On April Fool’s Day of this upside-down year, please join us in celebrating the life and career of Nelson Algren, author of Chicago: City on the Make, The Man with the Golden Arm, Neon Wilderness, Never Come Morning and other novels, stories, poems and essays that continue to define Chicago.
This year’s bash takes place on Saturday, April 1, with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. and the program commencing at 8. As in past years, it all happens in the cozy confines of the activity space of the Bloomingdale Artists Building, 2418 W. Bloomingdale, where the 606 Trail, that river of gentrification, crosses Western. It’s just south of Armitage, near the Blue Line’s Western Avenue station. Street parking is available. (For detailed directions, call the Algren Hotline at 773/235-4267.)
Algren, an original honoree of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, was more than a writer of fiction. He was a cogent social commentator, whose political engagement resulted in a pulled passport and a thousand-page FBI file. This spring – which is also the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s epochal “Beyond Vietnam” speech – we respond to Nelson’s activist legacy by remembering Daniel Berrigan, a conscience in touch with humanity, who died in 2016.
Along those lines, one winner of this year’s Nelson Algren Committee Award is the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (represented by Barry Romo and others), which continues to play a key role in the struggle against America’s never-ending imperial wars. The other is Miki Greenberg, the talented musician-songwriter-producer-organizer who for decades has been a cultural dynamo in Chicago.
As always, we feature a motley lineup of readings, music, talks, etc. in the Algren vein. Legendary stride pianist Erwin Helfer leads off; actor-director Gary Houston delivers Algren’s reflections on Hemingway and the critics; writer David Witter discusses the history of Chicago’s Skid Row; archivist Tony Macaluso shares excerpts from the radio show of Studs Terkel, Algren’s friend and frequent interviewer; cabaret songbird Melodie Magnuson regales us with the evergreen tunes of Nelson’s day; photographer Bruce Sharp looks at the city’s lost movie palaces and neighborhood cinemas; and activist Joe Kransdorf talks about former Algren Committee member Norman Porter, aka J.J. Jameson, the fugitive poet who now languishes in a Massachusetts jail cell. Simone de Beauvoir, the celebrated philosopher and Nelson’s ladylove, is rumored to be planning an appearance.
Admission to this counter-cultural carnival is a mere ten bucks ($5 for seniors and students with ID) at the door. Drink tickets are available, as are snacks and door prizes, courtesy of Committee member Nina Gaspich. Committee cofounder Warren Leming and Hugh Iglarsh do MC duty, ably assisted by Kurt Jacobsen, Rick Homuth, Laura Weathered of the Near Northwest Arts Council and many others. Algren memorabilia – including books, “mugshot” mugs, buttons and postcards – will be on sale, a rousing Happy Birthday will be sung to Nelson on his 108th … and this Chicago tradition rolls on.
The Nelson Algren Committee, founded in 1989, eight years after our namesake’s death, is committed to keeping alive the memory of a great artist and cultural gadfly that the literary establishment would just as soon forget. A champion of the outcast and underdog, Algren would live to be scorned as the “bard of the stumblebum” by East Coast critics who found his critique too pointed. Despite their strategic indifference, Algren’s work is still read and his life still matters, as attested to by the two full-length documentaries and much-lauded biography that have appeared over the last couple of years. Join us, here in the city “built out of man’s ceaseless failure to overcome himself,” in a celebration of the artist who knew Chicago like no other and loved it warts and all.