Changing Chicago


By Sam Garfield

Jan 5, 1958

(Hyde Park)—Of Nelson Algren, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “…he hits with both hands.”  And so he did the other night on the University of Chicago campus.

“Sandburg’s city is gone, Farrell’s city, Dylan Thomas’ city, the city of the forties,” Algren told the literary gathering in Mandel Hall. “The new Chicago is shoulder-padded with gray flannel.”

If you’re not familiar with Algren’s work, you’re not familiar with Chicago. At least the side of the city that breathes the rust of the EL and walks the sidewalks that never feel the sun. Algren, the lyric writer of The Man with the Golden Arm and Chicago –City on the Make, knows the underbelly of this city like no other author. His Chicago is the down-on-his-luck guy at the end of the bar; the whore –not the pimp– who turns tricks to survive; the junkie who knows no way out. Like it or not, Algren’s Chicago is every bit as important to our city’s profile as politics and Lake Michigan.

But it’s Chicago’s ongoing improvements and modernization that have Algren concerned. “I lose a lot of good material because redevelopment projects are cleaning up the heart of the city. Chicago has changed dramatically –furnished flats on the lakefront are gone, replaced by split-level homes in which no one would dare to be unhappy.”

Algren is the type of guy who is always looking for the irony in life. Vintage Algren, this ode to the days of Al Capone:

“There no more shootings ‘20’s style. The syndicate is still in operation but now you need permission to shoot. It’s all too sedate –the shootings are no longer organized the way there were in the ‘20s because the people don’t believe in that anymore. And the cops –they’re too busy walking up and down LaSalle Street giving parking tickets to pay attention anyway.”

Knowing he was speaking to men and women of letters, and maybe because the great hall was less than half filled, an irritated Algren decided to take a few jabs at his contemporaries. “Modern writers are not interested in literature. They’re after a mere reproduction of life. And publishers are no longer looking for the great American novel, but for something as wide as it is thick, so they can sell it.”

One thing you should understand about Nelson Algren –the man truly cares about the human experience, especially about people who never get their fair shake in life. And he believes today’s writers should get emotionally involved with their characters.

“The pouring yourself into others –the humanity– is what great writers are all about. Look at Fitzgerald, his people always struck the reader with human qualities. But to get that deeply involved takes a lot out of you. Look what it did to Fitzgerald. He woke up some ten years this side of forty-nine and found himself dead.”

Even though he’s not comfortable with a changing Chicago, Algren said it’s still a place of great humanity. “It’s a 3 a.m. city, the hour when Fitzgerald awoke and asked himself why he became identified with the object of his compassion. Chicago is a great writer’s town. The best writing, you see, is done in the depths –the depths of feeling, the depths of night.”

One last thing about my pal, Algren. He’s also a wanderer. Algren lives in Gary now, but he’ll come back. He always does. And we should be thankful for that.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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