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Nelson Algren discusses love of a city

BROADCAST: Mar. 9, 1961 | DURATION: 00:24:31


Author Nelson Algren discusses what it means to love a city, the re-release of his book, "Chicago: City on the Make," and his interactions with Irish writer and playwright, Brendan Behan.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel The theme this morning is love! Love of a city, what is love of a town, say, love of Chicago? Is it someone saying that this is the most beautiful city? Or this is the most growing of cities? Or we have the prettiest parks, or we have the prettiest lakefronts? What is love of a city, really? I thought we'd call upon our guest this morning, Nelson Algren, certainly our most distinguished writer, and in many eyes the most poetic chronicler of our city. His book dealing with Chicago specifically, that is, his nonfiction book dealing with Chicago is, has been described as an eloquent prose poem of love for a city: "City on the Make", "Chicago: City on the Make" that soon will be reissued. Well, Nelson, what of this matter? I know it's been in the news lately that Chicago's reputation has been injured, has been tarnished by, specifically, by a BBC film producer, Denis Mitchell.

Nelson Algren No, I don't believe that it's been tarnished at all so far as the matter of love of a city goes. Mitchell's interest in the city and the intensity with which he worked, his devotion to the city is something I think we should be grateful for.

Studs Terkel This, you know, I should point out that you have met Denis and have seen him at work. You haven't seen the actual editing of it, but nonetheless you have seen the man at work.

Nelson Algren And I saw the film he made of Soho called "Morning in the Streets" and a very poetic record, and if he succeeded in getting that sort of poetic record of Chicago down, I'm not at all surprised that, that there is resentment because the Chicago press always resents the city being presented poetically. This is never understood. I mean, the--any, any book that portrays any aspect of the city that it's, that it's more, to use Denis Mitchell's word, more than a "bloody travelogue," immediately earns the resentment of the press. And so far as love of a city goes, I said accidentally some years ago, a remark that keeps bouncing back, that in order to love a city, in order to bum-rap a city you have to love it a little. And I think in the same way, in order to boost it you have to love it a little, and I don't believe that the people who--the retarded Kilgallens [unintelligible] they call them in charge of the local columns who profess a love of the city every day. I think what they love is to fill up their columns, and I don't think their interest in the city itself is very deep.

Studs Terkel The case of protesting a bit too much, perhaps.

Nelson Algren Well, we don't. If we--if Chicago really was interested in itself, we would make our own documentaries. The people of Paris are fascinated by Paris. They take pictures of it, they make movies of it, they write stories about it, they do cartoons of it, it's a world. In Chicago, we don't do this. And that's why I don't think we should consider that Denis Mitchell tunneled under the, under the wall, city wall somewhere like Achilles at the siege of Troy or something to get in, but we seem to think we ought to be immune that somebody should take a picture of the stockyards or drug addiction or--and we're not fooling anybody, because the bloody travelogue scene nobody believes in. We should, we should--nobody believes in the myth that the local press puts out that by putting, by hanging art prints in one of the subways that we've beaten the slum situation. Or the pride. I don't think we need to, as another paper did, boast on it, on its front page that a magazine called "Town & Country" has given us a pat on the back. We get pats on the back from the columnists every day, we're in oversupply.

Studs Terkel A pat on the back is not necessarily a sign of love.

Nelson Algren No, we get that. The columnists flood us with it, we don't need "Town & Country" to tell us we're great, or even the front page report of the English girl who was assaulted in Grant Park last year, and who one of our correspondents got in touch with, and she said what she was supposed to say, that Chicago is a wonderful city. And I mean, I don't think we have to go that far away to--

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]!

Nelson Algren To excuse ourselves.

Studs Terkel I know that, that you mentioned to me something of. in, of "David Copperfield", Dickens' comment about topsy-turvy values. This concerns a matter of love that is not really love or that which is called hate that is truly more love

Nelson Algren Well, this denunciation of a film that nobody has ever seen by the speakers for the city remind me a little bit of Charles Dickens' Mr. Dick, who was rescued from the madhouse by Betsey Trotwood, and he looked around and, at the world of so-called sensible people, and he whispered, "It's a mad world, Master Copperfield. Perfect bedlam." And the reactions to a report that somebody has made a documentary of this city were a lot more idiotic than Mr. Dick. And--

Studs Terkel I'm sorry, go ahead.

Nelson Algren Oh, I was going to say that even in a poor city like Dublin, an impoverished, which is just an impoverished village compared to Chicago, is much more interested in itself, in its own history, and in its own people than we

Studs Terkel Of course, the subject of Dublin naturally brings to mind one of its playwrights, whose work is now in Chicago, "The Hostage," Brendan Behan, whom you've met. I know you spent several days with him in Dublin, and you mentioned earlier the mad world in which we live. Someone described Behan as trying to express sane values in an insane world. Well, what of your, your impressions of Behan during the

Nelson Algren Well, my--I was, I first met Behan, that is, I saw him on television. He was [coughs], he was discussing the art of conversation with somebody and, somebody who remarked that he thought the--well, Behan said, "The art of conversation is dying, and I think it's you Americans who are killing it." And his opponent said, "Well, that isn't--conversation isn't the only thing dying around here," at which Behan said, "Well, you have your [piece?] very cheerfully," he said, "You have your people and I have mine." And after seeing Ireland, I think we have to give him the benefit of the doubt. It's a common remark, of course, that the Irish are vanishing, but then after you see them and see our split-level, our split-level cats, you realize that you don't have to be vanished just to be gone. And I think [that truth?], the great value to our own times of, that Brendan Behan has, may ultimately not be entirely in the body of his work, which is small, but simply he has brought us back to a recollection of what a man really is. That is he has reasserted a faith in the individual, which kind of checks our seeming swing to authoritarianism. What I'm trying to say is that the, the writer traditionally is, has always taken the part of the individual, that is, the, the great writers of any time have always been those who, who took the part of the individual against society. The writers who brought society down from the bench and into the dock. And we're swinging, we seem to be swinging over to the side of the prosecutor's office, whereas Behan is, his, his view of the, of the people that don't matter is that they really do matter, which is the same view that Dreiser had and that Whitman had.

Studs Terkel Whether they be the accused or not, certainly on the side of the accused.

Nelson Algren Yes, but always on the side of the, of the individual. That's--that the individ--individual is the victim.

Studs Terkel Yes.

Nelson Algren And, and I think in this he belongs with--he's, he has great value, and his, his assertion in himself of the individual. I don't--if the man is having a good time, let him have it. I mean, I think there's an awful lot of resentment that the man is making an awful lot of money while enjoying himself. And I think that

Studs Terkel The laughing boys, as he calls them.

Nelson Algren Yes, but some of the things he says when he's on the gargle are more sobering than the people who think out the answers.

Studs Terkel What of your specific memories of him and his family? I remember you had mentioned some of these to me.

Nelson Algren Well, I spent a couple of days with him in Dublin. My, my impression of him wasn't at all that which you catch in the papers, he wasn't drinking at all. He was drinking water. His mother was drinking Guinness, and addressing it as "Well, you're a lovely drink." And it was a lovely drink, and his Aunt Maggie was also there, and she's earned great fame in not only--Aunt Maggie Trimble--she's not only gained fame in, with Behan but in the hearts of others, too, because of her moment of truth during the Easter, Easter Rebellion when her husband was a hold-out in the post office and the dead were lying against the dead and the machine guns were going, Aunt Maggie turned up in the middle of the gunfire and called up to her husband, "Are you going to work tonight or, today or not, Mr. Trimble?" And she still doesn't understand why, she still says when Brendan recalls that, says, "Well, I didn't know if he was going to work or not." And, the both of them, these people who are not, not formally educated people at all, struck me as being deeply cultured in the best sense, that

Studs Terkel is-- What

Nelson Algren They're emotionally cultured. I mean they're very civilized in their feelings for people. I mean, they have lived with such thoughtfulness for feelings of other people. That--well, my impression even of Behan's face, of this big challenging jaw, you know, that it seems that if that old saying, old bar-room saying, "Hit him again, he's Irish," hadn't been invented before he came along, you'd have to invent it for Behan. But the fact is that it's a face that only appears to be that aggressive. Actually it's the--there's a great deal of pity in it, it's the sort of a face that takes great care to hate whatever is furthest away, so it won't have to hurt it. That is, his aggressiveness is usually directed at somebody or at something that he won't have to actually do any damage to, which is just a little Irish trick. And--

Studs Terkel But you, you equate, you're equating culture here, we're so accustomed to the word "culture" as the actual reading of a book of small print or we spell it with a capital C, you're equating it with humanity.

Nelson Algren Well, I'm equating it with this, the striking personality. I mean, Behan believes that--well, Behan himself is a proof that a--of a unique personality in this--we seem to feel a great--our split-level people, no matter how outwardly successful, seem to lack the feeling that they are, that they do have a unique personality themselves, something that you, that you--everybody needs. You--the need of recognition of yourself as a unique person--

Studs Terkel Some.

Nelson Algren Is, is a very deep need. Otherwise, why would thousands of people be lining up to, to pay $50 for a key with a bunny on it to find out who they are? And of course, there must--might be an awful moment and even if, you know, even if you do pay that much for a key to get in, what if it should be, just be an empty room? I mean seriously, what if there's no real self there? What if it's been made up of captions from a nationally-known magazine? [chuckles] What if there is no real personality? And in this sense, then, then all the acquisitions of the--I mean, then the, then the sports car and, and even the split-level wife and everything that he has doesn't mean anything. Then it's, then all his family can do is go through the--his split-level children will go through the gestures of loving pop and all that, but they can't do anything about him, they can't reach him then. And this is a very lonely story. Of course, we all know the story by now, it's a very lonely one. That, that's why I put a value on Behan as--well, in his book too, "Borstal Boy," it reminds us of what a human being really is, at a time when I think we need to know pretty badly.

Studs Terkel He doesn't need a metal key.

Nelson Algren No.

Studs Terkel To, to find out who he is, really.

Nelson Algren He knows who he is, and this--a lot of his pranks I think are done in a sort of a good-natured derision, because he doesn't need, just as on this TV program when he told his opponent, "You have your people and I have mine," he was saying, "I don't, I don't need you at all. I don't need your images of success or status," or--and this is a very healthy thing to see a man who doesn't care at all for status, who puts it at its real value, nothing. He knows it's nothing.

Studs Terkel And yet we know that many Dubliners probably having seen "The Hostage" would have walked out on it or having started to read the "Borstal Boy" would throw it into the trash bin. Of course, there again I suppose the question of finding out who they are is, truth I suppose can be rather hard and harsh [Algren coughs] and they're not accustomed

Nelson Algren They're very touchy. The Irish are notoriously touchy.

Studs Terkel Which leads us to, to Chicago. Again, you Nelson, and your Chicago is obviously different from, shall we say the Junior Achievement society Chicago or the Junior Chamber of Commerce award-winner Chicago. Not to say that theirs isn't, but in--according to their lights--but your Chicago. You--do you like Chicago? I will ask you this. Do you like

Nelson Algren I like my Chicago. I don't like the Junior Achievement Chicago.

Studs Terkel What is your Chicago?

Nelson Algren Well, my Chicago is just of a people that are largely inarticulate in a certain sense, but still know how to say a thing when they have to. It's, consists of--well, as I was saying before about Brendan Behan, I prefer a man with genuineness of feeling, and you find genuineness of feeling often among inarticulate people. And--well, I'm not the first one to discover that because it seems to me the whole history of our best writers has been a constant search for that genuineness of feeling. I mean, for some reason our writers from the beginning have always had to go to the person alienated from the middle classes or from the--they've always had to go from, from Captain Ahab to Hawthorne's branded woman to Ethan Frome and Blanche DuBois and Huck Finn. They're always--in order to find feeling, it's always been necessary for the writer to find it in these people who are outside society. It's almost as though with the growth of the merchandising classes and with the--well, there's a certain amount of fraudulence essential to successful merchandising, and it's as though that has pervaded the feelings of these classes, so that a writer, such a writer as Faulkner has, always has to go outside that class to find people who--in other words, it's always the unrespected people and the, and the outcast people who in time such of, such as our own who say the honest things.

Studs Terkel I know it's, I believe it was Maxwell Geismar who said this of your writings, Nelson, "Never Come Morning" and "The Man with the Golden Arm", and of "Neon"--and of "Neon Wilderness", of course, the short stories--but I think he, believe he said it too in a different way, of a walk on the wild side, of your seeking--he didn't use these words "the inarticulate," but through them finding the shafts or shooting out the shafts of truth about self and city.

Nelson Algren And you find more humor there, too. I mean, you find a more genuine kind of humor. I mean, it's not--people are more genuinely funny, like Brendan's mother and aunt. They're genuinely humorous people, I mean they don't--there are no pre-written gags, or--

Studs Terkel You mean, the humor doesn't have to be invented. It's of life itself,

Nelson Algren Yeah, yeah, that's--

Studs Terkel Perhaps, I think the best way to lead from hearing Nelson Algren, writer, talk now about his feelings of self and of city, and they certainly can't be separated, is perhaps to offer a couple of chapters from his--is prose poem a good way of describing "Chicago: City on the Make"? What form would you say it is? I use

Nelson Algren Well, it's an essay.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Nelson Algren It's an essay--

Studs Terkel Poetically authored.

Nelson Algren I didn't write it as poetry. I wrote it as a, as an essay.

Studs Terkel But this is about to be reissued, is it not, Nelson?

Nelson Algren It'll be reissued next month, yes.

Studs Terkel With the photographs? With?

Nelson Algren I don't know whether it's going to be with artwork or photographs. They haven't decided.

Studs Terkel So we'll watch for this again, and be--before we offer a couple of the chapters from this, here is a quotation, a review in a local paper that is highly reminiscent of reviews, pre-reviews of the film that nobody has seen yet, but of reviews of works that have aspects of truth that hurt. This is from a local paper, a review of Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City on the Make" when it first appeared a number of years ago: "A more distorted, partial, unenviable slant was never taken by a man pretending to cover the Chicago story, a book unlikely to please anyone but masochists, definitely a highly-scented object."

Nelson Algren Yeah, I recall that review. I don't know the name of the reviewer, but I believe it was written by a highly-scented object, certainly an object of some kind. The reference to masochists is--of course we, now we have to take a choice between, as an explanation as to either the--well, either the, we've had a great infiltration from abroad of masochists to interest in the book. I mean, the, the, it's, it's gotten a permanent interest in Jean-Paul Sartre's translation abroad. So I feel there must be a great many masochists interested in the thing, or else the little man was just writing in the hope of a pat on the back. One of the two.

Studs Terkel Well, this--your, your--if I may just offer my own opinion of this book that I

Nelson Algren Or a scratch behind

Studs Terkel Or a scratch behind the ear, a book of which I happen to be very fond, admire very much. This is not a pat on the back for Chicago, but I do believe it's a love song to Chicago in what I feel is a much more deep sense. Nelson, thank you very much. Is there anything else you care to add? That, I know you have so many things on your mind about the city, about attitudes, about Brendan Behan. I know they're all connected and related in the world.

Nelson Algren No, I'm very, I'm very pleased that there is--that the book is being reissued, that there's been a demand enough for the book to, to, get a, an art edition of it out.

Studs Terkel Now then, some chapters from "Chicago: City on the Make" by Nelson Algren, and you may judge for yourself how to consider it and the author's feeling toward the