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by Bamber Gascoigne

Nelson Algren (1909-1981) - original name Nelson Ahlgren Abraham


American author, who won the first National Book Award for fiction in 1950 for The Man with the Golden Arm, later made into a film, starring Frank Sinatra. More than any other city, Chicago inspired Nelson Algren, as it was the case with James T. Farrell, with whom he is often grouped. Algren depicted its drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize-fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums – the whole underside of urban life. He also published poems, essays, and short stories, the best of which include 'A Bottle of Milk for Mother' and 'How the Devil Came Down Division Street'. His trans-Atlantic love affair with the French writer Simone de Beauvoir lasted with intervals for 17 years and ended in bitter accusations. De Beauvoir dedicated her book The Mandarins to Algren, and kept his ring, but never left Jean-Paul Sartre, her life's companion, who was no good in bed.
"The great strength of a fighting man is his pride. That was Young Rocco's strength in the rounds that followed. The boy called Kid Class couldn't keep him down. He was down in the fourth, twice in the fifth, and again in the seventh. In that round he stood with his back against the ropes, standing the boy off with his left in the seconds before the bell. He had the trick of looking impassive when he was hurt, and his face at the bell looked as impassive as a catcher's mitt." (in 'He Swung and He Missed,' 1942)

Nelson Algren Abraham was born in Detroit, but he grew up in Chicago in a poor immigrant neighborhood on the South Side, where his parents moved when he was three. Algren was the youngest of three siblings. His mother, Goldie, had a candy store, and Gerson Abraham, his father, was a garage mechanic. Algren's grandfather, whom he never saw, was a Swedish immigrant, who took the Old Testament at its literal truth, converted to Judaism and changed his name to Isaac Ben Abraham. "My father was about two years old and he woke up to find himself in Jerusalem with a lot of camels. I'm sure he never knew how he got there, but the first thing he remembered were a lot of camels with Arabs riding them." (from Conversations with Nelson Algren, 1964)

Algren was educated in Chicago's public schools, graduating in 1928. He studied journalism at the University of Illinois, taking his B.A. during the Depression in 1931. After graduating, Algren went south looking for newspaper work and doing odd jobs, including working as a door-to-door salesman. He adopted his Swedish grandfather's name and in 1933 he lived in a derelict petrol station in Texas. There he wrote his first short story, 'So Help Me', the winner of a 1935 O'Henry Award, which was published later in Story magazine. The effort led to a contract and a $100 advance for his first novel. In 1934 he was jailed for a month for stealing a typewriter. Back in Chicago Algren joined the John Reed Club. He was editor of the New Anvil, an experimental magazine and worked for the Chicago Board of Health.

As a novelist Algren made his debut with Somebody in Boots (1935), which was based on his experiences in Texas. The book was written in the classic documentary style of the 1930s and received mixed reviews. In the middle of the Great Depression it sold a mere 750 copies and the disappointed author was briefly hospitalized. Somebody in Boots contained characters, situations, and locales that later formed the basis for Algren's future works. Before his next novel, which appeared in 1942, Algren wrote short stories and worked intermittently on the W.P.A. Illinois Writers' Project. Never Come Morning (1942), a realistic story about poverty and crime, was banned from the Chicago Public Library. Its first edition contained an introduction by Richard Wright. The central character, Bruno Bicek, is a small time hood and aspiring boxer. He cheats and murders, and allows his girlfriend to be gang-raped. Finally Bicek is betrayed by his own clan and is sentenced to death for murder.

In 1937 Algren married Amanda Kontowicz, whom he had met at a party celebrating the publication of his first novel; they divorced, remarried and divorced again. From 1942 to 1945 Algren served in the US army, first as a private in a field artillery unit and then as a medical corpsman and was eventually stationed in France. This experience Algren used in several of his short stories, which appeared in a wide variety of publications, starting from Noble Savage to Playboy and Esquire. His best early stories Algren collected in The Neon Wilderness (1947).

From 1960 until his death, Algren wrote dozens of short stories, articles, and book reviews. Much of them came out in magazines like Saturday Review, Atlantic Monthly, and The Nation. Some of his pieces appeared in the so-called "men's magazines," like Man's Magazine ('Depend on Aunt Elly!'), Stag ('Venus Darling's Upstairs Lover'), Sensation ('The Face on the Bottom Floor), and Playboy ('All Through the Night'), and crime fiction magazines, like Manhunt ('Say a Prayer for the Guy') and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine ('He Swung and He Missed').

In spite of considering himself a Communist during the Great Depression, and working for the Communist Party, Algren was not a card carrying member. However, the FBI had a file on him. The file ran to 546 pages, including information supplied by army and navy intelligence as well as by the State Department. Nothing had changed in Algren's life after he had published his first novel about the gritty side of American life – he lived in poverty and drank heavily. For a period his financial situation improved when he was aided by a grant from Chicago's Newberry Library and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; its members believed that Never Come Morning had not received the recognition it deserved. 

During the post-war years Algren started an affair with the French writer Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre's life-companion. At that time she shared Sartre with Dolores Vanetti Ehrenreich, once the mistress of the surrealist poet André Breton. Dolores lived in New York, where Sartre had decided to spend a few months every year with her. Beauvoir made a lecture tour in the United States in 1947 and the two writers met through an introduction arranged by Mary Guggenheim. "On train to Los Angeles I read one of his books and thought about him," de Beauvoir later wrote, "he lived in a hovel, without a bathroom or a refrigerator, alongside an alley full of steaming trash cans and flapping newspapers, this poverty seemed refreshing, after the heavy odour of the dollars in the big hotels and the elegant restaurants, which I found hard to take." (from A Transatlantic Love Affair, 1998) Algren showed Beauvour Chicago's underside, introduced her to stickup men, pimps, baggage thieves, whores and heroin addicts.  He was the first man with whom Beauvoir ever had an orgasm. On every day they met, they slept together in Algren's squeaky bed on the second floor of 1523 Wanabasia.

Algren and de Beauvoir traveled in Latin America, and in 1949 Algren met Sartre in Paris. ("Procurers," he Algren once said, "are more honest than philosophers"). Sartre helped to translate Never Come Morning and parts of Chicago into French. His affair with Beauvoir broke down after five years, but in 1960, when Algren encountered her in Seville, they went together to Istanbul, Crete, and Athens. Their relationship turned sour again after the publication of the third part of her autobiography, Force of Circumstance (1963).  Algren  believed that marriage is founded on love and commitment, but Beauvoir dismissed sexual fidelity as "often preached, seldom practiced . . ."

Beauvoir wrote him some 350 letters, in English. Though Algren had served in the Army in France, he spoke no French and was never willing to learn the language. He also knew that Beauvour would never settle with him in Chicago and have his baby. However, she referred to him as "my beloved husband."  De Beauvoir, who died in 1986, was buried wearing his ring.

"At first, I had found it amusing meeting in the flesh that classic American species: self-made leftist writer. Now, I began taking an interest in Brogan. Through his stories, you got the feeling that he claimed no rights on life and that nevertheless he had always had a passionate desire to live. I liked that mixture of modesty and eagerness." (Simone de Beauvoir in The Mandarins, 1957; dedicated to Nelson Algren, who is Lewis Bogan in the novel)

Algren made his breakthrough at the age of 41 with The Man with the Golden Arm (1949). The title was from a poem he had published in Poetry magazine. Otto Preminger's film adaptation of the book was a sensation in 1956 with its cold turkey scenes. The subject and its treatment shocked the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency, and the film was released without the approval of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Elmer Bernstein's score, based on jazz elements, utilized the image of a connection between jazz, drugs and urban nightlife.

Frankie Machine, Algren's protagonist, is a WWII veteran and stud-poker dealer, who fights against his drug addiction in the world of junkies, drunks, and petty thieves, and finally kills himself. "Neither God, war, nor the ward super work any deep change on West Division Street," wrote Algren. The work received the National Book Award and Algren was invited to Hollywood to write the screenplay. The experience was disastrous and Algren sued the film's producer, Otto Preminger. Sinatra decided to accept the role when Marlon Brando still hesitated. Though the film made money, Algren profited nothing. "I am the tin whistle of American letters," he once said. Sinatra received a nomination for Best Actor; the Oscar went to Ernest Borgine for his performance in Marty.

Chicago: City on the Make (1951) was a book that the Chicago Chamber of Commerce did not like because Algren's essay presented the back alleys of the town and the state, not only its thriving business world. Studs Terkel, Algren's close friend, wrote the introduction for the reissue edition of 1987.

A Walk on the Wild Side, a comic novel, which came out in 1956, was hailed as a masterpiece. It depicts with black humour a drifter in the Depression era, who gets involved with prostitutes, pimps and con men in the old French Quarter of 1930s. "The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives," explained Algren. The $25,000, which he received for the film rights, he spent the fast. The genesis of the story was the author's earlier work, Somebody in Boots. As before, the critics were divided and Algren was hospitalized for a short time – he had tried to commit suicide.

After only a few months of dating, Algren married in 1965 Betty Ann Jones, a New York actress; they divorced two years later. Later he claimed that he had fallen for her self-image as an actress, while she had fallen for his self-image as a writer. (Algren: A Life by Mary Wisniewski, 2016, p. 273) Although Algren continued his self-destructive life, heavy drinking, and gambling, he also taught creative writing at the universities of Iowa and Florida, regularly wrote a column for the Chicago Free Press. When the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him the medal for Literature, Algren refused to travel to the ceremony in New York City, saying: "I'm sorry, but I have to speak at a ladies' garden club that day."

Eventually Algren settled in 1974 in Paterson, New Jersey, and wrote there The Devil's Stocking, his fourth novel, which was published posthumously in 1983. It was based on the life of the prizefighter Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, who was tried and imprisoned for murder. Carter spent 19 years in prison. He was freed in 1985. "... the character of Carter himself has been transmogrified into Ruby Calhoun, a protagonist who grows in complexity as the action proceeds, until he becomes a fully realized, multidimensional tragic personage in a narrative that has all the vital signs of having been produced by a writer still fully confident of his inventive powers." (John W. Aldridge in The New York Times, October 9, 1983) Bob Dylan's song 'Hurricane' and Norman Jewison's film from 1999 also dealt with Carter's fate. "An innocent man in a living hell / That's the story of the Hurricane," sang Dylan in 1975. Algren wrote a feature for Esquire suggesting Carter's innocence, but the magazine rejected it.

Algren moved to Long Island in September 1980. His literary friends included  Betty Friedan, William Gaddis, Joe Pintauro, Irwin Shaw, and Kurt Vonnegut. Financially, he lived a very meager life. He had a small income from the German publication of his books.  Embittered by the success of others, he concluded in an interview that "James Jones gets three-quarters of a million dollars, Algren gets a free train-ride to New York." Sometimes, Algren would show his soft side to his friends, by drawing pictures of cats in the books he autobiographed. "Algren admired the cat's street smarts, I think," the photographer Art Shay said, "its wily will to survive and its indepencence in a world not of its making." (Chicago's Nelson Algren by Art Shay, 2007) Algren died of a heart attack on May 9, 1981, in Sag Harbor, New York. A few weeks earlier he had been elected to membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The city of Chicago changed West Evergreen Street to West Algren Street, but after complaints of the residents the city changed it back again.

For further reading: The Short Writings of Nelson Algren: A Study of His Stories, Essays, Articles, Reviews, Poems and Other Literature by Richard F. Bales; foreword by Kenneth G. McCollum (2022); Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher (2019); Algren: A Life by Mary Wisniewski (2016); Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman by Elizabeth Abbott (2010); Nelson Algren: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Robert Ward (2007); Chicago's Nelson Algren by Art Shay (2007); Understanding Nelson Algren by Brooke Horvath (2005); A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren by Simone de Beauvoir (1998); Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side by B. Drew (1989); Confronting the Horrors: The Novels of Nelson Algren by J.R. Giles (1989); Nelson Algren: A Descriptive Biography by M.J. Bruccoli and J. Braughman (1985); Nelson Algren by M.H. Cox and W. Chatterton (1975); Conversations with Nelson Algren by H.E.F. Donohue (1965). See: Simone de Beauvoir. Their relationship is depicted in de Beauvoir's novel Les Mandarins, America Day by Day, her diary and Force of Circumstance. Algren's view of her exposing of their relationship is seen in the review 'The Question of Simone de Beauvoir', published in Harper's (May, 1965). Novels, essays, and memoirs about drug addiction: Thomas de Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822); Charles Baudelaire: Les Paradis artificiels: opium et haschisch (1860, translated as Artificial Paradises, 1971); Aleister Crowley: Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922); Aldous Huxley: The Doors of Perception (1954); William Burroughs: The Naked Lunch (1959); Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971); Donald Goines: Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie (1971); Christiane F: Autobiography of a Girl of the Streets and Heroin Addict (1979; tr. 1982); Hubert Selby, Jr.: Requiem for a Dream (1982); Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting (1993)

Selected works:

  • Somebody in Boots, 1935
  • Never Come Morning, 1942 (with an introduction by Richard Wright) 
  • The Neon Wilderness, 1947
  • The Man with the Golden Arm, 1949 (National Book Award)
    - Kultainen käsi (suomentanut Antti Eerikäinen, 2004)
    - Film 1956, prod. Otto Preminger Films, dir. Otto Preminger, screenplay by Walter Newman, featuring Frank Sinatra (as Frankie Machine), Kim Novak (as Molly), Eleanor Parker, Arnold Stang, Darren McGavin, Robert Strauss. "I think there's a great tragedy in any human being who gets hooked on something, whether it's heroin or love or a woman or whatever." (Otto Preminger in Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich, 1997)
  • Chicago: City on the Make, 1951 (reissued in 1987, introduction by Studs Terkel)
  • A Walk on the Wild Side, 1956
    - Film 1962, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, dir.  Edward Dmytryk, screenplay by John Fante, Raphael Hayes (uncredited), Ben Hecht (uncredited), featuring Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter, Barbara Stanwyck, Joanna Moore 
  • Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters, 1962
  • Who Lost an American?, 1963
  • Conversations with Nelson Algren, 1964 (with H.E.F. Donohue)
  • Notes from a Sea Diary: Hemingway All the Way, 1965
  • The Last Carousel, 1973
  • Calhoun: Roman eines Verbrechens, 1981 (translated by Carl Weissner) 
  • The Devil's Stocking, 1983
  • America Eats, 1992 (edited by David E. Schoonover) 
  • He Swung and He Missed, 1993
  • Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, 1994 (afterword by Daniel Simon; notes by Daniel Simon and C.S. Obrien)
  • The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren, 1994 (edited by Bettina Drew)
  • Ballet for Opening Day: The Swede was a Hard Guy, 2002 (etchings by Tony Fitzpatrick)
  • Entrapment and Other Writings, 2009 (edited by Brooke Horvath)
  • Algren at Sea & Who Lost an American?: Travel Writings, 2009 (centennial ed., 1909-2009)
  • The Man with the Golden Arm, 2022 (foreword by Colin Asher; introduction by James R. Giles)


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