Nelson Algren

American novelist, short story writer

Nelson Algren (March 28, 1909May 9, 1981) was an American writer.

(Nelson Algren in 1956.)

A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery. [...] Our myths are so many, our vision so dim, our self-deception so deep and our smugness so gross that scarcely any way now remains of reporting the American Century except from behind the billboards.

Best known for two of his novels, The Man with the Golden Arm (1949, National Book Award, adapted into the 1955 film) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956, adapted into the 1962 film), Algren also wrote short stories collected in The Neon Wilderness (1947), and the book-length essays Chicago: City on the Make (1951) and Nonconformity (1953/1996).



The Man with the Golden Arm (1949)

  • The clock in the room above the Safari told only Junkie Time. For every hour here was Old Junkie's Hour and the walls were the color of all old junkies' dreams: the hue of diluted morphine in the moment before the needle draws the suffering blood. / Walls that went up and up like walls in a troubled dream. Walls like water where no legend could be written and no hand grasp metal or wood. [...] He was falling between glacial walls, he didn't know how anyone could fall so far away from everyone else in the world. So far to fall, so cold all the way, so steep and dark between those morphine-colored walls of [an addict]'s terrible pit.
    • Frankie Machine above the Club Safari, where drug is sold.

A Walk on the Wild Side (1956)

  • ‘But blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man's jolt. And never you cop another man's plea. I've tried 'em all and I know. They don't work. / Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don't have to do it by the yard. By the inch it's a cinch. And money can't buy everything. For example: poverty.
    • In jail, Cross-Country Kline to Dove Linkhorn.

Nonfiction works

  • A writer who knows what he is doing isn't doing very much.
    • "he once said", quoted by Richard Flanagan, 2005.[1] (Also quoted as: "Any writer who knows what he's doing isn't doing very much.")
  • [About his legacy:] I'll be all right so long as it has been written on some corner of a human heart. On the heart, it doesn't matter how you spell it.
  • Thinking of Melville, thinking of Poe, thinking of Mark Twain and Vachel Lindsay, thinking of Jack London and Tom Wolfe, one begins to feel there is almost no way of becoming a creative writer in America without being a loser.
  • [Chicago is] the only major city in the country where you can easily buy your way out of a murder rap.
    • "Chicago, which he once described to me as [...]", quoted by Kurt Vonnegut, 1986.[2]
  • A man who won't demean himself for a dollar is a phoney to my way of thinking.
  • I am the penny whistle of American literature.
    • "I heard him say one time" about being cheated out of the profits of The Man With the Golden Arm film, quoted by Kurt Vonnegut, 1986.[2]
  • What country is there for a white man who isn't white?
  • Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never play cards with a man named Doc. And never lay down with a woman who's got more troubles than you.
    • "What Every Young Man Should Know" (1977 essay), after a famous line in his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side, see above.

Chicago: City on the Make (1951)

  • [About Chicago:] It's every man for himself in this hired air. / Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.
    • Chapter 2, "Are you a Christian?"

Nonconformity (1953/1996)

Nonconformity: Writing on Writing, written 1951–1953, posthumously released 1996. (Variant quotes can be seen from excerpts published as "Things of the Earth: A Groundhog View" in The California Quarterly, Autumn 1952, and as "Great Writing Bogged Down in Fear, Says Novelist Algren" in the Chicago Daily News, December 3, 1952.)
  • You don't write a novel out of sheer pity any more than you blow a safe out of a vague longing to be rich. Compassion is all to the good, but vindictiveness is the verity Faulkner forgot: the organic force in every creative effort, from the poetry of Villon to the Brinks Express Robbery, that gives shape and color to all our dreams. [...] A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery. The strong-armer isn't out merely to turn a fast buck any more than the poet is out solely to see his name on the cover of a book, whatever satisfaction that event may afford him. What both need most deeply is to get even. And, of course, neither will.
  • The American middle class's faith in personal comfort as an end in itself is, in essence, a denial of life. And it has been imposed upon American writers and playwrights strongly enough to cut them off from their deeper sources. The shortcut to comfort is called “specialization,” and in an eye-ear-nose-and-throat doctor this makes sense. But in a writer it is fatal. The less he sees of other writers the more of a writer he will ultimately become. When he sees scarcely anyone except other writers, he is ready for New York.
  • To see life steadily, and see it whole, as a creature of the deep sees it, from below. Our myths are so many, our vision so dim, our self-deception so deep and our smugness so gross that scarcely any way now remains of reporting the American Century except from behind the billboards.
  • We live today in a laboratory of human suffering as vast and terrible as that in which Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote. The only real difference being that the England of Dickens and the Russia of Dostoevsky could not afford the soundscreens and the smokescreens with which we so ingeniously conceal our true condition from ourselves.
  • Do American faces so often look so lost because they are most tragically trapped between a very real dread of coming alive to something more than merely existing, and an equal dread of going down to the grave without having done more than merely be comfortable? If so, this is the truly American disease. And would account in part for the fact that we lead the world today in insanity, criminality, alcoholism, narcoticism, psychoanalysm, cancer, homicide and perversion in sex as well as in perversion just for the pure hell of the thing. Never on the earth of man has he lived so tidily as here amidst such psychological disorder. Never has any people lived so hygienically while daily dousing itself with the ritual slops of guilt. Nowhere has any people set itself a moral code so rigid while applying it quite so flexibly.

"The Art of Fiction No. 11" (1955)

"The Art of Fiction No. 11: Nelson Algren", Fall 1955 interview by Alston Anderson and Terry Southern, The Paris Review, Winter 1955.
  • I've always figured the only way I could finish a book and get a plot was just to keep making it longer and longer until something happens – you know, until it finds its own plot – because you can't outline and then fit the thing into it. I suppose it's a slow way of working.
  • I don't know many writers. [...] Well, I dunno, but I do have the feeling that other writers can't help you with writing. I've gone to writers' conferences and writers' sessions and writers' clinics, and the more I see of them, the more I'm sure it's the wrong direction. It isn't the place where you learn to write. I've always felt strongly that a writer shouldn't be engaged with other writers, or with people who make books, or even with people who read them. I think the farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn't really live, he observes.
  • I don't think the isolation of the American writer is a tradition; it's more that geographically he just is isolated, unless he happens to live in New York City. But I don't suppose there's a small town around the country that doesn't have a writer. The thing is that here you get to be a writer differently. I mean, a writer like Sartre decides, like any professional man, when he's fifteen, sixteen years old, that instead of being a doctor he's going to be a writer. And he absorbs the French tradition and proceeds from there. Well, here you get to be a writer when there's absolutely nothing else you can do. I mean, I don't know of any writers here who just started out to be writers, and then became writers. They just happen to fall into it.
  • Well, I haven't consciously tried to develop [a style]. The only thing I've consciously tried to do was put myself in a position to hear the people I wanted to hear talk talk. I used the police lineup for I don't know how many years. [...] I was just over on the South Side and got rolled. But they gave me a card, you know, to look for the guys in the lineup, and I used that card for something like seven years.
  • I always think of writing as a physical thing. I'm not trying to generalize, it just happens to be that way with me.
  • Living in a very dense area, you're conscious of how the people underneath live, and you have a certain feeling toward them – so much so that you'd rather live among them than with the business classes. In a historical sense, it might be related to an idea, but you write out of – well, I wouldn't call it indignation, but a kind of irritability that these people on top should be so contented, so absolutely unaware of these other people, and so sure that their values are the right ones. I mean, there's a certain satisfaction in recording the people underneath, whose values are as sound as theirs, and a lot funnier, and a lot truer in a way. There's a certain overall satisfaction in kind of scooping up a shovelful of these people and dumping them in somebody's parlor.
  • [About whether critics have influenced his work:] None could have, because I don't read them. I doubt anyone does, except other critics. It seems like a sealed-off field with its own lieutenants, pretty much preoccupied with its own intrigues. I got a glimpse into the uses of a certain kind of criticism this past summer at a writers' conference – into how the avocation of assessing the failures of better men can be turned into a comfortable livelihood, providing you back it up with a Ph.D. I saw how it was possible to gain a chair of literature on no qualification other than persistence in nipping the heels of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. I know, of course, that there are true critics, one or two. For the rest all I can say is, “Deal around me.”

Quotes about Nelson Algren



  • Algren makes his living grotesques so terribly human that their faces, voices, shames, follies and deaths, can linger in your mind with a strange midnight dignity. I join with Ernest Hemingway in hoping that Algren lives on, holds to his standards, and writes a long shelf of books.
    • Carl Sandburg, back cover of the 1961 Ace Books edition of The Man with the Golden Arm.
  • Perhaps Algren was our Cassandra: he was right when he argued for the significance of “squalor” and for the literary significance of the vast demographic of the dispossessed. The city was integral to what Algren observed and animated in his best fiction; thanks to Algren and a few others, Chicago framed American conversations about urban reality from the Thirties all the way through the Seventies and Eighties. [... Algren was] the most perceptive and humane novelist produced by Chicago in the 20th century.

"Glasses" (1973)

By Studs Terkel.[3]
  • [Nelson Algren] may be the funniest man around. Which is another way of saying he may be the most serious. At a time when pimpery, lick-spittlery, and picking the public's pocket are the order of the day – indeed, officially proclaimed as virtue – the poet must play the madcap to keep his balance. And ours.
  • Unlike Father William, Algren does not stand on his head. He just shuffles along. His appearance is that of a horse player, who, this moment, got the news: he had bet her across the board and she came in a strong fourth. Yet, strangely, his is not a mournful mien. He's chuckling to himself. You'd think he was the blue-eyed winner rather than the brown-eyed loser. That's what's so funny about him. He has won. A hunch: his writings may be read long after acclaimed works of other Academe's darlings.
  • What Algren observed fifteen years ago applies today in trump. [...] Only louder. As with all good poets, the guy is a prophet.
  • Recurring in all of Algren's work – novel, short story, poem – is the theme of the rigged ball-game. Offered in his unique lyric style, they are memorable.

"Algren as I Knew Him" (1986)

By Kurt Vonnegut.[2]
  • [Nelson Algren] is buried in Sag Harbor – without a widow or descendants, hundreds and hundreds of miles from Chicago, Illinois, which had given him to the world and with whose underbelly he had been so long identified. Like James Joyce, he had become an exile from his homeland after writing that his neighbors were perhaps not as noble and intelligent and kindly as they liked to think they were.
  • [Nelson Algren] broke new ground by depicting persons said to be dehumanized by poverty and ignorance and injustice as being genuinely dehumanized, and dehumanized quite permanently. [...] Reporting on what he saw of dehumanized Americans with his own eyes day after day, year after year, Algren said in effect, ‘Hey – an awful lot of these people your hearts are bleeding for are really mean and stupid. That's just a fact. Did you know that?’
  • His penchant for truth again shoved him in the direction of unpopularity.
  • As I understand [Nelson Algren], he would be satisfied were we to agree with him that persons unlucky and poor and not very bright are to be respected for surviving, although they often have no choice but to do so in ways unattractive and blameworthy to those who are a lot better off.

"Nelson Algren: The Message Still Hurts" (1990)

By Russell Banks.[4]
  • It shouldn't surprise me that Nelson Algren, clearly one of the best novelists of his time, is not much read these days. It's the "kill the messenger" syndrome, I suppose, for the news that Algren's works brings us is not good news: if the world he describes is at all like our own, then it's not morning in America, and it hasn't been for a long, long time. In an Algren novel or story, the only thing that trickles down to where most folks live is disdain, violence and sometimes, on a good day, benign neglect; [...]
  • He wrote brilliantly, especially in A Walk on the Wild Side, and The Man With the Golden Arm, which are, to my mind, his best, most artistically successful books. His language lasts: the voice of an Algren story or novel is unmistakably his, as permanently, flat-out American as Twain's and Crane's and more authentic than Hemingway's.
  • Algren in person was a lot like his books – large-hearted, funny, angry, lonely. He spoke the truth to power wherever he met power (and he saw injustice where most people preferred to see only good intentions gone awry, which made him no friend to bourgeois academics and intellectuals: he trusted a brutal, racist Chicago cop more than a suburban Republican banker). To those of us who loved him, he could sometimes seem perversely self-defeating: he was unable to resist any chance to tweak the beard of somber authority.

"Prophet of the neon wilderness" (2005)

By Richard Flanagan.[1]
  • Algren's work was soon attracting attention for its unusual marriage of sumptuous prose and dry humour, describing a subject – the lives of those at the bottom – normally rendered in the dreariest of naturalistic tones. Algren's world, in one of the many phrases he brought into common usage (including "walk on the wild side", "monkey on the back", and "I knew I'd never make it to 21 anyway") was "neon wilderness".
  • [About his persecution by McCarthyism:] This is the Algren who would shortly be writing A Walk on the Wild Side: lost, heartbroken, trying to hold on to his belief that writing might still matter in a country as lost as America, and that he still has something left to write for his country, a patriot who knows he is now viewed as a traitor.
  • Everything in Algren is transformed into a particularly American agony, comic and tragic, and he created an idea of a spiritually compromised America so potent that for some decades no one wished to know of it. In consequence, his aesthetics were not what the new empire wanted, and nor was his subject – the dispossessed – any longer of interest.
  • Algren's characters fail even at failure. They manage to mismanage crime, vice, sin. Nothing is so worthless that it cannot be lost, and Algren's mean streets are revealed by the passing of time to be both as real and as allegorical as Kafka's courtrooms and castles. It is a hell, and it is the ultimate test of our humanity. / Like Chekhov, Algren believed a writer's role was to side with the guilty.
  • The American dream was one of materialism, its hope that, even if you had lost everything yesterday, you might regain it today. Algren's dream is one of humanity: of how you might live a fully human life when you have lost everything and nothing can be regained – through humour, small victories and love.
  • Algren's epitaph for Fitzgerald could apply equally to himself: "Unsaving of spirit and heart and brain, he served the lives of which he wrote rather than allowing himself to be served by them. And so he died like a scapegoat, died like a victim, his work unfinished, his hopes in ruin."
  • During Algren's childhood, America was a symbol of an ideal that could still seem revolutionary. For Whitman, a seminal influence on Algren, American democracy was a new event; for Algren, it is one more lost cause in a life devoted to lost causes, the greatest of which was writing, the act of which demanded you spend of your soul until there is nothing left but the prospect of death.
  • "Vast populations, towering cities, erroneous and clamorous publicity, have conspired to make unknown great men one of America's traditions," Borges wrote. "Edgar Allan Poe was one of these; so was Melville." And so too Nelson Algren.

"But Never a Lovely So Real" (2013)

By Colin Asher, "But Never a Lovely So Real", The Believer, January 2013.
  • [Nelson Algren] was a type of loser we can't stomach in this country. [...] America has always been able to countenance beggars, short-con men, and nine-to-fivers who just can't get ahead, but we've never known what to do with the type of person who could have been really big but chose not to make the concessions required.
  • Algren had his vices – he never did see a dollar that wouldn't look better at the center of a poker table – but it was virtue that unwound his life.
  • For Algren, writing is not a trade or a hobby. It is a calling that requires practitioners give more of themselves emotionally than they can afford, and demands they tell the truest stories they possibly can, the kind that make the teller partner to the actions of their subjects, and create complicity in the telling. Everything else is just words on a page. In exchange for these sacrifices he guarantees no reward. Instead he promises commercial failure and the risk of emotional collapse, yet keeps faith with his vision and claims the other side asks more. They demand conformity.


  1. a b c d e f Richard Flanagan, October 2005; as "Prophet of the neon wilderness", The Sunday Telegraph, January 29, 2006; as "Introduction", Canongate's digital edition of A Walk on the Wild Side, 2009.
  2. a b c Kurt Vonnegut, 1986; as "Introduction: Algren as I Knew Him", Seven's Stories' print edition of Never Come Morning, 1987; as "Algren as I Knew Him", Seven Stories' print edition of The Man with the Golden Arm, 1999; edited as "Funny side of the street", The Guardian, January 1, 2005; as "Foreword: Algren as I knew him", Canongate's edition of The Man with the Golden Arm, print 2005, digital 2009.
  3. Studs Terkel, 1973; as "Glasses", in Talking to Myself, 1973; as "Glasses", Seven Stories' print edition of The Man with the Golden Arm, 1999; edited as "Seriously funny", The Guardian, January 1, 2005; as "Afterword: Glasses", Canongate's edition of The Man with the Golden Arm, print 2005, digital 2009.
  4. Russell Banks, 1990; as "Nelson Algren: The Message Still Hurts", The New York Times, April 29, 1990; as "Foreword", Thunder's Mouth's print edition of A Walk on the Wild Side, 1990.
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