Friday, October 23, 2009

Chicago: City on the Make

I thought a lot of both Kerouac and of Sandburg as I read Chicago: City on the Make. Algren refers to Sandburg a couple of times in the book as "the white-haired poet" and quotes from Sandburg's "Chicago," a poem that Algren's prose poem parallels and extends in many ways. The musicality, strange lingo, and accelerated pace of Chicago: City on the Make distinguish it from other Chicago texts. Even those familiar with Chicago history may feel like outsiders in the world of Algren's swift name-dropping and swirl of historical references. I could see recommending this text to others with regard to Chicago literature, but would send a reader looking for a text on the general history of the city elsewhere. There are numerous lines of note in Algren's book ("Every day is D-day under the El," "Where somebody is always forgetting to touch second [base]" and "An October sort of city even in Spring"), and his claim that "'What can I do for you?' still means 'What can you do for me?' around these parts" seems to still hold true in current Chicago politics.

I remember first reading a collection of Algren's short stories 15 years ago. It was also the first time I read Kerouac, and I was really taken by the high energy and velocity of their writing. I came across a copy of the typed statement that Algren wrote at the police station, explaining why he stole the typewriter, and I photocopied it and gave copies to friends, and we all laughed at it and thought it was brilliant.

Chicago: City on the Make began as an essay in collaboration with Algren's friend Art Shay. Shay, a well-known photographer, collaborated on numerous text and image projects with Algren. Shay published a book of photographs titled Nelson Algren's Chicago in 1981. In 2008, the Lookingglass Theatre Company produced a show about Algren titled For Keeps and a Single Day, and the MCA featured an exhibit of Shay's collection of photographs of Algren and Chicago.

Last April, Steppenwolf Theatre hosteed a reading in honor of Algren's 100th birthday.
You can see/hear actor Willem Dafoe read from Algren's story "The Lightless Room" at:


Every year there is a walking tour led by the Nelson Algren Committee that goes to Algren's old apartment, the fountain, and visits places Algren used to hang out. (The Chicago Reader and New City usually run an ad with details for this event.)

Here is a link to Frommer's walking guide for Wicker Park, which includes the address where Algren lived from 1959-1975 and directions for how to get there:



1 comment:

  1. Jenn! Excellent. Yes--energy and speed. I think those who get bogged down in Algren's prose miss the spontaneous/jive nature of some of it. The hard-guy patois and the delight in the sheer music of the gab.

    This certainly helped fir up Kerouac. We are alwasy told that Neal Cassady's letters ignited the spontaeous prosody theory of Kerouac, but we also know he was no boho primitive. The guy read, and read, and read. Thomas Wolfe was his original model, but you know he ate Whitman and Algren and Celine too.

    I want to go on the walking tour.

    By the way, the new Granta (Chicago issue) has a brief memoir by Don DeLillo about Algren. I think I'll snag it for the class.