Chicago Tribune reporter Mary Wisniewski first discovered Nelson Algren when she was in college in search of a book about the seedy side of life. A friend recommended “The Man with the Golden Arm” and she expected a book much like Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Instead, she found poetry in his writing, which while focused on drug addiction, gamblers and shady characters, also largely was set in Chicago’s Polonia neighborhood, now known as Bucktown and Wicker Park, areas where her own Polish family first lived in Chicago. That discovery sparked a love for Algren’s books with Wisniewski that recently culminated in the release of her first book and the first biography of Algren in 25 years, “Algren: A Life.”
Although it’s the first bio of Algren in some time, last year two documentaries about him were released, sparking a revival of the writer who died in 1981 that continues with Wisniewski’s book. The Chicago Ambassador’s Bob Chiarito recently sat down with Wisniewski in the city Algren loved and hated equally, Chicago, to talk about the her book and the man himself.
CA) When did you get into Nelson Algren? Was he someone you read as a young person?
WISNIEWSKI) Yeah. His books weren’t assigned in high school or college, they usually aren’t in the canon, but it was when I was in college and I was looking for books about racy subjects. Someone recommended The Man With The Golden Arm to me and I read it with the expectation that it would be like [Hunter S. Thompson’s] “Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas,” but instead I found this wonderful, beautiful writing about the neighborhood that my family came to from Poland. I was astounded that literature was set some place that I was so familiar with. After that, I started looking up everything he wrote and when I started working at the City News Bureau of Chicago in 1988 I kept running into people on the news beat who knew Nelson and would tell stories about him. I started thinking about doing a biography in 2004 and started doing formal interviews and formal research but kept getting interrupted by having children and things like that, but I finally found a publisher and got it done.
CA) How much work did you do before approaching publishers?
WISNIEWSKI) I first started looking for publishers in 2009 or 2010. I had done a lot of interviews already.
CA) Was it something that you would have continued without a publisher?
WISNIEWSKI) No. [Laughter]. I believe like Samuel Johnson that when you write, you should try to write for money.
CA) Was it tough to get a publisher?
WISNIEWSKI) I had an agent for awhile but it’s hard to sell a literary biography, so I started approaching them on my own and Chicago Review Press thought it was a great fit for them.
CA) There hasn’t been a biography of Nelson Algren in 25 years, correct?
WISNIEWSKI) Yes, since 1989. Bettina Drew wrote the first real biography [Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side] and it was very good. I think she helped to create an Algren revival. Mine takes a different approach because I wanted to focus more on his writing and the influences that he had and I also focus more on Chicago, but I like hers too. The more the merrier.
CA) Last year, two documentaries about Algren were released. I interviewed both directors which is a big part of why I wanted to talk to you today. I’m sure you were aware of those films, right?
WISNIEWSKI) Yes. I saw them both and interviewed both filmmakers. Mark Blottner [co-director of Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All] actually helped me with the book. He was a fact-checker for me.
CA) Was there any pressure for you to get the book done around the time the two films came out?
WISNIEWSKI) No, but I think I sensed that the iron was hot for Algren again. It encouraged me to get it done.
CA) Was there anything about Algren that surprised you to learn while doing the research for the book?
WISNIEWSKI) There’s kind of a stereotype version of him. A lot of people think he was this tough guy that walked around being followed by a jazz quartet. That’s kinda how he’s portrayed at times. He was kind of an old-fashioned guy in a lot of ways. He was a very kind person to those he was friends with, he was very good to younger writers. He used to give people presents all the time. I know when he lived in Miller Beach near Gary, Indiana a lot of neighbors told me that he used to leave bottles of liquor in everyone’s mailbox, and he did that when he lived on Evergreen and Wabansia Avenues in Chicago. He was very generous. He was broke a lot but when he had money he spent it on people.
CA) Was there something that you wanted to highlight in your book that maybe was glossed over by others in the past?
WISNIEWSKI) I wanted to focus on his historical context. In the 1950s he was accused of being stuck in the 1930s. I wanted to focus on his time in the 1930s to see how that influenced him as a writer. The 1930s were a very traumatic time for those who lived through that decade. He was riding the rails and couldn’t find a job, worked a lot of goofy jobs down in Texas and Louisiana. I wanted to show that the 1930s taught him things. The 1930s showed him how fragile civilization could be and how low it could sink. I think it he was informed by that and that it influenced his writing. His writing about the underclass wasn’t coming out of nowhere, he was part of it. He lived it. He went to jail. [Algren served 6 months in a Texas prison for stealing a typewriter from a college while writing his first book].
CA) Yes, that’s the famous story about him getting caught stealing a typewriter. That may have pushed him into writing about the underclass, but do you think he was a guy that would ever write about the upper-class?
WISNIEWSKI) I think the underclass was always where his interest was. Before he went to jail he had a book contract that was based on this short stories “So Help Me,” which was about a scam run in Texas and that was similar to his own experiences. So he was already on that road.
CA) What do you think he would have thought of present-day Chicago?
WISNIEWSKI) I think he would be not surprised by the bifurcation of the classes here in Chicago, the very rich and the very poor. I think he would see a lot of the similarities to what he left. We still have terrible segregation. We still have people in parts of the city that feel helpless and we have people in other parts of the city that can’t see that.
CA) As far as his affair with Simone de Beauvoir, do you think that could almost be a book in itself?
WISNIEWSKI) I wanted to emphasize in the book and I think I made it clear that Simone wasn’t the only love in his life. I think he really loved his first wife, maybe in a different way but in a profound way.
CA) That’s something that seems to be overlooked a lot.
WISNIEWSKI) I was able to read the letters that he wrote to her and reading those you really see how emotionally attached to her he was. When they had their final break, after their second divorce, I think he lost a real source of support.
CA) I thought the story in your book about Algren’s disillusionment with writer Richard Wright was interesting and seemed to highlight a shortcoming of his.
WISNIEWSKI) I think that he was critical of Richard Wright for leaving Chicago for Paris. I think Algren was holding him to an extremely harsh standard because Richard Wright was a black man in the 1940s who was married to a white woman and it was a hard situation to deal with. A lot of black artists left the United States because it was just too hard to deal with. I think that Algren’s reaction, at least his public reaction in his writing, showed some insensitivities.
CA) He did come around after Richard Wright passed away.
WISNIEWSKI) Yes, he wrote an incredible essay and tribute. I think also that Algren was holding himself to the same standard. He had to stay in Chicago. He couldn’t live in Paris, although he might have been happier. He had a very hardcore way of looking at writing and he had to do it the hard way.
CA) Do you think because he was so critical of the powers that be in Chicago when he lived here, perhaps that’s why he was overlooked when he was alive?
WISNIEWSKI) I think that prophets are never respected in their own countries, as Christ said. But, I also think that he exaggerated his rejection. He got a lot of good reviews in Chicago for his writing. People who knew him here told me that when he used to go to a party or when he would go to O’Rourke’s or The Old Town Ale House he was treated like a king.
CA) He did have two powerful friends in the press — Mike Royko and Studs Terkel. I can’t think of a more influential trio of people who were alive at the same time here in Chicago.
WISNIEWSKI) Studs Terkel had him on his show so many times. I listened to a lot of the recordings at the Chicago History Museum. He was on Studs’ show all the time, he got a lot of love. I think part of the reason that he left Chicago is as Art Shay said, ‘He wanted another roll of the dice.’ [Algren left Chicago in 1975 for Patterson, New Jersey while researching an article on Rubin “Hurricane” Carter].
CA) It seems when he did leave that he kind of vanished. Despite his good reviews, perhaps he didn’t get his due? I mean, like you said, his books were never assigned reading in schools.
WISNIEWSKI) Yeah, they were out of print for a long time.
CA) I don’t know how much of the resurgence is solely because he was a great writer and how much is because of a mix of things.
WISNIEWSKI) I think that people who love Algren have been outspoken about him. I think that Bill Savage from Northwestern University has played a big part in helping to revive Algren’s reputation. I think he makes a good point that when he talks about the movies that were made from his books, and how terrible they were. He also talks about how his books were marketed with very sleazy covers. They look like sleaze, like b-movie stuff and I think that Algren started to be associated with that instead of great literature.
CA) A lot of the things going on in his life and in his books seem relevant today.
WISNIEWSKI) It is relevant. What he was talking about in his books is how the underclass turns on each other and blames each other instead of blaming the people higher up. I think we’re seeing that in this election cycle, people turning on each other and blaming. Blaming immigrants for not having a job instead of the fact that the factory left or became automated…
CA) Any other books on tap for you?
WISNIEWSKI) I don’t know, I have to get through this book cycle first.
Mary Wisniewski will be reading from her book “Algren: A Life” on October 24, 6pm at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th Street. and October 26, 6pm at Book Ends & Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Ave., Alley #1, Evanston. She also is scheduled to read at November 20, 2pm at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 7419 W. Madison St., Forest Park.