Nelson Algren: Books & Short Stories

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.

The poet, novelist, and short story writer Nelson Algren walked the rougher side of life in Chicago and the South all the way to Texas. His books and short stories tell of his experiences. This lesson reviews his important works.

Nelson Algren Background

Are you dissatisfied with the promise of America? Do you crave a look at the other side of the tracks where thieves, gamblers, and people in harsh circumstances live? Then the works of poet, novelist, and short story writer Nelson Algren are up your alley. This author, who lived from 1909 to 1981, spent most of his time in Chicago, writing about his experiences with those of the working class. His sometimes controversial communist leanings, which give a sympathetic perspective on the plight of the proletariat, shine in his works. No matter if you agree with his slant, the craftsmanship of this author is undeniably important to host in any library.

Author Nelson Algren

Let's now turn from the man to his work. The rest of this lesson will be devoted to highlighting some of his most important books and short stories.


The Man With the Golden Arm

We will begin with Algren's crowning achievement that rightfully earned the honor of the much sought-after National Book Award. Algren's masterful novel The Man With the Golden Arm was published in 1949. This story follows the descent of the protagonist Frankie Machine, a card-dealing World War II veteran. His drug addiction, poverty, and failures cannot hide a sense of hope. This novel was also made into a movie in 1955.

A Walk on the Wild Side

Hailed the last work of his golden years, this novel was originally published in 1956. The protagonist Dove Findhorn is an innocent boy from the rural city of Hicksville, Texas, who heads toward the big city of New Orleans with big dreams. Prostitutes, bootleggers, and hustlers jar his hopeful beginnings in what becomes a portrait of the author's distorted view of the American dream. This novel would eventually be remade into a play under the same name.

Chicago: City on the Make

This book-length prose poem originally published in 1951 tells the 120-year history of Chicago as Algren saw it through the perspective of those overlooked: the hustlers, the bar fighters, the nameless working people. This work portrays a gritty side of Chicago that the Chicago Chamber of Commerce was quick to shake its fist at. This book combines the strange state of the city — the architectural beauty with the harsh violence on the streets. The author sums up Chicago by writing, ''Once you've come to be a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real!''

Short Stories

''So Help Me''

''So Help Me'' was Algren's first short story published in 1933; it won the O. Henry Award for short fiction in 1935. Algren based this story on his experiences in Texas with thieves and gamblers. This short story is a reworking of one of Algren's letters while hoboing and hitchhiking through the Midwest and the South. The work is a fictionalized account of a plan to rob a chain supermarket called the Jitney Jungle. The plan came from two confidence men known as the Luthers who Algren met while on the road. They were looking for someone who looked the part, and Algren needed the money. In the story, Algren's character dies.

''The Face on the Barroom Floor''

This story is set in a gritty location fitting for Algren, a rundown bar. In the story, there is a fight between a legless man who nearly beats another to death. This story would form the basis of Algren's novel Never Come Morning.

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