Never Come Morning. Discusses how his fiction interrupts historicity and factuality with poetic devices that prevent the reader from lapsing into simple referentiality.
Cox, Martha Heasley, and Wayne Chatterton. Nelson Algren. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Excellent assessment of Algren’s life and work. Provides a chronology, a biographical chapter, an annotated bibliography, and a helpful index.
Donohue, H. E. F. Conversations with Nelson Algren. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. Donohue’s book consists of conversations, arranged chronologically, about Algren’s life and work and therefore serves a biographical function. The conversation “The Army and the Writing” concerns, in part, Algren’s short-story collection The Neon Wilderness, but the book is more valuable for Algren’s comments on writing, writers, and...