Algren was educated in Chicago's public schools, graduated from Hibbard High School (now Roosevelt), and went on to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in journalism during the Great Depression in 1931.
His first novel, Somebody in Boots, was published in 1935. Never Come Morning, published in 1942, portrayed the dead-end life of a doomed young criminal.
Algren served as a private in the European Theater of WWII as a litter bearer. Despite being a college graduate, he was denied entry into Officer Candidate School. There is conjecture that this may have been due to suspicion regarding Algren's political beliefs.
He articulated the world of "drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums". Art Shay wrote years later about how Algren had written a poem from the perspective of a 'halfy', street slang for a legless man on wheels. The protagonist talks about "how forty wheels rolled over his legs and how he was ready to strap up and give death a wrestle". Shay wrote that Algren later commented that this poem was probably key to everything he had ever written.
He is probably best known for his 1950 National Book Award winning The Man With the Golden Arm. His next book, Chicago, City on the Make (1951), was a scathing essay that outraged the city's boosters but beautifully presented the back alleys of the town, its dispossessed, its corrupt politicians and its swindlers.
In the fall of 1955, Algren was interviewed for the Paris Review by rising author Terry Southern. Algren and Southern became friends through this meeting and remained in touch for many years. Algren became one of Southern's most enthusiastic early supporters, and when he taught creative writing in later years he often used Southern as an example of a great short story writer.
In 1975, Algren was commissioned to write a magazine article about the trial of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the prize fighter who had been found guilty of double murder. While researching the article Algren visited Carter's hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Algren was instantly fascinated by the city of Paterson and he immediately decided to move there. In the summer of 1975 Algren sold off most of his belongings, left Chicago, and moved into an apartment in Paterson.
In 1980, Algren moved into a house on Long Island, in New York state. He died of a heart attack the following year.
The article about Carter had grown into a novel, The Devil's Stocking, which was published posthumuously in 1983.
In 1994 the book Nonconformity was published, presenting Algren's view of the difficulties surrounding the 1956 film adaptation of The Man With the Golden Arm. Nonconformity also presents the belief system behind Algren's writing, and a call to writers everywhere to investigate the dark and represent the ignored.
Nelson was also honored in 1998 with a fountain dedicated in his name located in Chicago's Polish Triangle, in what had been the heart of Polish Downtown, the area that figured as the inspiration for much of his work. Appropriately enough, Division Street, Algren's favorite street as well as the onetime Polish Broadway runs right past it.
At first I found it amusing meeting in the flesh that classic American species: self-made leftist writer. Now, I began taking an interest in Brogan. Through his stories, you got the feeling that he claimed no rights to life and that nevertheless he had always had a passionate desire to live. I liked that mixture of modesty and eagerness.
His novel Never Come Morning was published several years after the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a period when Poles, like Jews, were labeled as inferior as a race by Nazi ideology. Chicago's Polish-American leaders thought Never Come Morning played on these anti-Polish stereotypes, and launched a sustained campaign against the book through the Polish press, the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America, and other Polish-American institutions. A flood of articles appeared in the local Polish newspapers, and letters were sent to Mayor Ed Kelly, the Chicago Public Library, and Algren's publisher, Harper & Brothers. The general tone of the campaign is suggested by a Zgoda editorial that attacked his character and mental state, saw readers who got free copies as victims of a Nazi-financed plot, and said the novel proved a deep desire to harm ethnic Poles on Algren's part. The Polish American Council sent a copy of a resolution condemning the novel to the FBI. Algren and his publisher defended against these accusations, with the author telling a library meeting that the book was about the effects of poverty, regardless of national background. The mayor had the novel removed from the Chicago Public Library system, and it apparently remained absent for at least 20 years.
At least two later efforts to commemorate Algren in Polish Downtown echoed the attacks on the novels. Shortly after his death in 1981, his last Chicago residence at 1958 West Evergreen Street was taken note of by Chicago journalist Mike Royko. The walk-up apartment just east of Damen Avenue in the former Polish Downtown neighborhood of West Town was in an area that had been dominated by Polish immigrants and was once one of Chicago's toughest and most crowded neighborhoods. The renaming of Evergreen Street to Algren Street caused controversy, and was almost immediately reversed.
In 1998, Algren enthusiasts instigated the renaming after Algren the Polish Triangle in what had been the center of the Polish Downtown. Replacing the plaza's traditional name, the director of the Polish Museum of America predicted, would obliterate the history of Chicago ethnic Poles, and insult ethnic Polish institutions and local businesses. In the end a compromise was reached where the Triangle kept its older name and a newly installed fountain was named after Algren and inscribed, circling the fountain's base, with a quotation about the city's working people protecting its essence, from Algren's essay "Chicago: City on the Make".
Studs Terkel, writer Warren Leming, and three others founded the Nelson Algren Committee in 1989. At the time all of Algren's work was out of print. All of it is now back in print. The Committee awards community activists an annual Algren award, and sponsors an Algren Birthday party. Leming's song Algren Street can be downloaded from the Committee's website The site also contains the short film Algren's Last Night, written by Leming and directed by Carmine Cervi.
"I don't recommend being a bachelor, but it helps if you want to write."
"The avocation of assessing the failures of better men can be turned into a comfortable livelihood, providing you back it up with a Ph.D."
"(Chicago is) the only major city in the country where you can easily buy your way out of a murder rap."
"Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own." From A Walk on the Wild Side (1956)
"Yet once you've come to be part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." From "Chicago: City on the Make" (1951)