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.