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Footnotes in Texas History

Stolen Words

While in Texas, author Nelson Algren was a man with a thieving arm

The award-winning author who would go on to write the classic novel The Man With the Golden Arm entered a building at Sul Ross State Teachers College in Alpine in early 1934 and made off with one of the institution’s typewriters. The next morning, the thief hopped a train out of town.

Nelson Algren won the National Book Award in 1950 for the aforementioned novel and earned three O. Henry Awards for his short stories, but the “poet of the Chicago slums” found trouble in Texas before achieving national literary acclaim.

Algren couldn’t find work in his hometown of Chicago or anywhere else in the greater Midwest during the Great Depression and eventually traveled to Texas to pack black-eyed peas and run a Sinclair gas station between Rio Hondo and Harlingen. But neither venture provided Algren satisfactory income, and he sought other opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley.

“He crossed the border to Matamoros and came back again, ate in missions, slept in hobo jungles, lost in crap games, rode in cattle or refrigerated boxcars,” wrote author Bettina Drew in the introduction to the book The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren.

An exhausted Algren returned to Chicago at the end of 1932 and, having written a well-received short story, decided that creative writing was his path to fulfillment. He persuaded a New York publisher to give him an advance for a novel that was to be about the illusion of the American dream and based on his experiences in Texas.

“He saw a lot of poverty and contradictions, such as poor whites who were oppressed by the rich but took out their anger on Mexicans and Blacks who were even poorer and more oppressed,” Mary Wisniewski, author of a 2016 Algren biography called Algren: A Life, explained in an email.

Algren returned to Texas in September 1933 and made his way to Alpine to create his crucial work. He convinced the president of Sul Ross State Teachers College (now Sul Ross State University) that he was “a big-time New York writer,” granting him access to the college’s typewriters to draft his novel. However, his advance hadn’t amounted to much, and by January 1934, he was broke, with an unfinished manuscript. He had no choice but to return home, where accessing a typewriter would be a real challenge. So he stole one from Sul Ross.

“I think he just figured he needed the typewriter more than the college did, so he had a right to it,” Wisniewski said.

Algren fled Alpine on a freight train but was subsequently caught and locked up in the Brewster County jail. It proved to be a temporary setback. He returned to Chicago after his release and completed his first novel, Somebody in Boots, about his experiences living in Texas.

And the typewriter? Algren left it at an Alpine freight depot where it was to be shipped to Chicago.

“The typewriter was not sent to Chicago,” Wisniewski said. Its whereabouts seem to be unknown. “Algren had used it to write Somebody in Boots while he was working at Alpine—but didn’t finish it on that typewriter. He had to finish it back in Chicago on another machine.”

Christopher Adams is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who lives in a sliver of the Chihuahuan Desert in Southwest Texas. He insists this story was not written on a stolen laptop.