On March 28th, we will celebrate the 111th birthday of Chicago author Nelson Algren. His two 1940s novels set in the hardscrabble streets of the near Northwest Side, Never Come Morning and The Man with the Golden Arm, are remarkably written, weaving haunting dream sequences into otherwise highly realistic narratives. Algren’s creative genius was recognized by the American literary community when The Man with the Golden Arm received the first National Book Award in fiction in 1950.
These two novels depict a world colored in shadow and neon. It is a world where the sun never seems to shine. There are no heroes among these Polish American characters who are confined to their own ghetto, bordering between Ashland and Western, and between Chicago and North. They are immigrants and first generation young people who discover that the American dream really is more mythology than reality. Frankie Majcinek and Bruno Bicek, the main protagonists in the novels, have fates that seem preordained for disaster, as is the case for many individuals trapped in a culture of poverty, who live in neighborhoods rife with crime and violence.
Algren’s characters are the flotsam and jetsam of urban life. They are the hustlers and the hustled. Yet, rather than condemning their lives, he finds that these troubled souls are part of our shared humanity. In the preface of Never Come Morning, Algren cites a quote from Walt Whitman: “I feel I am of them—-I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself—-And henceforth I will not deny them—-For how can I deny myself.” New York City was lucky to call Whitman its native son. Chicago can proudly claim Algren as its own.