Nelson Algren: Biography & Awards

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

Nelson Algren (1909 - 1981) was an American writer who lived most of his life in Chicago. This lesson follows the writer from his birthplace in Detroit through his travels to literary fame. We will also consider his many literary awards.

Nelson Algren

If you have a soft spot for those down on their luck, the poor, the disenfranchised masses, than Nelson Algren is the novelist, poet, and short story writer for you. This lesson will explore his life and awards.

Let's jump right into this author's life beginning with his origin, consider his literary career, take note of his experience with two wars, his personal life and beliefs, and the many awards he was honored with during and after his life.

The author, Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren's Early Life

Four years after his birth in 1909, Nelson Algren moved with his family from his birthplace of Detroit, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois where he would spend most of his life. The author gained his Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Illinois-Urbana, graduating in 1931. This graduation date fell during the Great Depression, so finding steady work was a challenge for the aspiring journalist.

Due to his challenges getting a job, Algren wandered South, eventually making it to Texas. During this time, he fell in with thieves, hustlers, and gamblers. These companions worked in Algren's favor and against it. His experiences would form the basis of much of his writing, especially his first published story, ''So Help Me.'' Unfortunately, his choices would also lead to his being put in jail for theft.

Literary Career

The publication of Algren's first story was successful. This led to publishers engaging Algren to write his first novel, Somebody in Boots. He continued writing through jobs with multiple programs. Motivated by his appreciation for the working class, he joined forces with his literary and like-minded friends Richard Wright and Jack Conroy to start a proletarian literary journal named New Anvil.

There was a pause in his writing due to his participation in World War II. He served in the Medical Corps and then returned home to Chicago.

That is when his writing really took off. He published three novels and a book length poem between 1947 - 1956, which are hailed as his most important works. The novels were Neon Wilderness (1947), The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), and the book-length poem was Chicago: City on the Make (1951).

For most of the rest of Algren's life, he fell out of favor. During this time he primarily published travel books. He also spent a year teaching at the well-renowned Iowa Writer's Workshop.

Personal Life and Politics

Algren started to catch the eye and focus of writers such as Hemingway, in addition to Wright and Conroy. He also found himself in a long-term love affair with the feminist author, Simone de Beauvoir, from around 1947 - 1965. Although Beauvoir lived closely with Jean Paul Sartre, the two took separate lovers, and one of hers was Algren.

Separate from his love life were his political leanings towards communism. Algren had great empathy for the down-and-out people living in poverty and leading harsh lives. In addition to founding the contentious New Anvil, his ties to communism caused him to experience controversy in the 1950s which included Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) surveillance. He had never officially joined the Communist Party, so he avoided most problems.

Awards and Honors

The most prestigious accolade Algren's picked up was the National Book Award in 1950 for his novel, The Man with the Golden Arm. In 1955, this award-winning book was made into a movie under the same title.

The American Academy of Arts and Letters admitted Algren to the academy in 1981. Soon after he was elected to this group of esteemed writers, he died from a heart attack.

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