The Return of Studs Lonigan
Why we ought to read James Farrell.
May 6, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 33 • By GERALD ROBBINS
JAMES FARRELL is not exactly forgotten. Last year, in its much-ballyhooed list of the hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century, the Modern Library ranked his classic story of Studs Lonigan in twenty-seventh place, and--after a twenty-five-year hiatus--Penguin published a new edition of Farrell's trilogy: "Young Lonigan," "The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan," and "Judgment Day."
But though he's back in print, Farrell has oddly disappeared from the American canon--despite the attention still paid to such contemporaries as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Thomas Wolfe. The cause isn't a small output; Farrell wrote more than fifty books. Nor is the cause necessarily quality; devotees claim that his autobiographical Danny O'Neill pentology is better than the Lonigan series. But, somehow he failed to find adequate critical support for his work, and when he died in 1979 his estate was valued at less than $10,000.
Politics had a great deal to do with it. The story goes that Farrell determined his bearings at a meeting he had with Whittaker Chambers one evening in 1932. Debt-ridden from a year in Paris and mourning his stillborn child, Farrell stopped by the office of the Communist magazine New Masses to discuss writing opportunities. When the conversation with Chambers turned to the Communists' belief in using art as a weapon, Farrell is said to have remarked that "neither God nor man is going to tell me what to write." The publication of "Young Lonigan" came that same year, "The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan" followed in 1934, "Judgment Day" in 1935, and Farrell was for a time the luminary who could avoid towing the party line.
Born in Chicago in 1904, James Thomas Farrell was one of seven children in a second-generation Irish Catholic family. Unable to support the large household, his father placed three-year-old Jim with his maternal grandparents, who themselves lived on income donated by more successful relatives. The struggling lower-class existence inspired the creation of Studs Lonigan and set Farrell's continuing theme of the plebeian writer who's able to transcend but never completely erase his upbringing. "He remembered himself as a boy," Farrell writes in "The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan,"
"one of the neighborhood goofs. Around the corner, he was now more of a goof than ever. His nostalgias for past experiences in the neighborhood seemed to have died too. He hated it all. It was part of a dead world; it was filthy; it was rotten, it was stupefying. It, all of the world he had known, was mirrored in it. He had been told things, told that the world was good and just, and that the good and just were rewarded, lies completely irrelevant to what he had really experienced; lies covering a world of misery, neuroticism, frustration, impecuniousness, hypocrisy, clap, syphilis, poverty, injustice."
After his Parisian sojourn, New York became Farrell's adopted home--and the leftist writers and intellectuals of New York his natural audience. A compromise was temporarily established: In return for Farrell's displaying his Communist sympathies in street demonstrations, the party faithful would tolerate the promising writer's antagonism towards their cultural policies.
THE ARRANGEMENT didn't last long. Farrell never had much time for Stalinist orthodoxies, and he was quickly drawn to the Trotskyites. He didn't have the patrician background or education possessed by most of his peers. He attended the University of Chicago on his own savings without graduating, and--as Murray Kempton wrote in his book on the 1930s, "Part of Our Time"--Farrell "was and always would be received as a barbarian in the genteel world of the literary supplements . . . because poverty had blunted his fingertips and left work heavy with passion and deficient of charm."
Nonetheless, the growing reputation of Studs Lonigan allowed Farrell to become something of a mentor to the Trotskyites, their trump against the Stalinist literati, and each volume of the trilogy reached a wide audience.
Perhaps the biggest influence on Farrell was the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser. Farrell once criticized another author for having a character smell the altar incense while walking along outside New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral--impossible, Farrell contended, given the distance from the Cathedral's entrance to the sidewalk, the time of day, car exhaust, and food vendor smells.