October 27, 2016

70 Years After University Fired Him, Biographer Brings Algren Back to Campus

More than 70 years ago, Chicago novelist Nelson Algren was fired from his lecturing job at the University of Chicago—possibly because of an affair with a student. On Monday, Algren’s ideas finally returned to campus through an event for Mary Wisniewski’s new book, Algren: A Life

Wisniewski began the event, which was held at 57th Street Books, by reading excerpts from her book and from Algren’s own works. She went on to discuss Algren’s life and work as a literary champion of the Chicago underclass. 

Algren grew up in a poor Polish neighborhood in Chicago. According to Wisniewski, his upbringing gave him sympathy for “factory workers and prostitutes and people around town,” who became the focus of his novels. 

Algren is also noted for his association with many of the mid-20th century’s most famous intellectuals. Algren was romantically involved with Simone de Beauvoir, and his close friends included Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, and photographer Art Shay.  

Algren began his writing career during the Great Depression. His first novel was based on his experiences picking fruit in the South, which was the only work he could find after graduating from college in 1931. The book was not a success, and after its publication Algren took a job at the Works Progress Administration. 

There, Algren met Richard Wright, who introduced him both to Chicago’s literary and communist circles. In the subsequent years, Algren published several well-received novels, including his best known work, The Man with the Golden Arm.  

He also became a steadfast follower of communism, which, according to Wisniewski, was the undoing of his career. 

As America moved out of the Depression, the nation’s McCarthyist climate became increasingly hostile to communist writers. In 1940, the FBI opened up a file on Algren. “It’s huge! There’s over 400 pages,” Wisniewski said.  

Wisniewski argued that anti-communist sentiment killed the market for Algren’s work and harmed the vitality of American post-war art. “We did a horrible thing to our artistic community,” she said. “We did a horrible thing to the American soul.” 

Wisniewski linked this anti-communist sentiment to the negative critical reception of Algren’s second-to-last novel, A Walk on the Wild Side. According to Wisniewski, the bad reviews of his book crushed Algren.  

“He had lost that inner urge that makes you an artist, that makes you go out and seek new things,” Wisniewski said.  

After A Walk on the Wild Side, Algren effectively stopped writing fiction. Instead, he made a living penning travel pieces and book reviews for newspapers. His last novel, The Devil’s Stocking, was written primarily for money and was never published in the U.S. 

In 1981, Algren—who was twice-married and twice-divorced—died alone on his bathroom floor. At the time, all of his books were out of print. 

A Chicago street and fountain are named in Algren’s memory, but his work is not taught in Chicago Public Schools. Wisniewski believes that should change. “He’s essential. We should be reading him in high schools,” she said.  

Signed copies of Algren: A History are on sale at 57th Street Books.