(March 28, 1909-May 9, 1981)
Algren won the first National Book Award in 1950 for The Man with the Golden Arm, a novel set on Chicago’s Northwest Side and, like much of his work, concerned with the city’s quasi-criminal underbelly. Algren lived much of his life in and around Chicago’s Polish Triangle and was remembered there with a fountain dedicated in his name and inscribed with a quote from one of his essays in Chicago: City on the Make. Though Algren’s reputation is built around a small output of novels, stories and essays, and though he was often ignored in mainstream literary circles, he was elected to the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters. There is an annual short story contest named in Algren’s memory, and the Nelson Algren committee sponsors an annual birthday party for him.
(June 10, 1915-April 5, 2005)
A winner of the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards and the National Medal of Honor, Bellow spent his formative years in Humboldt Park, which serves as a backdrop in many of his novels. He attended University of Chicago and Northwestern University, then taught at the former institution for decades, working it into such classic novels as Humboldt’s Gift and The Dean’s December.
(June 7, 1917-Dec. 3, 2000)
Brooks was raised and educated on the South Side, taught at several local colleges, and set much of her poetry in the city. With the publication of A Street in Bronzeville in 1945, Brooks won a Guggenheim Fellowship, became one of Mademoiselle’s “Ten Young Women of the Year,” and generally triggered an avalanche of praise that would continue unabated until her death. With Annie Allen, in 1950, Brooks became the first African-American to capture a Pulitzer Prize; she was poet laureate of Illinois and the United States; she was named National Endowment for the Arts’ Jefferson Lecturer; is a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame; and has four Illinois schools and a library named in her honor. In conjunction with her 80th birthday in 1997, Mayor Richard Mr. Daley declared Gwendolyn Brooks Week, at which 80 performers and writers from around the world presented her gifts.
(May 9, 1930-Jan. 12, 1965)
When Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun burst onto the scene in 1959, she became the youngest American playwright, the first African-American to be produced on Broadway, and only the fifth woman to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the year. She also received a Cannes Film Festival special award in 1961 for the screenplay to her famous play. She died just three years later. Though Hansberry’s other works, notably To Be Young, Gifted and Black, are substantial, it is Raisin that provides her lasting legacy. The play, which draws from Hansberry’s experiences in the only black family in the racially desegregated Washington Park subdivision on Chicago’s South Side, continues to be one of the most produced and discussed plays more than forty years after her death.
(Sept. 4, 1908-Nov. 28-1960)
Winner of the Springarn Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Story Magazine Award, Wright’s highly-lauded novel Native Son deals with racial inequality in Chicago’s ghettos, as, to some extent, does his memoir, Black Boy. Bigger Thomas, Native Son’s protagonist, is a victim and a criminal living in utter poverty on the South Side, and through him Wright explores the intricacies of societal conditioning in the violence that characterized impoverished black neighborhoods. The Book of the Month Club chose Native Son as its first book written by an African-American. Wright has had a Chicago school named after him, and been featured on a U.S. Postal stamp.