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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