When videomaker Mark Blottner moved to West Town from Cleveland in 1983, he hadn’t the slightest idea that he would soon be consumed with the life of writer Nelson Algren, known for his grittily poetic chronicles of the Polish neighborhood around Division Street and Milwaukee Avenue.
“Living here and reading his stuff really made the neighborhood come alive,” says Blottner, who now lives in Oak Park. “He made the bricks speak–it was almost as if I could hear the voices of his characters coming out of the bricks. The people and the situations still seemed very real.”
For the last six years, Blottner’s been making Nelson Algren: Writer on the Make, an hour-long $30,000 television documentary about the writer’s life and work. He says it’s “85 to 90 percent done.” He estimates that he’s spent $5,000 out of his own pocket, but says he still needs to scrape up a few more dollars to complete the opus, which Channel 11 has pledged to take a look at.
“It didn’t start out as a project that was going to be this big,” says Blottner. “But then I realized it was a much bigger topic and that I was going to have to treat it with more time and attention. I wanted to treat the subject with respect–I didn’t want to bang it out.” Blottner’s documentary looks at why so little is known about Algren even though he’s influenced a lot of well-known people, and what made him so successful despite all his failures.
For help Blottner contacted Stu McCarrell, an old Algren pal who became a key to unlocking the writer’s complexities. McCarrell–a poet, playwright, political theorist, raconteur, and electrical engineer–cofounded the Wicker Park-based Nelson Algren Committee and has done more than anyone in the neighborhood to keep the writer’s legacy alive, including getting honorary Nelson Algren Avenue signs posted on the bowlegged stretch of Evergreen between Damen and Milwaukee and a plaque affixed to the building at 1958 W. Evergreen, where Algren lived in a third-floor flat from 1959 to 1975. McCarrell even composed the inscription, which reads: “Lyrical, tough, tender, compassionate. He showed the people’s pain.”
Blottner’s video includes interviews with a range of Algren cronies and commentators: Studs Terkel, Don Rose, Leon Despres, biographer Bettina Drew, writers Joe Pintauro and Denise DeClue, and photographers Stephen Deutch and Art Shay. There’s also some rare footage of Algren telling the story of Lostball Stahouska, a guy who feels more guilt over cheating in a baseball game than over the petty thievery he’s involved in. Of particular interest to Blottner is how Algren, a product of the Depression-era left, came under the prying eyes of the Red-hunting FBI in the 1950s and ’60s, and why Algren was marginalized by Chicago’s literary establishment. Even as Algren received national acclaim, his book Never Come Morning was banned by the Chicago Public Library after it was attacked by the daily Zgoda newspaper. Blottner believes that all of this led to Algren’s leaving town in disgust–and his demise.
“I think the FBI harassment and rejection from the critics stemmed from the same source–the antileft ideology of the 50s,” says Blottner. “Hoover dogged him because he was a smart-ass, though he certainly had communist ties. He was supportive of the blacklisted “Hollywood ten’: he signed documents and wrote scathing articles. Algren had 546 pages in the FBI files, but they never really found anything. It was a reason for his reduction in work, and it affected his self-esteem.”
Blottner thinks that a change in the cultural climate affected Algren too. “The things he wrote about dealt with the themes of the common person,” he says. “But they became in the critic’s mind passe. In our country many populist voices were being squelched. The social and political ideas that Algren and others once held were no longer widely accepted. People were moving away from the neighborhood and into suburbia, and there wasn’t an audience anymore. I think he thought, “It’s not the America I know anymore.’ That’s a key to the tape. But now it just needs to be put together.”
“A Night on the Wild Side,” a benefit to help Blottner complete his documentary, gets under way Saturday at 8 at the Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division. Excerpts from Writer on the Make will be shown along with videos and films by Tom Palazzolo, Bob Hercules, and Denis Mueller. Admission is $10. Call 235-3232.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.