Guest contributor: Burns Ellison

Poker with Nelson Algren

categories: Cocktail Hour


My old friend, Burns Ellison, is our featured guest this week.  Burns and I met in grad school twenty years ago and this week he writes about a time–long before we met–when he played poker with Nelson Algren.  “The First Annual Nelson Algren Poker Game” is a great essay, one of my favorites, and he first published it in the Iowa Review in 1988. Since I don’t know a lot about Algren, I asked Peter Baker, who does, to write a short intro.  Here it is:

At some point American letters forgot about Nelson Algren. If we hear about him at all, we hear two things: he wrote about Chicago, and he wrote about life’s losers and the dispossessed. Implicit–and sometimes explicit–in our Algren non-conversation is the notion that he was an unsophisticated writer of lefty agitprop. What has been forgotten is that Algren became early in his career–after, indeed, writing some unsophisticated lefty agitprop–a great American stylist, a man capable of bringing poetry to bear on his given subject, and insisting upon the humanity of those dehumanized by the state.

Burns Ellison puts Algren where he belonged: at the center of a young writer’s pantheon of idols. For Ellison, Algren was someone to learn from and to seek, however uncertainly, a place alongside. In relatively few pages, his essay gives as good a sense as any I’ve encountered of the way Algren made his way as a writer in the world.  Here’s his essay:  The First Annual N. A. Poker Game


  1. Bill writes:

    Thanks, Dave. Love this. A rambling, ambivalent, generous tribute that also lets me know Burns Ellison. Beautiful. That unclaimed body at the end is haunting.

    • Burns Ellison writes:

      Belatedly, thanks Bill for your very generous comments about the Algren thing. I was not just pleased but touched by them.

      Coincidently, just before I’d read your generous comments, I’d dashed off to you people you should look up while you’re in the Osa–assuming you’re still therre.

      Burns Ellison

      • sandra schickele writes:

        hey, Burns, Sandy here,

        I am living in Rome Italy, dream of dreams. All retired, sharing a flat with my old friend Gerry Korshak whom you may know.

        If you get this, send me an email. I would love to catch up with you
        big hug,
        by the way, because of my 4 grandkids (you know Laura died, right?) I am on Facebook and Twitter, just try looking for schickele on either one

      • Harry Lehmann writes:

        Burns, most of all I never forget, and will never forget Louise. I will never forget Barbara, or The Sea Keeper. And neither of us will forget Linda. I have often wondered about you, I remember when Louise told me that the trick was having a job history so esoteric that you couldn’t find work, so that the unemployment checks kept coming. Pride causes me to mention that I’ve not had the pleasure, but, from her, it was impossibly charming. This was at a place in San Francisco. Before I left for political involvement. So, I remember Stinson. Now I’ve looked hard enough that I’m pretty sure that I’ve found the one and only Burns Ellison that memory calls to mind, so give me a call, send me a note, check out our website,, which is made to save lives. I practiced law for many years, but now focus on our work. This was the only way that I could see that I might get to you, so please do check in. Harry

  2. Bill writes:

    There’s a great essay in the same issue of IR by my friend here in Farmington, Dan Gunn.