James T. Farrell was born in Chicago on February 27, 1904, the son of James and Mary Daly Farrell. Although Farrell’s father was a hardworking Chicago teamster and served as a symbol of the toil and troubles of the working classes in Farrell’s fiction, he did not make enough money to support his large family. Of the Farrells’ fifteen children, six lived to maturity. As a result of the financial pressure, James T. Farrell was moved to his maternal grandparents’ house at the age of three. That move, from dire poverty to some affluence, provided him with material advantages but at the cost of a normal family life. Later in life, Farrell observed that he was both in the events he wrote about and outside them, a situation that produced the identity problems he treats in his young protagonists.
He was educated in Catholic parochial schools. In grammar school, he was active and accomplished in sports, particularly baseball and boxing, and thereby succeeded in partially overcoming his early loneliness. Farrell’s other great early interest was religion, though his enthusiasm was primarily the product of his relationship with Sister Magdalen, the Sister Bertha of Young Lonigan: A Boyhood in Chicago Streets (1932), who encouraged him and prompted his academic interests. He attended the nearby St. Cyril High School, where he took the four-year scholastic course, which focused on religion and the classics. While he early criticized the authoritarian rigidity of his “miseducation,” he later noted that it had instilled moral values in him. At St. Cyril he was outstanding in athletics and writing (he wrote his first Danny O’Neill story there), but despite his achievements, he still did not receive the acceptance he sought—he was still, in part, the “misfit.”
After graduation in 1923, he worked at an express company. In 1924 he also enrolled in night classes at De Paul University, where he first read the work of Theodore Dreiser, the single greatest influence on Farrell’s work. In the following year, with funds saved from his job as a gasoline attendant, he entered the University of Chicago, an experience that radically changed his life. He became an avid reader, particularly in...
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In “On the Function of the Novel,” Farrell writes, “Novels can enable us to gain a fuller sense of participation in the culture of our own time, and in the history of human thought and feeling.” Like Dreiser, Farrell realistically documents a time, the 1930’s, and a place, Chicago’s South Side, in order to indict a society by chronicling events that produce alienated, fragmented human beings. He depicts the chronological maturation and the arrested emotional and spiritual development of his young protagonists, who cannot articulate their feelings, who cling precariously to stereotypical images of themselves, and who are ridden by self-doubt and fear.
Born and reared on the south side of Chicago, James Thomas Farrell was educated at a series of parochial schools, attended the University of Chicago sporadically for three years during the 1920’s, and attended New York University in 1941. The son and grandson of Irish teamsters, Farrell was also a teamster for a time and worked, variously, as a cigar-store clerk, a filling-station attendant, and a part-time newspaper reporter. He married Dorothy Patricia Butler in 1931, was divorced, married the actress Hortense Alden, whom he also divorced, and remarried Dorothy Butler Farrell in 1955, but they separated three years later. He had one child by his second wife. He received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for creative writing in 1936, a Book-of-the-Month Club prize for Studs Lonigan in 1937, and a Newberry Library Fellowship in 1949. He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Overseas Press Club. He died in 1979.