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Nelson Algren Biography

(1909–81), Somebody in Boots, Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, The Man with the Golden Arm

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American novelist, journalist, and short-story writer, born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit, Michigan, of a Swedish immigrant family; educated at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Though not a native of Chicago, Algren's writings are associated with that city in a way which invites comparison with the work of Theodore Dreiser and Saul Bellow. Algren followed various occupations before assuming editorship of the Illinois Writers' Project for the Works Progress Administration between 1936 and 1940. His first novel, Somebody in Boots (1935), placed him firmly in the short-lived American tradition of ‘proletarian realism’ in its fictionalized account of Algren's own experiences of life as a hobo and itinerant worker; the novel was sympathetically received by left-wing critics eager to praise the tough naturalism of young ‘Depression era’ writers. Never Come Morning (1942) is a violent tale of rape and murder with a doomed Polish boxer as its hero. In its depiction of gang life among the poorer white immigrants of Chicago the novel caused much offence, notably to the Polish Roman Catholic Union which successfully campaigned for the novel to be banned from the Chicago Public Library. It was followed by an important collection of short stories, The Neon Wilderness (1946), and the impressive The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), which earned Algren the distinction of being the first American writer to receive the National Book Award. The novel had sociological as well as literary importance in its sympathetic and powerfully persuasive depiction of the life of a drug addict; it brought Algren international fame, in part through its screen adaptation (with Frank Sinatra in the lead role). Algren's last novel, A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), is an unsuccessful attempt to rework materials and themes from Somebody in Boots, but it was his own favourite work and he spoke of it as ‘an American fantasy—a poem written to an American beat as truly as Huckleberry Finn… and some critics claim that its influence is felt in 1960s films such as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy. A critical biography, Nelson Algren, by Martha Heasley Cox and Wayne Chatterton, appeared in 1975.

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