James T. Farrell’s career encompassed many diverse literary movements and trends. He was active to the end of a long life, publishing his last novel in the year before his death. On the evidence of his three major complete works, the Studs Lonigan trilogy, the Danny O’Neill series (or the O’Neill-O’Flaherty series, as Farrell preferred to call it), and the Bernard Carr trilogy, Farrell presented urban America and the people who sprang from it with a brutal candor rarely equaled in American literature.
Farrell’s youth, spent in Irish Catholic, lower- and middle-class Chicago, gave him the milieu from which a whole society could be examined and explained. His career began with his conscious decision to quit a steady job and become a writer and survived despite reactions to his work that included indifference, shock, bad reviews, prejudice, and ignorance. Farrell’s social activism led him into and out of Marxist circles, sustained him through attacks by the Marxist critics who accused him of abandoning the cause, and gave him the focus necessary to show Americans an entire society that survived and prospered in spite of its environment.
Farrell never achieved great popularity; his style was deemed too flat and brusque, his language profane, and his methods inartistic. His fiction was considered basically plotless or merely photographic, and he was condemned, especially by the Marxists, for failing to be didactic. In the years since his death, however, the scope of his urban vision has been recognized; Farrell’s fictional world has the breadth of conception associated with greatness and has been compared favorably to that of William Faulkner. Much like Theodore Dreiser, whom he admired, Farrell went his own way when it was extremely unpopular to do so, and his impact on modern fiction remains to be assessed.