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From The Vault Of Art Shay: Defending Friends When It Counted

By Art Shay in News on Sep 12, 2012 6:00PM

Photo credit: Art Shay

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. In this week's look at his photography archives, Art explains why he's loyal to his friends)

On Feb. 11, 1957, the Chicago Tribune continued its then-transition (if not slide) from fearless watchdog of public interest to moralizing under blue-stocking conservative then-owner Col. Robert McCormick. In addition to panning most of Nelson Algren's books, they did so with a mindless, holier-than-thou editorial attacking the "Not So Beautiful Letters" of one of Chicago's two greatest men of letters and our prime champion and chronicler of the lives of the downtrodden.

(They didn't even bother calling out Saul Bellow, our second giant. This was long before Saul's 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature. Bellow's work was somehow higher on the creatively moral scale than Nelson's.)

It was the time in which Nelson, noticing that the main library at Randolph and Michigan had but one copy of one of his books on hand… and stole the fucking thing.

The same Chicago Tribune that just last week awarded various writers valuable "Nelson Algren Awards" for creative writing for the eighth year of the great paper's upward resurrection.

Here is my Feb. 11, 1957 letter the Tribune printed, surprisingly uncut. It may have been one of the factors in moving the Trib into modern times. Or at least I, brimming with ego like most writers, like to think so:

"Novelist as Recorder”

Des Plaines, Feb.11- Your editorial "Not So Beautiful Letters" does Nelson Algren, Chicago and the Tribune a disservice in stating that Algren is preoccupied "with the wretched and anti-social."

He is in the same business as you are—making a record of how the world is today. What were your headlines on your front page in the same issue in which you ask for "books that reflect nobility and aspiration"?

"New Grimes Search Today" (Two little sisters had been murdered.)

"Married Romeo Slain in Tryst"- "Pair in Cuffs Slug Deputy."

Algren writes only superficially about the squalor of Chicago's wild side. Primarily, he is involved with people and their emotions. The artist imitates life and when he's a great artist, as you grudgingly intimate Algren to be, life imitates art. Had the true lesson of Algren's work (namely a Christ-like sympathy, understanding, and hope for the betterment of the wretched, packaged in some of the best prose-poetry of our century) rubbed off on the people you imagine "too respectable to interest him." There would be fewer Bennie Bedwells, fewer Grimes cases.

The trouble with art like Algren's—even as with Dickens' and Dostoevsky’s—is that it takes a hundred years for it to sink in.

Arthur Shay

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.