Farrell, James T(homas) (Vol. 11)
Farrell, James T(homas) 1904–
Farrell is an American novelist, short story writer, critic, poet, and editor. Considered a naturalist in the tradition of Dreiser, he paints an angry and powerful picture of lower and middle-class urban life. His literature is often socially oriented, exploring themes of alienation, chaos, and communication. Its realism is enhanced by the language of his characters, an accurate rendering of contemporary urban speech. Farrell is an extremely prolific author, whose work has frequently found critical disfavor. He has also written under the pseudonym of Jonathan Titulescu Fogarty, Esq. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The world of most of Farrell's fiction is not a pretty or happy one, since, as he has said, much of his writing has been concerned with portraying "conditions which brutalize human beings and produce spiritual and material poverty." (p. 267)
It must be admitted that a number of Farrell's stories, especially his earlier ones, show the influence of other writers. Farrell has frequently treated everyday characters and the emptiness, vulgarity, or sordidness of their lives in the manner of Chekhov and Joyce; he has written some Sherwood Anderson—like studies of repression and frustration; and he has written still other stories which are reminiscent in various ways of Hemingway, Lardner, and Dreiser. It must also be admitted that Farrell's work in the short story is very uneven, that at times it is overly doctrinaire, and that it is sometimes undistinguished in form and style. But though one does not find the artistry of a Chekhov or Joyce in Farrell, one does find intensity and moral seriousness and, in at least a few of the stories, an ability to powerfully affect the reader. (pp. 267-68)
Arthur Voss, in his The American Short Story: A Critical Survey (copyright 1973 by the University of Oklahoma Press), University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.
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Farrell's major fiction ("the story of America as I knew it") is funded so greatly by the struggles of his youth and maturity that we are in danger of reading the Bernard Carr trilogy as mere autobiography. (p. 52)
I want to suggest, however, that the trilogy is an act of, and meditation upon, the historiography of culture. The novels express—and dramatize—the problems besieging a writer who wishes to study the politics of social life. For both Farrell and Carr vivify a method of inquiry that portrays the experience of novelty, of historical emergents, as authentic expressions of change in human endeavor and nature. Breaking the backbone of a deterministic phenomenology, in this case the vulgarized Marxism of the 1930s, Farrell and his fictional alter ego wish accurately to study choice and individuality by rescuing them from an inexorable dialectic. Within this large theme, Farrell is concerned with "making of self," the process of individuation that marks the moral and intellectual growth of an American writer. (pp. 52-3)
Farrell's decision to focus on the maturation of a writer during a turbulent decade was a faultless choice; he could portray the difficulties of giving order to a past and present by exploring a consciousness concerned with that precise problem. Moreover, the period itself provided a readymade setting to examine the obligations of a writer to his solitary craft and the public's...
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Joseph W. Slade
[Farrell's] characters continually pat psychic pockets to assure themselves that their pasts are intact. Such characters rarely strip their personalities bare; they clothe them, instead, with steady if minute accretions of experience. Characterization is Farrell's principal strength as a novelist, and it derives from the poor man's existentialism to which he subscribes. With the possible exception of Eddie Ryan, who figures either centrally or peripherally in most volumes of the cycle, Farrell's people do not leap abysses in dramatic bursts of faith. Although they agonize over choices and despair of meaning, their universe is not absurd to them…. Their lives are almost entirely circumscribed by banality—"pitiless banality"—and stereotypical illusion, not because they are comfortable with such conditions but because it is too painful to live without them.
The humans in A Universe of Time assimilate experience slowly, usually by converting an event's significance to a cliche that will take its place with the other cliches by which they understand the world. Repeating the cliches gives their lives definition, as if they were tracing the same pattern over and over again in sand, or, as one of Farrell's narrators puts it, as if a stream were cutting its way through earth. The process serves as a holding action for the self, which the passage of time threatens to erode. (pp. 68-9)
[In] A Universe of Time...
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What I instinctively knew when I first read Farrell now seems to me his major contribution to American writing: his stubborn insistence on the validity of all lives for the creation of fiction. In this, he followed the lessons of his own masters, Balzac and the 19th-century European realists and Dreiser, writers whom we conveniently pigeonhole but who really have little in common other than their insistence that craft in fiction be matched by situation…. Studs Lonigan is certainly among the more memorable realistic fictions ever written in this country, but it would be difficult to cull a single memorable phrase from all of its pages. The work does not really rely on language but rather on the situations language describes and on the relentlessness with which Farrell hunts Studs down for us. So many of the terms critics love to use to praise a work of fiction do not apply to Studs: it is neither "lyrical" nor "poetic"; it lacks the broad canvas of Stendhal or Balzac; and few great novels have been less "uplifting." Its power is that it grinds its readers down, insisting on the validity of these lives in their time and place. And it does this more successfully than many other novels labeled its superior. (p. 373)
Like all writers who have written a great deal, Farrell's weaknesses are amply illustrated. And his weaknesses should be recognized, particularly by critics who number themselves among those Leslie Fiedler once...
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A landmark in American literature has just been achieved with the publication of James T. Farrell's fiftieth book, The Dunne Family. Farrell is known as one of the major Chicago novelists, a naturalist, a modern classic. Yet in many people's minds, he has been locked into a dead-issue decade; his work is thought to be synonymous with the reductive struggles and frustrated ideals of the 30's. The irony is that during the 30's Farrell was not only popular and recognized, with his fiction praised in the leading journals, but a member of the avant-garde, and already looked upon with suspicion by the dogmatists of proletarian literature. In his critical writings during the "Red Decade" he considered writers not then in fashion, such as Joyce and Ibsen, and confronted issues, like the social functions of literature, with an independent spirit. Again and again he declared that literature lay beyond the dictates of any political program, however righteous.
The two series he is best known for, the Studs Lonigan trilogy and the Danny O'Neill pentalogy, books which prompted H. L. Mencken to acclaim Farrell in 1947 as "the best American novelist," are, in a way, works still in progress. His later books merely represent more recent installments in his huge comédie humaine of making it or going under in the many strata of the American middle class.
Farrell's predilection is for assessing the flat...
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Perhaps the central reason for Farrell's neglect is that he has confronted a problem modern America has determined to evade: our sense of history predicates a vision of Anglo-Saxon progress and expansion which our intellect no longer supports….
Farrell's work begins with his admission that our sense of historical mission, our destiny of significant resolvable struggle, is failing, but this admission does not then transmute itself into a richly textured literary sensibility: admission instead becomes a dramatized insistence. (p. 488)
[Farrell's prestige] coincided less with his merits than with a special set of circumstances operative in the 1930s. The Depression gave Americans their first intimation of the complexity and possible termination of their historical purpose, a suspicion that they inhabited a world unyielding to their intentions and conceptions. No twentieth-century author has understood and articulated this American fear better than Farrell….
Farrell dramatized in Studs that mass culture was the indispensable agent and analogue of our vanishing historical consciousness and that, in protecting people from the pain of historical awareness, it also deprived them of experience and of history itself. (p. 489)
The logic of Studs is almost as destructive … to radical programs as to humanist ones…. Farrell's city, unlike Dreiser's, never functions as a...
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