Nelson Algren and Ben Hecht and Their Infamous Exchange of Insults

Recently, as I was doing research on my upcoming classes on Ben Hecht, I came across an interesting piece in the Chicago Tribune dated November 20, 1963, headlined “Hecht Attacks Algren Preface.” This was about Nelson Algren’s preface to Hecht’s 1921 novel “Erik Dorn” which had just been republished by the University of Chicago as part of its new series of novels during the “Chicago Literary Renaissance.”
Hecht had never read Algren’s preface before the book’s republication. In that preface Algren states the novel was a “deterioration of a naturalistic novel into a Grade B scenario.” One wonders why the University Chicago Press allowed this castigation of the book to go into the preface in the first place.
A peeved Hecht declined an invitation to a cocktail party hosted by the University of Chicago Press celebrating the new series by sending a telegram from New York stating that he had “no hankering to pose in your local festivities as a literary patsy.” Hecht went on to tell a reporter concerning Algren that “I have never read his works. I don’t have the faintest idea what he writes like. In this case he stinks.” Moreover, he viewed Algren as having a “Beverly Hillbilly kind of intellectuality.”
Then Algren, who was never shy in verbal counterpunches, goes on to insult Hecht personally in an interview to a newspaper reporter opining that “He hasn’t done anything since ‘Erik Dorn’……. He’s made one or two movies and some awful bad ones.” Algren continues his invective on Hecht’s writing, “It wasn’t gas he ran out of, and surely it wasn’t brass. It was belief.” Jabbing the dagger a little deeper, Algren suggested that Hecht had showed a failure of nerves by “ducking out” of the cocktail party.

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A Seminar on Ben Hecht’s “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” at the Newberry Library

I am pleased to announce that I will be teaching a seminar on Ben Hecht’s book “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” at the Newberry Library in five Thursday evening sessions, starting February 15 and ending March 15, from 5:45 to 7:45. The sixty-four incredibly imaginative sketches in the book capture the heart and soul of Chicago’s bustling urban landscape during the early 1920s. There couldn’t be more of an appropriate venue to have this seminar, since the Hecht archives are housed at the Newberry, and Walnut and Dearborn, where the library is located, is designated “Honorary Ben Hecht Way” by the city of Chicago. For registration information go to http://www.newberry.org or call 312-255-3700.

The Ben Hecht Show

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Kudos to Chicago actor and playwright James Sherman for finally creating a dramatic rendition of aspects in the life of the American writer Ben Hecht. Sherman is currently performing in The Ben Hecht Show, a one man play that he wrote, at the Piven Theatre in Evanston. The aspect of Hecht’s life that Sherman mostly focuses on is the writer’s Jewishness, especially in relation to his efforts to aid Jews during and after the Holocaust and to his role as the chief American supporter and propagandist of the Irgun, an organization of Jews using acts of terror to force the British out of Palestine preceding the establishment of the state of Israel.
Perhaps no twentieth century literary figure was as multi-faceted as Hecht, who was a journalist, playwright, novelist, short story writer, and most famously a movie script writer. Yet in watching Sherman’s play we don’t really grasp the scope of Hecht’s prodigious talent. Lacking also are personal details of his life, especially the importance of his wife Rose in the advancement of his career.
Since Sherman decided to focus on Hecht and the Irgun, I wish he would have probed deeper into Hecht’s outrageous condoning of the violent acts against the British that resulted in Parliament banning his film work in Britain for five years. The play also did not mention Hecht’s vitriolic hatred of David Ben Gurion and his Labor Zionist colleagues for their part in the sinking of the Irgun ship Altalena and their willingness to negotiate with the Nazis over the fate of the Hungarian Jews.
Still, Sherman did a credible job in capturing Hecht’s passion for his cause. He is a splendid actor who met the challenge of a one man play with good heart and gusto. And Sherman is to be thanked for introducing the Chicago theater audience to an important aspect of Hecht’s incredible life.

Ben Hecht Redux

It was a distinct pleasure chatting with Paul Dailing at the Studs Terkel weekend celebration at the University of Chicago. Paul is in the process of creating 1001 Chicago Afternoons, a contemporary version of the great Ben Hecht’s classic stories 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. Dailing loves the intelligent and evocative writing style of Hecht. “Hecht could blend elements of fact and fiction into his 1001 Afternoon in Chicago vignettes, and he didn’t really care about the distinction as long as they made good stories.”Indeed Hecht was known to take police blotter reports of actual crimes off the wire, and craft them into beautiful and highly stylistic journalistic pieces.

Dailing’s own pieces are shorter in length and completely non-fiction, yet they evoke Hecht’s style and voice in depicting the Chicago urban landscape. In “The Bunny” he writes ‘the city had begun its nightly shift from sun to streetlamp, making the train platform a brief slice of dark for the bundled masses. Out of the warming light pouring from the train, a hop through dark, then down into the headlights and storefronts and traffic signals below.” In “Starry, Starry Night” Dailing tells the reader that “I never realized how much the Chicago skyline looks like stars at night. Little dots of light from individual windows against a sea of smooth black glass-and-steel. Thousands of specks of light, varying brightnesses and colors.”     

You can follow the progress of 1001 Chicago Afternoons at 1001chicago.com. New stories post on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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Ben Hecht’s “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago”

In 1921,the legendary Ben Hecht began writing a daily column for the Chicago Daily News. This column named “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago” featured fictive sketches of Chicago’s bustling urban landscape at that time. A year later, 64 of these vignettes were compiled and published as a book with the same title. Beginning Tuesday morning, this coming June 3, I will be teaching a class in the Oakton Community College Emeritus Program about Hecht and this amazing book, with its incredible stories depicting ordinary Chicagoans in ordinary situations, but in Hecht’s most extraordinary literary style. In total, there will be four classes sessions, on Tuesday mornings at the Skokie campus from 10: am until 11:30 am, concluding on June 24. For more information go to http://www.oakton.edu/conted or feel free to comment to me on this blog.

Ben Hecht to be Celebrated in Chicago

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A long overdue homage to Ben Hecht will take place in Chicago at the Cliff Dwellers, the evening of Friday, November 15, 2013, as a prelude to his induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame on December 7. Hecht’s impact on the Chicago literary scene was monumental. As a journalist, his memorable 1001 Afternoons in Chicago columns, written in the early Roaring Twenties of the last century, and eventually published as a book, describe ordinary Chicagoans in ordinary situations in the most extraordinary picturesque language. In his nearly fifteen years in Chicago, Hecht established himself as one of the top literary figures in the nation.

Distinguished Chicago literary personalities, Bill Savage and Paul Durica will be featured in the program. Cliff Dweller members, Jack Zimmerman, Eve Moran and myself will read stories from 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. The cost of the event is $45, which also includes a full dinner. A percentage of the proceeds will be donated to the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.  

Ben Hecht’s Chicago Journalistic Legacy

Ben Hecht’s impact on the Chicago journalistic scene was monumental. His memorable  A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago columns, written in the Roaring Twenties for The Chicago Daily News, and eventually published as a book, describe ordinary Chicagoans in ordinary situations in the most extraordinary picturesque language. They were highly influential on the future style and content of Mike Royko.

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