James T. Farrell Essay - Farrell, James T(homas) (Vol. 4)

Farrell, James T(homas) (Vol. 4)

Farrell, James T(homas) 1904–

Farrell is an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Considered a leading practitioner of contemporary American realistic fiction, Farrell is best known for his trilogy, Studs Lonigan. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Self-education comes high in America, and Farrell has paid for it—as in differing respects did Faulkner and Hemingway—with his whole career. Its cost to him consists in the fact that the attitudes it has given him are largely provincial; the morals are parochial; and the modes are pedantic, for it appears to be the case with the self-educated literary man in America that he tends always to confuse learning and pedantry and that in pursuing the one he will caricature the other….

It becomes clear in reading over the prose in [Reflections at Fifty] that Farrell went to school, but it is just as clear that he went to school to the wrong teachers. His prose is a savage compound of jargon and rhetoric derived from French naturalist novels, the writings of William James, John Dewey, the Marxists, and the German philosophers, political manifestoes, and behaviorist psychology, and it appears to have got into the book by way of the dump truck and shovel. It has no rhythm, grace, warmth, or subtlety of style, and it is overlaid with a heavy-footed earnestness and zeal like that of a frightened schoolboy, pompous and pop-eyed, reciting a speech cribbed largely from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In content it is approximately vintage 1910. I do not mean that the questions it raises are necessarily no longer in force. It is rather that one no longer expects to see them discussed in quite this fashion and at this level.

John W. Aldridge, "The Education of James T. Farrell," in his In Search of Heresy, McGraw-Hill, 1956, pp. 186-91.

[In] the Chicago of Studs Lonigan, Danny O'Neill, and Gas House McGinty, there was not only no attempt to find the sophistication and subtlety of an earlier decorum; there was absolutely no experience of it. Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935)—the novels of the Studs Lonigan trilogy were written in the self-effacing and reductive idiom of Studs himself. Herein are the demands of a point of view reduced to their lowest level; the style had not only to be equal to the subject, it had literally to be the subject. The consciousness was that of the spiritually impoverished lower middle class of a section of Chicago which is slowly deteriorating under social and economic pressures. It is true that Farrell, especially in the second of these novels, echoed and imitated the experiments of his more daring contemporaries, noticeably Joyce and Dos Passos; and in Gas House McGinty (1933) he very deliberately and with a measure of success, tried to transport the mind of Leopold Bloom from Dublin to Chicago. Aside from these experimental excursions, Farrell relied upon a literal rendering of his subject, at once subjective in its following of point of view and objective in its freedom from sentimentality of record….

[The] Irish-Catholic world of a section of Chicago … was not a slum neighborhood; nor were the stages in Studs's decline designed to illustrate an economic thesis. "The social milieu in which he lived and was educated was one of spiritual poverty," in short, the effect of a failure of moral sanctions rather than of economic dislocation….

No one has so thoroughly and so doggedly described a single area of American society as we find in the seven novels of Studs Lonigan and Danny O'Neill. The constant reiteration of the trivial and the vulgar, the thoroughly naturalistic view of the ugly and terrifying lives of these people, have a cumulative effect which is chiefly the result of Farrell's conscientious fidelity to the subject's idiom. The style, therefore, is consistently a documentary record of this world from the point of view of those who live in it and share its limitations—who in a real sense, make its limitations. An important part of the effect, therefore, lies in the conscientious vulgarity, profanity, and obscenity of the language—as well as the earnest inelegance of the narrative's loose and repetitive structure. There is a quality of tone, however, which enables us to see Farrell's characters more clearly (that is, to understand the tone of their feeling) than we can ever do in the case of Dos Passos' novels.

Frederick J. Hoffman, in his The Modern Novel in America, Regnery, revised edition, 1963, pp. 155-58.

[In Judith and Other Stories, Farrell] continues to write about ordinary people and ordinary lives in a manner that's familiar, a bit on the old-fashioned "naturalistic" side, but still interesting and absorbing…. The theme of exile, from country, from the past, from self, runs quietly throughout these simple tales of people we recognize whether Farrell speaks of marriage, or love affairs, or families, or just the solitary being. The writing is mellow, not stylish, and is refreshing for its openness and genuine simplicity.

Publisher's Weekly (reprinted from August 13, 1973, issue of Publisher's Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), August 13, 1973, p. 48.

"Judith and Other Stories" is James T. Farrell's forty-fourth book, and it is a sizable one. In an introduction, the author speaks of his stories as stories "of time." The book is a continuation of his lifework: the attempt to "create out of the life I have seen, known, experienced, heard about, and imagined, a panoramic story of our days and years, a story which would continue through as many books as I would be able to write."

The time-span of "Judith" is enormous, especially since it is contained within a single individual's memory: some stories are set in 1973, the earliest in 1918. They are evidently forms of reverie, some of them sheer stream-of-association reminiscence, like "Sister" (which takes us back to a Catholic school similar to the one in the first volume of "Studs Lonigan"); some are journal-like accounts of the experiences of one Eddie Ryan, a writer originally from Chicago who now lives in New York, at the Hotel Chelsea. The most interesting stories in the book are those dealing with Eddie, who, despite his having evidently achieved recognition of sorts as writer, is an incurably lonely man. He both wants and does not want permanence; he is fairly romantic at times—he falls in love easily—and at other times so reasonable about the failures of his various love affairs that he seems almost inhuman….

The difficulty with fiction that originates so firmly and authentically in "real life" is that artistic arrangement, compression with necessary distortion and the introduction of non-naturalistic elements like the symbolic (which is really a kind of shorthand, not a violation of the real), might seem a betrayal of what really happened. If a man has loved and been loved by a multitude of women, it might seem a distortion of the truth to compress them all into two or three women, in order to dramatize their personalities more vividly. How tyrannical the ostensible freedoms of literary naturalism turned out to be, after all—once the censorship battles were won, and what was shocking could not carry its own inherent dramatic value….

It may be, however, that there is an inherent and perhaps extra-literary virtue in "naturalism"—that is, the scientific and objective setting-forth of the truth, at least as the writer sees it—that bypasses any critical assessment of it. Since James T. Farrell has written American classics, and since his naturalistic technique is obviously a deliberate and conscious expression of his philosophy, it would be audacious for any reviewer to suggest that he change. Perhaps simply the introduction of newer themes, as in "Judith," will be refreshing, and lead to a reorganizing of thought.

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 25, 1973, pp. 14, 18.

The works of James T. Farrell cannot be discussed singly. His 22 novels, 14 collections of short stories, essays, literary criticism and poetry all center on his pessimistic determinism, conditioned by personal experiences and confirmed through intense observation of the human scene. He is indeed considered by some to be the literary heir of Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser through his consistent depiction of urban decay, social corruption and individual despair.

In Studs Lonigan (1935) Farrell created an epochal document detailing as no one has surpassed, the environment of prejudice, inferiority, foamy sentiment and violence of lower working class Chicago. This was succeeded by the Danny O'Neill pentalogy, the Bernard Carr trilogy (major but unevenly written novels) and over 200 short stories—often peopled with recurring characters, like faces in changing crowds, contorted always by the same hopeless grimace.

Judith and Other Stories presents few surprises. It possesses both the major deficiencies and cumulative persuasion of many of Farrell's preceding works. The themes of the 11 stories are familiar, the style is flat and the characters one-dimensional. These are dwarfish people even when the author, as in the title story, stresses monotonously his protagonists' highly applauded musicianship and literary productiveness. The banality of their relationship and the drone of their self-expression belie the credibility of Farrell's insistence upon their artistry.

Of the 11 stories, reflective of the author's organic thesis that "the conditions of American life create alienated and truncated personalities," only three succeed in arousing interest or empathy. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" is a moving account of the tedious hardship experienced by the common laborer. One is pierced by the meaningless work, futile resentment and unnoticed hysteria in Bill Eliot's daily life. In "Mr. Austin," Eddie Ryan, a Farrell spokesman, effectively relates the struggle of a petty stockbroker to maintain respectability against inevitable, faceless defeat. "Tom Carroll," a lengthy and perhaps partly autobiographical story, concerns the faded days of a former radical, "hero" and esteemed historian. He is betrayed by his wife, denounced as a fascist by his son and viewed with estranged puzzlement by drifting friends. But Carroll is too tired to express his political insight which far excels that of his detractors. Fatigue overcomes him—as it does most of the characters in the other stories.

Nevertheless the complete collection succeeds in presenting a compassionate kaleidoscope of man's limitations and hapless yearning for a meaningful existence.

Regina Barnes, "Old Master," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), December 22, 1973, p. 30.

[While] Farrell's stories often present many of the same themes and characters from his novels, there are examples when the shorter form is the more successful. He has a way of perceiving the hidden occasions of success or failure (more often of failure, in Farrell) which are the kernel of good short stories, and transmuting them through his own unmistakable vision and voice.

As a theorist of the short story form, however, Farrell seems to sell himself short. "You've written books with warmth," the wife of Tom Carroll, a Farrell alter-ego says in one of these new tales [Judith and Other Stories]. "But people can get only so much out of a book, Tom. They can't get the warmth of a man out of his books. They must get it out of him."

Wrong. In the best short stories, as Sean O'Faolain has shown, one encounters a combination of both plausibility and personality. Without the charge of personal voltage, we get the yarn and not the man. Fortunately, there is plenty of Farrellian warmth in Judith and Other Stories, and it is as much for this distinctive, communicated personality so many of us continue to read him, as it is for his objective recording of an historical time and place.

Yet the voice sounds more autumnal here—as it well might: Farrell will be 70 this month. As before, the elementary forces of the universe still provide the drama and the tension. But that pertains to plot only. The personality informing the plots seems mellower. The themes of the volume are the death of love and feeling in the world (a death Farrell sees as far worse than physical death), and the humiliation of pain to man….

Thus, Judith and Other Stories is a gallery of characters for whom the peak of life is passed, if it were ever attained at all—people reviewing their pasts in what Farrell here calls "the memory of lost ecstasies."…

The settings range from New York to Paris to Rome and even on to Jerusalem—some distance from the Chicago Farrell is often accused of writing about exclusively. But the Farrellian vision of a struggle between the will and the passions, with the passions always winning, remains much the same as in his first book, Young Lonigan, published in 1932.

Robert Phillips, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing, Co., Inc.), February 15, 1974, pp. 493-94.