Nelson Algren: An Introduction

The best writer you’ve never heard of


I was on a crime fiction panel this past weekend with three terrific writers (Colleen Shogan, Con Lehane, and Alan Orloff) at the equally terrific East City Bookshop, a lovely new bookstore in Capitol Hill. Someone in the audience asked which writers had influenced us, and I named Nelson Algren as one of mine. I noted Con Lehane’s surprise, and afterward we talked about Algren. I said that I loved his work. Con said that Algren was the reason he became a writer.

That sentiment isn’t unusual among Algren fans, but it’s surprising that more people haven’t heard of him. Chances are, you haven’t either. So I put together this little introduction in FAQ form (as is the style of the time):

So who is this Algren guy?

I’d never heard of him either, and then a college professor of mine recommended him. So I read a collection of his short stories. Then I read everything. Nelson Algren was a writer out of Chicago who wrote about the downtrodden. He started writing during the Great Depression, but published his major works in the 1940s and 1950s. He was born in 1909 and died in 1981.

Why should I read him?

His prose. Trust me on this. His writing never relaxes into the casual. Every sentence is taut. Here’s one of the opening paragraphs from A Walk on the Wild Side, discussing the failings of a character named Fitz Linkhorn:

“But only that all was lost. Lost long ago, in some colder country. Lost anew by the generations since. He kept trying to wind his fingers about this feeling, at times like an ancestral hunger; again like some secret wound. It was there, if a man could get it out into the light, as palpable as the blood in his veins. Someone just behind him kept turning him against himself till his very strength was a weakness. Weaker men, fill of worldly follies, did better than Linkhorn in the world. He saw with eyes enviously slow-burning.”

Immediately there’s rhythm and sadness and depth and fire. And Algren never relents, not until that fire consumes the reader.

Calm down.

Fine. Another reason to read him is because Algren is hugely neglected nowadays. Seems like nobody teaches or references him. So, when you tell people something about Algren, they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about. That’s when you mention that he won the first-ever National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm. You know, the movie that got Frank freakin’ Sinatra an Oscar nod?

They’ll feel dumb. Point, you.

Is there something scandalous and cool about him? Not that it matters, but please tell me.

You bet there is. Algren was in love with Simone de Beauvoir, who was inconveniently married to Jean-Paul Sartre. But she loved Algren right back, and the two had a decades-long affair. To be fair, it was only sort of an affair. Simone used to sleep with her female students and then send them off to her husband for his own pleasure. They had a pretty open-minded marriage.

But she and Algren did love each other. Once, when she visited him in Chicago, he took her to see the electric chair. Nelson Algren: cheap date.

It seems like you’re hoping a dead white male gets his due. How nice of you.

Hey, don’t aim that canon at me! I also recommended Billie Holiday and James Baldwin in this space. I’m aware of the exclusion minority artists face. But, as a minority, something about Algren’s work resonates with me. He champions the underdog the same way that Henrik Ibsen did. And there’s something about the struggle he describes that, I think, would resonate with any reader.

Eh. So where do I start?

Personally, I’d recommend his collection of short stories, The Neon Wilderness. One of my favorites, "Stickman’s Laughter," is in those pages, as is the more-celebrated "The Face on the Barroom Floor."

After that, go to his novels, Never Come Morning, A Walk on the Wild Side (arguably his best), and The Man With the Golden Arm.

That’s the one made into the Sinatra movie, right? Wow. Algren must have been proud. Did he work on it?

He did work on the movie, briefly. I’ll let him describe the experience (from a 1955 interview with the Paris Review): “I went out there for a thousand a week, and I worked Monday, and I got fired Wednesday. The guy that hired me was out of town Tuesday.”

So he didn’t like the movie?

He didn’t like the movie.

E.A. Aymar's most recent novel is You’re As Good As Dead.

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