The Bard of the Stumblebum: Nelson Algren at the Library

“Lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives.”
-Nelson Algren

In 1949, when the final pages of his most recent novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, were pried away by his editor, Nelson Algren packed up his bags and travel to Paris to meet his mistress, Simone de Beauvoir, the lover of Jean-Paul Sartre. When he returned home to Chicago, he was a celebrity. The Man seemed to hit a certain resonance with America, and was hailed in all circles. The Chicago Sun-Times called Algren “among our truest American authors” and compared Algren to one of his idols, Tolstoy. Ralph Gleason of Rolling Stone felt that “up until Algren, no writer had really combined a poetic gift for words and a vision of truth about the textbook democracy”. In 1950 The Man became the first ever recipient of the National Book Award, an award that latter saw winners such as Jonathan Franzen, John Updike, James Jones, William Faulkner, and Philip Roth.

So who was this man who came out of nowhere to wow the critics? Well Algren was born in 1909 in Detroit, Michigan to a Scandinavian mother and Hebrew father. His grandfather was a reformed Socialist turned self-pronounced prophet who Nelson only heard about. After receiving his degree at the School of Journalism from University of Illinois, he traveled around (just barely escaping from Texas); eventually settling in Chicago, the home he would feel the tension of hate and love for, for the rest of his life. As a journalist he felt compelled to document the plight of those on the fringe of society so he kept the company of the “slum dwellers, vagrant, and petty criminals” of Damen Avenue who “live forever on the dark side of the American Dream”. Frequening taverns, pool halls, police lineups, and brothels, Algren caputured and gave a voice to those who needed pity, while chastising the system that worked to keep them down.

You can check out The Man with the Golden Arm this month on the Illinois Appreciation Book Display and you can continue reading to find some more books and materials that the Library has for you on and by Nelson Algren.

Books by Nelson Algren

The Man with the Golden Arm
by Nelson Algren (FIC ALG)

Recounts the life of “Frankie Machine”, a card-dealer in an illicit poker game being run not far from the tenement in which he lives. Machine is a morphine junkie just back to Chicago’s Near Northwest Side after detoxing in the federal hospital for narcotics addicts in Lexington, Kentucky, being exposed again to all the pressures, anxieties and temptations that put him there in the first place.

Articles and Analysis

A Walk on the Wild Side
by Nelson Algren (FIC ALG)

With its depictions of the downtrodden prostitutes, bootleggers, and hustlers of Perdido Street in the old French Quarter of 1930s New Orleans, A Walk in the Wild Side has found a place in the imaginations of all generations since it first appeared. As Algren admitted, the book “wasn’t written until long after it had been walked . . . I found my way to the streets on the other side of the Southern Pacific station, where the big jukes were singing something called ‘Walking the Wild Side of Life.’ I’ve stayed pretty much on that side of the curb ever since.” Perhaps the author’s own words describe this classic work best: “The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives. Why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are the natural believers in humanity, while those whose part has been simply to acquire, to take all and give nothing, are the most contemptuous of mankind.”

Articles and Analysis

Chicago: City on the Make
by Nelson Algren (F548.3.A43 2001)

In the 12,000-word lyrical essay, Algren summarizes 120 years of Chicago history as a tangle of hustlers, gangsters, and corrupt politicians, but he ultimately declares his love for the city with these famous lines: “Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.” Algren locates the city’s heart in the “nobodies nobody knows,” the ginsoaks, stew bums, and shell-shocked veterans who lurk in the alleys and linger in the weedy wastes underneath the ‘L’ tracks. Unrivaled in its depiction of Chicago’s downtrodden, the essay recounts the repeated ways Chicago sells out its dreams and disappoints its dreamers, including the 1919 Black Sox scandal, in which eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of accepting bribes to throw the world series. Indeed, Algren writes, the whole city has always been a “rigged ballgame.”

Biographies and Criticisms

Ashley, L. N., & Erskine, T. L. (2001). Nelson Algren. Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition, 1-2. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Brevda, W. (2002). The Rainbow Sign of Nelson Algren. Texas Studies in Literature & Language, 44(4), 392. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Connell, H. (1997). Nelson Algren. Identities & Issues in Literature, 1. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Cowley, M. (1982). Nelson Algren’s Chicago. Nation, 234(7), 210-213. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Erskine, T. L. (2010). Nelson Algren. Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition, 1-6. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Erskine, T. L. (2003). Nelson Algren. Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition, 1-2. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Lisi, M. (2008). Folks’ Tales: Oral Histories Connect Communities across America. Phi Kappa Phi Forum, 88(4), 14-17. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

McDermott, P. (2006). Nelson Algren. Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition, 1-8. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Mills, N. (2009). On the Centenary of Nelson Algren: Writer on the Left, 1909-1981. Against the Current, 24(5), 24-28. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Nelson Algren. (2010). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 1. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Taylor, D. A. (2009). Literary Cubs, Canceling Out Each Other’s Reticence: Letters between Federal Writers’ Project cohorts Richard Wright and Nelson Algren depict a mutual admiration rare among young novelists. American Scholar, 78(2), 136-141. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

“Once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch of Chicago, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
-Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

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