In his fiction, Nelson Algren (AWL-gruhn) documented the lives of the dispossessed and downtrodden. He was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit, Michigan, on March 28, 1909, the last of three children of poor native Chicagoans who moved back to Chicago when Algren was three years old. Though he is primarily associated with the Division Street neighborhood of Chicago, he did leave Illinois for a time in 1931, when he graduated from the University of Illinois with a journalism degree. In the course of his travels throughout the American Southwest, also an important setting in his fiction, he worked at several odd jobs and served time in prison before he returned to Chicago, where he renewed his studies of Division Street and began to write in earnest. Somebody in Boots, a Depression novel that was revised and reissued as A Walk on the Wild Side, appeared in 1935 and was followed in 1942 by Never Come Morning, a novel about a Chicago prizefighter. He also wrote some notable short stories.
After a three-year tour in the Army (1942-1945), Algren resumed his writing career and received grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and from the Newberry Library to work on The Man with the Golden Arm, which received the first National Book Award. His prose-poem Chicago: City on the Make appeared in 1951. With the exception of the unfavorably reviewed The Devil’s Stocking, published posthumously in 1983, Algren’s novelistic career ended with the publication of A Walk on the Wild Side in 1956. His remaining literary years were devoted to travel books (Who Lost an American? and Notes from a Sea Diary: Hemingway All the Way) and short stories (The Last Carousel). During the period from 1956 to 1981 he also traveled widely and taught at college campuses. When he died in Sag Harbor, New York, on May 9, 1981, he was, except to university professors and literary critics, almost unknown to the reading public.
Chicago: City on the Make, an unpopular prose-poem which juxtaposes the old and new Chicago, is Algren’s most atypical work in form. In content, however, it is vintage Algren: Readers are exposed to the underside of the Windy City. The Devil’s Stocking, a thinly veiled fictionalization of boxer Reuben “Hurricane” Carter’s life, lacks the intensity and power of Algren’s earlier novels but does absorb the reader in Algren’s lifelong interest in boxing and in the plight of those whom Leslie Fiedler called Algren’s “stumblebums” and derelicts.
Algren’s fictional world is circumscribed in terms of geography (Chicago and the Southwest), character (the Depression losers hitherto ignored in American fiction), and theme (entrapment and enclosure). His male protagonists are alone, stunted emotionally (sometimes physically) by their environments, and efforts at escape are futile, usually ending in what seems inevitable death. In fact, Algren portrays his characters as animals caged in prisons, brothels, and cities that he sees as madhouses. Victims of illusory dreams of success, Algren’s characters believe in the American Dream; they attempt to act meaningfully and to be “somebody,” but they are not real competitors, only passive spectators of their own fates who remain “nobodies.” (Frankie in The Man with the Golden Arm is “Private Nowhere.”) If they succeed in a battle, it is a transitory, illusory victory that is followed by defeat and death in the war. (In Never Come Morning, Bruno wins his boxing match only to be arrested and executed for a crime he committed earlier.) Not only are the characters trapped by their environment, but they are also tormented by guilt, which only adds to their entrapment and almost prompts them to seek the punishment they believe they deserve. For the most part, the guilt stems from the male protagonist’s treatment of a loving, enduring woman (the abandoned Steffi of Never Come Morning, the raped Terasina in A Walk on the Wild Side). Only in A Walk on the Wild Side is there atonement and possible redemption, but that ending follows the protagonist’s mutilation.
Although Ernest Hemingway once rated Algren as second only to William Faulkner as an American novelist, Algren peaked commercially and critically in the 1950’s (two of his novels were adapted to the screen), and he seems consigned to the stature of a dated Depression writer whose fame rests on being the first American novelist to write about life’s losers. A neo-naturalist influenced by Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, Algren possesses the naturalistic excesses of his literary predecessors: melodrama, romanticism, and heavy-handed animal imagery. Moreover, he has been charged with formlessness, and the fact that his few novels are episodic has led some critics to claim that his real achievement was in the short-story genre. In the 1950’s, however, his vision of the United States appealed strongly to uncertain, alienated, and jaded postwar Americans.