Would Chicago Miss Him?
If not, forgotten him. Nelson Algren was a writer who found his voice in seedy streets and deplorable lives, and he found all of this in Chicago. The world-at-large may not find this at all surprising; reading a review about a collection of letters by Saul Bellow in The New York Times this morning, notable literary critic, Michiko Kakutani, described the city of Chicago as “cacophonous.” Very well, but Algren, like Bellow, took the city and its downtrodden like a supple fruit, squeezed the ever-loving juice out of it, and got themselves inspiration, leaving behind a dried out hide that resembled many of the wrinkled barflies and shell shocked WWI vets laying drunk upon the curbs of Milwaukee Avenue. And Algren made it beautiful.
Algren pissed off a lot of Chicagoans with the content of some of his works. His poetic essay Chicago: City On The Make focused on the corruption within Chicago, and the “hustlers” spirit that resounded in Chicago since its settlement in the 19th century to his day, the middle of the 20th century. And his novel Never Come Morning was condemned by the Polish community, arguing that it casted Poles in a bad light. This argument has caused naming streets after Algren to be rechanged to their original, and had even removed this particular novel, among his others, from the Chicago Public Libraries.
A few days ago, I read a photo essay (or looked at it, however you’d say it) by Algren’s friend, Arthur Shay, who followed him for a journalistic assignment throughout the forties and fifties. These photos proved one thing to me: Chicago has since changed physically, but Chicago’s soul has remained the same. It’s identity is absolute and uncompromised, for better or worse. That makes Algren’s words as valid today as they were yesterday, and that’s the mark of a great writer, and it’s a shame that he isn’t known around the city, let alone, respected.
I came across this video earlier today. It’s a comical discussion between Nelson Algren and another notable Chicago writer, Studs Terkel, during a party.