Farrell, James T(homas) 1904–
An American naturalistic novelist, Farrell often depicts life on Chicago's South Side, especially in Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
If … one looks back on the whole stretch of Farrell's Chicago story, it seems possible to say that his subject is and always has been how it feels to be a Chicago Irish-American in a world where this status subjects a man to certain disadvantages…. Farrell … begins to look like one of that remarkable number of writers who have felt the compulsion to put on paper, and thus to solidify and define by finding words for it, the experience of growing up in early twentieth-century America. This compulsion has something to do with the specifically American experience of living which makes one so remarkably conscious of the difference between the boy he was and the man he is, and involves some sort of leap across the gap that the sociologists like to call a culture lag…. In [Farrell's case the lag] pertains to the differences between the life of an underprivileged group and that of more fortunate Americans. Farrell's work, then, turns out to belong among those novels which make change the subject of special and intense contemplation, with time the agent of change and the people victims of time….
[Farrell] has aspired to a kind of documentary realism…. [The] importance of the documentary, and of the novel of James Farrell to the extent that it succeeds in achieving documentary status, is that the vision is completely public. Farrell constructs his documentary by a method familiar to anyone who has ever read a sociology book. His technique is to establish patterns of conduct. His people think in stereotypes. They live by the systematic illogic which the sociologists love. Progress on the social ladder is a question of exchanging one set of stereotypes for another…. Much of Farrell's success, it seems to me, can be attributed to the patient application of this sociological method.
Farrell's notion of what a document should be—a notion obviously formed under the influence of the professional sociologists—subjects him to several disadvantages…. Farrell's persistent emphasis on the establishment of behavior patterns, with the task which this implies of differentiating between patterns which are bound to be very much alike anyhow, makes it necessary for him to see the action very largely from inside the character involved. Much of the time, though not always, the reader is permitted to see no more than the character sees.
An immediate result of the technique is that the background is never very specifically Chicago, for the reason that Chicago is characteristically Chicago only by conparison with other places, and Farrell's characters are not sufficiently aware of Philadelphia, Minneapolis, or Boston to give meaning to the comparison….
In another way, the perspective that Farrell's sociological preoccupation makes him adopt is even less fortunate. Most of his story has to be told through dialogue or through the sort of indirect discourse which employs the natural language of the characters to reveal what they are thinking and how they are seeing things. The trouble here may be partly that Farrell's ear for language is not itself very keen, but his method would make the difficulty inevitable anyhow, no matter how good his ear. The unvaried social and educational background for his people makes their speech so impressively uniform that the reader gets no respite….
[All] in all, taking into consideration the loss of useful local color, the monotony of language, the shaky willingness to let the dialogue itself represent the character, and the inability to make the interior talking keep pace with the character's development, one has to admit that the essential perspective which Farrell adopts and which forces him to spend so much time "inside the character" constitutes a tall obstacle. When he does overcome it—and very frequently he does—the achievement is noteworthy. My point here is that Farrell takes this particular stance, and thus brings all this trouble upon himself, because of his determination to produce a document…. But his deep moral seriousness still makes it impossible to shrug him off…. Read in small pieces, his novels have real power. Only when one considers them in their total effect is one aware that something is, and always has been, a little wrong.
W. M. Frohock, "James T. Farrell—The Precise Content," in his The Novel of Violence in America, Southern Methodist University Press, revised edition, 1957, pp. 71-85 (in the Beacon Press paperbound edition, 1964).
James T. Farrell, for all his indebtedness to Joyce, began as a naturalist and has remained one, unrepentant and defiant. He is the true heir of Dreiser. If he lacks Dreiser's tragic sense, he has an icily relentless passion that transforms his best work into a formidable indictment of society. His best work seems to me quite certainly the trilogy with which he made his reputation, Studs Lonigan (Young Lonigan, 1932, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, 1934, and Judgment Day, 1935). It is among the most depressing novels ever written, and one of the most honest and disturbing.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, p. 148.