“The city today is more a soldier’s than an artist’s town,” Nelson Algren wrote 50 years ago in Chicago: City on the Make. Stuart McCarrell, who died last month, was both. Few have done more to keep Algren on the literary map, at least in Wicker Park, than McCarrell. He was a pal of Algren’s from 1967 to ’75, when the author fled Chicago to live briefly in New Jersey and then on Long Island, where he died in 1981. The editor of a literary magazine and an aspiring writer himself, McCarrell often accompanied Algren to White Sox games, to the Second City, to bars and restaurants.
McCarrell knew Algren–author of The Man With the Golden Arm, Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, and other novels and short stories that chronicled the dark underside of Division Street’s white-ethnic milieu–at a time when his star had faded and he felt neglected in his own city. Wanting “to further the recognition of Nelson Algren as a major American writer of the 20th century,” McCarrell and a group of Wicker Park residents formed the Nelson Algren Committee in 1989 and began staging annual multimedia fund-raising bashes on or around the writer’s March 28 birthday.
Over the next decade McCarrell set about memorializing his old friend with a devotion that bordered on obsession. In 1990 he led an effort to get the stretch of Evergreen between Damen and Milwaukee renamed for Algren, an honorary designation. He got a historic plaque affixed to the three-flat at 1958 W. Evergreen, where Algren lived in a third-floor apartment from 1959 to ’75. McCarrell and his committee printed a map of Algren’s neighborhood haunts and conducted walking tours. His crusade to have the plaza formed by Division, Ashland, and Milwaukee, along with its new fountain, named for the author was chronicled in a 1998 Reader cover story. In the end it was called the Nelson Algren Fountain at the Polish Triangle, and McCarrell came up with the quote–from Chicago: City on the Make–that’s embossed in bronze around the fountain’s base: “For the masses who do the city’s labor also keep the city’s heart.”
McCarrell, a Brainerd native and an electrical engineer by trade, was a self-made litterateur in his own right. In 1965 he and artist Robert Burleigh founded Xenia Press, which published a literary magazine for several years as well as McCarrell’s three books of poetry and seven plays, including a cycle based on the life, loves, and works of Goethe. None of McCarrell’s narrative dramas has ever been produced, but his Voices, Insistent Voices, a series of poetic monologues about noted literary and historical figures, was adapted for the stage in New York in 1996. Two years ago McCarrell put the finishing touches on Nelson and Simone, a play about Algren’s legendary love affair with French feminist Simone de Beauvoir (not to be confused with John Susman’s recently produced play of the same name).
Almost as a sideline to his various literary ventures, McCarrell–who earned a bachelor’s degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology–owned and ran the Macan Engineering Company, which, since the mid-60s, has been located upstairs in the Lodge Hall building at 1564 N. Damen; the firm most recently manufactured dental surgical equipment. McCarrell’s second-floor office was where Algren often dropped by to visit him on his way to the Luxor Baths. It’s where, in an adjoining room, McCarrell headquartered Xenia Press and stored his Algren memorabilia. It’s where friends and colleagues could drop in on the polymath activist and discuss literature, history, and politics. And it’s where, on the morning of February 1, he was found at his desk, dead of a heart attack. McCarrell was 77–few knew he was that old.
“Stu was one of the last of the independent intellectual lefties in the Wicker Park area–a fast disappearing breed in the face of the neighborhood’s consumerist cleansing,” says Warren Leming, a musician and stage director and founding member of the Nelson Algren Committee who helped organize this year’s birthday celebration.
Next week’s event at the Chopin Theatre–across the street from the Nelson Algren Fountain–will really be a celebration of McCarrell. Some 20 acts are slated to show, tell, or play. There’ll be music by the Frankie Machine Blues Band, Fetal Position, and Bill Close; a performance by Asimina Chremos; videos by Mark Blottner and Dennis Mueller; readings by Franklin Rosemont, Bill Savage, and Craig Vetter; and scenes from Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards performed by the Prop Theatre Group. Longtime McCarrell friends Burleigh and Ruth Ingeborg Andris will also be on hand to reminisce.
“The committee will go on,” says Leming, citing the work of core members Alice Prus, Char Sandstrom, and Nina Gaspich. “We’ll continue to promote Algren’s memory in Wicker Park and be a focus for community issues and events that have to do with Algren’s legacy.”
The 12th Annual Nelson Algren Birthday Party With a Tribute to Stu McCarrell gets under way at 8 PM on Wednesday, March 14, at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division; there’s a suggested donation of $5, $3 for seniors and students. Call 773-235-1522 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.