Lit Bit: March 28, Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren won the first National Book Award for "The Man with the Golden Arm."

Unless you live in Chicago, you probably don’t hear much about Nelson Algren anymore, and that’s too bad.

The Chicago writer would have been 101 years old today, and it’s likely he wouldn’t be surprised by his obscurity.  Even at his most popular, after winning the first National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm, and earning the praises of Ernest Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir, and Richard Wright, among others, critics either ignored or condemned him.

His subjects, his voice, his own personality was not as polished and presentable as other writers of his day, but he wrote what he knew.

Algren grew up in Chicago, where most of his stories are set in the city’s seedy underside. His subjects were equally dark: Drug addiction, racism, poverty, crime. He wrote of junkies, pimps, prostitutes, and grifters. He addressed pressing social issues long before it was fashionable, and he wrote about them with an authentic, strong, unforgiving voice that brought his characters to life and still rings true.

Algren’s black humor novel A Walk on the Wild Side is the story of Dove Linkhorn, a naive Texan who travels to New Orleans to find his lost love, Hallie, who turns out to be a prostitute. This novel is often called Algren’s masterpiece. He describes it this way,

The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives.

Lou Reed’s song about male prostitutes and transvestites, Walk on the Wild Side was inspired when Reed was approached to write a musical version of Algren’s novel, which never materialized.

While critics weren’t kind to Algren, the city of Chicago actively berated him, saying his characterization of the city was grotesque and exaggerated. The city held a grudge, too.

After Algren died on May 9, 1981, when Chicago’s West Algren Street was named in his honor, the residents complained so much that the name reverted back to West Evergreen Street. Even the Nelson Algren Awards, an annual writing contest for short fiction created by the Chicago Tribune was discontinued after a few years.

Algren died on May 9, 1981, and by 1989 all of his work was out of print.  Thankfully, The Nelson Algren Committee founded by Studs Turkel changed that and Algren’s work has been available print ever since.

I’m inspired by Nelson Algren, by his writing, by his voice, and by his commitment. He wrote what he knew with brutal honesty. It wasn’t the fast path to celebrity or success, but through the years he has finally gained the respect he sought. He’s not remembered or read as often as Hemingway, Faulkner, or Fitzgerald, but he’s still read and that’s a testament to his dedication and his talent.

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