Magazine article World Literature Today

Finding Nelson Algren

Magazine article World Literature Today

Finding Nelson Algren

Article excerpt

THERE'S A FOUNTAIN at the intersection of Ashland, Milwaukee, and Division in Chicago dedicated to Nelson Algren, but few locals remember who he was. The little triangular park where the fountain sits is home to the homeless and to many pigeons most afternoons. In that way, it is a fitting tribute to the city's foremost poet of the forgotten and marginalized. Algren rarely pulled punches or ingratiated himself to those in power, so it's no great surprise that his literary legacy has to be resuscitated every now and again.

He won the first National Book Award and was the toast of the town for a time. But the very people he celebrated often turned on him. The Polish community took exception to the way they were portrayed in his books and did what they could to blackball him. But he didn't necessarily mean to offend. All Algren did was write the people he lived around and the places in which they lived. He hung out in taverns, at the horse tracks, and at the police stations where everyday people spent their days. He was the guy in the corner looking and listening-catching bits of dialogue and spinning it into full-flesh narratives.

Chicago-like most places-doesn't like to be reminded of its flaws. But as much as Algren loved his hometown, he couldn't ignore its shortcomings-"like loving a woman with a broken nose," he wrote in his love letter to the place. Being clear-eyed is often rewarded by scorn and shunning. In his last years in Chicago, Algren complained that his books were more likely to be found on library shelves in Paris than down the street. The bitterness consumed him and killed his ability to make the typewriter sing.

Algren has had his champions in the time since he's passed. Seven Stories Press and the University of Chicago Press have kept his books in print, and every once in a while some words of his burble up to the surface of popular culture. Lou Reed titled his only hit song, "Walk on the Wild Side," after Algren's novel, though that title's the only thing they have in common (Reed wanted to write a musical based on the book, but it never happened). …

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