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'Algren: A Life' Paints Vivid Portrait Of Chicago's Outcast Poet Laureate

By Mark Konkol | December 15, 2016 5:55am | Updated on December 15, 2016 9:57am
 Reporter Mary Wisniewski's brilliant Nelson Algren biography,
Reporter Mary Wisniewski's brilliant Nelson Algren biography, "Algren: A Life," was her labor of love for more than a decade.
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Mary Wisniewski

In post-World War II America, Nelson Algren was a hobo writer and typewriter thief from Detroit who found his muse in the darkest corners of Chicago’s Polish neighborhoods that gave refuge to pimps, gamblers and junkies.

He summed up his love for Chicago like this: “Once you find yourself in this particular patch, you’ll never love another,” Algren wrote in his classic epic poem, "Chicago: City On The Make."

“Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so fair.”

I’ll never forget Algren's advice for navigating the shadowy parts of our city tucked in the pages of that classic book: “Watch out for yourself is still the word.”

Sometimes, when visitors asked what to watch out for in Chicago, I give 'em a wink and quote Algren: “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."

No other writer has captured the truth about our beautifully corrupt and lovingly coldhearted city like Algren in the 1940s.

My pal, Mary Wisniewski, has written a fabulous book about the road Algren traveled on his literary hero’s journey along society's edge.

In clear, journalistic prose, Wisniewski’s "Algren: A Life" weaves together a fascinating portrait of the tortured life of Chicago’s outcast poet laureate.

"Algren: A Life" captures the writer’s early struggles, short-lived success in love and novels, the collapse of his literary career, and finally and unexpectedly, a period of redemption living in Sag Harbor, Long Island, where he was treated like a celebrity again.

As you would expect from a reporter with Wisniewski’s well-known tenacity, Algren’s biography is packed with fresh details about the man she uncovered in his unpublished writings and letters, stories from people who knew him best and from his most famous lover, feminist author Simone De Beauvoir, among other things.

Wisniewski herself was introduced to Algren in college when someone told her the novel "The Man With The Golden Arm," was about drugs.

“I was 19. I wanted to read a book about drugs. But what I found was a poetic, lyrical book set among Polish Americans in my family’s neighborhood of Wicker Park. I was an English major. I never thought people like me would be the subject of literature. I was really moved to read about people I know, not that I know a lot of prostitutes and druggies,” Wisniewski said.

“But my grandparents were Frank and Sophie, the same names as the characters in 'The Man With The Golden Arm.' … I sought out all his books."

As a reporter, Wisniewski can relate to how Algren loved Chicago without being a blowhard booster.

“You can love the alleys and the skyscrapers. You can love all chamber of commerce s--- and still realize a lot of the life in this city comes from the workers and the underclass,” Wisniewski said.

“You can love this city and still know that the grafters and the corrupt pols get four strikes every inning when the do-gooders and working class are only getting two.”

For Wisniewski, writing Algren’s biography was a labor of love of more than a decade.

In 2004, she began interviewing as Algren’s contemporaries and never stopped collecting material for the biography while juggling reporting gigs, raising children and navigating other trials life tossed her way.

In journalism dive bars all around town, Wisniewski always gave updates on her progress on the "Algren book" and passionately urged ambitious young reporters to read "City On The Make."

She’d say, “If you really want to know about Chicago, you’ve got to read Algren.”

Let me tell you this: If you want to know about Algren, you’ve got to read Wisniewski.

Mary Wisniewski will be signing copies of “Algren: A Life” at the Billy Goat Tavern from 6-8 p.m. Friday.

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