Nelson Algren's "Chicago: A City on the Make" upset civic boosters for pointing out the city's corruption and conformity.
But Algren's "prose poem" is a heart-broken love letter to Chicago, as ardent as James Joyce's passion for Dublin.
First published in 1951 in Holiday magazine's special issue on Chicago, Algren's piece stood out for its honesty among a laudatory chorus elsewhere in the publication.
Newspaper editorials condemned Algren for exposing the city's venal legal system, police brutality, racism and class divisions. When the Holiday piece was published as a book, Algren added an essay blasting his critics.
Like Elizabeth Hardwick in "Boston: The Lost Ideal," Algren views Chicago as a city in decline from a heroic past of protest and literary excellence. While ignoring Al Capone's criminal control of the city, Algren praises Clarence Darrow, John Peter Altgeld, "Big Bill" Haywood and Eugene Debs. His literary heroes are Theordore Dreiser, Richard Wright, Carl Sandburg and James T. Farrell.
In his narrow view that literature's primary purpose is social protest, Algren ignores Saul Bellow, Chicago's most important writer. Algren, exiled from Chicago in his later years, opposed Bellow's conservative views and mandarin writing.
The class consciousness of "Chicago: A City on the Make" reflects Algren's affection for his native South Side and hatred of the more prosperous North Side. In one bittersweet passage, he recalls his mistreatment by North Side boys when he moved from the South Side. Loving the White Sox and despising the Cubs, he saw a miscarriage of justice in the banning of Shoeless Joe Jackson and other Black Sox.
Algren is one of those writers whose work invites reading out loud. Saturday marks the 39th anniversary of his death.
Like Chicago itself, Algren sometimes swings too hard. No writer has captured the city better:
"An October sort of city even in spring. With somebody's washing always whipping, in smoky October colors off the third-floor rear by that same wind that drives the yellowing comic strips down all the gutters that lead away from home. A hoarse-voiced extry-hawking newsie of a city.
"By its padlocked poolrooms and its nightshade neon, by its carbarn Christs punching transfers all night long, by its nuns studying gin-fizz ads in the Englewood Local, you shall know Chicago.
"By nights when the yellow salamanders of the El bend all one way and the cold rain runs with the red-lit rain. By the way the city's million wires are burdened only by lightest snow; and the old year yet lighter upon them. When chairs are stacked and glasses are turned and arc lamps are all dimmed. By days when the wind bangs alley gates ajar and the sun goes by on the wind. By nights, when the moon is an only child above the measured thunder of the cars, you may know Chicago's heart at last."