James T. Farrell Essay - Farrell, James T(homas) (Vol. 8)

Farrell, James T(homas) (Vol. 8)

Farrell, James T(homas) 1904–

Farrell is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and critic. Influenced by his Catholic background, Marx, and the novels and stories of Dreiser, Anderson, and Joyce, Farrell won for himself a permanent place in American letters with his early masterpiece, the Studs Lonigan trilogy. To this day Farrell continues to write in the objective, naturalistic style that brought him his fame. At the age of seventy-four he is hard at work writing a panoramic fictional study of American society that is projected to total approximately thirty volumes upon completion. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

In an age of such mind-boggling changes as ours, it's a shock and a pleasure to find something that hasn't changed, to see once again the old familiar landscapes and inscapes, signs and portents. This was my reaction on reading James T. Farrell's Judith and Other Stories, his forty-seventh book and his fourteenth collection of short fiction….

I've frequently tended to think about Farrell [that] anyone that prolific really can't be much good. Obviously this kind of judgment should be avoided. It's easy, and at one time it was very popular, to overemphasize Farrell's shortcomings—the lack of humor, the prolixity, the repetitiveness—all of which have been present in his work since Studs Lonigan (can it really have been forty years ago?) and which are present here in these stories and novellas, whether they be set in the late thirties or in the contemporary period. In spite of this Judith is a good book. Farrell at seventy is impressive, towering, almost monolithic; it is difficult to believe there was a time when he and his fictional world didn't exist. His sincerity, his intelligence, his gravity, his knowledge of his people are formidable, and though Farrell can still write some bad lines, his prose is surprisingly good: simple, direct, uncluttered. And he has a couple of brief, single-episode anecdotal pieces that may surprise and confound those who tend to take him for granted. "On a Train to Rome" and "On the Appian Way" are very nice indeed; so too is "Sister," a relatively short piece about the effect of a nun upon one of her students. Farrell has always been effective in depicting the pangs and aspirations of the young, and "Sister" is one of his best. (pp. 724-25)

William Peden, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974.

Farrell's Studs Lonigan … has the obvious quality of ambition. It is, I suppose, the most intransigent work of naturalism ever written, and its defects come from this. In this novel at least Farrell is the true heir of Dreiser. If he lacks Dreiser's tragic sense, he has an icily relentless passion that transforms Studs Lonigan into a formidable indictment of society. It is, apart from George Gissing's The Nether World and for similar reasons, probably the most depressing novel ever written, and as it is synopsized in the Oxford Companion to American Literature it appears the reductio ad absurdum of naturalism. But its impact is extremely powerful; if we laugh at the Oxford Companion's synposis, we do not laugh at the novel. It is a passionate work. To it Farrell prefixes a quotation from Plato: "Except in the case of some rarely gifted nature there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study." A most important statement: it explains Stud's fate. But epigraphs are luxuries for a novelist: they are not a part of the novel itself; and my criticism of Studs Lonigan now is that somehow—I don't know how he could have done it—Farrell ought to have woven Plato's words, translated into dramatic action or symbolism, into the texture of the novel itself. All the same, I still see Studs Lonigan as an heroic work. (p. 249)

Walter Allen, in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1974, Hofstra University Press), October, 1974.

[The Dunne Family is] a very slow-moving, ponderous book which lacks freshness, narrative drive, and dramatic intensity. About ninety per cent of it develops through dialogue, and this dialogue is constantly dull, ordinary, circular, and repetitious. The novel has been padded beyond all legitimate limits; in fact, it is doubtful if the material and characters are meaningful enough to make even an effective short story. So obvious a potboiler is a distressing experience.

A reviewer, however, can applaud a sense of dignity about this work which must be attributed to Farrell's maturity. Studs Lonigan Farrell appears to have mellowed a good bit and come to acknowledge that not all his Chicago Irish are essentially primitive monsters. Apparently not all problems are to be blamed on society, the clergy, the government, and other bugbears of Farrell's youth. He seems to have caught humanity's eternal note of sadness, and while he has not, alas, developed a complete recognition of matters beyond a feeble Naturalistic level, there are indications that perhaps the depth of philosophical perception is expanding. Farrell still has little awareness of the real meaning and importance of Catholicism to the Irish. Having a character say the Rosary in the way he presents it is a prop and a verisimilitude stunt rather than a meaningful act of piety with links to the goal of heaven. (p. 348)

Paul A. Doyle, in Best Sellers (copyright 1977, by the University of Scranton), February, 1977.