Nelson Algren Festival to take place in Miller. Learn a little about him, and you’ll really want to go!
Article submitted by Philip E. Thomas
Nelson Algren is arguably the greatest author to come out of Chicago and perhaps his generation, which includes the likes of Hemingway, who would go on to proclaim Algren as one of America’s greatest writers. However, many now are unaware of the Bard of Miller Beach works or literary influence he had during the 1930s through 1960s.
Algren’s grandfather, Nels, sailed to America from Stockholm where he later set up a country store with his wife in Black Oak, Indiana. He soon drifted to Chicago where Algren’s father Gersen was born, raised and worked as a mechanic. Gersen moved his family to Detroit to work at the new Packard Motor Company, where Nelson was born on March 28, 1909. In 1913 Nelson’s family returned to Chicago, living in a south side Irish Protestant neighborhood. During the prohibition years, Algren quickly became familiar with Chicago’s underworld and developed a penchant for gambling, liquor, prostitutes and the black market.
Nelson’s sister Bernice insisted that he go to college, so he enrolled at the University of Illinois-Urbana in 1927 where he worked for the campus paper while earning his journalism degree and living a life of austerity. His passion for reading started him questioning the structures of organized society which fueled his interest in criminals, prison and social realism. Algren graduated from college in 1931 and set out to find work in Chicago as a journalist during the height of the depression. Having no success, he set out on the road, traveling through the Midwest and taking summer trips to the Indiana Dunes to contemplate his disillusionment of the status quo.
Wearing his only suit that he graduated in, Nelson hitchhiked down route 66 and jumped boxcars until he finally made it to New Orleans where he lived the life of a hobo and traveling salesman. He later traveled to Texas where he worked in the grapefruit fields along with other transients and “fruit bums”. He lived in an abandoned gas station with two other travelers and survived on a diet of tomatoes. After stealing a typewriter from a local college, Algren was incarcerated and witnessed the brutality and oppression of the Texas justice system. This was a turning point in Algren’s life and he started writing earnestly about the grim disillusionment of poverty and the betrayal and brutality of a system that told him anyone could achieve the American dream.
Nelson would move back to Chicago and become the literary champion of the down and out and disenfranchised. He published 12 books (some posthumously). “The Man with the Golden Arm” is considered his greatest novel and literary success. He won the National Book Award and the Award of Merit for the Novel from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also wrote several short story collections, travelogues, essays and poems. Some of these books were conceived and written in his cottage at the beach community of Miller in Gary, Indiana. He bought the cottage for $15,000 in the 1950s with the royalties from his novel about a heroin-addled poker player that was adapted into a movie starring Frank Sinatra. The cottage still sits today backed up on the lagoon just east of Lake Street.
Of particular note, is the 17 year romance with Simone de Beauvoir that started and carried on at the beach cottage. De Beauvoir was a famed French feminist philosopher who was a devoted protégé of the famous French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre. While on a tour of America, de Beauvoir met Algren in Chicago through mutual friends, writer Mary McCarthy and philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim. Algren would take de Beauvoir to Chicago’s dive bars, pool halls, gambling joints, shooting galleries and police line-ups. Many speculate that this type of observant-participation method with Algren in Chicago further developed her thinking which with the help of him, led to “The Second Sex,” a groundbreaking book that established her as a feminist icon.
Locals from Miller Beach report the couple could be seen rowing to a sand dune and climbing up and over in order to wade and dance and make love in what de Beauvoir called the “Michigan Lake” and Algren the “secondhand sea.” However, the love affair would not last as Algren could no longer bear playing second fiddle to Jean Paul Sartre. Algren’s popularity and success would also run out as he was black-balled by the McCarthy era officials for having socialist leanings and ties to supposed anti-American organizations like the John Reed Society, thus many of his books were censored and forgotten.
Things are looking up these days however. Founded in 1989, the Nelson Algren Committee celebrates the famed novelist, poet, and unacknowledged keeper of the hidden history of Chicago. They sponsor a yearly gathering, support many projects that help keep his voice alive and present an annual Award to those with “a conscience in touch with humanity.” In addition, the Nelson Algren Society of Miller Beach was recently founded and is dedicated to keeping alive his memory and his works. The Society held an inaugural event on June 27, in collaboration with the Miller Beach Arts & Creative District, with the showing of “Algren – the Movie”, directed by Michael Caplan.
The first annual Nelson Algren Festival will be held June 24-25, 2016 at the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts at 540 S. Lake St., Miller Beach, Indiana, co-hosted by the Nelson Algren Society of Miller Beach and the Miller Beach Arts & Creative District. Miller Beach and Chicago writer Nelson Algren is best known for his novel “The Man with the Golden Arm,” which was made into a 1955 movie with Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. Learn more about the unique life and revolutionary work of this prolific writer.
Friday, June 24 at 7:00 pm: the first screening in Miller of “The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All” with Q & A by co-directors Denis Mueller and Mark Blottner. $10.00 ticket, cash bar.
Saturday, June 25 at noon: See photography exhibit and meet world renowned photographer and Algren pal, Art Shay. Lectures follow by Algren biographer Bettina Drew, scholar Hugh Iglarsh and Chicago History Museum archivist Peter Alter. 3:30 Panel discussion with Q & A from audience.
4:00 Dedication of Nelson Algren Pocket Park, followed by Algren fact finding treasure hunt on Lake St.
6:00 – 9:00 Frankie Machine Blues Band
$20.00 ticket includes entrance to all Saturday events. Cash bar.
The Nelson Algren Society of Miller Beach celebrates the life and work of Nelson Algren. Follow us on facebook.com/nelsonalgrensocietyofmillerbeach.
All this adds up as a great time to take a road trip to Miller to see the sites and follow in the path of his shenanigans. If you do go, remember to follow Algren’s three maxims: Never eat at a place called Ma’s; Never play cards with a man named Doc; And never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.
More information can be found at the Facebook Page for Nelson Algren Society of Miller Beach. Or, you can contact Sue Rutsen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 773.914.2574