Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.
Nelson Algren’s quote may be the key to US literature, even if it is not strictly speaking true. He was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham in Detroit in 1909. When he was three, his family moved to Chicago where he grew up and lived and he remains forever associated with this city, though he often had a love-hate relationship with it. He studied at the University of Illinois, where he earned a degree in journalism. However he graduated during the Depression and drifted around, looking for odd jobs, traveling to New Orleans and Texas. He published a short story in 1933 and when Vanguard Press asked him if he was working on an novel, he hitched to New York to get his advance ($100) and then hitched back to write the book. However, he stole a typewriter to write the book and had to leave Texas to avoid a two-year prison sentence, having already served five months. His first novel was published in 1935 and he then worked for various public bodies, before serving as a soldier in World War II. He remained a private for the duration of the war.
After the war, he published a collection of short stories and then received a grant to write what became his best-known work, The Man with the Golden Arm. It was made into a successful film, saving Frank Sinatra’s career, but Algren thought it sensationalised his novel and did not like it. His later work was not so well received, in part because of his left-wing views. The FBI kept a huge dossier on him. He was twice married (and twice divorced) and had an affair with Simone de Beauvoir, which appears in her book Les mandarins (The Mandarins). He died in 1981, shortly after moving to Long Island.
1935 Somebody in Boots
1942 Never Come Morning
1947 The Neon Wilderness
1949 The Man with the Golden Arm
1951 Chicago: City on the Make
1956 A Walk on the Wild Side
1962 Nelson Algren’s Own Book of Lonesome Monsters
1963 Who Lost an American?
1965 Notes From a Sea Diary: Hemingway All the Way
1973 The Last Carousel
1983 The Devil’s Stocking
1992 America Eats
1993 He Swung and He Missed
1994 Nonconformity: Writing on Writing
1995 The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren
2007 Nelson Algren: A Collection of Critical Essays
2009 Notes From a Sea Diary & Who Lost an American
2009 Entrapment and Other Writings