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Nelson Algren

Date of birth : 1909-03-28
Date of death : 1981-05-09
Birthplace : Detroit, Michigan
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-05-12

Nelson Algren was an American author.

He wrote his first story, So Help Me, in 1933, while he was in Texas working at a gas station. Before returning home, he was caught stealing a typewriter from an abandoned classroom. For this, he spent nearly five months behind bars and faced a possible three additional years in jail. Fortunately for Algren, he was released, but the incident made a deep impression on him. It deepened his identification with outsiders, has-beens, and the general failures who later populated his fictional world.

His first novel, Somebody in Boots, was published in 1935. Never Come Morning, published in 1942, portrayed the dead-end life of a doomed young criminal. Ernest Hemingway, in a July 8, 1942 letter to Maxwell Perkins, said of Never Come Morning: "I think it very, very good. It is as fine and good stuff to come out of Chicago...."

Algren served as a private in the European Theater of World War II as a litter bearer. Despite being a college graduate, he was denied entry into Officer Candidate School. There is conjecture that this may have been due to suspicion regarding his political beliefs, although his criminal conviction would have most likely excluded him from OCS.

He articulated the world of "drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums". Art Shay wrote years later about how Algren had written a poem from the perspective of a 'halfy', street slang for a legless man on wheels. The protagonist talks about "how forty wheels rolled over his legs and how he was ready to strap up and give death a wrestle". Shay wrote that Algren later commented that this poem was probably key to everything he had ever written.

He is probably best known for his 1950 National Book Award winning The Man With the Golden Arm. His next book, Chicago, City on the Make (1951), was a scathing essay that outraged the city's boosters but beautifully presented the back alleys of the town, its dispossessed, its corrupt politicians and its swindlers, but in it he also declares his love of the City as a "lovely so real."

In the fall of 1955, Algren was interviewed for the Paris Review by rising author Terry Southern. Algren and Southern became friends through this meeting and remained in touch for many years. Algren became one of Southern's most enthusiastic early supporters, and when he taught creative writing in later years he often used Southern as an example of a great short story writer.

In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.

In 1975, Algren was commissioned to write a magazine article about the trial of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the prize fighter who had been found guilty of double murder. While researching the article, Algren visited Carter's hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Algren was instantly fascinated by the city of Paterson and he immediately decided to move there. In the summer of 1975 Algren sold off most of his belongings, left Chicago, and moved into an apartment in Paterson.

In 1980, Algren moved into a house on Long Island. He died of a heart attack the following year.

The article about Carter had grown into a novel, The Devil's Stocking, which was published posthumously in 1983.

In 1994 the book Nonconformity was published, presenting Algren's view of the difficulties surrounding the 1956 film adaptation of The Man With the Golden Arm. Nonconformity also presents the belief system behind Algren's writing and a call to writers everywhere to investigate the dark and represent the ignored.

Nelson was also honored in 1998 with a fountain dedicated in his name located in Chicago's Polish Triangle, in what had been the heart of Polish Downtown, the area that figured as the inspiration for much of his work. Appropriately enough, Division Street, Algren's favorite street as well as the onetime Polish Broadway runs right past it.

In 2009, the novel fragment Entrapment was published along with other unpublished Algren fiction and reportage as Entrapment and Other Writings by Seven Stories Press.

Author of books:

Somebody in Boots (1935, novel)
Never Come Morning (1942, novel)
The Neon Wilderness (1947, short stories)
The Man with the Golden Arm (1949, novel)
Chicago, City on the Make (1951, poetry)
A Walk on the Wild Side (1956, novel)
Who Lost an American? (1963, essays)
Notes from a Sea Diary (1965, essays)
The Devil's Stocking (1983, novel, posthumous, written 1970's)
The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren (1994, short stories, posthumous)


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