Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Algren, and if you’re lucky enough to be in his native Chicago that day, the Nelson Algren Committee will host a party at St. Paul’s Church in his old West Town stomping grounds. The site notes that “Admission is $10, $7 students and seniors, less if you’re broke,” the kind of sliding scale that Algren could certainly get behind. (The rate makes me feel somewhat better about stealing a copy of The Neon Wilderness from my high-school library back when I was a cheap and irresponsible teenager.) Booklist‘s Donna Seaman has a good overview of Algren’s career to commemorate the anniversary (h/t Frank Wilson), though the piece doesn’t dive very deeply into his complicated relationship with Chicago. Few authors have had such a love-hate relationship with their home the way Algren did. Tom Wolfe could satirize New York City; William Faulkner‘s characters could despair at the transition from the old South to the new; Armistead Maupin could mock the foibles of San Francisco’s gentry. But Algren fumed at Chicago, was both angry at and helpless about it, like a guy who kept going back to a girlfriend who only takes him back to have somebody to kick around. Algren, of course, had the better romantic metaphor: Loving Chicago, he wrote, was “like loving a woman with a broken nose.”
That line comes from his 1951 prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make, which doesn’t make Seaman’s short list of “Essential Algren.” Make it second, after Wilderness, if not first. I haven’t read anything that matches Algren’s tone in the book—it’s a mash note that throws its elbows around, proud of the city but still outraged at its inherent corruption:
For Paris and London and New York and Rome are all of a piece, their tendrils deep in the black loam of the centuries; like so many all-year-round ferns tethered fast in good iron pots and leaning always, as a natural plant ought, toward what little light there is. But Chicago is some sort of mottled offshoot, with trailers only in swamp and shadow, twisting toward twilight rather than to sun; a loosely jointed sport too hardy for any pot. Yet with that strange malarial cast down its stem….
New York has taken roots as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. Detroit is a parking lot about a sports arena. New Orleans is mellow where it isn’t sear. St. Louis, albeit still green in spots after lo these many springs, has gone as far as it can go. San Francisco is complete. San Francisco appears finished.
But Hustlertown keeps spreading itself all over the prairie grass, always wider and whiter: the high broken horizon of its towers overlooks this inland sea with more dignity than Athens’ and more majesty than Troy’s. Yet the caissons below the towers somehow never secure a strong natural grip on the prairie grasses.
Why so cynical? Blame bad poker games, blame his frustrating affair with Simone de Beauvoir, blame the hustlers and low-lifes he hung out with who inspired his fiction. The newspapers, though, played an especially strong role. As Bill Beuttler‘s fine 2001 article in Chicago magazine points out, when City on the Make came out, the Tribune dismissed it: “A more distorted, partial, unenviable slant was never taken by a man pretending to cover the Chicago story.” Algren got his revenge ten years later, in an afterword to the book, giving the paper both barrels and equating its disrespect to him to the same disrespect the city as the whole gave its citizens:
This journalistic gypsy-switch, this trick of substituting counterfeit values for true ones, leaves few readers, of the multitudes who read the Tribune‘s Sunday book-review, aware that they are really reading, not book-reviews, but editorials.
Nor is the gypsy-switch, as used by the Tribune, limited to that paper. It is the tone that now dominates Chicago in the arts as well as politics. Mediocrity is wanted. Mediocrity is solicited. Mediocrity is honored. And mediocrity will not put up with originality.
To the professional mediocrity, therefore, Chicago is today a city of golden opportunity; whether he reviews books on television or for the Tribune. But to the writer seeking to work creatively, it is a kick in the palatinate.
Arrogant, to be sure—the passage would come across as sour grapes from any other author, and even Algren doesn’t look especially dignified there. But with the passage of time it’s clear that he’s in the right, and Algren was too much the Chicagoan to ever think that calling out the authorities for their mediocrity would change anything; like any good writer, he didn’t worry much about what people would think, just took pride in finding the right words to make his anger known.