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In 1935-1936, the prominent Chicago writer Nelson Algren (1909 – 1981) came to Galena, Illinois to write Galena Guide under the Federal Writer’s Project (Illinois), the U.S. Government’s program that employed out-of-work artists and writers during the Great Depression.
In the cultural and literary world, Nelson Algren is a Chicago icon synonymous to Ernest Hemingway and Carl Sardburg.
The Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) was one of a group of New Deal arts programs known collectively as Federal Project Number One that was established in 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The FWP produced thousands of publications over its existence including state guides, city guides, local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children's books, and other works. In addition to writers, the Project provided jobs to unemployed librarians, clerks, researchers, editors, historians, and others. It's been estimated that over ten-thousand people found employment in the FWP.
The Federal Writers' Project set out not only to provide work relief for unemployed writers, but to create a unique "self-portrait of America" through the publication of guidebooks.
From the program, the American Guide series was the most well-known of the FWP's publications, which consisted of guides to the then 48 states, as well as the Alaska Territory, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.
The books were written and compiled by writers from individual states and territories, and edited by journalist, playwright, theatrical producer, and human rights activist Henry Alsberg and his staff in Washington, D.C. The format was generally uniform, and each guide included detailed histories of the state or territory, with descriptions of every city and town, automobile travel routes, photographs, maps, and chapters on natural resources, culture, and geography.
The inclusion of essays about the various cultures of people living in the states, including immigrants, Native Americans, and African Americans, was unprecedented.
Published in 1937, Galena Guide was one of the most famous “self-portrait of America” guides in the series produced during that period.
Although Galena Guide was written “anonymously,” as were all the other guides, it was only recently discovered by this writer that this guide for Historic Galena was actually written by Nelson Algren—one of America’s most controversial and famous writers during the 1940s through the 1980s.
There were other WPA programs instituted for Galena.
From 1934-1936, an army of unemployed architects also came to Galena to measure, assess, photograph and document important historic city landmarks. Under the direction of Chicago architect Earl Howell Reed, Jr., this team of architects was also responsible for the first restoration and renovation of Old Market Town Hall in Galena.
Algren was accompanied to Galena by the American artist Robert Delson, who had served as an art commissioner for the Century of Progress World's Fair of 1933 and who worked on the Illinois Federal Art Project, and taught at the Institute of Design, 1943-1945.
Delson illustrated Galena Guide with amazing Art Deco wood-cut designs of rural farmland scenes, streets of the city, Native Americans, and the ordinary town folk of Galena.
Nelson Algren, best known for The Man with the Golden Arm, a 1949 novel that won the National Book Award and was adapted as the 1955 film of the same name, was fresh out of school where he studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in journalism during the Great Depression in 1931.
Algren wrote his first story, "So Help Me" in 1933, while he was in Texas working at a gas station.
Before returning to Chicago, he was caught stealing a typewriter from an empty classroom at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. He boarded a train for his getaway but was apprehended and returned to Alpine. He was held in jail for nearly five months and faced a possible additional three years in prison. He was released, but the incident made a deep impression on him. It deepened his identification with outsiders, has-beens, and the general failures who later populated his fictional world.
Back in Chicago in 1934, he joined the John Reed Club, a leftish literary circle with Carl Sandurg and Richard Wright, and he won the first of his three O. Henry Awards for his short story, “The Brother’s House,” which was first published in Story Magazine and was reprinted in an anthology of O. Henry Award winners.
Out of work in Chicago, and recovering from an attempted suicide due to the poor reception of his first novel, Somebody in Boots, Algren applied for the FWP project, which landed him in Galena in 1935-1936.
Algren loved Galena for the city’s rich architecture, rare geographical terrain, and its unique history as an American boom to bust town then turned derelict—the same traits that had attracted many of Chicago’s numerous painters and writers during the 1920s, including the leading American sculptor, Lorado Taft.
In fact, we know that Taft came to Galena only from Algren’s writings in Galena Guide.
In the Guide, Algren wrote that Taft declared that “every stick and stone of Galena was precious to the artist and the student. He urged that the city's architectural relics be kept as close to their original state as possible.”
Algren also denounced the demolition of the facade of architect Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli’s first Jo Davies County Courthouse in 1900 as a grave “mistake.”
Other well-known Chicago luminaires were the writer, political activist, and suffragette Janet Ayer Fairbanks, who chose the City of Galena as the backdrop for her novel, The Bright Land, and the journalist, novelist and screenwriter, Mackinlay Kantor who wrote verses influenced by Galena landmarks.
Algren also documented another leading literary figure that lived and worked in Galena during the 1850s: the renown American poet, James Gates Percival buried in neighboring Hazel Green, Wisconsin.
From there, Algren wrote the most comprehensive history of the City of Galena beginning with its founding in 1826 through its heydays as an American boomtown and to its decline when transportation centers shifted due to the construction of the country’s new railroad systems and the decline in lead production and demand.
In his history retell, Algren wrote about Jo Daviess County and the geological phenomena of the area’s unglaciated, “Driftless” area, as well as the ancient peoples that populated the area well before the first European settlers arrived.
He wrote the account of the first settlers, the French explorers, who discovered the first lead deposits and the mineral wealth of the area, as well as the English, Irish, and German settlers who later lager mined and farmed the region.
He also documented the rich architecture tradition of the city and its “Golden Age,” starting with the now celebrated Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli, the Dominican missionary from Milan who built many of Galena’s landmarks from the first Jo Daviess County Courthouse, the Old Market Town Hall, and the numerous Catholic churches up and down the Mississippi River.
This was the first book that celebrated the uniqueness of Galena, its place, its history, and its architecture, to the nation and to the world, and we owe much to Algren for his astute observations, chronicle, and portrait of the City.
After Galena Guide, Algren continued on to national and international fame as one of the most prominent American literary writers of the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1935, his first novel Somebody in Boots, was published, which, perhaps he wrote simultaneous to Galena Guide. The book was not a success and went out of print. Algren later said that was for the best, after he reworked the material into his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side, which he maintained was superior.
With the outbreak of World War II, Algren served as a private in the army and worked as a litter bearer. Despite being a college graduate, he was denied entry into Officer Candidate School. There is speculation that this may have been due to suspicion regarding his leftist political beliefs.
Next came the novel, Never Come Morning (1942), which portrayed the dead-end life of a doomed young Polish-American criminal.
His first short-story collection, The Neon Wilderness (1947), collected 24 stories from 1933 to 1947. The same year, Algren received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1949, he won the National Book Award for the novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which was adapted as the 1955 film of the same name.
Algren's next book, Chicago, City on the Make (1951), was a scathing essay that outraged the city's boosters, but portrayed the back alleys of the city, its dispossessed, its corrupt politicians, and its swindlers. Algren also declared his love of the City as a "lovely so real."
Other novels ensued: A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), which later was adapted as the 1962 film of the same name (directed by Edward Dmytryk, screenplay by John Fante).
He was also famous as the lover of the French leftist and feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, and he is featured in her novel The Mandarins, set in Paris and Chicago. The couple summered together in Algren's cottage in the lakefront community of Miller Beach, Indiana, and also traveled to Latin America together in 1949. However, Jean-Paul Sartre dominated her life. During the 1950s, Algren wished to travel to Paris with de Beauvoir, but due to government surveillance, his passport applications were denied. During the McCarthy years, his involvement in groups deemed "subversive" drew the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI kept a dossier on him amounting to more than 500 pages, but identified nothing concretely subversive. When he finally was issued a passport in 1960, the relationship with de Beauvoir had fallen apart. Nelson Algren’s historic book on Galena and his momentous sojourn in the city are part of the rich legacy and history that makes Galena so appropriately compelling