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Susan Quesal on "Chicago: City on the Make"

Cover of "Chicago: City on the Make": Men smoking and playing cards

Nelson Algren

Chicago: City on the Make

University of Chicago Press, 2011
152 pages

Reviewed by Susan Quesal

Nelson Algren has never been an easy figure to defend. Even though he won the first National Book Award for his novel The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) in 1950, prominent critics and scholars have consistently derided Algren’s work as out of touch with its literary moment. In one famous example, Leslie Fiedler dismissed Algren as “the Last of the Proletarian Writers,” claiming the author’s fiction was too sentimental for audiences in the Cold War era (“The Noble Savages of Skid Row,” 1956). Outside the academy, Chicagoans living in and around the ethnic enclaves about which the author wrote also took exception to much of what Algren had to say about their neighborhoods. Add to that Algren’s incessant and unwavering claim that he was telling the ‘whole truth’ about a ‘reality’ everyone else was too cowardly to face, and it becomes clear why Algren was a difficult figure for many people to tolerate, let alone to like.

Yet whenever I revisit a text by Algren, I am struck not only by the beautiful melancholy of his prose but also by the importance of his type of writing—interstitial writing, mercurial writing—in the landscape of academic urban studies. There is perhaps no work of Algren’s that generated more vitriol, and with good reason, than his anti-booster prose poem Chicago: City on the Make, first published in 1951. Algren describes Chicago as a “hustler’s city” from the very start, outlining over the next hundred or so pages every crooked deal the city made with everyone from the Pottawatomie to the mid- century slum-dweller. Algren painstakingly recounts moments of hypocrisy on the part of city establishment and progressive reformer alike, and he repeatedly expresses his belief that the city has failed both its underclass and its artists, becoming a “Second-Hand City” where everything ‘real’ has been lost to a shiny booster narrative of progress.

Despite the dark picture of Chicago that Algren paints, however, the dominant emotion in the poem is love. Even when eviscerating some political figure or railing against the failures of ‘the system,’ Algren’s broken- hearted tone belies his harshest words. In one very typically Algren moment, he says of Chicago, “Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” While he may not have been a booster, he did indeed love the city and held high hopes for it, not in spite of its imperfections, but because of them.

This contradiction between hope and loss, the inherent ‘yet’ of Algren’s writing, articulates both the strength and continuing relevance of Chicago: City on the Make. The dissonance in Algren’s writing that has frustrated literary critics also allows the author’s voice to flesh out the experience of the city beyond the confines of the traditional historical narrative. Even as he describes the hard world of Chicago’s underclass, Algren resists dismissing the forms of life that exist within that hard world as not worth being lived. And while his somewhat uncritical valorization of figures like the hustler and the prostitute makes this poem a problematic and difficult document on its own, in conversation with the canon of urban studies, it becomes an important counter- narrative. Algren’s voice fills out the city’s story and calls into question certain accepted truths about the urban experience. Even the bad is valuable in Algren’s Chicago, because the bad still belongs to someone. Even the woman with the broken nose is someone’s lovely.

Algren, like all authors, should be taken as one voice among the multitude that composes our understanding of urban history and life. Despite his claims to the ‘whole truth,’ no one gets it completely right all the time. As revisiting Chicago: A City on the Make reminds us, we must read the poetry of the city alongside its social science and history if we ever hope to understand the lived experience of a historical urban space.