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The Last Days of Nelson Algren

30 years ago today, the poet laureate of midcentury Chicago died. In recognition, here’s an epic account of the last year of Algren’s life, by his friend Joe Pintauro.

Nelson Algren died 30 years ago today; he was buried on a sunny day in Long Island. Among his friends at the end of his life was writer Joe Pintauro, whom Algren called “the man who put an end to my losing streak.” Pintauro organized Algren’s funeral, reading from “Tricks Out of Times Long Gone” and seeing to it that the writer was buried by the roadside: “Near people. Near life.”

In February 1988, Pintauro wrote a long account of his friendship with Algren, when Pintauro was an up-and-coming novelist, poet, and playwright, and Algren was nearing the end of his life and still down on his luck: “Algren In Exile.” It’s an extraordinary piece—funny, tragic, personal—and, I think, deserves to be up there with “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” in the pantheon of great profile writing.

In particular, what surprised me was how pained Algren was about his reputation, and its connection to his perilous financial situation: despite the embrace of Europeans and the American expat literary community, Algren was overlooked in America, and in the city where he made his bones:

Algren had been consciously using Sag Harbor to frame an end for his career, a homey, low-­budget retirement after a willfully lived, barely rewarded, though not unrecognized, life. Ironically for a man so closely identified with Chicago, Nelson Algren’s bitterness found its balm here in Sag Harbor. Algren once said: “You can belong to New Orleans. You can belong to Boston or San Francisco. You might conceivably—however clandestinely­—belong to Philadelphia. But you can’t belong to Chicago any more than you can belong to a flying saucer called Los Angeles. For it isn’t so much a city as it is a drafty hustler’s junction in which to hustle a while and move on out of the draft.”

Throughout his career, Algren had been snubbed and underrated by the Chicago literary intelligentsia led by Saul Bellow. In Algren’s last years, the continuing failure of American publishers and critics to value his work, and his dedication to the lost cause of clearing the boxer Hurricane Carter from a murder rap, drained Nelson’s energy and emptied his pockets. The Hurricane Carter case turned into a quicksand of unresolvable complexities and Hurricane was never cleared. After years of effort, Algren finally converted his commitment into material for his novel The Devil’s Stocking, but by then he had grown old and tired.

It’s not all like that. Pintauro was close to Algren, and his wit and loyalty come through. It’s an extraordinary portrait, and well worth a read, especially today.

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