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Nelson Algren – Streetwise Chicago Author

In re Petition to Change Name, Circuit Court #44C-84 (1944)

Many Americans have seen "The Man with the Golden Arm" but few know of his creator, Chicago novelist Nelson Algren.  He and his family left Detroit for Chicago before he started grammar school, and rooted him in the city whose "underbelly" he would portray so clearly in his writing.  Algren finished his journalism degree at the University of Illinois just as the Great Depression settled over the land, driving him across the country in search of work.  Hitchhiking and riding the rails with thousands of fellow seekers, he tried a multitude of odd jobs until he published his first article in Story Magazine (1933).  His first novel appeared after a jail stint earned by stealing a typewriter (Somebody in Boots).  Back in Chicago, Algren quickly assumed an important role in the leftist intellectual and literary network of the 1930s, with such writers as Richard Wright and Jack Conroy.  He joined the Chicago John Reed Club, co-edited The New Anvil Magazine, and compiled neighborhood studies for the WPA Illinois Writers' Project.  During World War II he joined the army and served overseas.

His work continued to portray the down-and-outers of society, but as Algren's literary stature grew, so did his notoriety.  Never Come Morning pleased reviewers but outraged the Polish community with its harrowing descriptions of pimping, thieving, and murder.  Then came The Man with the Golden Arm (1950), Chicago:  City on the Make (1951), and Walk on the Wild Side (1956).  By now America's readers had tired of realism; after the 1960s Algren spent more time lecturing and writing articles.  Although he produced several new fine novels, lack of recognition in Chicago may have driven him to the East Coast in 1974.  The American Academy of Arts and Letters presented him with the Award of Merit for the Novel and later elected him into its membership.  He died a Chicago expatriate in 1981.

The 1930s saw a sharp increase in the number of U.S. citizens seeking to legally change their family names.  Discrimination in employment played a major role in these decisions, but European conflicts before, during, and after World War II may have influenced many.  Each year hundreds of petitioners bearing Polish, Russian, Jewish, and other eastern European names filed petitions in Cook County Circuit and Superior courts.  Often entire families filed to change their names simultaneously.  This trend continued until the late 1950s.  On November 22, 1943, a notice appeared in the Chicago Law Bulletin announcing Nelson A. Abraham's intention to file a change of name petition in Circuit Court  [Page
1].  On January 3, 1944 Abraham filed the petition to change his name to Nelson A. Algren [Page 1].  The decree signed by Judge Julius H. Miner on January 26 legalized the name change  [Page 1].

Despite the significance of legally changing one's name, nearly all name change cases filed in Chancery contain these three documents and provide the same very limited information about the plaintiff.  It is also important to note that if one is tracing one's family history, a legal record of name change very likely does not exist.  Before the 1930s most persons rarely filed petitions in court to change their names.  Some individuals changed their names officially when they became citizens, and the record of that change is in the individual's petition for naturalization .  A few people, seeking assistance from an attorney, received an nonofficial affidavit describing the name change that was  signed by witnesses and notarized.  This document is not a court record.   Most persons took no formal steps at all and simply altered their names to fit into their new U.S. communities.

Other forms of name change occur through adoption.  Adoption records in Illinois are closed; to obtain access one must petition in Circuit Court (in Cook County, petition the County Division of the Circuit Court.  Call 312-603-5515)

Nelson Algren's works speak clearly in his distinctive and original voice.  They include:

Chicago, City on the Make  (Garden City, New York:  Doubleday, 1951)

The Man With the Golden Arm  (New York:  Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990 [1949])

Walk on the Wild Side  (New York:  Noonday Press/Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998 [1956])

A fine biography is Bettina Drew's Nelson Algren:  A Life On the Wild Side  (New York:  Putnam, 1989).

Visit the Chicago Public Library Website for more information about Nelson Algren's work.


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