Nelson Algren, the Exiled King

In 1975 Nelson Algren left Chicago for good. The famed writer had gone to Paterson, New Jersey on a magazine assignment to cover the Rubin “Hurricane” Carter murder case and decided to stay. This rare video footage was apparently made during his brief return to the Windy City to gather his things. We watch as another of Chicago’s literary icons, Studs Terkel, corners his friend and demands an explanation. Algren, famous for his wit, responds by mocking Frank Sinatra’s anthem to Chicago: Paterson, says Algren, is “my kind of town.”

In truth, Algren felt bitter toward his native city. Ernest Hemingway had once said of Algren’s writing, “you should not read it if you cannot take a punch,” and many in the city’s civic and literary establishment could not take the punch Algren delivered in books like Chicago: City on the Make. By the time he decided to move on, many of Algren’s books–which include such classics as The Man with the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side, and The Neon Wilderness— were not even available in Chicago libraries. Algren exposed a side of America that many Americans didn’t want to know about. “He broke new ground,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, “by depicting persons said to be dehumanized by poverty and ignorance and injustice as being genuinely dehumanized, and dehumanized quite permanently.”

Not surprisingly Algren was more popular overseas, where the punch was felt less directly.  Jean-Paul Sartre translated his works into French, and Simone de Beauvoir became his lover. (The unlikely affair may soon be the subject of a film, featuring Vanessa Paradis as Beauvoir and Johnny Depp as Algren.) By the time he moved to the East Coast, many of Algren’s books were out of print, and he had become like the people he wrote about: poor and forgotten. In 1981, at the age of 72, Algren died of a heart attack in Sag Harbor, New York. Arrangements for a pauper funeral were made by the playwright and novelist Joe Pintauro, who later reflected on Algren’s treatment: “He’d gotten a lifetime of kicks in the teeth from some critics because he refused to sidestep the ugliness of life, the gnarled, stringy underside of the tapestry, the part too many artists turn their backs on, the part even God seems not to have created. By rejecting Nelson’s world, too many critics left him alone in it, a prophetic, raggedy, exiled king.”

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  • Anonymous says:

    Shot by the iconic Tom Weinberg (, this will be included in the upcoming Algren documentary.  Our Facebook page–

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