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By Jordan Marsh

Over the last several months, John Musial has been inviting groups to the rooftop of a South Loop building to see his latest theater work in progress. The longtime stage designer for the Lookingglass Theatre Company, Musial has turned into a director, with Chicago at the center of his vision.

At an outing last month, actor Thom Cox stood in front of the illuminated skyscrapers of the Loop and recited selections from the writings of Nelson Algren, accompanied by the rhythmic patter of a bass and snare drum. Stage left was Soldier Field and Lake Michigan. Stage right was the silhouette of the CHA’s Raymond Hilliard Center, the Dan Ryan, and the Orange Line train trundling past at periodic intervals.

Musial made the transition from designer to director two years ago, when he staged The Great Fire, his own play about the 1871 tragedy, inspired by historical accounts. Design was still integral to the work: Musial created images that served his thematic intentions–as the play progressed, for example, the set collapsed, mirroring the effects of the fire.

While researching The Great Fire, he came across Chicago: City on the Make, Algren’s bittersweet ode to his hometown originally published in 1951 as an article in Holiday magazine. City on the Make detailed the writer’s profoundly ambivalent relationship with the city that “grew up too arrogant, too gullible, too swift to mockery and too slow to love.” He acknowledged his emotional investment in the place, writing that Chicago divided his heart, “Leaving you loving the joint for keeps / Yet knowing it can never love you.”

“Something about the text just really speaks to me,” says Musial. Though the work was written 50 years ago, Musial finds it still relevant today. “When I read it, I feel like I’m reading about the city that I’m standing in….I feel like I know the place he’s writing about.”

Algren was dubbed “the poet of the Chicago slums” by Malcolm Cowley, who believed the writer would one day “rank among our best American novelists.” This was just after the 1949 publication of The Man With the Golden Arm, the story of a heroin addict set around Damen and Division. The Man With the Golden Arm went on to win the first National Book Award in 1950, but it marked the zenith of Algren’s career. He was soon dismissed by the literary establishment and had difficulty getting book contracts. He increasingly relied on writing magazine articles, mainly book reviews, for money. Algren died in 1981 in Sag Harbor, New York, a bitter refugee from the city that once inspired his art.

Now with Algren’s work in the midst of a modest critical and popular revival, some wonder how a writer of his skill and passion could have disappeared so suddenly. Northwestern professor William Savage says that when times changed Algren simply couldn’t–or wouldn’t–change with them.

“Up until the early to mid-50s, the sort of politically engaged yet highly wrought and artistic fiction that Algren wrote was considered perfectly acceptable,” says Savage, who coedited the 50th anniversary critical edition of The Man With the Golden Arm. “Starting in the late 50s, the paranoia around the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthyism, and right-wing conformism in American culture in general–any hint of politics, which means leftist politics, overwhelmed everything else, and got you condemned, literally in some sense.”

When Algren began writing in the 1930s, says Savage, a writer could be overtly political and still be considered an artist worthy of critical consideration. Then suddenly, he says, “Left-wing politics got you ousted. It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t decide to suddenly be a bad writer and be obscure. They changed the rules on him and he wasn’t willing to adapt to the new rules.”

Algren came to be known as “the last of the proletarian writers” or, worse, “the bard of the stumblebum.” Influential critics like Norman Podhoretz thought he wasn’t even worthy of consideration–“not just a bad writer,” says Savage, “but a writer who isn’t worth arguing about.”

Most of this criticism came after the 1956 publication of what would be Algren’s last true novel, A Walk on the Wild Side. The story of a drifter’s dealings with prostitutes, pimps, and con men was a substantially revised and satirical version of his first novel, 1935’s Somebody in Boots. But his troubles had already started by the early 1950s. The subject of FBI scrutiny since at least 1940 due to his association with the Communist party, Algren was denied a passport in 1953. At the time he refused to confirm or deny that he had ever been a communist, insisting only that he was neither currently nor recently one. Discouraged by one failure after another–the negative reviews of A Walk on the Wild Side, his bitter experience working with Otto Preminger on the 1955 movie version of The Man With the Golden Arm, and his failed romance with Simone de Beauvoir–Algren would never again produce a work on a par with any of his previous novels. He had become, says Savage, “a cultural persona non grata.”

His reduced standing precluded getting the advance necessary to work on a significant novel. By the early 60s, his fiction output was reduced to one or two short stories a year. The rest of his writing consisted of essays, a travel book, memoirs, book reviews, and poems. The bulk of his income came from writers’ conferences and lectures. In 1968, Algren traveled to southeast Asia, hoping to produce a book-length journalistic treatment of the Vietnam war. He obtained an advance from the Atlantic Monthly for four pieces. The book never materialized, however, as he lost interest in the war and instead attempted to set up a moneymaking scheme exploiting exchange rates between U.S. and South Vietnamese currency. While the scheme at first met with success, its eventual failure resulted in the now-elderly Algren getting beaten up. One article on Vietnam was published in Rolling Stone, but another was turned down by the Atlantic Monthly. His last book, The Devil’s Stocking, published posthumously in 1983, was a fictionalized account of the murder case against Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

For his Algren show, titled For Keeps and a Single Day, Musial draws primarily from City on the Make and The Last Carousel, a collection of shorter pieces, including fiction, historical essays, poetry, and autobiography, published in 1973. A product of Clarendon Hills, Musial studied theater in the early 80s at Northwestern, where he met the core members of what would become the Lookingglass Theatre Company. Though he admits he “wasn’t a good actor,” Musial says he “had a sense of what shows and pieces should look like.” Currently he’s pursuing a master’s degree in filmmaking at Columbia College and works as an editor at Machete Edit & Design, a postproduction house that specializes in television commercials. In For Keeps and a Single Day, he’ll combine live acting and music with film, because Algren’s writing is “so visual,” he says, “visual in your head, because he writes in such really thick imagery.” Consider one particularly evocative passage from City on the Make: “All that long-ago August day the sun lay like shellac on the streets, but toward evening a weary small breeze wandered out of some saloon or other, toured Cottage Grove idly awhile, then turned, aimlessly as ever, west down Seventy-first.” Musial will present the show this September at the Rhinoceros Theater Festival, and in December it will be staged as part of the regular Lookingglass season.

Musial says he wants to explore what made Algren love the city in spite of its many faults. “I’m interested in telling stories that are about the identity of Chicago, about who we are and why we’re in this particular place.” By combining excerpts from Algren’s writings with music and film, Musial says he’s approaching the material “like a jazz piece, where the rules are to generally state the phrase, discover what you can in the phrase, play back and forth with what the people who you are playing with are giving you, and have a discussion in a musical vocabulary. The Algren piece is going to be similar in that we’ll have the film, and sometimes it’ll just be the film and the music talking. Sometimes it will be just the music and the actor talking. Sometimes it will just be the music that will take a solo. Sometimes the films will take a solo. And we’ll be able to change it every night as we see fit.”

He emphasizes that the show isn’t finished yet–he’s still raising money and thinking through the film sequences. In fact, he believes the piece will still be evolving years from now. “I hope to be working on this piece in ten years,” he says. “I see it as a very long-term project.” He wants it to perpetuate the renewed interest in Algren’s writing among Chicagoans. “Reading his work makes you see the city in ways that you kind of had but hadn’t really seen the fullness of,” Musial says. “And that’s hopefully a similar experience people will have from the performance. Every time you see an el afterward, that’ll take you somewhere. It gives you possession of seeing the el go by and hearing the rails clatter and thinking about the image of the ‘yellow salamanders’ of the el. It makes you feel connected with the city and connected with the place you’re living in. And that’s–at least right now–the purpose of the art that I’m trying to create.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell/Stephen Deutch.