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Nelson Algren: Bard of the Proletariat

November 27, 2022 @ 10:30 AM 12:00 PM

Mary Wisniewski, Chicago-based writer, teacher, and actor, will speak on the topic of Nelson Algren: Bard of the Proletariat.  Nelson Algren grew up in Chicago in the 1920s, when everything was booming — shiny towers were being erected all over town, and the promise of American possibility seemed limitless.  He graduated from the University of Illinois-Champaign in 1931, when there were no jobs, and people were eating out of garbage trucks.  Like millions of other Americans, he took to Route 66 and the railroads, looking for work.  He found fellow travelers who felt that the American dream had betrayed them.  Critics later complained that Algren was stuck in the ’30s – but this wasn’t true. His work wasn’t stuck in the ’30s but informed by them.  He knew how fragile the crust of civilization could be, and how easily it could be broken.  He knew, as he wrote in The Man with the Golden Arm, “The great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one.”  Algren became the bard of the working class, the bard of the stumblebum, in a land that didn’t want to admit the problems of those who couldn’t climb to the top.  He was ahead of his time, and a prophet for America today.

Mary Wisniewski was a columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, and also has been Midwest correspondent for Reuters.  Her book Algren: A Life won the Society of Midland Authors’ award for best biography and the Chicago Writers Association award for best non-fiction. Wisniewski interviewed dozens of Algren’s inner circle, including photographer Art Shay and the late Studs Terkel, and examined Algren’s unpublished writing and correspondence, including hundreds of letters he received from lover Simone de Beauvoir, to craft an account as entertaining as it is meticulously researched.  Mary currently writes feature stories and theater and book criticism for Chicago Magazine and New City.

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