Nelson Algren Biography

Nelson Algren earned a reputation as a street-smart writer. His books and short stories, often about the downtrodden and forgotten of society, were filled with vivid description and haunting dialogue.

To those who knew his work, Nelson Algren was one of the most authentic writers of the 20th century. He wrote things as he saw and heard them, often including dialogue between his characters that sounded authentic enough to have originated in any seedy tavern. He was talented, however, and the late newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote that Algren's short stories were some of the finest written by anyone in America.

Though he made his name in Chicago, Algren was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1909. He managed to graduate from the University of Illinois in 1931 with a journalism degree. Unable to land a job, he began hopping freight trains and hitching rides, making money at odd jobs along the way. Legend had him stealing a typewriter during one of his journies so that he could write. His experiences with down-on-their-luck people often reared their head in his writing. Algren's first two books were published in Chicago to little fanfare.

The book which put Algren on the map was his 1950 Novel "The Man With A Golden Arm". It won him acclaim and garnered him the National Book Award for fiction that same year. Nevertheless, when it came time to make the book into a movie, Algren received a pittance for the rights, while the movie itself was a smash hit, featuring Frank Sinatra.



Algren's best collection of short stories, a volume called "The Neon Wilderness", had been published three years earlier. Reflecting the harsh, grungy side of Chicago, it was praised by many critics as being authentically brunt. Others lambasted the work as untrue, claiming that the portraits of the characters, whose ethnicity tended toward Eastern European, were untrue and exaggerated.

The final novel published by Algren was a 1956 book called "A Walk on the Wild Side." It fell short of the acclaim received by "The Man With A Golden Arm", and soon Algren would stop writing novels altogether. He lived in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, writing magazine pieces for money and occasionally speaking and teaching.

Algren was not a polished, clean cut writer. His lifestyle was often gutteral, and he spent many hours playing cards and passing the time in the taverns which populated his books. He was also a regular attendee at the horse tracks around the city. He dressed in a slovenly manner, and was rarely able to make the rent payment on his small apartment until the last minute, spared the Landlord's wrath by a small check from a book review or similar writing.

Many critics maintain that Algren was underappreciated in his lifetime, and prior to his death, Algren agreed with them. Though he claimed he was more in touch with real life than other, more polished writers, Algren said that Chicago had paid him very meagerly in comparison for what he had given it through his writing.

He moved to Sag Harbor, New York in the early 1970s, leaving behind a city where he had spent all but two years of his life. He died in 1981.

A few years later, the city named a stretch of road in his honor, replacing the street sign to reflect his name. The residents, however, were unmoved and did not appreciate Algren's name adorning their neighborhood. They petitioned to have the street returned to its original name.

The city, in keeping with the underappreciation Algren felt during his lifetime, complied.

© High Speed Ventures 2011