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Nelson Algren w/typewriter

Written By:

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica


Nelson Algren, original name Nelson Ahlgren Abraham was born on March 28, 1909 in Detroit, Michigan and died May 9, 1981 in Sag Harbor, New York. Algren's writings focused on the poor, inspired by routine naturalism and its vision of pride, humour, and unquenchable yearnings. He 

captured the poetic essences of the city's underside: its jukebox pounding, distinguishable stench, and neon glare. 


Algren was raised in Chicago and later studied at the University of Illinois, where he graduated with a degree in journalism amidst the depth of the Great Depression. He later adopted a simplified spelling of his original last name, "Algren"; his Swedish grandfather had converted to Judaism and taken the name Abraham. This essentially separated Algren further from his traditional upbringing. He traveled the southern states as a door-to-door salesman and migratory worker, times that inspired his later writings. He later returned to Chicago and wrote for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), primarily in the venereal-disease control unit of the Board of Health. At this time, Algren edited for New Anvil magazine, which exclusively published experimental and leftist writings. Algren worked for the magazine alongside proletarian novelist, Jack Conroy. 


Algren's first novel, "Somebody in Boots" (1935), relates to a poor young Texan's experience in the down-and-out Chicago city life. His second novel, "Never Come Morning" (1942), tells of a Polish petty criminal who dreams of escaping his northwest Chicago neighborhood by becoming a prizefighter. His short-story collection, "The Neon Wilderness" (1947), debuted after his service as U.S. Army medical corpsman during World War II. His writings during this time have been revered as some of his best work. 

In 1947, Algren met Simone de Beauvoir, famous French writer and feminist; the two began a transatlantic relationship that lasted 17 years. De Beauvoir dedicated her novel "Les Mandarins" (1954) to him, limning him in the character Lewis Brogan.

Algren is most remembered by his novel "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1949), which won the first National Book Award for fiction. The story's hero is named Frankie Machine, whose "golden arm" in poker is threatened by shakiness connected to his drug addictionAlgren's "In A Walk on the Wild Side" (1962) is a flash back to the 1930s, a picturesque novel of New Orleans bohemian lifestyle. Algren diverted his attention from writing novels to a more active role in journalism in 1959; he continued to publish short stories throughout this period. His final novel, "The Devil's Stocking" (1979), was continuously rejected by publishers until it was published posthumously in 1983. 

Nelson Algren also wrote some non-fiction: the prose poem "Chicago, City on the Make" (1951), sketches titled "Who Lost an American?" (1963), and "Notes from a Sea Diary: Hemingway All the Way" (1965). Algren was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981, three months before he died.

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