I read the article about Nelson Algren in the issue of November 20 with interest. I question the statement that he “was the son of a poor Swedish father and a stern German-Jewish mother.” My source for every statement that I make about Algren is my late father, who attended Roosevelt High School with him in the class of 1927.
My father always said that he was named Nelson Abraham when he went to high school, and was generally known as “Swede” Abraham because, as my father said, “he was tall and blond and looked like a Swede.” The use of ethnic names may shock us in the present era, but it was fairly common in the 1920s; there was another boy known as “Dago” Margolis because he looked Italian. Neither of these names connoted anything negative. My father said that one of Nelson’s editors in the 1930s, when he was trying to sell stories and survive, said that he would sell more stories if he changed his name, and he adopted the name of his Scandinavian grandfather. It is difficult for us to grasp how pervasive anti-Semitism was in those days, or how the surname “Abraham” could result in the rejection of stories. But that is what my father always said.
I know that we had copies of Nelson’s books in the early 40s, long before he was known to the general public. My father visited him in Wicker Park from time to time, but I never accompanied him. The statement in the article that Nelson disliked what the Hollywood people did to The Man With the Golden Arm is borne out by what my father said.
If my father’s statements are true, then they suggest that Nelson’s father was Jewish and his mother Scandinavian. I do not know any way to find out the truth, but some records must exist that would settle it.
Richard M. Herwitt
Jeff Huebner replies:
While it is correct that Algren’s father was Swedish and his mother German-Jewish, it’s more complicated than that. According to Bettina Drew’s biography, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, the author’s grandfather Nels Ahlgren was of Scandinavian heritage. The son of a Stockholm shopkeeper, he converted to Judaism at the age of 18, renaming himself Isaac Ben Abraham. He sailed to America and married a German-Jewish servant girl named Yetta Stur while in Chicago. Their son, Gershom Abraham, was born in San Francisco around 1868. It is true then that Algren’s father–who Americanized his name to Gerson–was part Jewish. Isaac later abandoned Judaism for socialism.
Gerson married Algren’s mother, Goldie Kalisher, in Chicago in 1899. Like Yetta, the Kalishers were German Jews but did not practice the Jewish faith. They named their son Nelson Algren Abraham after the old man. By the time Algren started sending out stories in the early 1930s, he’d already dropped his surname for the more Swedish-sounding Algren because he identified with his grandfather’s socialist ideas. “The new name,” as Drew writes, “also masked his Jewish origins, protecting him from painful anti-Semitism, a theme that would later almost completely vanish from his fiction. Abraham was itself an assumed name, and it brought with it a burden he saw no point in bearing: he had no religious leanings or desire to be typed as a Jewish writer.”