Illinois State Library

Illinois Center for the Book

Individual Author Record

General Information

Name:  Nelson Ahlgren Abraham  

Pen Name: Nelson Algren


Born: 1909 in Detroit, Michigan


Illinois Connection

When Algren was three years old, his parents moved to Chicago. He was raised in an immigrant neighborhood on the South Side, educated in Chicago's public schools, and studied journalism at the University of Illinois graduating in 1931.

Biographical and Professional Information

Nelson Algren combined subjects drawn from street life with an eloquent, poetic style in a series of novels and short stories, many of which were set in Chicago's Polish communities. During WWII Algren served as a private in an U.S. Army field artillery unit and then as a medical corpsman and was eventually stationed in France. Algren used this experience in several of his short stories, which appeared in a wide variety of publications, including ''Noble Savage'', ''Playboy'' and ''Esquire''. He also worked intermittently on the W.P.A. Illinois Writers' Project. Algren's breakthrough novel came at the age of 41 with ''The Man with the Golden Arm''. The work received the National Book Award and became a successful Hollywood film starring Frank Sinatra in 1956. He was invited to Hollywood to write the screenplay. His book, '' A Walk on the Wild Side,'' was also filmed. He taught creative writing at the universities of Iowa and Florida, and regularly wrote a column for the ''Chicago Free Press''. Algren moved to Long Island in September 1980 and died there of a heart attack on May 9, 1981.

Published Works Expand for more information

Titles At Your Library

Somebody in Boots: A Novel (Classic Reprint Series)
ISBN: 0938410407

Thunder's Mouth Pr. 1987

During the Depression, Cass McKay, a young man from Texas, is forced to ride the rails, live in hobo jungles, and search for handouts

The Man with the Golden Arm
ISBN: 1888363185

Seven Stories Press. 1996

A novel of rare genius, The Man with the Golden Arm describes the dissolution of a card-dealing WWII veteran named Frankie Machine, caught in the act of slowly cutting his own heart into wafer-thin slices. For Frankie, a murder committed may be the least of his problems.
The literary critic Malcolm Cowley called The Man with the Golden Arm "Algren's defense of the individual," while Carl Sandburg wrote of its "strange midnight dignity." A literary tour de force, here is a novel unlike any other, one in which drug addiction, poverty, and human failure somehow suggest a defense of human dignity and a reason for hope.

A Walk on the Wild Side: A Novel
ISBN: 0374525323

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1998

With its depictions of the downtrodden prostitutes, bootleggers, and hustlers of Perdido Street in the old French Quarter of 1930s New Orleans, A Walk in the Wild Side has found a place in the imaginations of all generations since it first appeared. As Algren admitted, the book "wasn't written until long after it had been walked . . . I found my way to the streets on the other side of the Southern Pacific station, where the big jukes were singing something called 'Walking the Wild Side of Life.' I've stayed pretty much on that side of the curb ever since."

Perhaps the author's own words describe this classic work best: "The book asks why lost people sometimes develop into greater human beings than those who have never been lost in their whole lives. Why men who have suffered at the hands of other men are the natural believers in humanity, while those whose part has been simply to acquire, to take all and give nothing, are the most contemptuous of mankind."

Never Come Morning
ISBN: 1583222790

Seven Stories Press. 2001

Never Come Morning is unique among the novels of Algren. The author's only romance, the novel concerns Brun Bicek, a would-be pub from Chicago's Northwest side, and Steffi, the woman who shares his dream while living his nightmare. "It is an unusual and brilliant book," said The New York Times. "A bold scribbling upon the wall for comfortable Americans to ponder and digest." This new edition features an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and an interview with Nelson Algren by H.E.F. Donohue.

The Neon Wilderness
ISBN: 1583225501

Seven Stories Press. 2002

As rock and roll novelist Tom Carson writes in his introduction, "The Neon Wilderness is the pivotal book of Nelson Algren's career--the one which bid a subdued but determined farewell to everything that had earlier made him no more than just another good writer, and inaugurated the idiosyncratic, bedevilled, cantankerously poetic sensibility that would see him ranked among the few literary originals of his times."
Algren's classic 1947 short story collection is the pure vein Algren would mine for all his subsequent novels and stories. The stories in this collection are literary triumphs that "don't fade away."
Among the stories included here are "A Bottle of Milk for Mother," about a Chicago youth being cornered for a murder, and "The Face on the Barrome Floor," in which a legless man pummels another man nearly to death--the seeds that would grow into the novel Never Come Morning. Algren's World War II stories whose final expression would be in the novel The Man with the Golden Arm are also part of this collection. "So Help Me," Algren's first published work, is here. Other stories include, "The Captain Has Bad Dreams," in which Algren first introduced the character of the blameless captain who feels such a heavy burden of guilt and wonders why the criminal offenders he sees seem to feel no guilt at all. And then there is "Design for Departure," in which a young woman drifting into hooking and addiction sees her own dreaminess outlasting her hopes.

The Devil's Stocking
ISBN: 1583226990

Seven Stories Press. 2006

The Devil’s Stocking is the story of Ruby Calhoun, a boxer accused of murder in a shadowy world of low-purse fighters, cops, con artists, and bar girls. Chronicling a battle for truth and human dignity which gives way to a larger story of life and death decisions, literary grandmaster Nelson Algren’s last novel is a fitting capstone to a long and brilliant career.

Entrapment and Other Writings
ISBN: 1583228683

Seven Stories Press. 2009

Nelson Algren sought humanity in the urban wilderness of postwar America, where his powerful voice rose from behind the billboards and down tin-can alleys, from among the marginalized and ignored, the outcasts and scapegoats, the punks and junkies, the whores and down-on-their luck gamblers, the punch-drunk boxers and skid-row drunkies and kids who knew they'd never reach the age of twenty-one: all of them admirable in Algren’s eyes for their vitality and no-bullshit forthrightness, their insistence on living and their ability to find a laugh and a dream in the unlikeliest places.
In Entrapment and Other Writings—containing his unfinished novel and previously unpublished or uncollected stories, poems, and essays—Algren speaks to our time as few of his fellow great American writers of the 1940s and ’50s do, in part because he hasn’t yet been accepted and assimilated into the American literary canon despite that he is held up as a talismanic figure. "You should not read [Algren] if you can’t take a punch," Ernest Hemingway declared. "Mr. Algren can hit with both hands and move around and he will kill you if you are not awfully careful."

Algren at Sea: Notes from a Sea Diary & Who Lost an American?#Travel Writings
ISBN: 1583228411

Seven Stories Press. 2009

Nelson Algren's two travel writing books describe his journeys through the seamier sides of great American cities and the international social and political landscapes of the mid-1960s. Algren at Sea brings them together in one volume.

Notes from a Sea Diary offers one of the most remarkable appraisals of Ernest Hemingway ever written. Aboard the freighter Malayasia Mail, Algren ponders his personal encounter with Hemingway in Cuba and the values inherent in Hemingway’s stories as he visits the ports of Pusan, Kowloon, Bombay, and Calcutta.

Who Lost an American? is a whirlwind spin through Paris and Playboy clubs, New York publishing and Dublin pubs, Crete and Chicago, as Algren adventures with Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Brendan Behan, and Juliette Gréco.