Our Man in Chicago

On Nelson Algren’s place in the American canon & a new biography from Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Wisniewski

The first time I read Nelson Algren’s sweeping essay Chicago: City on the Make, I missed my bus stop by nearly a mile. Until then, I had no idea someone could write nonfiction with the same lyrical grace as a poet. But for some reason — even though he was one of the most visible and celebrated American writers of the 1940s and 50s — Algren is no longer a household name. His novels, once popular enough to warrant an Oscar-nominated film adaptation starring Frank Sinatra, haven’t aged as well as some of his contemporaries like Steinbeck and Bradbury and Tennessee Williams. Even in Chicago, my writing students balked earlier this semester when I mentioned his name.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who thinks Algren deserves higher billing for his knife-in-the-gut prose. Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Wisniewski spent the last two decades interviewing Algren’s friends and colleagues like Studs Terkel and Art Shay, reading through his correspondence and unpublished material, and writing the first Algren biography in more than 25 years, Algren: A Life. The result is a fascinating, compelling account of the man who taught with Kurt Vonnegut, slept with Simone de Beauvoir, angered Chicago’s literary establishment, and wound up with a 500-page FBI dossier.

I recently corresponded with Wisniewski via email about Algren’s fall from the spotlight, why he hated the movies based on his novels, and his relationship with the city of Chicago.

Adam Morgan: What do most people misunderstand about Algren?

Mary Wisniewski: I think there’s a stereotype about Algren that he was this tough, film noir-type character — as if he existed in black-and-white with a jazz combo following him around. That’s not really who he was — he was an extremely funny person, a real goofball, who could also be kind and generous to his friends and to younger writers. He had a very wide range of interests, and was a fan of folk and classical music, as well as jazz, and a student of both Dickens, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. He wasn’t much of a tough guy — he was terrible at poker and useless with guns in the army. I think some of the misunderstandings about Algren come from the movies made about his books, which are not like his books at all. Algren is regarded as a B-level American writer in part because those movies aren’t very good. He belongs on the A-level, up there with Crane and Dreiser and Melville.

Algren is regarded as a B-level American writer in part because those movies aren’t very good. He belongs on the A-level, up there with Crane and Dreiser and Melville.

AM: After a quarter of a century, why was a new biography of Algren overdue?

MW: He was a great, unique, poetic writer, and he has been unjustly ignored. That’s reason enough, and that’s why I started researching a biography over a decade ago. I also think the things he wrote about are extremely important in understanding our current political climate. He wrote about how the American dream doesn’t work out for everyone, and people feel shame for that, they feel shame for not living up to the advertisements on television and on the billboards, and that makes them act out in destructive and often self-destructive ways. His writes in the The Man with the Golden Arm about “the great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one.” He writes about the lower classes turning on each other and despising each other, instead of coming together, and I think that’s a dynamic we’re seeing now.

AM: What were some of your most surprising discoveries about Algren during your research?

MW: Everyone knows about his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, but I was surprised at the depth of feeling in the letters to his first and second wife, Amanda. He loved Amanda, too, though in a different way. After their final breakup, I think he lost a big source of emotional support, just as he did with Simone.

I also was intrigued by his relationship with the writer Jack Conroy, who was like a second father. Conroy helped Algren find a group of writers in Chicago, and that’s how Algren met Richard Wright. Conroy helped get Algren published, and even gave him house space to write A Walk on the Wild Side when Algren’s marriage was in trouble. The way Algren turned on Conroy at the end is really disappointing. Nelson really knew how to burn a bridge.

AM: In 1934, Algren stole a typewriter from an empty classroom in Texas and wound up in prison for a few months. Would he have become the same writer if he hadn’t had that firsthand experience behind bars with fellow outsiders?

MW: Just one month — he remembered it as longer than it was! I think he still would have written about the underclass if he hadn’t gone to prison — he was doing it before he stole that typewriter. But the prison experience was a real wound for him, and wounds produce writing. I compare it in the book to the time that Dickens spent as a child in a blacking factory. It wasn’t very long, but it led to lots of writing about badly treated children. Algren used his jail experience in every novel.

AM: United Artists adapted The Man With the Golden Arm into a film in 1955 starring Frank Sinatra as a drug addict fresh out of prison. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards, but when Art Shay asked to photograph him beneath the movie’s marquee, Algren famously responded, “What does that movie have to do with me?” Was Algren upset because the studio changed the ending, or was there something else going on?

MW: For one thing, he didn’t get the money he felt he should have gotten for selling the rights, and he sued, unsuccessfully. He met the director, Otto Preminger, and knew that Otto didn’t get what the novel was about. Preminger’s film was sensationalist and showed contempt for the characters, instead of empathy. I don’t like it either — the only thing that really holds up is the score.

AM: Today, Chicagoans remember Algren as a kind of folk hero who gave voice to the city’s working (and out-of-work) class, but some of his contemporaries resented his less-than-flattering depictions of the city. How did his relationship with Chicago change over the course of his career? It seems like his love for the city waned over the years.

MW: He thought the city became a colder place after the late 40s. Some of this had to do with McCarthyism and the Cold War, which made people more cautious. But I think it also had to do with the changing physical landscape of the city. The expressways tore into the neighborhoods, knocking down the building on Wabansia where he spent his most productive years. People were going to the suburbs, or staying inside in the air conditioning, so he didn’t see the street life he used to see. Part of the problem was not Chicago’s but Algren’s — I think that once the old landscape went away, he didn’t have the same energy to discover the new landscape and what it meant.

Once the old landscape went away, he didn’t have the same energy to discover the new landscape…

AM: What would he think of Chicago in 2016?

MW: I think he would see the same segregation he saw in the ‘50s, only worse, because now the poorest African-American neighborhoods are so depopulated and no longer have the businesses they used to have. He’d also see tremendous divisions between the rich and poor. He’d have plenty to write about.

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