Monday, April 07, 2014

Guest Post: In His Old Neighborhood, Nelson Algren's 105th Birthday Party Celebrates a Chicago Gone By

(This piece was written and submitted by my friend Ken)

"Mr. Algren, boy, you are good."
-- Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway praised only two of his contemporary writers. The first was William Faulkner. The second was Nelson Algren

Now, all but forgotten, Algren is arguably Chicago's most quintessential author, with all due respects to Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow and Ben Hecht.

He won the 1950 National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm, a story about the sad life of Frankie Machine, a morphine addicted, decorated veteran of World War II who eked out a bleak and meager existence dealing cards. The novel is widely recognized as a timeless 20th century classic of American literature.

What Hemingway was to war, Algren was to Chicago's urban losers.

Walt Whitman may have sung of himself, but Algren, with his dark naturalism, told the story of the whores, pimps, drug addicts, con men, gamblers, punks, drunks, cripples and ne'er-do-wells from Milwaukee and Division.

In a lifetime spent producing 11 books, he told the story of those whom the American Dream left behind--through no fault of their own--because no one else would.

A chronicler of Capitalism's casualties, he was a true bard of the down-and-outer and a social conscience at a time when most Americans were busy moving out to the suburbs during the post-World War II boom.

"The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man."
-- Nelson Algren, "Chicago: City on the Make"

Algren died in 1981, but a small-yet-dedicated group of Chicago writers, artists, intellectuals and progressives still remember him.

Every year, for the last 25, the Nelson Algren Committee has thrown a birthday party for their namesake scribe. This year, Algren would have been 105 on March 28.

So I found myself making a pilgrimage back to Wicker Park/Bucktown in Chicago to visit a time that is long gone, a Chicago that no longer exists, yet a place that will be with me always because Algren's Chicago was where I grew up, about a mile from where he lived.

"Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real."
-- Nelson Algren, "Chicago: City on the Make"

The party took place in the meeting room of a condominium complex/artist colony off Western Avenue at Bloomingdale at 8:00pm on Saturday, March 29th.

Warren Leming, a writer/musician/director and founder of the counter-culture band Wilderness Road, is also one of the founding members (along with the late Studs Terkel) of the Nelson Algren Committee.

Leming kicked off the festivities by telling the crowd of about 50 fellow Bohemians that the party was being co-dedicated to the memory of Pete Seeger, "truly a conscience in touch with humanity, whose courage and conviction will be much missed."

Mark Dvorak, Chicago folksinger and teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music, then honored Seeger by leading us in a group sing-along of "This Land is Your Land"--which did a great job of creating a feeling of solidarity--and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" which I found poignant, moving and somewhat sad.

Mark's stories of singing at an Oak Park food pantry on a regular basis reminded me that some things
never change.

Algren wouldn't have been surprised. Nor Seeger for that matter.

"Money can't buy everything. For example: poverty."
-- Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side

Next, Chicago actor, opera singer and voice-over artist, Bob Swan, did readings from a couple of Algren's lesser-known writing efforts.

One was a biting satirical reply to Maggie Daly, at the time a well-known Chicago gossip columnist (not the mayor's wife) who had disclosed in her column that Algren had been arrested in a car, with two other passengers, which contained the remnants of a joint.

Algren's mug shot is still infamous and now immortalized on a coffee mug, but the charges were dropped. His reference to the time he saw Daly "lapping up" a spilled drink from a saucer--as recited by Swan--was hilarious.

Swan's second reading was a more humorous description of the time Nelson first met Mike Royko, a famous muckraking columnist for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, at a bar. Algren thought his real first name was Roy and he had a short last name: Ko.

Chris Corbett, a writer from Baltimore and author of The Poker Bride, recounted that while attending Northwestern University in the 60s he tried to get Algren to speak there, but Nelson declined.

But when the famed author accepted a speaking engagement at Loyola University down the road, Corbett took the El train to the event. Corbett recalled how all the famous authors who spoke at Northwestern inevitably showed up drunk, while Algren--who, like Hemingway, had a hard-drinking reputation--showed up at Loyola nattily dressed in a suit & tie and quite sober.

Touchingly, Corbett said that of all of his memories from 40+ years ago of Chicago in the 1960s--the protests in the streets, the anti-war movement, the counter-cultural movement, the society tearing itself apart, etc.--his most vivid memory is of Nelson Algren reading aloud. In his own lifetime, Corbett has never encountered "a more spellbinding reader."

Each year, the Nelson Algren Committee Award is given to "community members who are under the radar and on the side of the angels." This year's honorees are the men and women of free-form radio station "The Wizard," WZRD (88.3 FM) who are celebrating 35 years of providing progressive radio from Northeastern Illinois University.

The WZRD representatives reminded us of present environmental issues by drawing attention to the recent BP oil spill in Whiting, Indiana and suggested we check out the Arctic News blog, commenting that "it must be pretty serious if the scientists themselves are trying to attract attention."

(As an aside, I have to say that the blog article regarding the possibility of near term human extinction due to recently discovered methane fountains under the melted Arctic icecap was disconcerting to say the least. My own research indicates that the facts of the conjecture are not in dispute.)

Photo by Art Shay
Algren also had a personal life. The love of his life was Simone de Beauvoir, a renowned French feminist and author of The Second Sex. Although a lifetime companion of Jean Paul Sartre--the famed French philosopher and proponent of existentialism--de Beauvoir carried on a simultaneous 20-year love affair with Algren. (When she died 6 years after Algren, de Beauvoir was buried next to Sartre but wearing Algren's ring.)

Gail Schecter, a North Shore community housing advocate, filled us in on some of the details by reading from the Letters from Simone de Beauvoir:

"Nelson My love, ...I was deeply moved when I read in your letter that you loved, as well as my eyes, my ways in love. And I thought I had to tell you these ways were just my loving you. I had always the same eyes, but I never loved anybody in these ways, you have to know, with such pleasure in love and so much love in pleasure, so much fever and peace,.... I really and wholly felt that I was a woman in a man's arms and it meant much so much for me. Nothing better could have been given to me. ... Just come to me darling and take me with your strong , soft, greedy hands. I wait for them, I wait for you."

Tragically, although one can see that they really did love each other, neither was willing to leave their respective locales--he Chicago, she Paris--and theirs was a largely a trans-Atlantic commuter affair until Algren was denied a passport. But Simone loved Chicago and referred to Nelson as the "Dostoyevsky of Division Street."

Photographer Art Shay, a friend of Algren's, took a scandalous photo of Simone in 1951 or 52 on one of her visits to see Nelson.

Dennis Mueller and Mark Blottner showed a clip from their almost-completed documentary about Algren, The End is Nothing, the Road is All, the trailer for which can be seen here. The film is in post-production and needs a few hundred dollard in contributions before it can be finished and released later this year. The film's title is taken from Algren's epitaph on his gravestone.

Photo by Art Shay
It is a time honored tradition that Nelson Algren birthday parties end with the distribution of candle-lit cupcakes and the singing of "Sto Lat," which is the Polish version of the birthday song.

This year, as the cupcakes were about to be passed around, the young lady holding the platter of shimmering cupcakes slipped and fell with the cupcakes. Fortunately, she was not hurt, but when she stood up, I could see that the vast majority of the icing had wound up on her legs. She must have been a good sport as she couldn't stop laughing.

Somehow I had the feeling that Nelson would've laughed too.

We sang "Sto Lat" anyway.
"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, A Walk on the Wild Side

Here's a link to some of Nelson Algren's best essays.

Here's one of Algren's proteges, Russell Baker of Princeton, explaining the true literary impact of Algren's work.

If  you'd like even more of a feel for what a Nelson Algren birthday party is like, here's a link to video from his 103rd birthday party


Judith McVittie said...

Excellent article! I was born and raised in Chicago and always thought the work of Algren, Sandburg and Terkel brought out the heart of the city and its real people. But I never knew about the parties in Algren's honor. Ken's narrative felt like I was there. I especially enjoyed the Royko antidote and info about the de Bouvier relationship.Something comforting in knowing there's still people who appreciate and celebrate these voices and neighborhoods from a bygone time.

Judith McVittie said...

Oops! I really do know how to spell "anecdote!"