Nelson Algren

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1047

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 when Somebody in Boots (1935) was not a success. Despite favorable reviews, the novel did not sell, and he attempted suicide during an extended period of depression. Tough but compassionate in his interviews, Algren was actually deeply insecure and very self-destructive; he did not spare those around him, either, about which he felt guilty even as he denied it. This is clearest in his three ambivalent, tortured marriages, two of them to Amanda Kontowicz, whom he met following the “failure” of his first novel.

In 1936, Algren took a job with the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, a federal program then providing writers and artists with jobs. In 1939, to write his second novel, he moved to the Polish “triangle,” the setting of his Chicago novels, a world of taverns, pool halls, gambling dens, police lineups, and brothels, where he recorded dialogue and anecdotes. With the success of Never Come Morning (1942), his confidence and spirits rose, though he made so little money that he was soon back on the public payroll with the Venereal Disease Control Project. During World War II, he served in the medical corps, seeing little action but enjoying wartime Marseilles, where he gambled away...

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his black-market profits. Returning to Chicago, he settled down to a more austere life to complete a collection of stories,The Neon Wilderness (1947).

Algren’s reputation growing in literary circles, he met Simone de Beauvoir, the French novelist and feminist author of Le Deuxiême Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953). His affair with her, the most fulfilling and passionate of his life, ended because of de Beauvoir’s commitment to Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist writer and philosopher.

The controversial The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) brought Algren to the height of his fame and success. Unfortunately, it did not solve his financial problems. He suffered gambling losses; in addition, he was so confident of his own shrewdness that he made several unfortunate financial deals, especially in Hollywood. Fame also isolated him from his subject, the dispossessed. Though he championed the downtrodden in his book-length essay Chicago: City on the Make (1951), he found it impossible to complete the novel with which he was struggling, Entrapment. Finally, he transformed Somebody in Boots into A Walk on the Wild Side (1956). Though its reputation continues to grow, it was not a success at the time, and Algren was almost as depressed by its failure the second time as the first, possibly going so far as a second suicide attempt.

Worse, he used popular rejection as an excuse to stop serious writing. Cashing in on his reputation, he lectured and taught. Aside from a few stories, he restricted his writing to journalism, magazine articles, and travel books, such as Who Lost an American? (1963) and Notes from a Sea Diary: Hemingway All the Way (1965). In 1968, he went to Vietnam, where, instead of covering the war, he had a disastrous experience with the black market.

As Algren became older, his writing turned bitter and satirical. Though he was often amusing and stimulating company, his physical condition deteriorated, which alarmed old friends, many of whom he snubbed without reason. Increasingly obsessed with money, he began a racetrack novel, but he seemed more interested in receiving advances than in actually finishing it; several segments came out in the collection The Last Carousel (1973). He was still politically committed enough to move to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1975 to write a nonfiction book on the black boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whom many considered unjustly convicted of murder. Failing to sell the manuscript, he turned it into the posthumous and poorly received The Devil’s Stocking (1983).

With considerable help from friends, Algren moved to Sag Harbor, New York, in 1980. He relished this congenial town, but he had already suffered one heart attack which, characteristically, he refused to acknowledge. A second killed him the night before a party to celebrate his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

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.


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Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 227

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.


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Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

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.