Nelson Algren, the author of two of the seminal works of post-World War II American letters (The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side) was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham on March 28, 1909 in
Detroit, Michigan, into a Jewish family. His paternal grandfather, who was on Scandinavian extraction, had converted to Judaism on his own volition, and then married a Jewish woman, as had his half-Jewish father. Nelson had an older sister, Bernice.
His family’s roots were in Chicago, Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Broad Shoulders”, and in Black Oak, Indiana, where his grandparents owned a trading post, and in 1913, his parents moved back to Chicago, settling into what was then an Irish neighborhood on the South Side. The future writer attended the neighborhood public schools. Chicago would become his muse and be the real subject of his all his major works, a major character in his oeuvre just as it was for the writer James T. Farrel in his Studs Lonigan trilogy.
The family subsequently relocated to the Chicago’s Northwest Side, where his father went into business with a tire and battery shop. The young Nelson attended Hibbard High School and roamed his neighborhood, playing pool and beginning his obsession with gambling that would continue throughout his life. After graduating from high school in 1927, he attended the University of Illinois, majoring in studying sociology. The subject was congruent with his fascination with the lower class people and culture of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods. He often spent times in the Polish neighborhoods east and south of his own neighborhood.
Walk on the Wild Side
After graduation from college in 1931, Nelson Algren hitchhiked through the Midwest in order to find a job as a journalist. During those opening years of the Great Depression, while Herbert Hoover was still president, jobs were scare. Algren worked briefly at a Y.M.C.A. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before returning to Chicago, but he hit the road again that autumn. Traveling south with only the Mississippi River as his pilot, Algren wound up in New Orleans, where he was struck by the great amount of poverty in the Crescent City. Algren remained in New Orleans, working as a door-to-door salesman for a coffee company and a pharmacy, before using his savings to hit the road again in 1932.
In South Texas, Algren earned his living as a fruit picker. Striking out as an entrepreneur, he tried to renovate a gas station (the location will be fictionalized over 20 years later in A Walk on the Wild Side), but the venture was both boring and unprofitable, so like his future character Dove Linkhorn, he began again to wander. He journeyed throughout Texas, Oklahoma and Mexico.
At the end of 1932, Algren moved back to Chicago where he joined the left-wing John Reed Club (named after the American Communist buried in the Kremlin who wrote the book about the 1917 Russian Revolution Ten Days That Shook the World, and the subject of Warren Beatty’s movie Reds (1981. His active membership in the group allowed him to befriend Richard Wright, who would later borrow the original title of Algren’s first novel Somebody in Boots for his own classic Native Son.
Nelson Algren hit the road again in 1933, traveling to Texas where he drifted through San Antonio, El Paso, and El Paso’s border-town of Juarez, Mexico before settling in Alpine, Texas . Upon leaving Alpine, Nelson attempted to steal one of the typewriters from the local business college and was arrested. At his trial, Algren’s lawyer defended him on the common law principle that he, as a writer, is allowed the tools of his trade. Found guilty, he was sentenced to two years of punishment with the proviso he could serve the sentence wherever he wanted to. It was clearly time to leave Texas, though he would write of Texas in his first novel, Somebody in Boots and in his fourth, “A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) and in multiple short stories.
Chicago: City on the Make
Back in Chicago by June 1934, Nelson Algren established himself as a member of a literary circle that met on Rush Street in the North Side. It was during this period that he wrote his first published novel, Somebody in Boots, which received poor reviews when it was published in March 1935. The bad reviews and a poor relationship with his girlfriend led to a suicide attempt, and he received mental health care at the University of Chicago Psychiatric Center.
After recovering his mental equilibrium, he and his girlfriend Amanda to a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Algren was taken on by the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration that sought to put people back to work in their areas of expertise. During frequently visits to East St. Louis, Illinois, he befriended prostitutes and junkies, the kinds of people who would become the characters in his novels and short-stories.
In a fateful decision, Algren and Amanda moved in May 1940 to the neighborhood at Milwaukee and Division Street, Chicago’s so-called Polish Triangle As the clouds of war moved closer to the United States, Algren’s father and sister Bernice died, and their passing and the Polish-Americans of his new neighborhood inspired his second novel, Never Come Morning.
Though the book received good reviews, the city of Chicago banned it from its public libraries due to it potentially offending the city’s denizens of Czech and Polish extraction, who have seen their native countries devoured by the Nazis. In fact, due to his pen name “Algren”, the writer is attacked for being pro-Nazi, as — in a case of reverse racism — anyone of Scandinavian stock would be so inclined.
Nelson Algren was not a fascist, or a racist; he has tried to tell the truth, and as his later friend Kurt Vonnegut would say after his death, he knew that the poor were not the saints that sentimental writers tried to portray them, as in neo-late-Tolstoy writing. The poor and disenfranchised who were his subject were, in reality, frequently mean-spirited and ignorant. It was his lack of a balancing “normative” character to redeem the others in his tales, by promising hope and a brighter future, that opened him up to charges of being mean-spirited himself.
The 34-year oldAlgren was drafted into the Army in November 1943 (the draft effected all males age 18-44, as enlistments had dropped off precariously after the initial six months of the war and a military that eventually would encompass 16 million souls before the VJ-Day was in the process of being built). Ironically, he was shipped back to Texas for infantry training, and in the spring of 1944, he was shipped on to Europe as part of the vast reserve of troops needed to bolster the upcoming invasion of Normandy.
Nelson Algren, who was designated a litter bearer, never made rank, and despite being a college graduate, was never considered as a candidate for a commission, likely due to his left-wing political beliefs. (John Steinbeck was denied a commission despite being a Pulitzer Prize-winner and an acquaintance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt due to it being suspected he was a communist.. Actually, it was as unlikely for Algren to make N.C.O. as it was officer, given that he hated the Army and was, like the city he loved, On the Make.
While in liberated France, Algren quite naturally became involved in the demimonde, attempting to set himself up as a black marketeer. He was not a noted success.
Life With Simone
Nelson Algren returned to Chicago in November 1945 after being demobilized, moving into another Polish neighborhood, this one located at Wabansia and Bosworth. (Towards the end of his life, Algren — still living in
poor neighborhoods — said he felt comfortable among people who were on welfare.) Algren’s life primarily was involved in reading and writing short-stories, and the translation of his work into French brought him into contact with the woman who would be the great love of his life — and his greatest frustration — the great French feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir.
It was an unusual coupling as Beauvoir, descended from the Parisian haute-bourgeoisie and the “mother” of modern, post-War feminism, would visit Algren in his Chicago semi-slum and visited the dives filled with hookers, pimps, drunks, drug-addicts and thieves with him, then writing him letters from France pledging her fealty as a submissive woman. Unfortauntely for Algren, though Beauvoir loved him and was fulfilled by him sexually, her soul rather than her heart belonged to her paramour and life partner, Jean Paul Satre.
After many years of association with Simone de Beauvoir, Nelson Algren would say around 1970 that the two Existentialist philosophers were less honest than a whore and her pimp. Before this epiphany, Algren moved into the Brevoort Hotel in New York’s Greenwich Village with her at her urging, in April 1947. However, their new living arrangement could not last, as Algren needed Chicago and Beavoir needed Paris — and Sartre.
Simone de Beavoir and Jean-Paul Sartre had an open relationship, and Algren visited her in Paris. Fired with energy from his new Muse, Algren immersed intensely in his writing and produced his masterpiece in 1949, The Man With the Golden Arm, a novel about an illicit card-dealer, Frankie the Machine, who is a morphine junkie with an (allegedly) crippled wife in love with another woman and trying to stay clean in a bad, bad world that had no sympathy for junkies, pushers or anyone else, for that matter.
Fame & Beyond
Nelson Algren had wanted to entitle his dark novel Night Without Mercy, but his publisher, Doubleday, convinced him to use the title that graces the now classic novel. Published by Doubleday in November 1949, the novel won the first National Book Award in 1950. One of the seminal novels of post-World War II American letters, The Man with the Golden Arm is Nelson Algren’s greatest and most enduring work. With its publication, and book award handed to him by Eleanor Roosevelt, Algren had reached the zenith of his craft.
Unfortunately, he would never again reach those heights, publishing only one more major novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, seven years after The Man With the Golden Arm., and that was a recasting of material he already had explored in his first novel, Somebody in Boots. It seems that Nelson Algren never really got over the failure of his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir (who featured him as a main character in her own 1957 novel, The Mandarins, in which he is “Lewis Brogan”).
A Walk on the Wild Side, which in many ways was a rehash of Somebody in Boots and several short stories, did not receive a great critical reception, though it sold well. The recycling of earlier material may indicate Algren was suffering from a writer’s block. As it were, he never again produced a major novel, though he continued writing until the end of his life.
Nelson Algren died of a heart-attack on May 9, 1981, secure in his reputation of having written one of the great post-War novels. He was 72 years old.