Nelson Algren’s Secret Muse

By Jeff McMahon
It isn’t hard to love a town for its greater and its lesser towers, its pleasant parks or its flashing ballet. Or for its broad and bending boulevards, where the continuous headlights follow, one dark driver after the next, one swift car after another, all night, all night and all night. But you never truly love it till you can love its alleys too. Where the bright and morning faces of old familiar friends now wear the anxious midnight eyes of strangers a long way from home. — From Nelson Algren’s “Chicago: City on the Make”
When a rising young novelist named Nelson Algren turned his pen to his own city in 1951, he seemed to plunge his fist into Chicago’s chest and show the big-shouldered burg its own beating heart. In “Chicago: City on the Make,” he crosses the boulevard but lingers in the alley, notices the shining tower but dwells on the seething slum, nods to the self-made billionaire but nestles all the long icy night with the gin-soaked stewbum.
He paints a picture of two Chicagos, and Chicagoans have seen double ever since.
“Hustlertown, USA,” he calls it, and Algren’s take on the city echoes back today from Broadway musicals and PBS documentaries, gets nominated every year for One Book, One Chicago, and still turns up, half a century later, on the local bestsellers list (#9 on Amazon’s ranking of Chicago favorites).
Studs Terkel called it “the best book about Chicago.” Mike Royko praised its author for “capturing” Chicago. Scholars from Hyde Park to Evanston have cheered its embrace of Chicago’s unique character.
“We read Algren today,” says Bill Savage of Northwestern University, “because no one captured the spirit of Chicago better than he did in `Chicago: City on the Make.'”
So Chicagoans may be surprised to learn that the best book about Chicago has been keeping a secret for half a century: Algren adapted some of his most important descriptions of Chicago from a New Yorker’s description of New York.
I found Nelson Algren’s secret muse on a reel of faded microfilm shelved in the catacombs of the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. I had a hunch Algren consorted with poets. No one writes such poetic prose without books of poetry lying spines-down on his desk, without reading poets while writing, without hearing poets in his head.
Why bother hunting down those poets? To figure out how a guy writes a book that defines a city for fifty years. But how could I determine which poets sat whispering on Algren’s desk? By bird-dogging every word he wrote–novels, stories, articles, letters–for every quote, every mention, every subliminal echo.
The microfilm spins backward through 1947, sticking now and then on a fragment of history-Yeager Breaks Sound Barrier… India Celebrates Independence from Britain… Appling Caps Sox Rally-and stops on July 20, 1947.
Buried at the bottom of the second page of the Chicago Sun Book Week squats an article, just a little thing, one-fifth the size of the article you’re reading now: “Two Poems Show How Chicago Has Changed.”
By Nelson Algren.
The article is a perfect little microcosm of “City on the Make.” In 500 words Algren lays out the argument of the 13,000-word book he would undertake three years later. He opens with two lines from Carl Sandburg’s tribute to the City of Big Shoulders:
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle.
Then Algren declares Sandburg’s “Chicago” obsolete: “Chicago’s laughter has grown metallic and its smile has deteriorated into a complacent smirk.”
No, Algren argues, Chicago’s no laughing fighter anymore. Instead, Chicago looks more like this:
The young return–but cold, with skin-tight mask,
Seeing the city honors the most false:
Where the painter hangs for sale beside his work;
The critic, the peddler, and the smiling acrobat;
Toady and plagiarist for the price of one;
And a masked surgeon offering jars of happiness.”
When I first see these strange lines, I hear already the echoes from “City on the Make”: the artist hanging for sale beside his work, the city that honors the most false. But who wrote these lines? Algren keeps the name to himself, calling the poet only, “another contributor to Poetry.”
The University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library is a massive concrete tomb: cold, imposing, as gray and grave as December sky. But the Special Collections Research Center is its pharaoh’s chamber, with mahogany trim, maroon carpet, and glass-walled rooms that hold, among other treasures, the archives of Poetry magazine.
The librarians here stand sentinel to stuff that makes book lovers quiver–like Ezra Pound’s note to Harriet Monroe recommending an unpublished poet named T.S. Eliot. What’s more, these librarians know everything. If anyone can help me find the author of those lines…
But the look on the reference librarian’s face shoots me down. He doesn’t even have to say it: There is no electronic archive for Poetry. Just an old-fashioned index, on paper, organized by poet’s name, title, or first line. Armed with an anonymous middle stanza, I have only one option: to thumb through 35 years of Poetry magazine, page by page.
Instead I return to the stacks, the intellectual morgue, and sitting on the concrete floor under the faintly buzzing fluorescents I flip through the dog-eared volumes of Algren on the sheet-metal shelf. It’s a hard, cold, lonely place, and I start speaking out loud to Chicago’s literary patron saint.
“Oh Nelson, who were you reading?”
Algren’s practically kin, after all. He’s from the same South Side neighborhood where I was born. Walked the same Englewood streets as my folks. And like any Sox fan, he walked those streets with a sense of injustice trailing him like a hungry dog, and it inspired a cantankerous music in him, and he poured it out on paper.
So I don’t care who overhears.
“Come on, Nelson,” I say to the tomes, “gimme somethin’.”
He does. I find it in “The Neon Wilderness,” a collection of short stories Algren published earlier in 1947. He quotes a different stanza, but the style is unmistakable, and the mystery poet now has a name: David Wolff.
I return to the Poetry index equipped with the name, and I find the poem itself leading off the January, 1940 issue–“The City”–162 vivid apocalyptic lines that begin as the sleeping narrator awakens to an acute awareness of the city around him:
Children of the cold sun and the broken horizon,/ 0 secret faces, multitudes, eyes of inscrutable grief,/ great breath of millions, in unknown crowds or alone,/ rooms of dreamers above the cement abyss, –and I,/who all night restive in the unsleeping rain,/ awoke and saw the windows covered with tears.”
It goes on:
I heard, like the noise of melting rivers, the concourse of the living/ all hours mingled, violent, murmuring, or bright:/the cheers; the radio; the metal shriek of the accident;/ the whisper of hired affection, hit of the week,/applause; gunfire on the screen; and at night the tragic houses/ issuing like voluble flame the outcries of the city….”
The narrator wanders outside, with senses that penetrate walls, and witnesses the birth of the discolored twins who double for you and me, the city’s children. He trails them into life, registering the city’s impact upon them.
The twins discover the “double wilderness” of desire and pursue it eagerly until the city punishes them. They turn inward then and develop two faces–an inner open face and an outer false face.
I have to stop reading this poem, at this moment, as comparisons begin to echo against my temples.
Algren owes more to this poet than a few good lines. He owes him his controlling metaphor. He owes him the two Chicagos, the two-faced city, the city on the make. In “Chicago: City on the Make,” Algren famously declares that Chicago “forever keeps two faces, one for winners and one for losers; one for hustlers and one for squares. One for the open-eyed children of the thousand-windowed office buildings. And one for the shuttered hours.” He goes on like that for fifty lines.
Algren’s admirers always praise his grasp of Chicago’s duality. The University of Chicago Press called it “the essential dilemma of Chicago: the dynamic tension between the city’s breathtaking beauty and its utter brutality, its boundless human energy and its stifling greed and violence.” That’s what makes “City on the Make” the best book about Chicago.
And here it is, Chicago’s “essential dilemma,” in a poem about New York.
Writing from Wolff’s city of two-faced twins, Algren filled his Chicago with twos. Algren’s Chicago is not just two-faced, it’s a “two-timing bridegroom.” And Lake Michigan? “A secondhand sea.” While Wolff’s twins explore the “double wilderness” of desire, the streets of Algren’s Chicago lead to the “double-walled dead-end” of tavern and church.
I turn back to “The City,” and there’s more:
Wearing the skin-tight mask of their outer faces, the twins discover that “the city honors most the most false.” The city thrives on false commerce–lies, flattery, alluring neon and porcelain smiles, empty promises and miracle products. Falseness invades the home as well, where families dine together in daily hatred.
An “immense, proud fraudulence,” this poet’s city is the original city on the make.
But who is this poet?
Poetry’s editors awarded David Wolff the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize in 1940. I’ve heard of most Monroe winners–Hilda Doolittle, Ezra Pound, Denise Levertov, W.S. Merwin, Robert Lowell–but never David Wolff.
The Regenstein’s grumpy and capricious electronic catalog feels charitable today:
“Wolff, David,” it says, “See also Maddow, Ben.”
Born in New Jersey in 1909–the same year Nelson Algren was born in Detroit–Ben Maddow worked for the city of New York as a social-welfare investigator during the Depression. By day he visited the grim homes of New York’s poorest; by night he wrote poetry.
“He felt when he was writing his poetry, and then he got into film, that he shouldn’t use his real name because he was working for the city,” says his widow, Freda Flier Maddow, a former Martha Graham dancer who lives in Los Angeles.
Maddow mistranslated his last name, which comes from a Russian word for “bear,” and conjured up the pseudonym David Wolff. Maddow published three poems in Poetry as David Wolff, but Wolff vanished after World War II when Maddow found success using own name as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Maddow wrote the film adaptation of William Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust,” and he co-authored “The Asphalt Jungle” with John Huston, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
Meanwhile, “The City” slept in the yellowing pages of Poetry’s archives, living largely through writers who admired it, including Allen Ginsberg, who praised “its ongoing inspired or unobstructed breath,” and Nelson Algren, who transformed its double vision of urbanity into the prevailing cultural identity of the city of Chicago.
Algren’s Chicago everywhere reflects Maddow’s “immense, proud fraudulence,” but Maddow himself may never have known of his own influence in Chicago.
“I don’t think Ben knew about that because he never mentioned it to me,” Freda Maddow says. “And we were married then. Maybe he never knew about it.”
Algren and Maddow met at least once, in 1955, when Algren came to Hollywood to work on Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of his novel, “The Man with the Golden Arm.”
“I know we went to hear jazz with Nelson Algren, and he was very nice and Ben liked him, but I can’t think of how they met.”
Freda believes Maddow would not have minded Algren’s tacit but devoted sampling. Something similar happened once before, after Maddow told Ray Bradbury a funny story at a party.
“Later Ray Bradbury wrote the story,” Freda says, “and he didn’t say Ben told it to him. Well, Ben didn’t really care because he said he wasn’t going to write it himself.”
Northwestern’s Bill Savage edited the latest edition of “City on the Make.” He calls the discovery of Maddow’s influence “extraordinarily valuable,” but he appreciates Algren no less because of it.
“I don’t think that Algren’s use of Maddow’s ideas and imagery is a problem. There are different standards for what constitutes plagiarism in creative work vs. scholarly or historical or journalistic writing. It’s plagiarism if there’s an attempt to deceive. In ‘The Neon Wilderness,’ Algren directly quotes from Maddow’s poem as an epigraph, and such a nod, to me, constitutes admission not of plagiarism, but of influence.”
Algren does name Wolff in “The Neon Wilderness,” where the poet has little influence, but why conceal his identity in the Chicago Sun Book Week, where Algren first applies his poem to Chicago? And why conceal him in “City on the Make,” where Algren builds a literary Chicago upon Maddow’s model?
Algren, who died in 1981, could not be reached for comment. But Savage stole a line himself to sum the matter up:
“Another line I’ve heard attributed to several writers: Mediocrity plagiarizes, genius steals.
“What distinguishes Algren’s work about Chicago is the way that he takes images–which clearly he got from Maddow’s work–and transforms them by linking them with specifics from Chicago’s history and its particular urban spaces.”
Is that what it means to capture Chicago?
Even if we forgive Algren for selling us an occasional piece of Manhattan as locally grown fare, we’ve got to wonder about the town we’ve been seeing through his eyes for fifty-two years. If another town once wore Chicago’s two faces, if Algren picked up Chicago’s “essential dilemma” in a Greenwich Village lounge, doesn’t Chicago lose a little piece of itself?
“Ben was really writing about New York in the poem `The City,'” Freda Maddow says. “I don’t think he was writing about Chicago, but it was about the city, you know. It could be any city.”

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