The diner interview has become a well-worn political trope in recent years. Reporters hoping to understand what "the real people are thinking" airport into town, find the nearest diner and speak with a few customers as they finish off their generic Grand Slam. It's an exercise that has become a joke because it ultimately leads to lightweight, intellectually useless reporting.
But there was a time when reporters who covered working class people actually lived and reported in the same working class neighborhoods. Chicago produced several working class journalists whose lives were interwoven with the people they covered, including the long-time Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko and the literary icon Nelson Algren.
Algren's output wasn't massive: just five books and several collections of shorter pieces. But his 1951 piece "Chicago, A City On The Make" defines midcentury Chicago as well as anything ever written. And while the movie adaptation of his book "The Man With The Golden Arm" apparently disappointed Algren, it contained one of Frank Sinatra's best film performances.
But the passage of time has not been kind to Algren's reputation. While he is still somewhat remembered in literary circles, it's been decades since his name has been familiar to most people. And while the new documentary Algren might not be able to change that fate, it does provide a solid illustration of why he mattered.
Algren grew up in a middle-class South Side neighborhood in Chicago and after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1931, he planned to pursue a journalism career. But he wasn't able to find a job and spent several years bumming around the United States. Those travels included a several month stint in a Texas jail after he was arrested for attempting to steal a typewriter.
Director Michael Caplan draws on extensive interviews with friends and admirers of Algren, as well as lots of archival footage to flesh out the story of Algren's rise and fall. Returning to Chicago, he published a series of short stories and a first novel, primarily centered around the lower-class residents of the city he loved. His second novel, 1942’s "Never Come Morning," was so upsetting to Chicago's powerful Polish community that the city's mayor banned it from local libraries.
After serving in WWII, he published the 1947 short story collection "The Neon Wilderness" and famously began a romance with French intellectual and feminist Simone de Beauvoir (who was still at the time living with Jean-Paul Sartre). Their breakup was not pleasant for either person and it inspired de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel "The Mandarins."
Then came Algren's biggest success: 1950's "The Man With The Golden Arm" and the 1956 novel "Walk On The Wild Side." Both spawned movies he strongly disliked and while it's unclear from the movie what precisely changed in Algren after that, it's clear that something did.
He never released another novel and pursued various teaching jobs and freelance pieces until he died in 1981. Part of it was that his style of reporting the lives of lower and working class Americans had fallen out of favor with readers. But it's also seems to be the case that Algren felt he had run out of things to say. Or as the movie hints, struggled to find a way to say them.
Algren isn't an expose and doesn't uncover a lot of previously unknown facts about the author. But it does make a case for him being a writer and journalist that still matters and that makes the film a must-see for any fan of journalism and of authors who dig deep into the lives of the people they cover.
Algren opens October 1st, 2021 in live & virtual cinemas