Highlights from the literary scene, from Nelson Algren to Frederick Douglass to the writers next door

Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
·6 min read

“Algren” has been a project fueled by great passion and maintained by admirable patience.

Writer/director Michael Caplan, a professor at Columbia College, began making this film about the life of writer Nelson Algren in earnest more than a decade ago and it had its first public screening, its world premiere, at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2014. It is now scheduled to air on three days on WTTW-Ch. 11

The movie is worth the wait, enlightening for those who don’t know Algren at all and thrilling for those who knew the man or his work and his life, which ended when he was 72 and alone in Sag Harbor on Long Island in 1981.

This is one of, somewhat amazingly, two contemporary Algren films. The other is ”Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All,” and it too was decades in the making. Directed and produced by Mark Blottner, Denis Mueller and Ilko Davidov, it benefits tremendously from the aide of Warren Leming, a Chicago writer/director/musician/actor who has been an Algren devotee and is here a crucial on-screen presence. It was released around the same time as “Algren” and successfully played the festival circuit.

It often surprises many to learn that a man so tightly associated with Chicago was born in Detroit. After bumming around the country and nabbing a college degree in journalism, he was here, where between 1942 and 1956 he published “Never Come Morning,” “The Neon Wilderness,” “The Man with the Golden Arm” (winner of the first National Book Award for fiction in 1950), “Chicago: City on the Make” and “A Walk on the Wild Side.”

Good books all, a couple great, and all so firmly focused on society’s disenfranchised that his close friend Studs Terkel called him “the bard of losers.”

But that was about it. He never wrote another good book.

One of Caplan’s collaborators on this film was the late Art Shay, the photographer who was Algren’s close pal and ardent chronicler of his activities. There are many others, as you might expect, talking on screen, a vast array of a few who knew Algren and many more who only knew of him or only read his books. I appear on camera for a few moments, offering modest assessments of Algren, my participation due largely to my parents’ close relationship with the author.

You will learn of his poker playing and his love affairs, especially the wild fling with the French writer Simone de Beauvoir. You will get to know Algren about was well as it is possible to know him at this remove and, if you are lucky, you will be compelled to read him.

During recent 4th of July events, the name Frederick Douglass moved into the forefront of many conversations and activities: public recitations of his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech occurred, and a statue of him in Rochester, N.Y., was toppled.

Though the name may have registered in the minds of some, few knew the substance and importance and, indeed, the complexities of the man.

If you would like to satisfy your curiosity, well there’s always Wikipedia. But if you are looking for a deeper understanding and a rousing book, there is no finer place to go than “Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader and a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery and Save the Union” (Walker).

Written by Paul Kendrick and his father, Stephen Kendrick, in 2008, it is especially enlightening in these trying times.

They write, “The Civil War has often been called America’s ‘Iliad’, ”but it has not been noted enough that we are still engaged in writing it. Frederick Douglass is a relatively new player in the Lincoln saga.”

And a compelling one, rising from slavery (he never knew the year or day of his birth) to become a writer, statesman and many other things as he advocated for for freedom and equality. His conversations with Lincoln, and there were three of them, will enrich your appreciation for both men and their strengths. It will give you a greater understanding of and new perspective on the Civil War.

Stephen Kendrick is originally from Wheaton and is the senior minister of First Church in Boston. Paul has lived in Chicago for a few years now, where he is happily married and gainfully employed as a teacher. They previously collaborated on “Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston And How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America” in 2005.

“Our books focus on what has been the long struggle for equality in America,” Paul told me.

The Kendricks have recently finished their third book. “Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.‘s Life and Win the 1960 Election” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). Set for a January release, it is deeply researched and told with a thriller’s narrative drive. It tells of what transpired when, but weeks before the 1960 presidential election, 31-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested and thrown in jail for his role in a sit-in at an Atlanta department store.

How the presidential candidates, Kennedy and Nixon, responded to this and how the incident helped to re-energize the then flagging civil rights movement is at the heart of this story.

“It is,” Paul Kendrick said, “another stop on the road map to what is an old but ongoing journey to realize the true meaning of the promise of our country’s founders.”

“Inside for Indies” was born one day in April in the creative minds of writer James Finn Garner and Suzy Takacs, the energetic owner of the lively independent Book Cellar in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. They wanted to raise money for her shop and for other independent bookstores here and across the country through the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.

“There was and remains a great deal of worry that many of the independent bookstores that were thriving in this city might disappear,” said Garner. “And that would be a tragedy.”

They tossed around a few fundraising ideas before deciding on “Inside for Indies.”

“Since writers are basically in lockdown all the time, we thought it might be nice to have the public be able to take a look at where we work, how we work, and hear us talk about the importance of independent bookstores,” said Garner.

They pitched the idea to many local writers and a few from elsewhere in the country.

“And no one turned us down,” said Garner.

And so will you see at the dedicated “Inside for Indies” YouTube channel an author who works in a small shed; another walking through a forest in Pennsylvania; Garner himself showing us a “pile of bills,” photos of old movie stars and a huge popcorn box in his colorfully cluttered office.

In segments each no more than a few minutes long, you meet one writer who has a spectacular view of the Field Museum (“If I had to work there, I never get any work done,” said Garner), and another who calls his office, playfully “my existential prison cell.”

There are more than a dozen featured with Garner posting two or three new ones every week. The writers film themselves and all seem comfortable doing so. Some read the work of others they admire, some talk about their own books. There is a charming intimacy to the short videos and there is no doubt that the lock down message come through in three words: Watch. Donate. Read.

rkogan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @rickkogan

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