James T. Farrell American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2232

The literary heir of Dreiser, Farrell is the epitome of the naturalistic writer whose protagonists’ behavior is shaped by their social, psychological, political, and financial environment. In his essay “Some Observations on Naturalism, So Called, in Fiction” (1950), Farrell defines his concept of naturalism: “By naturalism I mean that whatever...

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The literary heir of Dreiser, Farrell is the epitome of the naturalistic writer whose protagonists’ behavior is shaped by their social, psychological, political, and financial environment. In his essay “Some Observations on Naturalism, So Called, in Fiction” (1950), Farrell defines his concept of naturalism: “By naturalism I mean that whatever happens in this world must ultimately be explainable in terms of events in this world.” The definition effectively distinguishes his fiction from that of those naturalistic novelists such as Frank Norris who frequently resort to the supernatural or mystical in shaping their plots. Moreover, Farrell documents his novels, piling up realistic details that circumscribe his characters choices, making them victims of their environment.

Farrell’s world is, for the most part, Chicago’s South Side, where he grew up. His Irish Catholic protagonists closely resemble their creator, particularly when the Danny O’Neills and Bernard Cams are intellectuals and writers confronting the role of the artist in an alien society. Even the Studs Lonigan figures, who are less articulate and more passive, are alienated (though they ironically belong to a gang) and isolated from their peers by their insecurity and their insistence on being stereotypical tough guys rather than individuals. The Farrell protagonist is often alone and typically alienated from self; consequently, he is a person divided into outer toughness and an inner tenderness, which must be consciously repressed. Despite his somewhat simplistic notion of personality, Farrell does succeed in creating unforgettable characters.

Although Farrell was praised by left-wing critics, some of them avowed communists, he viewed literature as distinct from propaganda. His novels do have a sociopolitical message and do indict society, but Farrell was not naïve about what literature could accomplish. His aim was to inform his readers, to lead them to discover truths about themselves and their society, rather than to change that society. His readers discover characters who are ill-equipped to control the rapidly changing world of the 1930’s and 1940’s and who cling stubbornly to ineffective but traditional beliefs in family, patriotism, capitalism, religion, and the American Dream.

His characters’ inability to cope is tied directly to their stunted lives and minds, which have been destroyed not only by their physical environment but also by their spiritual and domestic environment. While Chicago is not a “character” in Farrell’s novels, the city permeates the books and restricts the characters’ world. The priests mouth platitudes about morality and Catholic education, and these clichés, repeated often enough, provide solace to their parishioners. There is material, spiritual, and mental poverty on the South Side, where the characters react to their problems with formulas, homilies, and conventional wisdom. Innovation and creativity are absent, and when the rote answers do not work, silence or physical force is the result. Unless the Farrell protagonist is a writer, there can be no inner life, no stream of consciousness, because the characters literally do not think.

Relationships between men and women consequently are shallow and superficial, with each sex responding to the other in terms of stereotypes. Farrell’s males are sentimental but insensitive, violent but insecure; they tend to regard women as either spiritual creatures or tramps rather than as individuals. Women, on the other hand, mourn the loss of love and redirect their energies and ambitions to their children, whom they view with naïve idealism.

Characterization is Farrell’s strength; plot and style are his weaknesses. At best, the plots are episodic, and often the subplots are only tangential to the story because they develop a political message or some social criticism. The main plot concerns the maturation and attendant alienation and debilitation of the “hero.” The movement toward tragedy or pathos is inexorable; though the protagonist has free will, it is so circumscribed by environment that it is theoretical rather than actual. The style is only a bit less predictable; there is a decided lack of subtlety, much repetition, and dated slang, most of which is taken from the 1930’s and 1940’s. One of the most frequent criticisms of Farrell is that his novels never escaped from those decades.

For the most part, Farrell’s novels focus on character, which he believed was of utmost importance in the novel, and most of his characters are provided with lengthy biographies. The plots proceed chronologically, but they are often juxtaposed with newspaper headlines and stories, as well as with anecdotes about characters who do not appear elsewhere in the novel. These techniques indicate the Dreiser influence on both Farrell’s content (urban determinism) and style. An added Dreiser technique is the fragmentation of chapters, which become in some novels a series of snippets that work cumulatively to produce both an emotional effect and a commentary on the plot and the characters, themselves fragmented beings.

The newspaper stories, newsreels, and films that appear, often with elaborate plots that serve as counterpoint to his narrative, reflect Farrell’s preoccupation with the impact of the media on American life. Characters are guided by newspaper stories, and they are shaped by Hollywood’s version of the truth and provided with emotional escapes. Readers are also, through the ironic clash between a character’s vision and the real world, made aware of a character’s illusions and inevitable failure. For Farrell, to learn about others is to learn about oneself. In “The Function of the Novel,” he writes, “One of the major functions of the novel is to help us in gaining this expanded image of ourselves.”

Young Lonigan

First published: 1932

Type of work: Novel

In the 1910’s in Chicago, a young man is torn between his tough-guy image and his “softer side” and struggles to find his true identity.

Young Lonigan: A Boyhood in Chicago Streets, the first volume of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, concerns Studs’s development from his graduation from St. Patrick’s Grammar School to the end of the year he was supposed to attend Loyola High School. Farrell is unsparing in his criticism of the platitudes mouthed by the Catholic priests (the influence of Irish novelist James Joyce is particularly evident in Father Gilhooley’s graduation address) and repeated by parents who bask in “burgher comfort” as they naïvely contemplate their children’s glowing futures. (In reality, Frank “Weary” Reilley becomes a sadistic rapist rather than a lawyer, and William “Studs” Lonigan hardly fulfills his mother’s ambition to have him become a priest.)

Farrell is primarily concerned with Studs’s struggle to create and maintain an identity, even if the tough-guy image he constructs is at odds with the “real” Studs. Sections 1 and 2 begin with Studs before a mirror contemplating his “image.” Studs is relieved when he looks “like Studs Lonigan was supposed to look,” the way he must appear to win peer acceptance. Here, as elsewhere, the ties between Studs and Farrell are quite evident. Although he later assures himself, “He was STUDS LONIGAN,” he does have lingering doubts about his true self: “He wished he was somebody else.” For his peers, Studs is, despite being rather small, a tough guy whose reputation depends on his successful fights with Weary Reilley and Red Kelley.

Studs fears that he is a misfit, someone with a split personality, someone who has a “mushy,” “queer,” “soft” side that he must repress. This romantic, poetic (if poetry were not beyond the relatively inarticulate Studs) side is associated with “angelic” Lucy Scanlon, the epitome of the “purer” Catholic girls, the “higher creatures.” Farrell writes, “But the tough outside part of Studs told the tender inside part of him that nobody really knew, that he had better forget all that bull.” When he and Lucy go to the park, which Farrell describes in terms of escape, of flight from self, Studs allows his tender side the ascendancy, but this idyllic interlude is followed by Studs, the victim of peer pressure, coarsely rejecting Lucy. At the end of the novel, Studs unconsciously mourns the lost Lucy, while his father, whom Studs is beginning to resemble, procrastinates again about taking his wife for a night out—thus, Farrell prepares his readers for the further adventures of Studs Lonigan.

The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan

First published: 1934

Type of work: Novel

As a young man passes from adolescence to adulthood, his self-doubt and fears increase, leading him to self-destructive behavior.

In The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, the second novel of the trilogy, Farrell continues the saga. Though the title mentions Studs’s “young manhood,” Farrell depicts his protagonist as a boy in search of manhood. When he and some friends try to enlist in the Army, the recruiter advises them to “get your diapers pinned on,” and when he attempts a holdup, his intended victim states, “Son, you better put that toy away.” Even when Studs is in his twenties, Lucy tells him that he is “just like a little boy,” an image at odds with his created persona.

The self-doubt, fear, and identity problems first mentioned in Young Lonigan are developed in greater detail in the second novel: “He was a hero in his own mind. He was miserable.” As he ages, Studs seems more uncertain of his identity; he sees himself as Lonewolf Lonigan, Yukon Lonigan (an image inspired by a film), and K.O. Lonigan (a boxer), then as Pig Lonigan and Slob Lonigan as his self-pity increases. Studs seems to fear being “found out”; his tough-guy facade crumbles when he is outfought by young Morgan. Although Studs occasionally feels “mushy” when he dates Lucy, his coarse “outer” nature again destroys their relationship, and his contempt for his social-climbing sisters really marks his own sense of inferiority.

While he continues to focus on Studs, Farrell gives his second novel more sociopolitical context than he had included in Young Lonigan. Farrell depicts changing neighborhoods and the heightening of racial tensions, the blacklisting of unionists such as Mr. Le Gare, and the political persecution of “un-American” ideas such as communism. The Irish American community in Chicago, paranoid about race and communism, retreats, as Studs does, to patriotism, white supremacy, and the Church. Farrell suggests, however, through Father Shannon’s morally edifying sermons, that the Church is ineffective—when the religious revival is over, the community’s finest young Catholic men get drunk and look for women. There is little to believe in, as the plight of Danny O’Neill, the young University of Chicago intellectual, suggests: He rejects society’s political and religious values but has nothing with which to replace them.

The novel concludes with a New Year’s party at which Weary Reilley rapes Irene, and a drunken Studs lies in the gutter, leading to his getting pneumonia. This party is followed by an italicized chapter (this novel is more experimental in style, with its snippets of chapters and choruslike, italicized chapters) in which Stephen Lewis, a young black man, reenacts Studs’s behavior in Young Lonigan. Times and characters change, but the behavior, values, and themes remain constant.

Judgment Day

First published: 1935

Type of work: Novel

A young man’s self-inflicted physical problems and his incapacity for action lead to his early death in a hostile environment.

Judgment Day, which begins with a “devotion to be said at the beginning of the mass for the dead,” is the third volume of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. It begins, appropriately, with Shrimp Haggerty’s funeral and ends with Studs’s death, but the novel also chronicles the death of the American Dream and the fall of the middle-class Irish Catholic community in Chicago. Farrell elaborates on the racism and political intolerance of the first two novels and adds anti-Semitism to the ills that afflict not only his characters but also American society.

In the course of Judgment Day, Studs declines physically, suffers a heart attack, cannot find work during the Depression, and finally dies—but not before impregnating his intended bride, Catherine. Although he still looks to his past exploits as the key to his identity, the self-doubt and fear increase until even his Walter Mitty dreams of being a champion golfer and a secret service agent falter: Even his imagination fails him. He cannot ignore the baseball game in which he fails miserably, thereby signaling the end of the athletic prowess that helped shape his identity. As in the second novel, he attends a film in which he empathizes with the hero; but this time the title of the film, Doomed Victory, and the hero’s death ironically foreshadow Studs’s life and death.

In Judgment Day, Studs seems to have lost his unrealized poetic nature and becomes almost inarticulate. Unable to communicate with Catherine, he enjoys “a vision of himself as a strong man whose words always meant something,” yet his squabbles with her usually result from his silences. He also is unable to act and watches his stock plummet in value until he realizes that he is trapped financially, sexually, and vocationally. Standing before the mirror, a self-pitying Studs ironically tells his image, “You’re the real stuff.” Whatever Studs is, he is the product of his environment and is his father’s son—a procrastinating, sentimental person who believes in the fraternity of the St. Christopher Society, the platitudes of the Church, and the American Dream (itself symbolized by a dance marathon). All fail him, as they have failed his father, and as they will fail his brother, who emulates Studs.

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