- Bill Savage
Nelson Algren was born Nelson Ahlgren Abraham on 28 March 1909 in Detroit, Michigan, but was raised in Chicago. He died days after his election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his fiction out of print and largely forgotten, in Sag Harbor, New York, on 9 May 1981. Profound shifts in American political and literary culture shaped the trajectory of Algren's life and literary career. He was radicalized by the Great Depression and set out, like Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, and Walt Whitman before him, to depict America from the point of view of the outsider. His subjects were the disinherited of Texas jail cells; the wanderers of the New Orleans waterfront; and the petty thieves, strong-arm boys, hookers, and cops of Chicago's Polish-American ghetto. Like the modernist writers he admired, Algren wrote and rewrote and rewrote again, trying to create truth and beauty out of the language of shuttered barrooms and backroom card games, police lineups, and Chicago Avenue streetcars. Uniquely among American novelists, Algren melds the political eye of naturalism with the written craft of modernism and the vernacular voice of realism.