Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What ever happened to Nelson Algren, and why?

Nelson Algren was not a crime writer, but he wrote about hustlers and gamblers and addicts and hoods and corrupt politicians. While such non-crime writers as Charles Bukowski and John Fante and Jim Tully occasionally find their way into discussions of crime fiction, however, I have never heard Algren's name at a crime convention or read it on a crime blog. Why is this?

(Nelson Algren Fountain base with part of 
inscription from Chicago: City on the Make)
I have not read Algren, but last month I stayed in the heart of Algren country in Chicago's West Town, a block from the small, boarded-up fountain in the "Polish Triangle" that I think is the neighborhood's only memorial to Algren. The inscription at the fountain's base reads: "For the masses who do the city's labor also keep the city's heart" — a sentiment perhaps out of step with contemporary America.

(The Nelson Algren Fountain)
(The Man With the Golden Arm was the first winner of the National Book Award for fiction and was made into a celebrated film starring Frank Sinatra as the splendidly named Frankie Machine. Algren was Simone de Beauvoir's lover for years, when she could get that pesky Jean-Paul Sartre out of the way, and I'm guessing Lou Reed read Algren's novel A Walk on the Wild Side. The inscription on the fountain's base comes from Algren's essay Chicago: City on the Make, a copy of which I could not find in Chicago.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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13 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

Oddly enough, my cousin just told me yesterday about the Nelson Algren Fiction Awards Contest for 2014, which any of you fiction writers can find HERE.

I probably shouldn't add to my competition, but I don't know if I will have anything to send by the deadline anyway, so good luck to anyone who decides to give it a go.

January 14, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the notice. Suddenly no one can stop talking about Nelson Algren. I wonder if he is more discussed or held in awe than he is read.

January 14, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, I haven't read him, at any rate.

January 14, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if he really is out of fashion, or whether I have just missed whatever discussion of him has happened in recent years.

His reception at home was certainly mixed. Considerable segments of Chicago's Polish community, among which he lived and wrote, thought he was making fun of them and so did not like his work. And a proposal to rename the entire Polish Triangle, site of the fountain, for Algren was scuttled by community opposition. The fountain itself was a sorry little affair, but it may have been boarded up only for the winter. And opposition to Chicago: City on the Make was apparently strong when the essay first appeared. I believe Studs Terkel wrote an introduction to a reprint that appeared in 2001.

January 15, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

My immediate ancestors on my dad's side were Illinois farmer's of a liberal bent who did not trust Chicago politics, but certainly kept up with it. Only a few cousins from that region have a comfortable relation with the city even now. But it is a great city, as one of them used to argue vociferously, and the whole immigrant mix is compelling. I hope they unboard the fountain. I will definitely put Algren on my TBR list.

January 15, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've just added a picture of the fountain. Not much action around it.

This country has a history of troubled relations between states and their biggest cities. Interesting that this persists even today. Interesting, too, that your father's family were liberals who did not trust the big city. The popular, unexamined belief, I think,, equates city with liberal, rural with conservative.

January 15, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I looked for Chicago: CIty on the Make before I left and again in Chicago. By the time I'd moved on to Los Angeles, I buried myself in California history. Now I may conduct a more leisurely search for Algren's book. After all, I may stop in Chicago again on the way to Bouchercon in November.

January 15, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Nice fountain. It's probably just winter or something.

I don't know exactly why they were all liberals. I suspect that it may have been because they weren't all that far from Chicago. I think that among their rural neighbors there was a split in the community politically. I think the south of the state tends to be more conservative, though I can't say that I've looked into it very thoroughly.

January 15, 2014  
Blogger Les Edgerton said...

Algren is one of my favorite writers of all time--so glad you gave him some pub, Peter. I've often wondered why he isn't discussed more also. A truly brilliant writer, imo. I discovered him in my teens and usually reread him every year.

January 15, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, it occurred to me, too, that the fountain looked better in the picture than it did with a cold wind blowing leaves around it.

I sometimes suspect that everything I know about urban and rural, liberal and conservative, who's who, and what's what is wrong.

January 15, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Les, I browsed a bit of The Man With the Golden Arm when I was looking for Chicago: City on the Make. Seems like it might be a touching take of friendship in addition to everything else.

Someone ought to talk about him at Bouchercon. Hmm. ...

January 15, 2014  
Blogger Michael Caplan said...

We are helping to rescue Algren from the dustbin of history. Working with the Algren estate, and Art Shay, the famed 91 year old photographer, we have been working on a documentary on Algren, and are close to completion. Besides Shay, we have interviewed Algren's friends, like filmmakers William Friedkin and Philip Kaufman, the author Russell Banks and newsman Rick Kogan, to name a few. It will be released in 2014--stay tuned. Check us out a algrenthemovie.com.

January 16, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Looks like that documentary could well to the job. I hope it will get a decent release.

I still wonder, if it's worth wondering about, why Algren faded into that dustbin. An article from the Believer, to which I linked in yesterday's post, corrected some misconceptions that people are likely to have about Algren, but I'm not sure it accounts adequately for his fade.

January 16, 2014  

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