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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.
After graduation from college in 1931, he 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.
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. In a surprisingly long trial, Algren's lawyer
defends 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.
Back in Chicago by June 1934, 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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.