By Marilyn Ferdinand
I thought I’d start this more-or-less weekly meditation on life as I see it by talking about the man who gave this column its title—Nelson Algren (1909-1981). This name may be familiar to a few of you, ring a tiny bell for some of you, and mean absolutely nothing to far too many more. Nelson Algren is a personal hero of mine, a writer of the backstreets before it became fashionable, a sympathetic viewer of the invisible people it takes natural disasters and cynical, fear-mongering politicians to bring to the attention of the vaguely contented, a prose composer of unimaginable poetic power.
“Our Backstreets” is a small phrase in Algren’s classic prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make, but it sums up what Algren thought was worth writing about. The Michigan-born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham grew up in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. He received a degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, traveled around a bit in the southwest United States and Mexico, and started to write. I’ll leave the bibliography and filling in the blanks to your own curiosity (Bettina Drew wrote a serviceable biography of him and the Web has the rest). My interest is in how he helped me see the world and my own home town.
Algren lived among the Polish immigrants of Chicago, with rummies and chippies and junkies. He’s the person who brought the phrase “having a monkey on my back” to popular consciousness from the land of the dope fiends. He won the very first National Book Award in 1950 for The Man with the Golden Arm, which you may only know from the botch made of it by Otto Preminger (hereafter called “The Preminger Abomination”). Not bad for a non-New Yorker!
He had an acute eye for truth and refused to look away in his novels, stories, and journalism. He was asked to write an article about the mass murderer Richard Speck with this line, “How would you like to cover The Crime of the Century?” He turned it down with a show-stopper: “No, I don’t feel like writing about Vietnam.” When asked to escort French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir around Chicago, he took her to the county lock-up. His gift of sexual comfort to de Beauvoir after this soul-shocking encounter turned into a grand passion: de Beauvoir, though refusing to leave Jean-Paul Sartre for Algren, was buried with the ring Algren gave her.
He was ignored and reviled by Chicagoans who didn’t want their dirty laundry–well known to the world and often flashed briefly by natives to prove they knew the score–to show the holes as well. Eventually, he left the city for Sag Harbor, New York, and died there. Some years later, the city changed West Evergreen Street, where he made his last home in Chicago, to West Algren Street. When residents complained, the city changed it back again.
This is how he saw Chicago and how he brought the picture of this large, confusing town into focus for me (from Chicago: City on the Make):
“Big-shot town, small-shot town, jet-propelled old-fashioned town, by old-world hands with new-world tools built into a place whose heartbeat carries farther than its shout, whose whispering in the night sounds less hollow than its roistering noontime laugh: they have builded a heavy-shouldered laughter here who went to work too young.
“And grew up too arrogant, too gullible, too swift to mockery and too slow to love. So careless and so soon careworn, so challenging yet secretly despairing–how can such a cocksure Johnson of a town catch anybody but a barfly’s heart?
“Catch the heart and just hold it there with no bar even near?
“Yet on nights when, under all the arc-lamps, the little men of the rain come running, you’ll know at last that, long long ago, something went wrong between St. Columbanus and North Troy Street. And Chicago divided your heart.
“Leaving you loving the joint for keeps.
“Yet knowing it never can love you.” l