Nelson Algren 1909-1981
(Born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham) American novelist, short story writer, journalist, poet, and essayist.
Algren lived most of his life in Chicago and often explored in his fiction the gritty underworld of Chicago's impoverished neighborhoods. Called the "poet of the Chicago slums" by American critic Malcolm Cowley, Algren often addressed such subjects as poverty, drug addiction, violence, oppression, and social injustice in his novels and short stories. Many critics have described his work as social protest fiction and have aligned him with the realistic or naturalistic literary traditions because of his frank and passionate depiction of the underdogs in American society and his use of unsentimental prose and authentic street dialect. Although Algren is known primarily for his novels, in particular The Man with The Golden Arm (1949), winner of the National Book Award and the basis for a well-known film of the same name, his short stories have been lauded for the precision and control some critics find lacking in his longer works. Some of Algren's best-known short stories include "So Help Me," "Design for Departure," and "A Bottle of Milk for Mother," the latter of which has been widely studied and anthologized.
Algren was born in Detroit and grew up in a working-class Polish neighborhood of Chicago. He graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois in 1931 but was unable to find work during the Depression. Travelling to New Orleans and later to the Southwest, Algren worked odd jobs, including carnival worker, salesman, migratory worker, and gas station attendant. His experiences at a gas station in Rio Hondo, Texas, in 1933 led to his writing his first short story, "So Help Me," published in Story magazine that same year. Algren became involved in the Communist Party and, with Jack Conroy, edited a leftist magazine called The New Anvil. In the late 1930s, he joined the Federal Writers Project, which gave him a chance to write full time. From 1941 until his death, Algren worked as a journalist, often reporting on the victims of poverty and crime. He also served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945 as a medical corpsman. The decade following his discharge was his most productive as a writer; Algren published two novels, the short story collection The Neon Wilderness (1947), and the prose poem Chicago: City on the Make (1951). Algren knew many important writers of the period, including Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. He also traveled extensively throughout Europe, Asia, Central America, and the United States. Algren left Chicago in 1975 and moved to New Jersey and later to Long Island. He died of a heart attack in Sag Harbor, New York, in 1981.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Many of Algren's short stories were first published in such magazines as Nation, Life, Atlantic, Partisan Review, Playboy, and Rolling Stone, and were later collected in The Neon Wilderness, The Last Carousel (1973), and The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren (1995). The Neon Wilderness contains twenty-four stories, with all but eight of them set in Chicago. "So Help Me" tells the story of Homer, a young uneducated man who is apprehended for the murder of a Jewish boy named David. This work is written as an extended dramatic monologue and reveals Homer's emotions and state of mind as he recounts his story to a lawyer. "A Bottle of Milk for Mother" centers on Lefty Bicek, a Polish-American youth living in Chicago. Lefty, who is a pitcher in a Polish baseball league and an aspiring boxer, is caught robbing a drunkard. As he flees the scene, Lefty accidentally shoots his gun. He is unaware, however, until he is interrogated by Captain Kozak at the police station, that the man he robbed has died. During the questioning, Lefty acts defiant and tough, but by the end of the interrogation, he has been dismissed and degraded by the police officers. Another story in the volume, "Depend on Aunt Elly," focuses on a young woman who cannot escape prostitution and her relationship with a boxer. "Design for Departure" is the story of Mary, a frightened young woman who, neglected by her father and his girlfriend, decides to make a life of her own. She finds work in a packinghouse but eventually turns to prostitution. Shortly after, Mary meets Christy, who sexually abuses her but then becomes her lover and drug supplier. When Christy is sentenced to jail for three years, Mary becomes distraught and, upon his release, asks Christy to give her a lethal dose of drugs. The Last Carousel, in addition to including some of Algren's short stories, contains sketches, reminiscences, essays, and unpublished portions of his novels. The title story of the volume, "The Last Carousel," depicts the seedy atmosphere of carnival life in Texas, and "The Captain Has Bad Dreams" is the account of a police captain who confronts feelings of despair and nihilism as he deals with nightly lineups of burglars, drug addicts, and alcoholics. The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren features stories that are set in Texas during the Depression. Centering on migrant workers, vagrants, and impoverished Mexicans, these stories were gleaned from Algren's experiences in the Southwest during the 1930s and address such themes as corruption, racism, and anti-Semitism.
Critical reaction to Algren's fiction has been mixed, with some suggesting that he never received sufficient critical attention during his lifetime. Many have noted that after Algren earned acclaim in the 1950s for such works as The Neon Wilderness and The Man with the Golden Arm, he virtually stopped writing fiction, focusing instead on journalism and travel writing. Some have also suggested that he alienated himself from the literary establishment by decrying critics for placing more emphasis on literary analysis than on writing itself. For example, Algren once stated: "I don't read [critics]. I doubt anyone does, except other critics. It seems like a sealed-off field with its own lieutenants, pretty much preoccupied with its own intrigues." Critic George Bluestone unsuccessfully attempted to redeem Algren's reputation in a 1957 essay in Western Review, in which he provided a thoughtful scholarly analysis of Algren's fictional works and refuted most commentators by stating that "to read [Algren] in the naturalist tradition is to misread him." Although many literary critics overlooked or shunned Algren, such notable authors as Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, and Richard Wright lauded Algren's contribution to contemporary American fiction. Hemingway once called Algren one of the most notable authors of his generation, and writers and critics alike praised his realistic depiction of the underside of American society and his emphasis on social concerns. Others, however, have faulted Algren for what they call his recycling of material; many of Algren's short stories became episodes in his novels, and portions of his novels were later changed and published separately as short stories. Despite the ambivalence and controversy Algren's work has generated, he is remembered as a highly influential writer who addressed such subjects as poverty, oppression, and drug addiction before it was fashionable to do so. Concerning Algren's legacy, R. W. Lid has stated, "Algren saw and felt and responded in literary works of magnitude and distinction to the cultural and social forces that aggravate poverty and lead to the denial of human rights long before such inequities created an awakened national conscience."