Nelson Algren

From Academic Kids

Nelson Algren (March 28, 1909 - May 9, 1981) was an American writer.

Born in Detroit and named Nelson Ahlgren Abraham, he moved to Chicago with his parents at the age of three to live in a poor immigrant neighbourhood on the South Side. His mother was a candy-store owner and his father the son of a Swedish convert to Judaism.

Algren was educated in Chicago's public schools and went on to study journalism at the University of Illinois, graduating during the Great Depression in 1931. He went South to find work -- a trip which found him in 1933 living in a derelict petrol station in Texas where he wrote his first short story, "So Help Me". Before returning to Chicago, the aspiring writer was caught stealing a typewriter from an abandoned classroom. For this, he spent a month behind bars and faced a possible three-year sentence. Fortunately, Algren was released but the incident made a deep impression on him, deepening his identification with the outsiders, has-beens and never-weres who would populate his works.

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. The novel was set in Chicago's Northwest Side Polish neighborhood where Algren lived off and on for much of his life.

He served as a private in Europe in WWII, as a litter bearer. Despite being a college graduate, he was denied entry into Officer Candidate School, perhaps due to suspicion of his political beliefs.

Algren articulated the world of "drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums". He is probably best known for his 1950 National Book Award winning The Man with the Golden Arm. Nonconformity, published in 1994, presents Algren's side of the debacle which became the making of the 1956 film adaptation of this book. Nonconformity also expresses the belief system behind Algren's writing and a call to writers to investigate the dark and represent the ignored.

Algren was linked to Simone de Beauvoir and they travelled to Latin America together in 1949. De Beauvior said of Algren:

"At first I 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 to life and that nevertheless he had always had a passionate desire to live. I liked that mixture of modesty and eagerness." (Simone de Beauvior in The Mandarins, 1957; dedicated to Nelson Algren, who is Lewis Bogan in the novel).

According to Herbert Mitgang, the FBI did not like his political views and kept a dossier on him amounting to more than 500 pages; not that there was anything subversive found, this was more a result of FBI paranoia. (Mitgang, Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors, NY: Donald I. Fine, Inc. 1988.)


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