Nelson Algren Chicago legend

Nelson Algren (1909-1981) american writer, c. 1950

"Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own." (Nelson Algren's three rules of life.) Photo: Chicago Tribune

32 years ago this month a Chicago legend passed from this world. Unfortunately, he died in exile. Like many Chicago artists, Algren was bitterly disappointed because Chicago does not embrace and value home town creators. After living most of his life here he relocated first to New Jersey, then to Long Island, New York, where he died on May 9, 1981, at age 72.

Nelson Algren wrote about Chicago. He wrote about a part of Chicago he knew well, the Division Street area, now sporting the gentrified names Wicker Park, Bucktown, and West Town. Algren wrote about the foibles and frailties of human nature and set them in Chicago geography. His writing was crisp, sparkling, and at times deadly accurate. Algren was a trained journalist, when that meant something. He had keen eyes and ears for observation.

Algren was the bard for the down and out, the down trodden, and the have nots trying to become the have somes. Algren wrote about the people he knew, came in contact with, socialized with, and gambled and drank with; the "drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums".

He is best known for his novel, The Man with the Golden Arm. Other well known works include Walk on the A Wild Side, Never Come Morning, Chicago, City on the Make, and a short story collection, The Neon Wilderness.

Never Come Morning stirred such controversy in the Polish community that Chicago's mayor had the book banned from the Chicago Public Library. The Polish voting bloc was huge. In Chicago, as we all know, voting blocs trump freedoms. It would take 20 years to lift the ban.

Nelson Algren also had the unique talent of making Chicagoans angry with him. Chicago Poles were angered by Never Come Morning, for its accurate portrayal of their neighborhood and lives. Chicago, City on the Make was an accurate and scathing portrayal of Chicago's back alleys, dispossessed, corrupt politicians and its swindlers. Civic boosters were outraged. Knowledgeable people were amused. He showed his love for Chicago with this passage, "Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch [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."

Algren formed strong friendships with other Chicago artists including Studs Terkel and photographer Art Shay. Art Shay took many photos of Algren. They were published in a book, Nelson Algren's Chicago. They also collaborated on many projects, including Algren's book, Chicago,City on the Make.


1958 W. Evergreen, Nelson Algren's residence until he left Chicago.

For years Algren lived on the 1500 block of Wabansia. He was forced to move when part of the block was condemned and replaced by a section of the Kennedy Expressway. He spent his remaining years in Chicago in a walk up flat at 1958 W. Evergreen. A plaque on the building commemorates his residence there.

Every year, the Chicago Tribune opens competition for the the Nelson Algren Short Story Award. The award was originally founded by Chicago Magazine in 1981. The Chicago Tribune took over the award in 1986 "to maintain the award's mission of discovering powerful new voices and introducing our readers to stories that will help them see the world differently".

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