Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

Algren at Sea

Notes from a Sea Diary & Who Lost an American?: Travel Writings

by Nelson Algren


Nelson Algren’s two books of travel writing describe his journeys through the seamier side of the international social and political landscape of the mid-1960s. Algren at Sea brings both books together in one volume on the centenary of Algren’s birth.

Aboard the freighter Malaysia Mail in Notes From a Sea Diary, Algren offers a gritty account of his time among his down-and-out fellow sailors and the underground port life of Kowloon, Bombay, Pusan—yet an account softened by his discussion of Hemingway, Hemingway’s attitude toward the world of literature (and the world of literature’s attitude toward Hemingway), and the role of a writer in modern America.

Who Lost an American? takes us on a whirlwind spin from the world of the New York literary scene to Dublin, Crete, Paris, Seville, and more, with Algren commenting on everything from Simone de Beauvoir to bullfights to Playboy key clubs to the death of Brendan Behan—and, as always, Chicago, Algren’s eternal touchstone of American brutality.


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“Algren's personal rhythm [is] irreverent, funny, surreal, as if he has blended the lyricism of his early writing . . . with a tough meander and wail like that of funky jazz. Algren is a writer, the authentic poetic article; a fresh haircut strikes his eye as vividly as the murder of a Chicago poker player on a backstairs.”

“In the material assembled to create Who Lost an American? and Notes From a Sea Diary, Algren was flirting with a kind of writing that would eventually be labeled 'postmodern': writing that rejects realism and the complexity of much modernist prose; that is self-referential, playful, and non-linear . . . that collapses genre distinctions, erases thew line between fiction and non-fiction.”


One of the most neglected of modern American authors and also one of the best loved by those who know his work, Nelson Algren (1909–1981) believed that “literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.” His own voluminous body of work stands up to that belief. Algren’s powerful voice rose from the urban wilderness of postwar Chicago, and it is to that city of hustlers, addicts, and scamps that he returned again and again, eventually raising Chicago’s “lower depths” up onto a stage for the whole world to behold. Recipient of the first National Book Award for fiction and lauded by Hemingway as “one of the two best authors in America,” Algren remains among our most defiant and enduring novelists. His work includes five major novels, two short fiction collections, a book-length poem, and several collections of reportage. A source of inspiration to artists as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme, Studs Terkel and Lou Reed, Algren died on May 9, 1981, within days of his appointment as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.