Mary Wisniewski was a college student when she first discovered the writings of Chicago writer Nelson Algren.
“Many of his books were set in Wicker Park where my family was from which intrigued me,” says Wisniewski, noting that though Algren’s novels are about shady characters, drug addicts, grifters, drifters and those on the margins of society, she found his writing lyrical, beautiful and poetic.
“It turned me into an Algren hag,” she says
“I told all my friends to read his books, and I started reading everything he had written that I could find — I found it surprising that his writings weren’t part of the literature canon in colleges,” Wisniewski says.
From there it became a natural progression to writing “Algren: A Life,” winner of the 2017 Society of Midland Authors award for best biography and the Chicago Writers Association award for best non-fiction, and the first biography about Algren in more than a quarter-century.
Delving more and more into his life, Wisniewski even read his FBI file, a mammoth collection of investigative reports because of his leftist leanings and, as Wisniewski says, “his belief that the crust of civilization in America is pretty thin.”
Algren lived a chaotic life that included a long-term love affair with French writer, Simone de Beauvoir, who had another lover, the French philosopher, Paul Sartre. Besides sharing a woman, they were friends and liked to box.
Algren often was short of funds — famed Chicago writer and broadcaster Studs Terkel, who was a friend, lent him money, which Algren always repaid. And he married and divorced three times. Having the FBI hounding him and taking away his passport didn’t help.
He also became discouraged with his lack of commercial success, even though two of his novels were made into films with major stars — “The Man with the Golden Arm” starred Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak (another Chicagoan), and “Walk on the Wild Side” featured Lawrence Harvey and Jane Fonda. Through it all, he continued writing.
Surprisingly for someone who wrote about the underside of life, he also expressed feminist sensitivities much earlier than most, Wisniewski says.
“In the 1950s, he wrote an essay about how Playboy magazine objectified women and turned them into commodities,” she says.
Algren, whose grandfather and father were from the Black Oak neighborhood of Gary, also had a Northwest Indiana connection, owned a home in Miller Beach.
The Nelson Algren Museum of Miller Beach, located in the 1928 Telephone Building once owned by his friend, David Peltz, is now owned by the Indiana Landmarks Foundation.
“I think Algren’s time has come again,” Wisniewski says.
“I think he’s like Dickens in London; he’s given Chicago a way to see itself. I always tell people that once they get a Chicago address and CTA card, they need to buy his book, “Chicago: City on the Make.”
If you go:
What: Join Mary Wisniewski as she discusses Nelson Algren and his work. Book signing to follow.
When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 11
Where: The Betty Barclay Community Room at the Edgewater Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 6000 N. Broadway, Chicago.
FYI: (312) 742-1945; chipublib.org