Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1561
James T. Farrell 1904-1979
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and editor.
Closely identified with the naturalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, Farrell is best known for those works which demonstrate the consequences of environment upon character. An intellectual who embraced aspects of both pragmatism and communism, Farrell wrote...
(The entire section contains 46348 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this James T. Farrell study guide. You'll get access to all of the James T. Farrell content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays
James T. Farrell 1904-1979
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and editor.
Closely identified with the naturalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, Farrell is best known for those works which demonstrate the consequences of environment upon character. An intellectual who embraced aspects of both pragmatism and communism, Farrell wrote convincingly of America's harsh social realities, those forces which circumscribe the destinies of ordinary individuals. Although Farrell was often faulted for a graceless and reportorial style, he was widely praised for his detailed depictions of urban life—the south side of Chicago in particular—and his realistic characterizations. Above all, Farrell's work has been acclaimed for its sincerity and vitality; Alfred Kazin has said of his writing, ". . . scene by scene, character by character, Farrell's books are built by force rather than imagination, and it is the laboriously contrived solidity, the perfect literalness of each representation, that give his work its density and harsh power."
Farrell was born to first-generation Irish Catholic immigrants. His parents were working-class people with little income. One of many siblings, Farrell, at age three, was sent to live with his wealthier maternal grandparents on Chicago's south side. At age twenty-one, he enrolled at the University of Chicago where he discovered the works of pragmatists George H. Mead and John Dewey, in addition to those of Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway. Encouraged to write by his professors, Farrell wrote literary criticism and a number of short stories, including "Studs," a story based on Farrell's observations of a dissolute youth who squandered his life. From this story grew the Studs Lonigan trilogy, which later received serious critical attention and acclaim. After a year in Paris, during which Farrell found further encouragement from the expatriate writer Ezra Pound, Farrell settled in New York City where he rapidly became part of the intellectual circle, which included writers Nathanael West and Archibald MacLeish, literary critic Kenneth Burke, and Marxist critic Granville Hicks. Farrell continued to write stories and novels with Chicago as the cultural milieu, but his experiences in Paris and New York City enabled him to expand his portrayal of urban life and its effects on city dwellers. During the 1930s Farrell published stories, essays, and reviews in many journals; additionally, he wrote a volume of literary criticism, the acclaimed Studs Lonigan novels and several Danny O'Neill novels. Farrell won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1936, and in 1937 he won a censorship case concerning his novel A World I Never Made. Actively involved throughout his life in a number of labor, civil rights, and writers' organizations, Farrell traveled and lectured widely on their behalf. An enormously prolific writer, Farrell published seventeen short story collections and twenty-five novels during his career. At the time of his death, Farrell had completed the eleventh volume of a new cycle of novels, short stories, and poems, entitled "A Universe of Time." Originally projected to run to thirty volumes, this cycle, like his previous fiction, was to present significant experiences from his personal past, but from a maturer perspective.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Farrell is principally known for his novels, particularly the Studs Lonigan trilogy, but his short stories are considered an essential part of his fiction writing. Farrell's fiction was greatly influenced by his own cultural and material background as an Irish-Catholic in a working-class Chicago neighborhood. Farrell's vision of the city environment is ambivalent, for he recognized both its opportunities for individual growth and its limitations. In his first collection of short stories, Calico Shoes and Other Stories (1934), Farrell established a pattern that he would follow throughout his career, namely the reusing and interweaving of characters, incidents, themes, and settings from one story to the next, in his novels as well as in his short story collections. Thus, it is difficult to discuss his stories singly, for each story is a small element of his human panorama. Best known among these recurring characters are Studs Lonigan, Danny O'Neill of the "O'Neill-O'Flaherty series," and Bernard Carr of the Bernard Cantrilogy. Danny O'Neill, for example, who is considered the most autobiographical of Farrell's characters, appears in fifty stories, as either a central or minor character. Farrell's admirers have noted that this reusing of characters has a cumulative effect, allowing the reader to have a fuller understanding of his characters. Similarly, Farrell's return to the same themes—isolation, futility, hopelessness, frustration, as well as free will, creativity, freedom, and regeneration—deepens and enriches the overall import of his writing.
Farrell's short stories, like his novels, generally focus on the impoverishment of the human spirit under the oppressive conditions of daily urban life. The protagonists of his fiction seek escape from their drab and lonely lives by turning to alcohol, sex, violence, or, as in the case of Danny O'Neill and Bernard Carr, through writing. An important novella demonstrating Farrell's theme of spiritual impoverishment is Tommy Gallagher's Crusade, in which a frustrated youth who is unable to hold a job, becomes prey to the demagoguery of a fascist priest and takes to hawking inflammatory papers on street corners. The story also illustrates Farrell's principal narrative technique which, like Hemingway's, relies heavily on dialogue as a way to advance the story's action and to reveal character. Although a number of scholars have objected to the slang and pedestrian quality of Farrell's style, most critics have agreed that Farrell's realistic and graphic use of the street vernacular effectively contributes to the credibility of his characterization. His later writing demonstrates a continued preoccupation with earlier characters, but also a broadened worldview as Farrell incorporated intellectuals, Hollywood producers and actors, and European characters and locales into his short fiction. The same themes resound, but with a deeper emphasis on the paradoxical nature of time and its effects on individual lives. Farrell's last collection of short stories, Olive and Mary Anne, repeats the themes of despair, futility, and nostalgia in its grim portrayal of bad marriages, promiscuity, and failed careers. A minor character in one of these stories is Eddie Ryan, an autobiographical character of the uncompleted series, "A Universe of Time," who treads an uneven path to self-discovery and self-fulfillment as a writer. His appearance in both the novels of "A Universe of Time" and in the short stories underscores Farrell's attempt to provide a continuous and interwoven narrative that would chart the progress and struggles of an American individual against the debasing social conditions of his environment.
Farrell was immediately recognized as an important new voice with the publication of the Studs Lonigan novels. These novels established him as a leading practitioner of American naturalism, but it was a label that limited the recognition of his artistic achievements. Farrell himself took issue with the view of his work as imitative and rigidly deterministic, stating "I've never been the economic determinist that critics have made me. I first read [Emile] Zola in 1937 [after the publication of Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy in 1935]. I have a functional conception of environment and character; I don't believe in environment over character or anything like that." The issue of Farrell's determinism has remained a central critical debate. Those who disagree with this narrow categorizing of Farrell point to his literary criticism wherein he asserts that literature is a liberating force, allowing one to escape the social forces that threaten individual integrity; in his literary manifestos, Farrell emphasizes free will and the capacity for freedom, ideas which his supporters argue are amply illustrated through the achievements of his writer-characters who are stimulated to success by these same restrictive forces.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Farrell's work was attacked by moralistic critics who condemned his use of obscene dialogue, resulting in a number of censorship cases which Farrell successfully fought. Marxist critics too inveighed against Farrell's writing, in retaliation for Farrell's outspoken criticism of using literature as an instrument of Communist propaganda. Later critics discredited his writing for its lack of symbolism or allegorical meaning. Lastly, Farrell's work has been faulted for its repetitiveness, his critics observing that his stories offer only endless reworkings of familiar ideas and characters. Robert Morss Lovett, in his introduction to a 1937 collection of short stories, likewise asserted that in many cases, Farrell's "short stories are chips off the blocks of his novels." Yet as Edgar Branch, in James T. Farrell, has observed of Farrell's work, ". . . the weaknesses sometimes [are] the defects of the strengths." Farrell's supporters note that his strengths are his trenchant ability to present faithfully the idiom of his subjects, his skill in realistic characterization, the comprehensiveness of his moral and artistic vision, and his earnest explorations of the relationship of the individual to modern society. In an incisive commentary, Joseph Warren Beach notes, in American Fiction (1920-1940), the complexities—and the appeal—of Farrell's art: "Farrell's type of naturalism is not of a kind to appeal to the common run of readers. It has little to offer those who go to fiction for light entertainment, the glamour of the stage, or the gratification of their bent for wishful thinking . . . But there will always be a sufficient number of those whom life and thought have ripened and disciplined, who have a taste for truth however unvarnished provided it be honestly viewed, deeply pondered, and imaginatively rendered." The truth that Farrell explored in all of his fiction was the stark realities of the American way of life.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452
*Calico Shoes and Other Stories 1934; published in Great
Britain as Seventeen and Other Stories, 1959
*Guillotine Party and Other Stories 1935
*Can All This Grandeur Perish? and Other Stories 1937
Tommy Gallagher's Crusade (novella) 1939
†$1000 a Week and Other Stories 1942
Fifteen Selected Stories 1943
†To Whom It May Concern and Other Stories 1944; also published as More Stories, 1946
Twelve Great Stories 1945
More Fellow Countrymen 1946
When Boyhood Dreams Come True 1946; also published as Further Short Stories 1948
A Hell of A Good Time and Other Stories 1947
†The Life Adventurous and Other Stories 1947
Yesterday's Love and Eleven Other Stories 1948
A Misunderstanding 1949
An American Dream Girl 1950
French Girls Are Vicious and Other Stories 1955
A Dangerous Woman and Other Stories 1957
Saturday Night and Other Stories 1958
The Girls at the Sphinx 1959
Looking 'em Over 1960
Side Street and Other Stories 1961
The Short Stories of J. T. Farrell 1962
Sound of a City 1962
Childhood Is Not Forever and Other Stories 1969
#Judith (novella) 1969
#Judith and Other Stories 1973
#Olive and Mary Anne 1978
Eight Short Stories and Sketches 1981
‡Young Lonigan: A Boyhood in Chicago Streets 1932
Gas-House McGinty 1933
‡The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan 1934
‡Judgment Day 1935
§A World I Never Made 1936
§No Star Is Lost 1938
§Father and Son 1940; published in Great Britain as A Father and His Son, 1943
Ellen Rogers 1941
§My Days of Anger 1943
∥Bernard Clare 1946; also published as Bernard Clayre, 1948, and as Bernard Carr, 1952
∥The Road Between 1949
This Man and This Woman 1951
∥Yet Other Waters 1952
§The Face of Time 1953
#Boarding House Blues 1961
#The Silence of History 1963
What Time Collects 1964
#Lonely for the Future 1966
#New Year's Eve, 1929 1967
#A Brand New Life 1968
#Invisible Swords 1971
#The Dunne Family 1976
#The Death of Nora Ryan 1978
A Note on Literary Criticism 1936
The League of Frightened Philistines and Other Papers 1945
The Fate of Writing in America 1946
Literature and Morality 1947
Reflections at Fifty and Other Essays 1954
Selected Essays [edited by Luna Wolf] 1964
Literary Essays, 1954-1974 [edited by Jack Alan Robbins] 1976
The Name is Fogarty: Private Papers on Public Matters (satirical essays) 1950
Poet of the People: An Evaluation of James Whitcomb Riley [with others] (criticism) 1951
My Baseball Diary: A Famed Author Recalls the Wonderful World of Baseball, Yesterday and Today (essays and fiction) 1957
It Has Come to Pass (travel essay) 1958
Dialogue with John Dewey [editor; with others] (dialogues) 1959
The Collected Poems of James T. Farrell 1965
The Letters to Theodore Dreiser 1966
When Time Was Born (prose poem) 1966
*These three volumes were published collectively as The Short Stories of James T. Farrell, 1937; also published as Fellow Countrymen: Collected Stories, 1937.
†These three volumes were published together as An Omnibus of Short Stories, 1956.
‡These novels were published together in 1935 as Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy.
§These novels comprise the "O'Neill-O'Flaherty" series.
∥These novels comprise the "Bernard Carr" trilogy.
#These works belong to the "A Universe of Time" collection.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584
SOURCE: "Ungenteel Irony," in The Nation, Vol. 139, No. 3615, October 17, 1934, p. 458.
[In the following assessment of Farrell's first collection, Kronenberger praises the harsh realism of Farrell's characterization.]
Although no single story in [Calico Shoes] is particularly impressive, the book as a whole carries weight. Mr. Farrell writes about people he knows, and whose background he knows, inside out; and to this initial merit of being saturated with his material he adds a second, of handling it with an honest sobriety that makes it stick in your memory and register on your mind. He is in no sense a finished or ingratiating story-teller; except for his sure ear for dialogue he commands none of the props which help narrative forward. But it is perhaps just as well that he doesn't, since he throws his undivided strength into something more important: ferreting out the truth. His delineation of Chicago's low Irish has nothing glib or facile about it, but is exact and expressive and stamped with reality.
Mr. Farrell, in treating people of one milieu, does not make the mistake of reducing them to a uniform characterization. They react to their common background in different ways, and their conflicts are as much against one another as against other kinds of people or life itself. For the most part they are ignorant, parochial, unimaginative; some are dislocated by poverty, almost all are cramped by small horizons. They are not innately hard people, but they lack understanding almost as often as they lack sensibility; and their lives, materialistic but not mercenary, touched but not changed by the church, colored but not deepened by sex, are usually crude and sometimes sordid. Products of a uniform culture, their personalities differ and their fates vary.
It is in making plain these people's culture that Mr. Farrell shows his knowledge of his material; but in following out their fates he sometimes rises to a more significant plane of writing and proves himself a brooding realist. Three stories in this book are much alike in pattern and effect, and by contrast with Farrell's merely photographic pieces they bring us up against the harsh insolubility of existence. In each of these three stories—"The Scarecrow," "Twenty-Five Bucks," and "Well, That's That"—a sordid, down-at-heel figure is thrust expiring upon society, a society very little superior, and is passed up or put out of the picture with vacant, uncomprehending cynicism. There is a very ungenteel irony in these tales in which two whores and a ham prize-fighter who lack dignity get pummeled by people who lack decency. If ever there were people who knew not what they did, they are in these pictures of a society that is sordid because it is ignorant and usually ignorant because it is poor. It is a society you don't want to see existing, and its cast-offs are too tragic to be merely pitied.
But it is a society you need to see existing, and Mr. Farrell puts it very plainly on view. Perhaps there is more of kindliness in it than he has shown, but if he has left something out, he has not disfigured the picture, he has only the more emphasized its salient traits. Here is a proletariat almost totally unaware of the claims being made for it by intellectuals and the aims being set for it by revolutionaries; but whatever your attitude toward those claims and aims, you want passionately to see these people brought out of their intellectual stupor and moral numbness into the light.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
SOURCE: A review of Calico Shoes and Other Stories, in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XI, No. 15, October 27, 1934, p. 250.
[In the following excerpt, the reviewer observes that Farrell's writing is marred by his inclusion of unnecessary details and facts from his own experiences.]
Though he possesses certain literary attributes that make almost everything he writes distinctly worth reading, he has not as yet transcended limitations that have so far kept the greater part of his work from being thoroughly satisfactory and first-rate.
His virtues are many: a satisfactory facility with his medium, an almost dictaphonic ear for the speech of his lower middle-class characters, a pervasive sympathetic understanding of the inarticulate, the exploited, the lonely, the misunderstood. . . . He has been highly praised for his "uncompromising" realism, but he has not as yet learned to depersonalize experience that was highly personal, to transmute the facts of the life he has so keenly observed, into the heightened reality of fictional art. This insistence upon the utilization of all his material, upon the presentation of all the facts because they are the facts, makes for a lack of selectivity, for an obtuse hammering upon the same idea until the reader mutters impatiently, "Yes, I get the point."
These virtues and defects are again present in most of these sixteen short stories. Although Mr. Farrell is still considerably preoccupied with the biological urge—ten stories are definitely sex-angled—and his stories abound with youths ranging from the love-lorn to the sex-starved, with perverts, aging prostitutes, young tarts, and drugstore cowboys, there is apparent a shifting of emphasis, if not of interest. The four most successful stories in this collection demonstrate this shift of emphasis, and three are stories of sexual exploitation: "The Scarecrow," in which a feeble-minded drab is bullied and tortured by a group of young men and women, offers an authentic and moving characterization; the title-story, "Calico Shoes," in which the misfortunes of an avaricious Lithuanian's wife are utilized to make capital for her husband until he is ready to get rid of her. "Well, That's That," which is a modified treatment of "The Scarecrow"; and "Twenty-five Bucks," which provides a moving portrait of a worn-out pugilist and his last fight.
It is inevitable that Mr. Farrell will discover that the bare transference of human facts from life to the printed page is not enough to carry over the emotional character of these human facts; it is inevitable that he will drop his auctorial comments on his characters (an amusingly satirical story like "Honey, We'll Be Brave" is completely ruined by an unnecessary running commentary upon the fatuous emotions of its characters); it is inevitable that he will make an effort to lift his prose style considerably higher than its present monotone. And when he has accomplished these desiderata, he will be more than a sincere commentator on life; he will be an artist. For, in the idiom of his characters, he has "what it takes."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
SOURCE: "Studs Lonigan's World," in The Nation, Vol. 141, No. 3668, October 23, 1935, pp. 484-85.
[In this excerpted review of Guillotine Party and Other Stories, Trilling describes Farrell's artistic vision as inadequate to the task of exploring the complexities of modern life.]
Almost all Mr. Farrell's short stories deal with the milieu of the Studs Lonigan trilogy and might almost be chapters of those admirable novels. Indeed, one of the stories is, as Mr. Farrell tells us, the seed from which the cycle grew, and the whole collection seems to be made up of gleanings from the major work.
There can be no doubt of the importance of Farrell's writing. He has brilliantly exploited the theme of poverty, not primarily physical poverty—actual hunger plays small part in his books—but spiritual poverty. His people all live in what one of his few articulate characters calls "a poverty not only of mind but of spirit, even a poverty of the senses, so that they [can] scarcely even look at many things and enjoy them." . . . When we observe the defeat of his characters we also observe the deterioration of communal institutions—the family, the school, the church. The members of Studs's gang die early spiritual—and, indeed, physical—deaths because they are socially betrayed by institutions which have lost their power for good but not their power for harm.
Much of the interest of Farrell's books comes from his care to point out that his people are not done in by crude economic facts so much as by subtle social facts. Studs himself comes from a family that is (until 1929) comfortable and even prospectively wealthy. And we may assure ourselves of the rightness of Farrell's insight by contemplating, for example, the wealthy people of John O'Hara's novels, who are destroyed in much the same way, exhibiting the same incidental cruelties and sexual perversities.
What gives stature to Farrell's work is not merely that he presents the poverty of spirit but that he knows what causes it and what should take its place. He tells us that these people have no loyalty, no recognition of other egos than their own, that they drop a sick man's teeth in the gutter, leave their drunken pals to freeze in the snow, gang-shag, rape, torture the lone and defenseless, desert their gang leaders. These are the people, he is always implying, whom fascism organizes, exploiting their vices and desires, offering them power in terms of their cruelty and immaturity; and whether organized or not, he is saying, their debasement stands as a perpetual denial of the vaunt of culture and the intellect.
Yet, when the importance of Farrell's theme is understood, it is fair to ask whether he has made literature which is, in the sense in which Matthew Arnold used the word, adequate. Does it, that is, so synthesize modern life, or enough of it, as to give us emotional clarity? Admitting all that Farrell's books do, it is hard to feel that they do this.
Adequacy to modern life comes in two ways: from presenting an organized view of a scene so full and complex that it gives the reader a sense of understanding the principle behind the chaos of life . . . or it comes from presenting a situation in which the characters are able to act, even mistakenly, with some measure of ethical principle and free will and, by acting, to affirm the qualities essential to decent human life. . . .
Farrell's books are adequate in neither of these two ways. The segment of society which he presents is, as we have said, suggestive, even revelatory; but though it aids our understanding it does not sufficiently give the sense of the principle behind complexity in modern life; it is too simple, and complexity is not supplied by the introduction of the Insull débâcle or a Communist parade. Nor can Farrell's people be engaged in morally significant action, because the essence of the truth about them is that society has robbed them of principles and free will. Their action is ultimately induced by wills other than their own and it can only have elementary—however important—historical or sociological meaning. Whoever reads about these people is accepting an invitation to regard them with sympathy but always at a remove, from above looking down.
The limitations of Mr. Farrell's theme and treatment are perhaps better seen in his short stories than in his novels, for in the novels there is quasi-action in the passage of time, and the overexpansion of detail may pass for complexity. The short story, if it is not to be a mere sketch, must be the record of sharp and critical resolutions; it must turn brevity to account by using symbols; and its finest charm lies in telling more than it seems to say. But Mr. Farrell's stories tell scarcely more than the elementary fact, though they tell it sharply: a young priest loses his faith and breaks his vows; a young husband struggles to be happy in his poverty-threatened marriage; students in a parochial school are inflamed against pacifism; the Merry Clouters torture a Negro boy, then desert their leaders in a gang fight; a Greek leaves his Arcadian flocks and becomes a Marathon dancer in America. And so on with the forceful underscoring of observed facts which can never be sufficiently underscored but which, of themselves, do not make a literature adequate to modern life. Yet there is so much awareness in Mr. Farrell (his later novels exhibit it better than these stories) and so much power of growth (the superiority of the novels to the stories attests it, for most of the stories predate the best of the novels) that one can be confident that he will see this for himself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311
SOURCE: "The Bitter Bread of James T. Farrell," in The New York Herald Tribune Books, May 17, 1937, p. 6.
[In the following review of Can All This Grandeur Perish? and Other Stories, Kazin finds much to condemn and praise in Farrell's short stories; repulsed by the sordidness of Farrell's soulless characters, he is nonetheless intrigued by the brutal honesty of his characterizations.]
There are seventeen stories in this volume, and most of them are crumbs from Mr. Farrell's usually lavish table. Whether you will find them nourishing or not, however, depends a good deal on whether you find Mr. Farrell's bitter bread palatable at all. If you feel that it is somehow indecent to write of human beings as if they stalked a menagerie; if you believe, as so many excellent people do, that Mr. Farrell's characters should not be allowed into the respectable society of the novel at all; if Mr. Farrell's much-praised power sounds to you like an empty bellow, these assorted sketches and highly unplatonic dialogues will appear doubly trivial. They are scenes, most of them, outlines of the behavior Mr. Farrell has illuminated more fully (but not, I think, less cruelly) in his novels; a good many of them are earlier sketches or finished pieces warmed over to suit this year of grace.
To those who hold as their first critical premise that nothing human is alien to literature, who admire Mr. Farrell's intention as much as his achievement, however, all these stories, the failures no less than the modest triumphs, will be interesting as examples of Mr. Farrell's method and progress. Like all sketches, they enable us to see their author, as it were, in mental undress. Here are the tricks, the associations, the artful artlessness that go into his narratives and hold them together; here is the first sneer out of Studs Lonigan; here is some indication of how Mr. Farrell accents a phrase or a cliché to evoke the dreariness of a mind and the group or environment behind it; here are the emotions of the South Side wasteland in miniature; and here, emphatically not least, is what Mr. Farrell thinks of lumpen intellectuals.
The people who compose his grayish world usually appear before us with their mouths open. They never move against an oppressive environment in the classic tradition of naturalism; they announce, they declaim their own ugliness of spirit. Mr. Farrell furnishes a paragraph of biography, sets them in the dining room (they appear at their habitual worst when they exercise their pride or gluttony) or on the street corner, and lets them talk. The method is perhaps too vocally dramatic; one misses the interpolation, whether by commentary, simple description or variety of types, that shapes perspective. Evidently Mr. Farrell realizes that, for he has them talk too violently at times, just that they may reveal, in the climax of exaggeration, the blemishes on their social anatomy. At such moments his irony may assume an unpleasantly bombastic tone. One suspects that he has been not savage but uninspired.
When he writes about the artistic middlemen who talk great books ("Mendel and His Wife," "Angela," "The Professor"), this method has its own justification. "I've brought 'em back alive from the jungles of the Left Bank and the academic deserts," he seems to say, "just listen to them!" Talk is all they will do, and in that losing grace they expend their souls. There is a touch of whimsy in these stories, and unavoidably patronizing as they are, they seem almost amiable against the strident stories in which he baits the middle-class Irish whom he hates with so much relish.
The title story, with its none too subtle variation on the theme sounded in the family scenes of Studs Lonigan and The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, is as effective as the customary pieces in this style and even more repetitious. There is something in the way he sets Irish Babbitry to cacophonous music that leaves one with a drumming in the ears. Their inhuman yammering, with abysmal cruelty banging against animal insolence, is like a defilement of everything the human race has aspired to since its liaison with the apes. This, one thinks, is literally realism with a vengeance; only Celt blood can get back at Celts with so much grisly humor. Uncle Tom Gregory is Pop Lonigan with all the prejudices and with a bearish dignity all his very own; his relatives pay him shivery homage on New Year's Day and how he lords it over them! Warmed by his loud benevolence, they begin to talk like him. They praise themselves, their culture, their aspirations; they eat heavily, they say nothing elaborately; they insult every one in the wide world, particularly the Irish, who have not their income. And should one of them suggest (but whimsically) that there are people in the world who occasionally go hungry, a chorus arises to shield her from reality: "Young lady, keep your feet on the ground!"
The poor Irish, of course, are given their due; they are even pitied ever so inaudibly. George O'Dell ("The Oratory Contest"), fidgety with worry over his job and an approaching baby, hears his boy win a prize with a banal high-school oration, hoping against hope that its values are the true ones. In "A Hell of a Good Time" two battered, middle-aged Chicago Irishmen take advantage of a holiday from domesticity to indulge their thwarted appetites. They come home drunk and more battered than ever, their pitiful little dream having turned into a dreary nightmare. The slightly more prosperous Irish in "Thanksgiving Spirit," however, are merely sodden. Every third word they say to each other is a pompous affirmation of their own importance; they are proud that they have eaten so well this Thanksgiving Day, what with so many incompetent people out of work; they tell themselves that they have eaten well over and over again; they crack little jokes about it; they are shrill with contempt for every one else.
The difference between them and the indigent Irish is a curious one. The Gregorys would sing an English translation of the "Horst Wessel" song with enthusiasm; the starving Doyles, who in "Precinct Captain" obey a nervous, dumb politician slavishly because it is their only chance to get off relief, are more tolerant only because they are desperate. Both families are as chauvinistic as a Prussian Junker, but in each a native brutality has been distended, in some fashion, by the economic facts of life. Security has made the Gregorys brazen; frantic poverty has turned the Doyles into fawning insects. And yet, nerveless and hysterical as they look in opposition, is there so much difference between them? Would Danny James Farrell O'Neill have escaped if he had not, by some chance, seen the sky over Studs Lonigan's head?
For this is what makes his portraits of his people so terrifying: not only his lack of mercy but their own isolation as well. Each of them, glorying in his ignorance, is a potential storm-trooper; each reserves a thick kindliness for his own kind and the most stolid bigotry for every other. And knowing that we realize, more clearly than before, how superbly honest their historian has been. It is a terrible thing for a regional writer in melting-pot America to bear the burden of his own people and yet have so little love for them, to accuse them so persistently, to forgive them so abstractly. We accept his judgment, though we know what formed it; and we accept the limitations of his work because we know that one writes with gentle melancholy only of gentle people; that art, if it is ever to be real and gain from realism spiritual insight, must respond, at some stage of human development, with as much rude vigor as the strident life that gave it birth.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196
SOURCE: A review of The Short Stories of James T. Farrell, in The New Republic, Vol. 93, No. 1197, November 10, 1937, p. 22.
[In the following estimation of Farrell's collection, Ferguson dismisses Farrell's short stories for their squalor and slovenly technique.]
I got a new slant on the writings of James Farrell recently, from some chaps who were no nearer the intellectual world than their own hard wisdom, and perhaps the wiser for that. They read about Studs because they had grown up in the same Chicago. "You read that Studs book?" they said. "Well all that stuff it's got in that book, I'm telling you that's really the truth, man." Part of their enthusiasm could be set down to Farrell's constant anchoring allusion to all the familiar streets, corners, El stations, hot spots and ends of town; but they got more than that, it was more real to them than that. I should have said up to then that while the words and scenes might be thrilling to startled professors and rather dangerously advanced librarians, some actual veteran of the threeway houses, GU wards, alleyways, etc., would sense the difference between the tragedy of the real thing and the lurid hearsay that a youth with his notebook and mouth open might pick up from the boys on the corner. They put me right on that, making it possible to disregard the slovenly technique and appreciate the substance; and if they, having come up from the Studs Lonigan country and background without being slobs, can overlook the fact that Farrell stacks his cards so as never to write about anything else, then I guess I can.
James Farrell is a writer who hit the right stride at the right time, who followed up the promise of his first book with plenty more to say, whose troubles with the censor and long letters to the Left made happy if unconscious increases to publicity, and whose name is now one of the indelible words of this time. But whereas he is a kindly and generous person in normal life, when he becomes Farrell-the-writer he is equipped with the most complete stock of hatreds I have ever seen—everyone from the characters in his book to his fellow novelists and reviewers; add to this a certain unhumorous pompousness in throwing his intellectual weight around, and you can see how there must be quite an underground anti-Farrell school by now. And this round-up of all his short stories [The Short Stories of James T. Farrell, 1937] might very well serve as its textbook, for he is not a story teller and the short form highlights the faults without having much scope for the virtues.
Outside of a few pieces about intellectuals (satire like elephants out for a good romp), the stories are about punks and low Irish and floozies and have a general pattern if not a plot: (1) an initial scene of squalor and pus; (2) some violent deeds and words interspersed with Writing; (3) the "planting" of cause and result in the social system so that you can't miss it; (4) a sudden frenzy of blood and bowels followed by an anticlimax of perfunctory exposition or an ironic last word. The lines are overstuffed with all the clichés of the very worst in slang, songs, popular wit and God's forgotten jokes (even the elephant-and-the-Polish-question wheeze blown up to a page); but it isn't so much that as the air of look-what-I-can-do with Texture and Documentation. Of course people talk like that. But they also talk like something else, too: where do you think the good slang and gags and songs come from, the University of Chicago for God's sake? Anyway, you can't read a whole book like this without feeling the libel on his characters: not they and not any group of people have any such undeviating talent for the mediocre. That takes something like genius. In the same way people in general aren't slobs. Studs wasn't a slob, and Farrell I am sure knew it; but Farrell made him the romantic hero (in reverse, maybe) of a whole trilogy and then squared it with his literary conscience by saying: Yah, what da hell, he was a slob. Farrell has plenty to say, but his devices are slipshod; in these and in his revulsion from the pretty-pretty he gets just about as bad in the opposite direction as any writer of shockers for the pulps.
There are too few pieces in this book like "Comedy Cop," which is at once sly and hearty and true. And the germinating seed of all his novels but one (the story "Studs") seems all the more frank and moving by comparison with so much collected rubbish. "Helen, I Love You" is in it of course, and I like that better now too; then right in a row three narratives in his best vein: "Looking 'em Over," "The Buddies" and "A Front-Page Story"—each a backwater of life remembered and recreated. In fact, if you shut your eyes and think over just the ones that seem to go all right, credit isn't so hard to give.
But why try hard? Farrell at his best never did a story to touch Faulkner or Milburn or Caldwell or Hemingway or Boyle or Rawlings—and on down the list. And at his worst he is so dull and prosey-posey that you have to put the whole book down and try later. I doubt there is a writer in the country who has such a high average of tone deafness ("Bridget acidulously said"); such a mixture of Victorian gentility and strong words to bolster a weak situation. People wax warm and sneer snottily, and just look down a page of dialogue:
"Poor Dolly," Lillian gurgled. . . . "My poor-r fren Dolly," Lillian sobbed. . . . "Poor Dolly!" Lillian gushed. . . . [And look down the next] "We're all ladies!" Marie exclaimed. "We're all ladies!" Marie monotoned. . . .
And on through "Marie asked," "Dolly drooled," "Lillian said," "she said lachrymosely," to the prize of them all: "Oh!' Lillian lugubriously sighed." And if it's action you're after, here is a typical thick-and-fast climax:
With equal methodicalness, he knocked Baby Face down with a calculated, timed punch in the jaw. An insane ecstatic gleam lit in Baby Face's eye. [skip one line] Looking up insanely he screamed: "Hit me! Hit me again!" [skip three] "Kill me! Kill me for it!" Baby Face shouted, emitting saliva which struck Sammy's cheek. [skip two sentences holding the coined phrases "All awareness of the situation was gone" and "He saw, like an object in a dream."] In an unwitting trice, and fighting with this fear, he flashed a razor, and with one stroke, slit Baby Face's throat. Blood spurted onto Sammy's clothes, as if from a pump. Baby Face's head, half severed, unsupportedly dropped forward. . . .
The story is about a fag and a Negro dupe and the Wassermann test and so is rich with revelation about the race question. It is all very interesting, but if its Gripping Realism is going to be high on the writing roster, I would just as soon we agreed not to have any literary tradition in America at all, for the present.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2339
SOURCE: "Introduction," in The Short Stories of James T. Farrell, The Vanguard Press, 1937, pp. xv-xxvii.
[In the excerpt below, Lovett discusses Farrell's commitment to present truthfully his observations of people under the pressures of demoralizing circumstances and decaying human institutions.]
Five years ago the name of James Farrell was unknown. Today it is read on the title pages of five novels, three volumes of short shories, and a challenging book of criticism. . . . He is among the foremost in the group of younger writers who are taking the stage in succession to those whom we already think of as the old guard: Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway. In his external career he recalls Dickens in the rapidity of his production and his sudden rise to notability as a writer and as a public figure—a defender of human rights.
My first acquaintance with Farrell at the University of Chicago was in connection with a letter which he wrote to the college newspaper protesting against the exclusion by the dramatic club of colored students from plays which introduced characters belonging to their race. At our second meeting he brought me the manuscript of a story about Studs Lonigan, a boy who grew up in the changing neighborhood a mile or so west of the University. If my recollection is correct—that I told him his material was fitted for longer treatment than the short story—I take it as an "appropriation to my own good parts." At all events, I soon heard my colleague Professor Linn roaring about a student who had turned in a theme of sixty thousand words on Studs Lonigan. Later I was in consultation with Mr. Henle of the Vanguard Press about its publication, when we decided to ask Professor Thrasher, authority on boys' gangs, to write an introduction calling attention to the extraordinary sociological value of the story, the result of Farrell's keen observation and intimate knowledge of adolescent life. I do not apologize for these early recollections, however gratifying they are to me, because they bring out the things that have made Farrell an important writer today—the richness of his material within sharply defined limits, the robust naturalism of his treatment, the social significance of his view of the American scene, and, it must be added, the strain of pity which humanizes while it never distorts the picture.
It is quite proper to take as a starting-point for a consideration of Farrell's work in fiction the lucid account which he has given of the artist's function and process in A Note on Literary Criticism. He rejects the view that the purpose of art is to give an enhanced and exalted impression of reality; to leave us with a sense of life as more intense and important than the life we usually lead; a means of rising, in Matthew Arnold's words, from our ordinary selves to our highest and best selves. "When we experience through a work of art," he argues, "we call on fewer of our senses than when we experience directly. Hence, when we ask of art that it be more than life we are asking not only for the impossible; we are asking for a downright absurdity." The enhancement-of-life theory of art implies that "a part can be greater than the whole." One might quarrel with Farrell's thesis in the name of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Dante, and Goethe—but not on the basis of his own work. One of his earliest short stories, written in 1929—a sketch of the funeral of Studs Lonigan, which became the germ of the trilogy dealing with that hero—illustrates the principle announced in 1936 that "art is a reproduction and re-creation of a sense of elements from life that interest man," and that "within the pattern and structure of events of a literary work necessity flows out of the essential factors of environment, situation, milieu, characters." In his consistent loyalty to this creed he has remained close to the objective material of his observation and experience—the boy gangs centering about the corner of Indiana Avenue and Fifty-eighth Street in Chicago, the express office where he and McGinty worked, the family circles of the Lonigans and the O'Flahertys, St. Patrick's Church where the young men received spiritual nourishment, and the baseball games, parks, bathing beaches, saloons, and worse places whither they resorted for recreation. In his effort to make his senses yield all possible evidence, he has drawn upon the baser as well as the nobler of them. I know of no episode more poignant or more revealing than that in which Studs Lonigan at mass in St. Patrick's Church is swept by recurrent waves of emotion at the sight of Father Doneggan eating the body of Christ to the rich accompaniment of music and incense, and the disturbing beauty and odor of the girl beside him.
One feature of Farrell's realism has received undue emphasis—his use of a few short words pertaining to physical properties and processes, colloquially current but until recently never seen on the printed page. Such words invariably attract the attention of the censor and, indeed, serve to illustrate the futility of censorship. From the time when Jeremy Collier published his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1697, the language described as bawdy disappeared from the drama and, under the further disapproval of The Spectator, from polite literature. Naturally in two centuries such words stored up a tremendous explosive force, so that when they were heard in Messrs. Stallings' and Anderson's What Price Glory? and in Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted, audiences received a terrific shock. Censorship had given these words an extra-realistic value from which realists were bound to benefit. One or two examples show their heads timidly in most novels of today which affect the hard-boiled attitude. Farrell uses them boldly as necessary parts of speech in his dictaphonic record of conversation among his people. Unlike Lawrence in Lady Chatterley's Lover, he has no ulterior purpose of cultivating a phallic consciousness in his readers. He uses them because his characters use them; under expurgation their speech would become unreal, and in this unreality would falsify, in his own view, the writer's presentation. . . .
Farrell's short stories are chips off the blocks of his novels. They are sketches of characters and episodes, casual and often trivial, thrown off with the prodigality of a Chekhov. Two qualities which are implicit in all Farrell's work stand out more distinctly than elsewhere in these fragments of life: irony and pathos. Sometimes the mere factual statement carries the bitter meaning: the dull vulgarity of city life in Don Bryan's Sunday stroll in "Looking 'Em Over"; and the atrocious sacrifice, meditated by priestly teachers, of the young lives intrusted to their charge in the resolutions set for Alvin Norton to read in "Accents of Death." The pathos of wasted youth in "A Front Page Story," "Soap," and "Honey, We'll Be Brave" is released the more effectively by the author's determined understatement. The reader knows, however, that behind the literal manner of the case reporter there is pity for the broken shards of humanity—a pity that has its most sustained expression in the drunken odyssey of the elder Lonigan, back through the years and the city of his success to the starting-point which now denotes failure—on the evening of his son's dying.
Mr. Farrell's later volume of short stories, Can All This Grandeur Perish?, shows a wider range of material, with no change of method. In particular, he gives several characterizations of adolescent girlhood as poignantly real as Studs Lonigan. In "Angela," an ill-favored high-school girl becomes a successful parasite at college by virtue of literary ambitions and radical pretensions. "Seventeen" is a story of precocious curiosity and passion, told against a background of cynical talk between two girls who call each other "Russell" and "McGowan." For another matter, Mr. Farrell shows a more sustained and mordant use of satire, directed, according to tradition, toward unmasking the pretensions and shams of an uncouth culture. It is to be feared that Mr. Farrell does not hold in high respect the literary education provided by the American college. "The Professor" is a cruelly revealing study through behavior and analysis. Here, for once, Mr. Farrell can be charged with animus which is usually absent from his work. The suffering which he displays with a lavishness almost medieval is not of his nature but of life's.
His admiration of Dreiser, Farrell limits by recognizing the inadequacy of his general ideas. In this respect the younger writer has already surpassed the older master, and, judging by his growth in intellectual power evinced by A Note in Literary Criticism, he bids fair to go farther yet. . . .
An aspect of urban life which appears with sinister clearness is the decline of institutions in their ability to hold or influence youth. The impotence of the church is always a theme of Farrell's social criticism. It is traced to one source in two short scenes from clerical life: "Reverend Father Gilhooley" and "The Little Blond Fellow." A mild indorsement of its influence appears in the belief of Studs Lonigan's companions that Catholic girls do not fall as easily as others, but its services have become a bore and the confessional has no terrors. The school is an unexplainable trespass on personal liberty. The family is a field of wrangling in which parental authority is constantly flouted. A theme of great significance in late nineteenth-century literature is that of the revolt of youth seeking freedom from institutions of the past—the war between the generations—which received its classic treatment in Turgeniev's Fathers and Sons. The tragedy of Studs Lonigan is that he is not a rebel; not even a criminal. He does not war against his family and against society, though he preys upon both. His life is tragic because it is empty of any purpose whatever. His experience is terrible and pitiful to his audience because it is meaningless to himself. It is Farrell's ferocious indictment of American life.
As I remarked at the outset, Farrell's addiction to general ideas and social criticism is by way of making him a public figure concerned in various movements for the reform and renovation of society. He has, however, succeeded in keeping his fiction free from the entanglements of partisanship. It is perhaps as a prophylactic treatment against the infection of his art by the virus of propaganda that he wrote his Note on Literary Criticism. At all events, a reader sees in this unpretentious little book the evidence of the writer's assimilation of ideas from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Dewey, and others, according to their usefulness to himself in making clear the purpose and necessary processes of his art.
Farrell begins by distinguishing between the aspects of literature as a fine and a useful art, according to whether it depends upon the aesthetic or the functional elements in human experience. Exclusive emphasis upon the aesthetic as represented by Pater or upon the functional as represented by St. Thomas Aquinas and Professor Babbitt he rejects. His chief battle is with the critics of the Marxist school: Granville Hicks, Michael Gold, Edwin Seaver, and others, who conceive literature largely in terms of economic environment and evaluate it according to its consciousness of the class struggle and the aid which it brings to one side or the other, bourgeois or proletarian. Against these interpreters of Marx, Farrell cites the authority of Marx himself:
Marx, then, conceived societies in motion, and he perceived that the factor of change is ever present in social relationships. Because of this factor, the effects of one set of relationships become causal factors for the next set, and thus there is ever evolving a whole network of influences; so that cultural manifestations, such as formal art, thought, and literature, which may be directly related to the basic material and economic relationships upon which a society is founded in one era, evolve away from that set of relationships as the process unfolds with the passage of time, and they in turn become part of the network of causal factors and conditioning influences in the general stream of social tendencies and forces.
This description, as Farrell points out, provides an explanation of the process "in which thought, art, and literature possess a carry-over value" from the past and bring aesthetic enrichment to the present as part of the inheritance of tradition.
The fact that Farrell is himself a Marxist in politics makes him the more anxious to defend his position that individual and collective, bourgeois and proletarian, as categories have no place as standards of judgment. He does not deny that a collective novel can be written but he rejects the notion that "the extent of the geographical territory covered in a novel and a prolixity of characters treated with relatively little detail will convey a stronger sense of the pressure of social circumstances and a stronger feeling of group or class or continent." . . . Again one must agree with Farrell's protest that men have other interests besides the class struggle, and that to use "proletarian" and "bourgeois" as terms of eulogy or reprobation is to substitute labels for analysis. It is true, nevertheless, that experiments in fiction and drama which emphasize the concept of group or mass, and criticism which takes account of literary values to be found in the exploited class, whose immediate interest is bound up with a world-process leading to a classless society, are in accord with the great and characteristic theme of modern literature: the theme of human solidarity—of "social union in a rationally ordered state." That Farrell in his stories of the degradation of human beings under the decay of human institutions is contributing to the emergence of this theme is my own conviction. Within the categories of growth and decay in literature, to which he devotes his last chapter, I place his own work in that of growth.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
SOURCE: "Our Own Storm Trooper: A Long, Short Story That Traces the Background of a Crusade of Hate," in The New York Herald Tribune Books, October 15, 1939, p. 6.
[Below, Rugoff finds Farrell's novella Tommy Gallagher's Crusade a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the mindless hatred that characterized the growing Fascist movement in America during the 1930s.]
Of all the symptoms in America which have been referred to as Fascist the one which indicates most conclusively that the cancerous disease now eating at the vitals of Europe has come here, is that of the men and women who stand on street corners in New York and other cities selling a paper pledged to race hatred and shouting shibboleths at passers. It is a phenomenon so ominous and strange in America, so distinctly a throwback to barbarism and darkness that any novelist able to shed light on it may well write one of those fictions which is timely yet has implications not to be dated, which is local yet speaks to all men everywhere.
James Farrell is a novelist with the necessary equipment. He has for almost ten years been occupied with arresting, detailed and sociologically scrupulous studies of lower middle-class Irish-American Catholics—a group that has contributed conspicuously to the tendency described above. Consequently, when he writes of Tommy Gallagher, American Fascist, he writes with peculiar authority. Many of us have come to know the manifestations of this type and even the basic economic and social data which help account for him, but his private personality, his train of thought, his spiritual, moral and psychological constitution—that is the province of a Farrell. And in Tommy Gallagher's Crusade he has taken at least one dramatic step into that province.
Although too brief to be a study of American Fascism in all its budding forms or even a complete portrait of a single Fascist, Tommy Gallagher's Crusade is an effective sketch, a telling and revelatory introduction. Farrell's technique is familiar: a realism that knows no turning from the object, a brick-by-brick method that sometimes plods, but ends by building up to the solidity of a tower, an honesty that is fanatic, and hatred of hypocrisy that is barely controllable. The story he tells this time is of Tommy Gallagher who decides that his career lies in helping Father Moylan, radio priest and publisher of "Christian Justice," drive the Jews out of America and make the country safe for Hitlerism. The interesting thing is that Tom's family out in Brooklyn is not only thoroughly respectable, but moderately well off, and that it opposes bitterly what Tommy is doing. Tommy himself has had various jobs, but hasn't managed to keep any of them; instead he has taken to hawking "Christian Justice" on street corners. He meets his father's mild remonstrances with arrogance and his brothers' enmity with contempt. He progresses to the notorious picket line in front of a radio station which has refused to broadcast Father Moylan; he draws strength from his sense of communion with others no matter how queer they seem; he shrieks their frenzied slogans; he is puffed up with importance, at first shamed, but at last flattered by all the publicity. He learns from day to day to mouth all the ancient nauseating tribal lies, to mock Jews on the street, to join other hoodlums in assaulting them. He learns to go about spoiling for a fight, looking particularly for gatherings which he considers "Red." He attends meetings of the Christian American party and is carried away by hysterical speeches, orgiastic demonstrations, murderous, flaring hatreds. And always he is terrifying because he is only a tool. Finally, he is badly beaten while trying to break up a meeting; when his brothers greet his return with ridicule he decides to leave home. But he is even too weak to stay away and so he takes to brooding in his room, nursing his hate and caressing his sense of frustration, venomous with self-pity, waiting for a day of vengeance, remembering that Hitler, too, had suffered rebuffs like this. . . .
The anatomy of Tommy Gallagher's brand of Fascism is dramatically clear. Throughout, his lack of moral and intellectual resources is appalling: capable of only the feeblest, muddiest substitute for thinking, he is suscéptible to catchwords and simplified solutions; with soft jobs whisked away by depression he is prey to every unscrupulous demagogic promise; with an education that has failed to cut him off from bigotry, the flame of intolerance waits in him to be fanned or smothered, and finally, with an ego insecure by nature and frayed by circumstances, his personality craves nourishment, strong, hypodermic nourishment. Calculated for just such personalities are the promises, the implicit racial flattery, the righteousness, the mumbo-jumbo and shifty distortions of Father Moylan and his "Christian Justice." Once the infection has set in, disease of spirit proceeds apace.
With that acute insight into the reverie world of the normal mind in general and the thwarted, underdeveloped youth in particular that distinguished Studs Lonigan, Farrell presents Tommy as almost constantly engaged in self-magnification. Everything that Tommy does has in it somewhere the desire to see Tommy the center of things; everywhere he insists on fancying himself as attracting comment, admiration—at worst, any kind of attention. Again and again he is above all pathetic. Far from being a monster, he is all too frailly human. In fact, because his circumstances are not altogether his fault and because he is to some extent tricked and duped, our hate is ever and again mixed with pity. We cannot help seeing that he is brutal because his ego is famished, violent because he needs excitement and attention, blind because he lacks equipment. . . . But understand his psychology though we may, even pity him though we may, he looms up in, the end a cruel and sinister figure, treacherous, blindly vicious, corrupted by ancient hates and lies, overflowing with rancor—a creature of the new barbarism.
Tommy Gallagher is in his own way linked to history for his "crusade" is part of the oldest and greatest crusade of hate in the records of man. That is perhaps why Farrell's book, although hardly more than a long short story, has implications that may well make any civilized reader flame with rage or grow heartsick with despair.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008
SOURCE: "Out of the Many, One," in The Nation, Vol. 154, No. 25, June 30, 1942, pp. 716-18.
[In this review, Forgotson admires those stories in $1000 A Week and Other Stories that provide the reader with some understanding of the human experience, but states that the majority of the stories lack significance.]
The items of this volume work by a wide variety of methods. In the simplest distinction, there is the fact that one "story," "G. B. S. Interviews the Pope," has the force of a dramatic dialogue between the irresistible force and the immovable object named; another consists of nothing more than the near side of a telephone conversation. Somewhat less obviously, there are differences of style to be seen, for example, in the contrast of such stories as "$1,000 a Week," "The Sport of Kings," and "Whoopee for the New Deal!" with such as "Sorel," "After the Sun Has Risen," "The Bride of Christ," and "Counting the Waves." The former group, which forms the majority, has the relaxed American colloquialism of the author's novel-writing, whereas the latter uses a manner much like the average style of the French or Russian realists, who appear to make a studied blend of the colloquial with the formal and "literary." It is interesting to observe, incidentally that Mr. Farrell's exotic manner occurs in concomitance with a subject matter which, beside his regular Chicago-Irish-American milieu, is also exotic: Jacques Sorel, the French royalist Vichyman; the expatriate bohemian paralytic of "After the Sun Has Risen"; the dead nun of "The Bride of Christ"; the scenery and minor persons, if not the protagonist, of "Counting the Waves."
But the shifting feature of these stories that is most difficult to trace and define is their meaning. I would decline to enter the lists on behalf of a True Technique of the Short Story, and I shall not be trying to join the dance by a back door if I say that the stories of Mr. Farrell whose effects I value most highly are those founded upon a perspicuous meaning. And what do I mean by "meaning"? It is not easy to give the term an exact definition because the phenomena to which I am applying it are not easily classified. I will propose, tentatively, that a meaningful story is one which conveys an empirically true statement of the common ground of human experiences that are unlike in detail while it actually presents only a single set of particulars and the experience of individuals. This will sound like a paradox, and as I have put it, it is, for the statement of a particular cannot at the same time be the statement of a generalization. There must really be something more than a mere account of particulars in what I am calling a meaningful story. The device by which a story can achieve the double focus of the specific and the general is usually the symbol; how we are persuaded to recognize the symbol as such is a problem that requires for its solution a delicate study of the manipulation of "minimal dues" against the anticipated foreknowledge of the audience.
In this sense of the label, at least one of Mr. Farrell's stories—"Accident"—has, as I read it no meaning whatever; if stands solely on the feet of its action and circumstantial detail, more or less like its legion of innocent brothers the world around. Other stories, such as the title piece, "$1,000 a Week," seem to involve their literality with some meaning, but one that is relatively limited, superficial, and ready-to-hand—not very perspicuous, in short. Of the small selection which passes beyond this stage, the leader is probably "Whoopee for the New Deal!" John and Kate Robinson and Henry and Myrtle Lohrman are seen during the course of a recreational evening in the period just after Mr. Roosevelt's first election and the announcement of the NRA. The story is in Mr. Farrell's painstakingly concrete mode; the details of person, speech, behavior, and scene are full and precise. The two couples exchange opinions about the times ("the new man in Washington," "this fellow Hitler," "Socialists . . . they're morons"), although these opinions have a plausible context of other opinions about golf, adultery, and the proper way of slapping up a highball. They go to a speak-easy to celebrate the New Deal, lean yearningly toward the disgraceful, and come home, drunk and singing. The central thing about this story is the kind of understanding which the four chief characters exhibit toward their total social situation, and which the reader can recognize as representative. It is such a compound of shallow realism and downright error and illusion (the reader must supply this judgment) as to be entirely unavailing as a weapon against the situation; this is the source of the governing effect of the story, which is an effect of irony, pity, and not a little terror, now that history has shown us something more of its hand. When the Lohrmans are staggering home from the speakeasy, Henry sings "Git along little dogie, git along." They are all "little dogies," but only Mr. Farrell and the wise reader are in on the secret. "Well, we had something to celebrate," says Henry apologetically as he undresses for bed, and the remark functions as an epigram of the total meaning which the story has been accumulating, and also as a final crystallization of the ironic effect: it recalls the inadequacy of the Lohrmans' and the Robinsons' understanding of their broad historical predicament, and it plays upon the discrepancy between the fatal potentialities of that predicament and the couples' empty and ignorant "celebrating." "Whoopee for the New Deal!" is by my standards one of the most admirable sorts of short fiction that an author of Mr. Farrell's intellectual position and human sympathies could produce; a sort, that is to say, in which the psychological meaning is inseparable from the social meaning, since its materials are human experience of the crises of society. Unfortunately, in the present collection, the effort is scattered and the score is low.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 810
SOURCE: "Thirteen Farrell Tales," in The New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, June 4, 1944, p. 13.
[In the following review of To Whom It May Concern and Other Stories, Kupferberg contends that Farrell's style and ideas are most successful in his longer works.]
James T. Farrell suffers from a sort of literary claustrophobia—he isn't comfortable unless he has plenty of room. That is why his novels are long and overflow into trilogies and tetralogies. As a consequence, most of his short stories really are odds and ends sloughed off from novels, pieces of mosaic that wouldn't fit into some large pattern and so are polished up and presented as individual images.
At least seven of the thirteen stories in To Whom It May Concern, Mr. Farrell's latest collection, seem to have been born of his novels, and like most foundlings, have been dressed in their best and hopefully turned loose in the world.
There is no reason, of course why an incident or character study that properly belongs in a novel shouldn't also be able to stand up as a perfectly good short story. But Mr. Farrell's novels achieve their impact through an accumulation of incidents or character studies. You can't find out what sort of a fellow Studs Lonigan is by reading a few pages: you have to read three books. A volume of unrelated short stories by Mr. Farrell lacks this cumulative effect. It sounds like Farrell, all right, but more like his echo than his voice.
Many of the stories at hand evidently have been lying about for a number of years, awaiting the polishing-up process. They deal with the old Farrell themes—a teamster having a few with the boys in the bar, a bum trying to sleep on a sidewalk, a high school football player's rather sad big game, a ward heeler's Sunday at home, a boy running away from school to escape unjust punishment—most of this happening in Chicago. They are shot through with references to Gas-House McGinty, Weary Reilly and other old Farrell characters. One story, "Omar James," a forlorn tale of a man who goes to a burlesque show when his love affair misfires, might better have been left unpublished. It is dated 1931-'43, which indicates Mr. Farrell had his doubts, too.
Some of the later stories in the book are less apt to be stereotyped. There is a shrewdly drawn picture of a brokendown film star of the silent days trying to live in—and off—the past. The title story is a self-portrait of a movie writer going to pieces. Perhaps the "To Whom It May Concern" label this story, bears carries a barb. Least typical of all and one of the better stories is "Baby Mike," an amusingly tender picture of a college professor's efforts to raise his child. The only other sustained effort at humor is a six-page playlet satirizing Clifford Odets and William Saroyan.
The prize piece in the book—and also the longest—is Mr. Farrell's well known Tommy Gallagher's Crusade, which first was published in 1939. This vivid account of the rise of a would-be storm trooper of the American variety must have been written at white heat. It represents Mr. Farrell at his best as a reporter and an artist, and is every bit as valid today as the day it was written.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
SOURCE: "A Capacity for Nothing," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 45, November 9, 1946, p. 20.
[In the following review, Rothman deplores the pessimism and spiritual sterility characterizing Farrell's collection of short stories When Boyhood Dreams Come True and Other Stories.]
The Studs Lonigan trilogy is in many ways a great piece of work; and the Danny O'Neill tetralogy, although it is less sustained, contains large sections of intense, imaginative, sometimes brilliant writing. That is why so many of us have regarded Mr. Farrell's later books with increasing dismay. The novels and the short stories that have come from him since then have betrayed, most unhappily for those who rated Farrell high among contemporary writers, an ebbing of literary power. They have been marked, upon the superficial writing level, by dulness and fatigue, and more profoundly by a barrenness of spirit. His last novel, Bernard Clare, seemed to me to suffer from this basic fallacy: that no man as callow and unimaginative, as completely unformed, as Bernard Clare was shown to be, could possibly be a creative writer, as Farrell postulated he was.
All of Bernard Clare's cynical strictures upon the New York scene were negated entirely by the fact that he was not himself a subtle or a penetrating observer. I feel this to be a characteristic of all of Farrell's recent work, and especially of these short stories now published as When Boyhood Dreams Come True. They are bitter, they are acidulous—in fact, to risk an anticlimax, they are extremely unhappy—yet there is no authority in them because there is nowhere a solid vantage point from which we may view the shambles with understanding, no recognizable moment of clear affirmation, to impose meaning upon the long and truly monotonous chant of negation.
At the very end of one story called "John Hitchcock," which is a very bitter account of a hack writer thrashing about obscurely in the pseudo-literary world of Greenwich Village, the writer himself cries out—these are the closing words—"Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!" The same words, audible or not, issue from the mouth and spirit of every character of these stories, and they might well be placed upon the title page. They are definitive. They are the secret that every one of these people—Hitchcock the writer, Willie Collins the express dispatcher, Eddie McGoorty the neophyte priest, Tom Finnegan the soldier, Cal Dolan the basketball player, Fritz the German liberal, Roland the college student—clutches painfully to himself: that he is an empty husk, that there is no spark of divinity in him, that he knows he hates everything but doesn't know that he loves anything, that inside of him, beside hatred and disgust and fear, there is nothing! nothing! And in none of them, in none of their histories, is there any strength of any kind. Their revulsion is meaningless since they recoil toward nothing. Their flight inspires in us neither pity nor enthusiasm, since they flee toward nothing. It is because they are so incapable of reacting with humanity to human experience, that we can have no feeling for them. I will cite one instance: sex. Sex is a vital element in at least half of these tales, and it is, every time, a monstrous and destructive element. It is, every time, something quite shameful and dirty, and it is never a good experience or a happy one.
I cannot help but feel that Mr. Farrell, in one of his selves, has accepted the fearful and hypocritical view of nature from which, with his other, he flees so violently. What validity can there be in his writing until he comes to grips with himself?
The dulness and the fatigue which I have mentioned above rise out of these conditions. The long, stubborn dialogues on church doctrine are the same long, stubborn dialogues we have already read in the Lonigan and O'Neill stories; nothing has been added. The dream sequences are less inspired than they were when Studs and Danny first dreamed them. There is the overpowering sense of moving backward on a treadmill of old furies, and there is indeed some internal evidence that these stories are not fresh material. I should like to see Mr. Farrell hold up a while, and think out his own destination, before he publishes again. Whatever it should be, he will sound and read more like the vigorous writer we have known, when he cuts away from this retelling of his beads, and moves in an affirmative direction.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581
SOURCE: A review of The Short Stories of James T. Farrell, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XXVI, No. 313, February, 1947, pp. 260-61.
[In the following excerpt, Brown argues that Farrell, despite frequent stylistic infelicities, remains an important writer who asks crucial questions about the direction and consequences of American capitalism.]
For readers of Farrell there is nothing new in the excellent Penguin selection of 13 stories. Dating from 1928 to 1943, they serve to remind us once again of the continuity of Farrell's work. Alone of the major figures of the 'thirties he has forged steadily ahead, undisturbed by the shifting winds of doctrine—or by the hysterical attacks of the literary hatchet men whom he characterized, with customary truculence, as the League of Frightened Philistines. By the same token he remains a major figure of the 'forties while his contemporaries have retired into a profound and apparently unbreakable silence.
The familiar Farrell characters are here; the youths smothering in the barren environment of lower middle class Irish Catholic family life; the young men and boys wandering the bleak Chicago streets, brooding, wishing and day-dreaming; the bewildered and broken parents, seeking consolation in memories of the past or in the rantings of the radio priest, Father Moylan (Coughlin). They are helplessly trapped in the crumbling ruins of the landmarks of their lives—home, church and school.
The selection includes one of the earliest and most moving of Farrell's stories, "Studs" which later developed into the Studs Lonigan trilogy. It concludes with the 1939 novelette, Tommy Gallagher's Crusade, a portrait of the embryonic American fascist. This is more of a political pamphlet than a work of fiction and it bears evidence of hasty and somewhat shallow writing. . . .
The stories are wisely chosen to illustrate one of Farrell's most significant themes. In his foreword, he writes: "These stories, then, are tales of the realities of life today. They are stories of urban youth. They can be approached in terms of this problem: What is the condition of childhood and youth in urban, twentieth-century America?"
This is one of the questions Farrell has been asking ever since he began writing. He asked it and answered it at great length in Studs Lonigan and again in the Danny O'Neill series. And that answer is a terrible indictment of the spiritual and cultural wasteland that capitalism has made of America. If Farrell is sometimes repetitious it should be remembered that what he is saying cannot be said too often or too forcibly—and that, in the present condition of American writing he is almost alone in saying it. . . .
Farrell makes the point that the loneliness of young people in the isolating conditions of modern city life is due, in part, to their failure to recognize that their problems are bound up with the common problems of the time. "When I was a boy and when I was a youth," he writes, "I felt that I was alone in facing the problems that were troubling me; so often I seemed lost in an inner state of bewildered loneliness." . . .
Carping critics will find plenty of examples . . . of Farrell's all too frequent ineptness of phrase and clumsiness of style. They will complain that the stories are sometimes formless slabs of reportage and they will probably lay the blame at the door of that much used term, naturalism. But it would be unfair to quibble about such things in these days of literary drought when any number of writers are saying nothing in excellent prose.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482
SOURCE: "Farrell in Perspective," in The New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, Vol. 24, No. 9, October 19, 1947, p. 5.
[In the following assessment of The Life Adventurous and Other Stories, Match observes that Farrell's writing, as a whole, provides an honest and compelling vision of American lower-class society.]
A taste for the realistic fiction of James T. Farrell is like a taste for sea food.
This reviewer, who happens to like the Farrell brand of realism, will concede that the author of Studs Lonigan has his blind spots, but there seems no reason to insist that any one imaginative writer encompass all of America in his work. The fact remains that Farrell has written of a particular section of American life as no other man has. His Chicago novels told a significant part of the American story, the part he knew best, and told it with honesty, meaning, and unforgettable creative power.
To a degree duplicated by few other writers, James T. Farrell's fiction over twenty years is all of a piece. Most of the items in this latest collection of his short stories fall with scarcely a ripple into the larger body of his work, the somber epic of Chicago's Irish Catholics. With the exception of three political parables, exhibiting Mr. Farrell's well known aversion to Stalinism, the majority of these twenty stories, sketches and monologues are fragments of the larger Danny O'Neill story.
Parenthetically, politics can blight Mr. Farrell's customary objective craftsmanship. Of the three anti-Communist items, only one, "Comrade Stanley," achieves the stature of a short story, with believable human beings under believable stress.
The prevailing theme of the stories in this book is failure, whether the leading character is an ex-professor of sociology, as in the title story, or a philosopher, a filling-station supervisor or a dead-arm pitcher in the Three Eye League. Farrell's ability to make his people real seems to operate in inverse ratio to their I. Q.'s. His New York intellectuals are too often lifeless, but his vacant-eyed Chicagoans have all the sharpness of old.
The young Irish-Americans of these stories are a few years younger than Studs Lonigan, mainly contemporaries of Danny O'Neill and graduates of Mary Our Mother High School. As of old, they wander on Indiana Avenue, go to parties with Lonigan's younger sister, lean against the drug-store front near the elevated station and watch young women passing by with "buttocks wriggling like a billboard display." Already, in the early Hoover era, they yearn for the "vanished splendor" of Studs Lonigan's heyday, and their failure, as always, is that they "fail even to become human beings."
Farrell is no uplifter, but he knows his people, and he can write of them gently. The best story in this volume is "Father Timothy Joyce," a glimpse into the secret heart of a young Chicago priest, told with insight, understanding and—believe it or not—sympathy.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871
SOURCE: "Mr. Farrell Hits to Several Fields," in The New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Vol. 27, No. 15, November 26, 1950, p. 4.
[In the following estimation of An American Dream Girl, Maloney states that Farrell possesses a place in American literary history not for his technique or style, but for the directness and power of his vision.]
Baseball is James T. Farrell's hobby. I do not know who his particular heroes are in this field, but much of my respect is reserved for unendowed men like Lou Boudreau and Eddie Stanky, who have, by sheer force of will, shouldered their way into the ranks of supremely endowed men like Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio. Much of my respect is also reserved for Mr. Farrell, whose status in the world of letters is strikingly similar to that of Mr. Stanky in the world of baseball. Mr. Farrell can't run; he can't hit; and he can't throw; but I wouldn't trade him for a half a dozen melancholy exquisites just up from New Orleans.
Mr. Farrell is a unique case Lacking the imaginative gift, and without any apparent feeling for the language, he has, through sheer determination and belief in himself, earned a place in our literature. His assets are (as they have always been) an uncompromising integrity, a prodigious memory, and a bright, fierce hatred of ignorance and injustice. These were the qualities which enabled him, in the space of five years, to bludgeon his way through the thousand-page Studs Lonigan trilogy, a powerful indictment of our society. Today, fifteen years later, he is still writing at almost the same pace and with the same honesty, but the flame of his anger has cooled somewhat, and with it has gone much of the vitality and the power upon which his work must depend if it is to succeed.
His latest book is a collection of short stories entitled An American Dream Girl. It is an odd miscellany, a sort of catch-all which, in a way, chronicles almost every phase of the author's career. It contains some scraps and sketches from the old Chicago days of Lonigan and McGinty. There are three stories of Americans in Paris, and two which portray disenchantment with political movements of the extreme left. It includes also such varied pieces as a grim political fantasy, a rather elephantinely humorous sketch of a Ring Lardner character who finds that he cannot seduce New York girls because they have all read Freud, a somewhat obvious satire about a man who murders his wife, and one aspect of love among pseudo-literati of Manhattan. It will probably be greeted with the usual scornful hoots by those critics who find Mr. Farrell's tone-deaf style particularly offensive to the ear; and yet I think that the book is justified by the inclusion of two excellent long stories in which Mr. Farrell is just about at top form.
The first of these stories, "The Martyr," tells of Leonard Luckman, a once-promising novelist who, having served Mammon for six years in Hollywood, has now returned to New York to write a novel which he hopes will make him famous. Leonard is a communist, and when he writes an article which includes a plea for a liberalization of the party's attitude toward art he is viciously attacked in all the party organs. Finally he realizes that he must either retract everything he has said or quit the party. He is not strong enough to do the latter, and so he publicly confesses the error of his ways and returns to Hollywood, knowing that he will never write another novel. "The Martyr" is a quiet, unfrenzied and painstakingly thorough account of one man's disillusionment and Mr. Farrell treats Leonard with compassion and understanding.
The second story is called "I Want to Go Home." It is a pretty devastating portrait of an ineffectual young American who has some pretensions to being a painter. He is living in Paris, being kept by a vacuous neurotic girl who has discovered that he is a genius. He makes ugly daubs on canvas. He visits the usual Bohemian haunts. He even has one of his paintings hung in a bar. He tells himself that he is an artist, but secretly, at night, he longs to be back working at his old job in a Chicago garage. It is the depth of the insight which Mr. Farrell brings to bear on his two principal characters that make this story such a memorable one.
The pieces in this volume could hardly be held up as examples of the well made story. Mr. Farrell is much more interested in packing everything in than he is in technique. This is all very well in a trilogy where he has plenty of elbow room, but when attempted within the limited framework of a story it results in a kind of gargantuan clumsiness. So much has to be explained in so little space that often the stories seem more like case histories and the reader finds himself constantly confronted by vast stretches of bare exposition. Nevertheless in the best of the work, such as the two stories mentioned above, this piling up of detail can produce a cumulative effect of considerable power.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942
SOURCE: "Case Study of Dreams," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 49, December 9, 1950, p. 16.
[In the following review of An American Dream Girl, Algren argues that Farrell's lack of emotional involvement in his writing is an artistic failing.]
"Work, senseless dates, fears, terrors, with near breakdowns every six months," Farrell describes the dream-girl of his title story, "she would go to bed and there lie in terror of something unreal and unseen, and she would get up at all hours and take taxicabs just to be with anyone who would lie with her and hold her . . . tell her she was a good girl and that she wasn't alone. This was her life."
Nor, as his readers are long aware, is there a great deal more than this to the lives of Farrell's other dream-boys and dream-girls. Under his compassionless prose and belabored cataloging we feel in every story the same dissatisfaction and the same dull dream—a sense of unfulfilled human possibilities sometimes strong enough to make his people come true.
In "Slouch," "Yellow Streak," and "A Romantic Interlude in the Life of Willie Collins" he reports three commonplace failures so tangibly that we share a common disappointment. And in "A Misunderstanding," the story of a man who puts up just so long with a wife who can't answer a straight question, there is both tragedy and humor, the latter an element heretofore alien to this writer. In "Have I Got Sun in My Eyes?", an account of a whistle-stop wolf's bewilderment at the hands of New York women bewildered by Freud, he brings off a bit of Ring Lardner business rather handily.
The remaining pieces are hewn by and large out of that same old Fifty-seventh Street woodpile with that same old axe. "Digging Our Own Graves" isn't nearly as grim as it tries to be and has a distinct second-hand ring. He telegraphs his punch right off and then delays it endlessly in "The Fastest Runner on Sixty-first Street." And "The Martyr" and the stories about Paris take much too long for saying so very little.
Indeed, when he writes in the piece called "Summer Tryout" of a play in which "sons speak to their mother as if she were a girl they were trying to pick up on a street corner," he speaks fairly accurately of his own sense of dialogue. "Written in the naturalistic manner," he assures us, "but without any real feeling or insight, the play seemed to embody just about every trick of corny melodrama."
For there is a slovenliness in Farrell's use of words and a tastelessness about his prose that rob these stories of color and forward movement. If he wrote them in longhand it would be with the old-fashioned Palmer Method backhand-slant.
Yet what is really lacking here is more than forward movement and more than color. What is really wrong is his tacit premise that a work of art requires no more of the artist than the laying of a case study on the table with the flat declaration that every word in it is God's Truth.
God's Truth is sufficient for the sociologist and usually more than enough for the reporter nowadays; but the artist, if he is one, must come up with his own truth: the truth of his own emotional involvement. But Farrell assumes that a direct line between subject and reader evades the whole creative process. The only emotion of his own he can spare to his material is a thinnish sort of sentimentality touched by a vague nostalgia; in the 1890 valentine called "A Coincidence" and in "The Wake of Patsy McLaughlin" the pages begin sticking together. Which leaves the reader feeling that most of these stories have never been completed—neither on the typewriter nor in the heart.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2688
SOURCE: "James T. Farrell: Two Twilight Images," in Fifty Years of the American Novel: A Christian Appraisal, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952, pp. 237-56.
[In the excerpt below, O'Malley argues that Farrell's fictional world is unremittingly bleak and spiritually degenerate, the result of a decayed civilization and an impoverished Catholicism.]
The fiction of Farrell is likely to bring immediately to mind a well-known figure imagined by the literary historian Taine: in this figure men are seen as field-mice being trampled to death by elephant herds, which portray the brutal forces of nature and civilization. Surely the people who stir about in Farrell's books seem as weak and small and helpless as field-mice, crushed in fear, blinded by poverty and debased by their own wild, unbridled instincts (instincts vaster than will or mind or soul, it would appear) and by the impact of a dark, dangerous, industrial and commercial civilization. In this respect, the work of Farrell draws us back to such nineteenth-century writers as Zola, the Goncourt brothers and George Gissing (a kind of Victorian Farrell)—to mention but a few—writers who took experience not from the salons of the old world but, one might say, from the sewers of the new.
Yet it is understandable that the plight of man in an urbanized, industrialized civilization could scarcely have been ignored, that the sensibilities of serious artists would have been lacerated by the very life they experienced, that they would have to incorporate it into their fictions. This is a most unhappy, sad, suffering civilization—and writers, in the face and feeling of it, could not be expected to show themselves as sentimentalists or optimists. That they should have become materialists or Marxists or naturalists is no matter for wonder, for they were the heirs and products and observers of a highly secularized civilization, in which the destruction of faith and of the traditional philosophical and theological sources of value had been all but accomplished. They lived—and they made clear that they lived—in the twilight of civilization.
It is abundantly clear that Farrell, whether he be described as naturalist or materialist, is important for his expression of his sense of the twilight of civilization. This is what comes out most lavishly and painfully in his stories and novels: he offers a gruesome image of civilization—and within that civilization he establishes another image, his image of the Catholic Church, or rather of the Church as affected by the particular circumstances and pressures of modern, urban, secular existence. . . .
Here and there in his work Farrell betokens at least a faint sort of sentimental primitivism—in delineating the plight of his people of the cities, struggling to be human again, his people of the vacuum, sucked out and dehumanized by their endurance in civilization. For example, in the short story, "The Benefits of American Life" (Guillotine Party, 1935), the sturdy Greek shepherd boy who comes to America and "that tremendous paradise known as Chicago," becomes a dance-marathoner, winning the super-marathon for a prize of five thousand dollars only to ruin his health in the strain of the contest. And the prize-money is used, on his return to Greece, to pay for his remnant of life, "with his lungs rotting away on him," in a tuberculosis resort of his native mountains. Farrell would here suggest, I think, the virtues of the simpler, humbler, more primitive life as opposed to life in the urban American civilized paradise. So he allows his lonely Greek boy in the huge city to remember "his homeland and his Grecian mountain" and "the long, slow days with the sheep."
In another story, "Clyde" (Calico Shoes, 1934), a drugstore clerk is sketched off as having entered willingly into "the alienness of the enormous city, sentimentalizing his determination to fight out its loneliness." But his pointof-view alters, since in the strange, sprawling city he is stifled. There is no community among men, none of the really human contacts he longs for; he suffers from the disease of homelessness: "The unconcern of the crowds, the impermanence of the acquaintanceships he formed, the crushing noise, the shouts of a ceaseless, merciless dollar struggle, all attacked his dazed nerves and his bucolic naiveté." Farrell shows him as yearning for home, for "that lazy, dead, Indiana village" where he had once known certainty of life and where he did have a sense of belonging:
His imagination repeatedly fixed and caressed images of his beloved Indiana earth, beloved earth and foliage and woods withering through remembered but dimming distances. At home there, life, the universe, all those images, objects, associations and events which adolescence links into the abstraction called life, had seemed friendly, saturated with amiability. Back in Indiana, everything, even stray stones, seemed to have had personality to the young man, Clyde—as he recalled them in his urban isolation.
[The] Church is, as I have said, his second persistent—and maybe his more significant—image. The Church, as Farrell presents it, . . . is a dreary, sentimental and shapeless refuge for the impoverished or empty-headed superstitious; it swirls in and out of the chaos of life and degradation and death in which his characters move. But it has no real relevance for their lives: the characters recollect the dreadful catechetical lessons dinned into their brains, grim lessons of sin and hell and damnation; they are exposed to the vulgar-orotund and slick-dogmatic sermons; they swoon through the indulgence of the sweetest minor pieties and berate themselves, in maudlin conscience-pangs, for their prurient offenses against the law, the law from which they are never delivered by love or the faintest intimation thereof. Their highly-individualistic religious experience is part of their own terrible isolation within the dark world.
Altogether in Farrell's work religion, lacking any genuine dynamic, any genuine entrance into the lives of the people, is just an inconsequential retreat from discomfort and noise, despair and poverty: "And it was so quiet in the church . . . Ah, how pretty a thing Mary was"; and the eyes of the petitioner become "glued in fascination on the Italian features of the statue, the large red lips . . . the lovely reddish blush of the cheeks."
While the religious propulsion of Farrell's male characters appears to have as its highest goal the complacent security of membership in the "Order of Christopher," the religious drive of his female characters is towards satiation in what can only be called novena-antics: Lizz O'Neill, for example, turned in upon herself as she is, is expert in such things. But Farrell is nowhere more outrageous in the cast-irony of his treatment of religious experience than in the low-grade short story, "Two Sisters" (Guillotine Party).
Here the two harridans meet after attending Mass in St. Clement's Church: midway in their indecent barging and quarrelling, one of them expatiates on the virtues of devotion to the "Little Rose of Jesus Christ," on the advantages of joining the Society dedicated to her and on the wonders she would work for the members. Devotion to other saints, she piously and placidly avers, had fine results, too: praying to St. Anthony, for instance, for lost letters; to St. Joseph for domestic tranquillity; to St. Rita for the relief of colds, and so on. Still, she assures her sister, for any unusual crisis, no saint could compare with the "Little Rose." At the story's end, after the lascivious bitterness between the sisters has passed, they go out to the Shrine of St. Jude, who, it is opined, is quite powerful—and remain there praying until the janitor sends them along by locking up the church: "They parted in good spirits, agreeing to meet and make the novena to the Little Rose which was commencing on the following Tuesday."
This story is, even for Farrell, exceptionally tasteless, coarse—in theme, style and execution—and it is a vast distance removed from the spirit and style of a story by James Joyce which it brings to mind, at least because of a similarity of titles: "The Sisters," from Dubliners, a story cheerless enough in atmosphere but told with such kindness and with such fineness of perception and feeling as to make Farrell's oppressive coarseness and critical realism all the more repugnant.
It is true, as Robert Morss Lovett, Farrell's great mentor, has said, that Farrell in his short stories is capable of pathos as well as irony. It is also true that Farrell has written a number of fine stories. But I think that it is an extremity of exaggeration or mistaken enthusiasm to suggest, as Lovett does, that Farrell's short stories have serious blood-relationship with those of Joyce in Dubliners. Any "family" resemblance that exists must be coincidental, flimsy, superficial. Farrell, we know, has unstinting admiration for Joyce and has undoubtedly borrowed from Joyce (as he has from Proust), notably the technique of dream-streaming.
Even so, Farrell's admiration for and use of Joyce (whose naturalism is subordinated and transmuted) do not dislodge the fact that Joyce is, in essence and in effect, a writer entirely different from Farrell. Joyce is inseeing, subtle, incessantly compassionate. His humor for men and their errant ways is cosmical, Dantesque. Contrastingly, the spleen of Farrell is often narrow, odd, viscous, perverse and unnecessary, bearing some relation to that of the anonymous vagrant who inscribes the soul's putrescence among the exudations of a filthy urinal wall. In dealing with the Irish Catholics of his short stories, Joyce is incapable of Farrell's too frequently raw and resentful excrescences; nor is he ever ready to heap Farrell's verminous indignities upon the humanity of his sinners, of his low Christians in civilization. . . .
Now it may be true that Farrell, in his time and place, has discerned and been dismayed by some of the worst features of Catholic life in America—sentimentalism, Jansenism and sectarianism—features which have made even the staunchest and most knowing Catholic minds shudder. These are the conditions that once appalled the young James Joyce among the Dublin Irish and which contributed to his, no less than to Farrell's, rejection of the Church. But Joyce never lost his feeling for the Church, despite his apostasy (his profound interest in the liturgy, for instance, remained throughout his books and throughout his life). Joyce's Stephen assures himself: "In temper and mind you are still a Catholic. Catholicism is in your blood"; and his friend Cranly remarks: "It is a curious thing . . . how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve."
Farrell's preoccupation with the Church . . . repellent, harsh, bold, without any of the tenderness of the Joycean sense of the inner strength and deep rhythm of the Church's life. The human beings of the Church in the dark and imperfect city, whether Dublin or Chicago, cannot help being tainted, tormented and distorted by the earthy conditions of their existence. Farrell, however, could not realize that "Catholics are not Catholicism" that the integrity of the Church's ministry, of its dogma, moral code and ritual is in no way whatsoever diminished by particular, local circumstances or by the defalcations of particular Catholics.
Farrell's Catholics, then, are as degenerate as the civilization about them. And their physical and social poverty is as great and piercing and demoralizing as their spiritual poverty: "Silently, he cursed. He glanced around at his ragged children, from face to face, at his wife, at the gleaming kerosene lamp. He god-damned his poverty, the poverty that had robbed him of one son. God, would he ever break through it into something better?" Totally unlike Dostoevski or Bloy, Farrell does not have the Christian's or the Church's insight into the meaning and dignity of poverty. He does not provide, as Bloy does, his wretched poor with any chance to arrive at their meaning: poverty is simply a terror, a disease and a curse, and its victims are not allowed their proper illumination as "God's legitimate heirs." That the Saviour, in Bloy's phrasing, "wanted preeminently to be called Poor man and the God of the poor" is no part of Farrell's wisdom or of the wisdom of his creations. There is only bitterness minus any vestige of nobility in the hearts of Farrell's blighted Catholic poor.
And Farrell's social thought and action are merely humanitarian and Utopian. What he cannot conceive is that social revolution or alteration will not alter the mystery or the meaning or the possibility of poverty—of the poor man whom God has placed on a pedestal. It is interesting to note that Farrell's approach to the problem and resolution of social evil and injustice is based upon his acceptance of the philosophy of progress (the modern materialist belief in progress, both bourgeois and Marxist utopianism) along with its easy corollary, the philosophy of despair or absolute pessimism (the resort or submission to despair when history doesn't turn out as expected or intended).
Farrell cannot grasp the Church's sense of the mystery of human history and destiny, with its "relative pessimism," as Maritain describes it in his The Twilight of Civilization:
If twilight ushers in night, night itself precedes day. And in human history it often happens that the first rays of a dawn are mingled with the twilight. In my mind, the notion of the present trials endured by civilization was inseparable from that of a new humanism, which is in preparation in the present death-struggle of the world, and which at the same time is preparing the renewal of civilization even if it be only for the time that St. Paul predicts as "a resurrection from among the dead."
The Church that Farrell makes real, in his twilight of civilization, is not the Church of resurrection, with perennial prospects of generating an integral humanism. His Church is a church of miserable stagnation, of the deadly living and the living dead. . . .
In offering what appear to be his most persevering images, Farrell impresses upon the reader the force of his unflinching honesty and the rectitude of his zealous, if limited, social sense and social responsibility. His fictions do not advance, however; they simply intensify (or accumulate), with monotonous repetitiveness and generally with unboundaried crudity, the dim experiences that have wholly engrossed the author. With regard to his most important characterizations, he is best, I think, in detailing the confused and naked heart of his primitive hero, Studs, and its incoherent search for a nebulous center. . . .
When Farrell, the artist as a young man, forsook his religion and his city, he did not really, like Joyce, find his new strength in art but in society as a kind of reporter or transcriber of the density of contemporary American society. Although he is an inveterately serious writer, Farrell, in ultimate appraisal, is an earnest sociologist rather than a very good artist. His attitude toward literature (and his sense of his task), expressed as recently as 1947 in his Literature and Morality, has not got beyond the conception prevalent in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth century.
The tendencies current in today's literature, altering "the entire face of the novel," are not what Farrell thinks they are. The "progress of science" and realism and naturalism in literature, as we know these elements, have, I think, run their course, except possibly in this country. But, says Farrell, "the naturalistic movement has not died out in literature." While he may be right in saying that through naturalism and realism "untold possibilities have been perceived and utilized," this is, nevertheless, no longer the day of Zola or Hardy or George Moore or Dreiser—nor is it, any longer, the day of Farrell. . . .
Farrell's great energy never amounts to poetry (if the evocative word meant everything to Joyce, it means nothing to Farrell) and his consciousness of the evil of civilization never becomes a vision or grows into the stature of a cosmology. He is unable to transcend, by any affinity with poetry and philosophy, the old naturalistic mode to which he has doggedly and humorlessly devoted himself. His people remain for the most part like animals "creeping forward" from one ferocious frustration to another. His situations radiate but little light: "And there was nothing to see. The world was full of blackness."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2154
SOURCE: "James T. Farrell: Moralist," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 209, No. 1253, October, 1954, pp. 93-4, 96, 98.
[In this excerpt, Grattan describes Farrell as an optimistic moralist who believes in man's entitlement to freedom.]
At fifty James Thomas Farrell begins to show some of the burnish of an "old master" and if he is still a bit hagridden by the identification, "author of Studs Lonigan," it is becoming commoner to recognize that he has written other fine novels, and his latest—The Face of Time—rings as true as a well-cast bell. Yet there is an element of ambiguity in the recognition now being accorded him which Horace Gregory has lately tried to resolve in his favor by assigning him and his work to a vague place "beyond the provinces of art" where, it seems, Tolstoy, Balzac, and Dickens also reside. The ambiguity of the judgment of him derives not so much from the common opinion that while he "can't write" he has nevertheless somehow managed to write some memorable stories, as from two other more pertinent facts about him: that his work in fiction is a kind of creative sociology not generally recognized as "art" at a moment that naturalism is being systematically cried down, and that while he is primarily a fiction writer, he is also in his fashion an explicit critic of life, literature, and society in terms "artists" customarily do not employ. Farrell is a man of letters in a way hardly fashionable at this moment, and never officially fashionable in this country. Above all he is a moralist, at times a fierce one, quite capable of denouncing as immoral what others tout as moral.
It is easy enough to see why Farrell has been expelled from the province of art, if we realize that the laws of that province have been laid down by critics who derive their principles and standards from such great creators as Gustave Flaubert and Henry James. Nevertheless his expulsion is highly arbitrary, in that James admired Farrell's fellow-expellee Honoré de Balzac to the point of calling him "the master of us all," and Farrell himself is far from being artless, as The Face of Time beautifully illustrates. It takes art to write a novel consisting so largely of dialogue without lessening the depth and penetration of the portraiture, especially when the dialogue is mostly an exchange of the shabbiest banalities. But the point is hardly worth laboring. Farrell himself, I imagine, is quite well satisfied with the company Gregory has decided he properly keeps. Especially will he be satisfied with the company of Leo Tolstoy to whose work, especially War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he has devoted some penetrating essays. Tolstoy was a moralist too.
Farrell the moralist is all-of-a-piece with Farrell the fiction writer. The one reflects upon the experience the other records. The fiction writer composes canvases depicting frustrated petty hopes and mean defeats, prolix obituaries of the spiritually impoverished, of greenhorns and other outsiders, the anonymous integers that go to swell only the population figures, the devalued people of his time whose fruitless dignity and courage (when these they have) are eternally betrayed by what Thomas Hardy called "circumstances." His most famous portrait is of a slob destroyed, in Farrell's own evaluation, by tawdry pleasures "compressed within a hexagonal of whores, movies, pool, alky, poker, and craps." These people, the scurf of the American road, are presented in the spirit of a remark Farrell delighted to quote from Chekhov, "You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that." From this remark, Farrell the moralist takes off.
The writer of fiction may leave us with the impression that his vision is of the drabness and tawdriness of life; and Farrell has indeed been beaten over the head innumerable times for precisely that crime, but the moralist takes a different tack and from the same data draws the conclusion that these things need not be. Yet this contradictory deduction is not really as startling as at first glance it seems. There is only one Farrell: the fiction writer sticks to his naturalistic last, while the moralist recognizes no parallel restraint. The naturalistic fictionist seeks simply truthfully to understand, the moralist tries both to understand and to plot a scheme for changing what the fictionist records.
As Farrell has put it, "Literature is not, in itself, a means of solving problems: these can be solved only by action, by social and political action." Farrell the moralist is largely concerned with social and political action. This scrupulous separation of functions is uncommon among men of Farrell's disposition. It delivers him from the snares of moralizing and propagandizing in fiction which have tangled many writers and lets him seek a place among "pure" writers of fiction. Nevertheless the fictionist of Farrell's kind is but incompletely understood without an understanding of the moralist, as Farrell has himself demonstrated by analogy in his intensive analyses of Tolstoy.
The morality of James T. Farrell—most clearly expressed in his books of essays like the current Reflections at Fifty and in his journalism—is strangely compounded of the ideology of the French Revolution up to the guillotining of Robespierre, pre-Leninist Marxism, and American pragmatism (particularly the pragmatism of G. H. Meade and John Dewey). Farrell is a partisan of the cult of the fully free man, an exemplary character never yet seen on land or sea. He believes that man is the victim of the institutional arrangements of society because "the powers of the individual will are weaker than the forces of social circumstance," a view which follows naturally enough from the world from which he came and which he regularly depicts in his stories. It is a line which explains everything, except how he, James T. Farrell, emerged from that world. If man can change the institutional complex in which he is entangled, then he will achieve freedom, emerge from the Kingdom of Necessity into the Kingdom of Freedom.
His fictional characters are mostly firmly caught in the Kingdom of Necessity; the moralist seeks ways and means of getting them out of there. That man can accomplish his own rescue is axiomatic in Farrell's thinking, the sine qua non of his philosophy. This means he entertains an optimistic view of man, no matter how much of a slob a particular man like Studs Lonigan may be, a provocative view in these days when so many so ingeniously discount man and seek to control and manipulate him according to their lights for his good. Social institutions make a man, at bottom admirable, into a depressing slob. That is why even the meanest of Farrell's characters are usually viewed sympathetically; and as time has passed Farrell's sympathy has found fuller and richer expression until it is the dominant emotion in such a portrait as that of old O'Flaherty in The Face of Time. Yet O'Flaherty's idea of the highest earthly felicity is to get boozed-up on beer.
Nobody who has read a solid account of the ideology of the French Revolution from Rousseau to Robespierre will fail to recognize how the fundamental ideas of that period have been taken up by Farrell. After Robespierre's fall, Farrell's reaction to the revolution changes completely. He has made his hostility to Napoleon into one of his most fascinating essays.
Like many others of his general persuasion, Farrell believes that freedom will only finally be won by man when the movement started in the French Revolution is "completed." The great difficulty is correctly to assess those various proposals for achieving the completion. The Marxists claim that they are uniquely privy to the secret of how to win the ultimate end and Farrell's allegiance to Marxism appears fundamentally to be based on his uneasy acceptance of this claim. But the Stalinist Marxists of the U.S.S.R. have exhaustively refuted the claim and the corruption of man by institutions is far more exhaustive under their regime than it has ever been in the democratic West at its worst. Perception of this fact long ago made Farrell a bitter opponent of Stalinist Communism and the counterattacks of the Stalinists on him for advertising of his perception account in considerable measure for the notion that his work is peculiarly dull and tiresome. Farrell has never made quite clear when, in his opinion, the revolution was betrayed in Russia, but betrayed it was, as thoroughly as the French Revolution was eventually betrayed by Napoleon, and probably for the same reason: a fundamental flaw in the ideology.
One might think that Farrell, confronted with two vast betrayals—as in his thinking they are called—would have suffered profound disillusion. He has not. He is too fundamentally optimistic to react that way. He really believes in freedom. He really believes that men are entitled to freedom as an inalienable right and that they will one day achieve it in the completeness of his conception of it, in spite of the record of history to date.
All this may strike the reader as an exposition of Farrell's politics rather than of his morals. The fact is that Farrell's morality is the politics of freedom, in the present-day world a kind of unpolitical politics. That is why politics to Farrell is deadly serious, not a farcical struggle for office. It is a politics of the same species—though of a different genus—as that of Sir Herbert Read, another earnest offsider. For Farrell is beset by a vision of a world in which the variant of contemporary society of which he is, as a writer of fiction, the greatest analyst we have, will be impossible. His politics is designed to destroy the world of Farrell the writer of novels. Not satisfied to depict that world with understanding and, ever increasingly, with compassion, he aims to advance the changing of it into a utopia of freedom. This may not readily be perceived by those who read only Farrell's stories, but it is necessary to a complete understanding of the man.
Farrell's personal origin in the world of his own fiction—there is a very large element of autobiography in what he has written—and his steady rise in literary importance are in seeming contradiction to his dogma that the individual is the toy of social circumstances. Of plebeian origin, Farrell is a self-educated intellectual. His three years at the University of Chicago did not subdue him to institutional culture in institutional terms. He himself has often made it clear that the university was only one of the places where he pursued his self-education, not the place where he was principally "educated." Environed as a boy by actual and crypto Studs Lonigans, he nevertheless found his way out of the maze via a selection of dead-end jobs that absorbed and defeated many of his fellows. He is an odd-man-out of his native world, the exception that does not prove, but contradicts, the rule. He himself proved that the world he knew was far more fluid than theory allowed it to be.
Perhaps it is a perception of this that has led Farrell to temper his naturalistic determinism by his devotion to the utopia of freedom, to conclude that while most people of his origin lead shameful lives for which it is folly to blame them personally, it need not be. The philosophical reconciliation is, however, less important than the fact and the fact is that Farrell's career is a ratification of the importance of both democracy and freedom in the life of man, another demonstration of the continued power of American society to release talent from the most unexpected places.
Farrell found his ideas the hard way. His career required him to find by conscious search ideas which more fortunate men have absorbed unconsciously from the intellectual environment they have inhabited. They are singularly absent from the world of Farrell's fiction, where a sadly shabby and debilitated Roman Catholicism is usually the highest flight of the mind and imagination. A boy of talent in a world where the highest approved flight of talent was to become a priest, Farrell received a "call" of a kind seemingly outside the range of possibility. He was called by freedom and as he had to seek it deliberately he has necessarily valued it more highly than those who feel it is their birthright.
The circumstances of his life made Farrell intensely serious, not always an attractive characteristic in a world much given to protective frivolity. He is seriously serious, not censorious; he is in earnest; he insists on being heard in his own terms. But he is nevertheless not humorless. I recall sitting with him once and joining him in a leg-pulling operation on a third party (Dwight Macdonald) that was out of this world. Nevertheless he is given to being strangely portentous, taking nothing whatever for granted, but reevaluating everything in the light of his own values.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 829
SOURCE: "The Naturalism of James T. Farrell," in The New Republic, Vol. 133, No. 26, December 26, 1955, pp. 18-19.
[In the following excerpted review of French Girls Are Vicious and Other Stories, Holman points out that although Farrell's primary weaknesses are his naturalistic narrative technique and flat use of language, his chief strength is his unflinching and powerful honesty.]
Mr. Farrell's new book [French Girls Are Vicious and Other Stories] is a collection of nine short stories, four with settings in Europe and five in America. The title must have been selected for the paper-back reprint certain to appear soon; for Farrell is one of the most successful writers for the drugstore soft-back set, New American Library reporting that it has sold over 5 million copies of his books. In any case, the title promises more than the book delivers; for the stories are quiet character studies, often little more than sketches.
The subject matter of none of these stories will seem new to Farrell's readers, and there is little in their telling that sets them apart. On the other hand, although it is expended in very small quantities, the power of Farrell's other work is present here—a power that derives from an absolute devotion to fact, a steady but grim-mouthed determination to tell the truth.
In the appealing testimony Farrell gave in the Philadelphia censorship trial in 1948, he said:
. . . realism to me . . . is to attempt an exploration of the nature of experience, to see experience directly, to see it unflinchingly. . . . So my effort has been to present life as it is, insofar as I can see it, to present it in terms of the patterns of destiny, the patterns of language, and the patterns of thought and consciousness, which I can grasp and open. . . .
When to this ideal of "honesty" we add Farrell's active and individually free social conscience, his wide and sympathetic knowledge of the world's literature, his critical concern with the objectives and methods of literary naturalism, and the unhumorous earnestness with which he takes himself and his work, he emerges as both a "dedicated spirit" and a most appealing man.
The 27 books which have preceded this one represent both in quantity and content an achievement that is strangely neglected today by serious critics. Yet this neglect is not hard to understand, for even so small a segment of his work as French Girls Are Vicious suggests two of Farrell's primary weaknesses.
The first is his theory that the language of naturalistic fiction should be the language actually used by characters on the cultural level being described. In this book, for example, he has an American government clerk in Paris tell her story in a jargon drawn from her days in "statistical economic research," and the result, although mildly ironic, is stultifying. Here, as in the bulk of his work, language has not been used to describe character or to reveal it by ironic use; it has been used mechanically and with deadening effect because of the arbitrary limits that Farrell imposes upon himself. If the variety of language from the cultural illiteracy of Young Lonigan to the sociological complexity of Yet Other Waters is examined, one sees that Farrell's theory of language not only denies him a personal style but also "flats" the effectiveness of many of his stories.
The second weakness is Farrell's theory that he should show life in terms of "patterns of thought and consciousness." Whether a character narrates the story, as five do in this collection, or Farrell speaks directly is not significant: the stories always come to us through the narrow limits of the consciousness of one or two characters.
Inevitably Farrell shows us the impact of environment and action on inner selves. This is not an artistic defect in itself, but a virtue; yet Farrell, who is interested in an almost sociological construct of society, in using this narrative technique loses environmental precision.
This is the reason that it finally matters little in this collection whether the stories are laid in Paris or Venice or New York or Chicago: the minds that tell the stories do not change with the environmental shifts. I believe that this is why Farrell seldom gives us a sharply realized sense of place. Dreiser's less sophisticated and clumsy editorializing omniscience worked better.
However, Farrell can put these limitations of language and viewpoint to work to magnificent advantage. In The Face of Time he used the language of childhood and old age and the contrasting views of five-year-old Danny O'Neill seeing death overtake his grandfather and his grandfather seeing life waken in Danny to produce one of the finest elegiac novels of recent years. The same combination of language and viewpoint with the theme of decay makes "They Ain't the Men They Used To Be" in this collection quietly and profoundly moving. This story reminds us emphatically that James T. Farrell is still very much with us and in his blundering, awkward, honest way is doing admirable work.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730
SOURCE: A review of French Girls Are Vicious and Other Stories, in Commonweal, Vol. 63, January 27, 1956, pp. 436-37.
[Below, Getlein argues that Farrell's commitment to truth, his humility, and his compassion outweigh any stylistic defects.]
In the longest of these nine short stories, "Ruth and Bertram," we find Bert, at the end, comfortably into bourgeois middle age after a youth of dissipation with Ruth. Like most of Mr. Farrell's people, Bert is a simple soul, and, as often in this volume, we walk right into his mind and let him reveal himself to us while the author invites us to smile ironically with him. In his exquisitely decorated apartment high above Chicago's Near North Side, Bert sips a drink and vaguely remembers Ruth: "He would like to see Ruth again, but perhaps he never would. He was mildly sad. Life was not important enough for one to feel it too deeply. One needed a shield against it, and life was fascinating with this shield that you held up before it. Style was a shield against life, and that was what he had seen and admired in Henry James all these years."
The statement on style probably represents the author's view, but it is hard to tell which came first, the author's deprecatory opinion of style or his own complete lack of it.
At the same time, Mr. Farrell has always had two important qualities that make it impossible to dismiss him. He is relentlessly honest and in the face of a fact he is artistically humble. These very virtues, perhaps, are responsible for the stylistic deficiencies. By the end of the present collection, at any rate, Mr. Farrell has convinced you that he will never write a graceful sentence and that it probably doesn't matter very much. You can't have everything. You take what you can get. What you can get from Mr. Farrell are honesty and humility and they're worth the additional effort his writing imposes.
To these two must be added a third, compassion. Compassion for Danny O'Neill and Studs Lonigan was easily generated. In these stories, however, Mr. Farrell is dealing for the most part with people for whom he has very little of that identifying sympathy. He is opposed to their way of life, violently opposed to their values or lack of values; if, like his earlier heroes, they are victims of a world they never made, they are also victims of themselves and, to a great extent, they have made themselves. Yet, without mitigating a line in the indictment implicit in each of the stories, Mr. Farrell manages to pity rather than scorn, and, what is more, he manages to share his pity with the reader.
The scope, here, is broadened considerably and the early violence has disappeared almost completely. The title story is the first person narrative—a device Mr. Farrell uses often and accurately, if with a total lack of subtlety—of an American girl in Paris. A government employee, she is methodically planning for marriage, and marches blindly toward her dream of love. As indicated, the determinedly flat prose of this girl's mind, and the remarkable way in which she reveals it—at times almost like a Ring Lardner first person—are irritating, but the final emotion is pity.
The best in the book is a short piece, another direct first person narrative, in which an elderly cog in the industrial machine tries to express what big league baseball has meant to him. He recalls the men that used to be; he remembers the death of a work-companion, not seen for years; he feels vaguely apologetic toward his wife; he goes out to a ball game featuring a presentation of some of the old-timers. He thinks about his life. That's the story and it is told with an economy too rare in the book.
Mr. Farrell's faults are easy to catalogue and they are still present, although perhaps to a lesser degree. If not simply, he writes directly of what he sees. His limited vision is honestly passed along and, however limited, it is vision. He sees not deeply but he sees clearly and what he sees is a part of the American experience. While he is not to everyone's taste, it would be a shame to miss him because of fastidious feelings for syntax. The present volume is one of his best.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3972
SOURCE: "Farrell on His Writing," in Hearing Out James T. Farrell: Selected Lectures, The Smith, 1985, pp. 142-54.
[In the following excerpt from a 1957 lecture at Miami University, Farrell discusses the major influences on his writing, his opinions on authorial intentions and aesthetics, and his perspective on writers of the 1920s and 1930s.]
I feel a little bit shy talking about my own fiction. I have lectured so often that I have run out of subject matter, and I let Professor Branch more or less inveigle me into agreeing to speak about my writing. But I think that if I am very honest with you I probably will not serve my own interests, at least financially; because once I finish a book, I dislike or hate to read it. The only time that I will ever read a book of mine with real intensity is if I have to testify in its defense. I have looked through and thought about various books of mine, but the only one that I have ever read closely after I have written it is Studs Lonigan, and that was some years ago, when I had to testify in a censorship case in Philadelphia.
Young people agree with me about not reading my books. Time magazine once said that I was the worst writer in America, and for all I know they may be right. There is no absolute way of judging whether a book is good, or purely awful. The moment we try to establish absolute, universal standards for the judgment of books, we are liable to find ourselves becoming confused. The moment we try to establish laws or categories of determination, or some set of fixed criteria about what a book should be in order to be a good book, we will discover that we have examined books from the standpoint of the past—books that have been liked by persons by whom one is attempting to establish those criteria, or else books that are generally accepted as being lasting, or good, or great. But once we do that, we will find it as likely as not that a new generation will come along, or a new writer will arrive, and ignore all of our criteria—the writer will write in complete violation of the categories we establish. And if we happen to read him and like him he will violate either our standards or our enthusiasm. Try to imagine having set up some set of rules for what a novel should be prior to 1922 or therabouts, and then imagine yourself sitting down to read James Joyce's Ulysses and liking it—what would your rules have meant?
Quite frequently I'm asked questions about writing. When younger people ask me whether they should or should not become writers, I'm reminded of a story that the poet Carl Sandburg was said to have told on a television program. He told the story of Ty Cobb, the great baseball player. He said that a sporting writer who had been following the Detroit Tigers for many years finally came up to Cobb one day in a hotel lobby. The sports writer said, "Ty, I've been watching you slide to second for ten years now," adding that he had discovered that there were ten ways Cobb slid going into second base. "And I was wondering at what point when you are running between first and second do you decide which of those ten ways you are going to use." Cobb looked at him in bewilderment and said, "I jus' slide." Frequently, it's the same in writing—you just write. I recall that when I was a young writer, after my first books began to appear, I would read reviews of them and would discover that I had all sorts of purposes and was trying to do all sorts of things of which I had been totally unaware. And I thought about that, and I decided—I recognized—that if I confused myself by allowing myself to believe that I was trying to do what other people said I was trying to do, I wouldn't know whether I was coming or going. Sometimes I'm aware of purposes and motives of mine and sometimes I'm not. Sometimes, after I've finished something, I find that there's more involved in it than I'd realized.
My younger brother happens to be a psychoanalyst. He makes a good living out of it. I should say that it is a much better profession than being a writer. People come to him hour after hour, day after day; they lie down on a couch and relax, and he sits behind a desk, and they talk and he questions them, and they talk, and this goes on for one, two, three or sometimes four years, at fairly expensive prices; and they are trying to find out why they did something. All of us do not need to go to my brother, although it would be good for the family if all of you did go; but those of us who don't need to go don't know why we do everything we do. We don't fully know our motives. We are not fully aware of all of our intentions. This is true in normal living, and to some degree it is also true in writing. I have always believed that we write out of the unconscious, and that when we have what we call a clear path from the unconscious, we write better.
Now, this may or may not apply to all writers, and it applies differently from one writer to another. There are writers who are extremely conscious and aware; they think that they are trying to achieve certain aims in certain ways, and they can measure what they have done and decide whether they have succeeded or failed. Henry James was a writer of this kind, and he was a writer of extraordinary skill; James Joyce was also a writer of this kind. But even among these, and even when a writer states his intentions—and any time a writer states his intentions or states an aesthetic, remember this: that a writer's statement of an aesthetic differs from a critic's or an aesthetician's; the writer may say that something he believes is universal for all writers and as likely as not it will not be true, but it is valuable and useful and important to him; whereas an aesthetician or a critic will state it with a different purpose, as his judgment of what constitutes aesthetics in terms of works he has read or of works he would want read. And similarly, when a writer states his intentions, it's often easy for him to rationalize.
Many of the formative writers and thinkers whom I've read, and who influenced me very much, were American pragmatists, among them John Dewey, the late George Herbert Mead and William James. I agree with William James that a person has many selves, and I more or less agree with the conception of character to be found in the writings of James and Dewey and Mead, a conception of character in which you concede that there is a functional relationship between character and environment. Now, when I was young and first beginning to read books, one of the big issues of the time was whether character is formed by environment or heredity. In passing, that is the basic theme in the work of Emile Zola, who believed that science had proved that heredity was the dominating influence, although both environment and heredity formed character. I never could accept that view. I felt that there were things we do not know completely about how character is formed—that character is a social product, a result of our having lived in society.
Now another influence on my thinking was that of Freud, but I think that there is a consistency between the criticism of Freud and the writings of Dewey and Mead and James. As a matter of fact, there is an extraordinarily interesting and original book—a book about which I would hazard the statement that it is a contribution to psychology and psychiatry—called The Idea and Appearance of the Body Image, written by a refugee psychiatrist who now is dead—Schilder. Schilder studied how we develop our own body image, and by "body image" he meant our total sense of ourselves, including our visceral sense of ourselves. He studied and dealt with the question in neurological and sociological-psychiatric terms, and he came to a conclusion that is completely consistent with the conclusion about the relationship of character of self to environment that is stated or implied in the social psychology of James, Mead and Dewey. When I began writing, some of these issues were more or less in my mind, and to the degree that I was conscious of intentions, I attempted to present character in those terms. Behind that theme was also a feeling, or a hope, or a desire, that I would present a character so that the reader felt the character was living, was acting out of his full life experience at every moment. In attempting this, I did not feel that I was illustrating any one specific thesis, or that I was dealing with philosophical problems, or even with sociological problems as sociology; I felt that this was the most important thing in fiction—the most important attainment of a writer—the making of characters who are alive. I believe that if you write a book and the reader does not feel that the characters in it are alive, does not believe in one way or another that they are credible, then the book should be called a failure—it is wooden, it is dead.
Secondly, there are many different conceptions of time, and there are many different conceptions of space. When we think of the world either scientifically or in terms of common sense, we have one or another conception of time and space. But if we think of time and space in terms of our own body images—our feelings and our ways of seeing the world—then there are many systems of time and space. And in the same way there are many different meanings—of things, of objects. People look differently according to who they are. I more or less had these relative conceptions in my mind when I wrote Studs Lonigan. I don't mean that I was attempting to illustrate them; but they helped me to see character, and helped me to discover it, and helped me to invent or pull out of my memory certain types of scenes and certain aspects of character I wanted to get down.
Thirdly, all of my early work was written virtually without notes. I don't want to refute critics here or to bring up critics who have passed into the shades, but although it was always said that I wrote with a notebook, the fact is that I wrote most of my books without any notes and that most of my books were based, in one way or another, on childhood impressions and memories. This doesn't mean that I experienced events or scenes or characters precisely as they were or as they happened. As a matter of fact, I have always preferred, rather than to have recourse to notes or documents, to invent. In passing, for instance, in two novels of mine, Yet Other Waters and The Road Between, there are a number of speeches in the case of which I preferred, rather than to read the speeches of the character who gives them, just to sit down and write them myself. But the material was the material of impressions of the years before I read much.
When I began to write Studs Lonigan in 1920, there was a wealth of undigested experiences for me to work with. Now everybody has such undigested experiences from childhood, and I mentioned somewhat flippantly that my brother is paid for listening to people find out why they did certain things. Well, what comes out is that they are trying to gain insight by plowing through their childhoods. On the other hand, I had some conscious ideas about character and environment. Furthermore, all of us, to a larger or smaller degree, are children of the Enlightenment—I mean of the great Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. In the 1920's, when I was, to a considerable extent, intellectually formed, there was a kind of American Enlightenment and, as a matter of fact, one of its leading propagandists—in a sense, a kind of peculiar journalistic Voltaire of that period—was H. L. Mencken. He himself identified with the eighteenth century and looked back to it as his favorite century. There are two ideas associated with the Enlightenment that I want to stress here. One is the emphasis on reason and the rule of reason; the second is the sense of the dignity of the individual. Now there was a kind of unstated assumption in my books, in my attitude toward these two premises of the Enlightenment—one, that of reason; two, that of the dignity of the human being. And, the sense of some of the writing as I then regarded it was: This is not reasonable; this is not the kind of conduct, this is not the kind of society, this is not living according to the kind of values and these are not the kind of values themselves, which permit the individual to attain his dignity. . . . Those ideas were in my mind.
In the 1920's, and in the 1930's, too, there was a certain vibrancy in the atmosphere that there is not at the present time. I was asked just before I came in here if I thought that there were not similarities between the 1920's and the present period, and I said that I felt that there were more differences than similarities. The 1920's, as you have probably read and heard, were a period of personal and social revolt, and those who became writers—along with certain groups of students in the colleges—were quite militant. They were militant in the personal sense; they believed that this was the way to find individual freedom. . . .
Now, the major difference between the present and the 1920's is that the 1920's was in many ways a safe decade. It was possible for youth to revolt, to be antisocial, and not to be afraid, as youth and as everyone else is afraid today. There was great disillusionment about World War One; but no one believed, and no one could conceive, that the United States was in danger, in any sense of the word. No one conceived that the future of the world could be in danger—the idea of the end of the world was theoretical. There were some of us who believed it in the sense that we accepted the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that there will be a leveling off of energy—there will be the predomination of a condition called entropy, where the universe is in such a state that life is not possible. Now, this was a purely scientific and theoretical conception and was conceived as the eventual fate of the universe, aeons ahead. That attitude is expressed in an essay that moved me very much in the 20's, and which had great influence, and that's "A Free Man's Worship," by Bertrand Russel, in Essays on Mysticism and Logic.
Today, that feeling of militancy does not exist—it does not exist even among youth. I'm not saying that it should exist. There were different conditions in the 1920's. We grew up at an earlier time, and with that, we conceived the idea that the writer must fight. Now, in a certain sense, this was called for then more than it is called for today. There was a different generation of college professors, and the modern American writer was still fighting for recognition in the academy. If any of you have read, or if you do read, the essays of H. L. Mencken, you will find that he is lambasting the English professors again and again and again. He lambastes them almost as often as he does the politicians, the Methodists, the wowsers and others. At one time, English departments were very prissy. Not only did they not accept contemporary writers; some of them, and some professors, including very distinguished scholars, wrote about the contemporary scene with a meanness of spirit. . . .
Today English departments are different, and as a matter of fact many of the teachers in them are products of that same revolt that Mencken promoted. Even in serious studies, Mencken continually, consistently spoke out against puritanism. Mencken's view of puritanism wasn't a complete and scholarly view; what he attacked as puritanism were these kinds of manifestations. By having done that, Mencken helped clear away a lot of ground, so that a member of a later generation—a young student in the 20's—was free to make more serious and worthwhile studies of puritanism, and this was Dr. Perry Miller of the Department of English at Harvard.
Now, the militancy was militancy against value—I mean, a rejection of many of the values of society. One of the books that had tremendous impact in the 20's was Babbitt. As a matter of fact, Babbitt—Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser and Mencken—were much stronger influences than Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the writers who now are studied as symbols of the 20's. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were the young generation of the 20's, but these others were the men who were setting the attitudes of the coming generations. And there was that attitude that I have absorbed.
As a personal aside, I would say this—that the need to write is fundamental to the writer: his fundamental purpose, if we can reduce it to one purpose, is to find expression for himself. To express himself—that is important above everything else in the mind of the writer. And that need for expression is also revelatory of a need to live. Now, what I call a need to live is a need to live as a person of growing responses. Writing is a means of becoming more aware. It is a means of working out your own way of seeing and feeling life and giving expression to it. And, as such, it is a concentrated, long-term effort to do the same thing that everyone tries to do in one way or another. What a writer does is to take what is passing—what comes and goes as a kind of flicker in the minds of everyone—and to work it out. I mean, in the course of any day of any of us, we have memories, we have conscious and unconscious fantasies, we have daydreams, we have resentments, we have moments of elation, we have moments of despair; we look at various things and they excite us, they exhilarate us, they cause us to tingle or they cause us to feel revulsion. Well, the writer will work out such conscious experiences and embody them in something that he writes, and in doing so he is developing in detail what we more or less flounder through in the course of our own lives.
Now, I mentioned awareness. If we look at the history of American literature, we will find two things of importance here, one having to do with literary awareness, or tradition. America began with a low level of literary awareness. It was a pioneer country, many of whose citizens were the sons and daughters of the disinherited and the rejected of the world. It largely had a colonial culture, and there was, on the one hand, a different kind of awareness from the awareness that educated Europeans could have. On the other hand, there was little experience, little in the traditions of writing that could help the American writer to describe new experiences that he had. Now, the way I would suggest to make this point clear is to propose that you read a few early American works. I would propose among others that you take a poem called "The Day of Doom," by Michael Wigglesworth. It was published in the eighteenth century, and it is the Inferno of Calvinism by the Dante of the New World, of theocratic New England. It is a crude, awkward poem that justifies the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. At one point in the poem, Wigglesworth wonders "if unborn babies are predestined to hell, will they go there." For a moment he is troubled; but then he works it out. Predestination is right; unborn babies will go to hell if it is so predestined, but they'll have the softest place in hell.
But take any early American poem or creative work and compare it to the French writing of the time, and you will see a great difference. I will mention one of the first early great French novels—in my opinion, one of the greatest novels ever written, although it is not well known here. It is a book called Les Liaisons Dangereuses. . . . What I want to emphasize is the great level of awareness in the book—the characters know what they are doing, and the literary tradition is known to the point that the writer can present them this way.
In American writing there was not this kind of awareness; Dreiser and others who came before us didn't have it, and we ourselves did not have any clear-cut models to imitate from Europe. For us it was a question of writing, in part, to understand some of the features and aspects of the patterns of destiny and the types of characters of earlier American writers; and along with that, if we were going to develop, to come to terms with this kind of experience in the sense of emotional affirmation or emotional rejection, and in the sense of understanding it for what it was, and understanding it in terms of values.
Now, if you will mention Dreiser's work, I will mention the work of writers whom I may or may not like—Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the characters of Sherwood Anderson, the characters of Ring Lardner, of F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Ernest Hemingway, of Thomas Wolfe, of Erskine Caldwell. They are all, as far as literature is concerned, new characters. They are all much different from the characters of European literature. This was a new material of life; and the language of American writing—the ordinary language—has been developed and perfected more or less, to become a language of literature. New forms had to be created. It was necessary, also, to fight for recognition of this new material as a proper subject matter of literature. I was more or less aware of these things before I started writing, and, through the process of writing, I grew more aware of them.
Today, circumstances are different, but these things, in substance, are part of the background and represent some of the ideas I had when I began writing. I have not talked in any specific sense about my own books, or attempted to analyze them. Concerning them, I would say one thing. The meaning that a book has to a writer may be much different from the meaning a book has to a reader. The meanings will be different to readers of different generations. . . . Each generation looks differently at books, and the meaning of books also shifts from reader to reader. There is no more fixed meaning to a complicated work of literature than there is to a human personality. But I would say, finally, that I have considered, have tried to explore the nature of experience—and to explore it frankly and directly.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471
SOURCE: 'The Special World of James T. Farrell," in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1957, p. 66.
[In the following review of A Dangerous Woman and Other Stories, Peden observes that Farrell's later fiction shows greater humor and more variety than his earlier fiction.]
Among the best pieces in James T. Farrell's new collection of twelve stories and a short novel are several set in the Chicago of a generation ago, which is so specifically "Farrell country" that today it is almost impossible to linger at the corner of Prairie Avenue and Fifty-eighth Street without thinking of it in terms of Farrell's fiction.
Here again are the memorable adolescents and youths of his earlier novels and short stories: Studs Lonigan and his pals, including the indefatigable Weary Reilly, tremblingly anticipating the sordid delights of a gang shag; Danny O'Neill doggedly attempting to get a date for the St. Stanialaus commencement ball; Jack Malloy day-dreaming of impressing his girl Margie by heroic struggle with a mad bulldog "with a face worse than Battling Nelson's." In such stones, Farrell has created a segment of the American past as authentic and as individualistic as Mark Twain's river towns or Faulkner's Deep South.
Writing about adults, Farrell is not quite so convincing, not quite so entertaining. He has always been concerned with the corrosive effect of society on the individual, and many of the remaining stories depict what he calls the most tragic of all kinds of waste, "the waste of human emotion and thought." "Norman Allen" shows the destruction of a gifted Negro intellectual. "Success Story," like "Norman Allen," is apparently based upon the author's recollection of his own student days at the University of Chicago, and is similarly concerned with the failure of a gifted young novelist.
In "Memento Mori," Farrell returns to the locale of his second novel, Gas-house McGinty, to portray faithfully and with power the meaningless routine of a non-exceptional man's life. In others, though the scene may range from London in a holiday mood to a Paris sullen and edgy on the night following the execution of the Rosenbergs, he is similarly concerned with individuals bombarded by the forces that constitute their society.
A few of the stories in A Dangerous Woman are trivial or, like the title piece, dull. As a whole, however, the collection is a good one; it displays considerable variety, an effective economy of technique and a sense of humor lacking in much of Farrell's earlier short fiction. Twenty-five years and more than that many full-length books since Young Lonigan: A Boyhood in Chicago Streets, he is too often taken for granted by an older generation or ignored by the younger. This is unfortunate. Farrell has always had something significant to say; and, as these stories indicate, he often says it more than tolerably well.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613
SOURCE: "Farrell Stories With a Wider Range," in The New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Vol. 34, No. 20, December 22, 1957, p. 8.
[Below, Kupferberg notes the wider range of Farrell's fiction in A Dangerous Woman and Other Stories as the author incorporates a gallery of new European characters and locales into his work.]
For those who are statistically-minded this collection of fourteen short stories [A Dangerous Woman and Other Stories] represents the twenty-fifth book of fiction published by James T. Farrell. While it would certainly be an exaggeration to say that No. 25 is indistinguishable from No. 1, readers of the more stark and bitter of these stories will have no difficulty in recognizing the author of Studs Lonigan. As a matter of fact, they will have no difficulty recognizing Studs Lonigan himself, for here he is, in a story called "Boys and Girls," together with Weary Reilly, Red Kelly, Davey Cohen, and other of his South Side playmates including the perfect hostess, a girl named Iris. The story is a retelling of one of the incidents of Studs Lonigan, a little party at Iris' house while her mother was away.
While some of the other stories in this collection are less directly related to Mr. Farrell's earlier chronicles, they share the same grim and graphic qualities. In "Memento Mori" a truck driver leads a drab dismal life whose monotony is relieved only by the manner of his death—not from failing health as the-reader is led to expect, but from an automobile accident. In "Senior Prom," one of the more touching stories, our old friend Danny O'Neill undergoes his first experience with youthful love and jealousy by taking a beautiful girl to a school dance only to see her fall for a classmate: Here, as in "A Saturday Night in America," a story of Polish refugee girls recalling the horrors of prison camps, Mr. Farrell's sense of compassion adds depth to his portraiture. In depicting these sorry human specimens he is clinical without being cynical.
The stories in A Dangerous Woman are almost equally divided between familiar Farrell characters leading aimless and sometimes desperate lives in Chicago and New York and the new gallery he has lately been creating of Americans abroad. Mr. Farrell has traveled to Europe a good deal in recent years, and whether he meets a London charwoman ("I'm Dancing Frances") or a Swedish feminist ("A Dangerous Woman") a story or a character sketch is likely to be the result.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of these European stories is the way they demonstrate Mr. Farrell's widening descriptive scope. Studs Lonigan, of course, used to admire the sun glinting on the lagoon in Washington Park, but he quickly proceeded to other, less tranquil occupations. In "It's Cold in the Alps," the longest and most unusual story in the book, Mr. Farrell writes of American newlyweds motoring from France into Switzerland, seeing and sensing the beauty of their surroundings: ". . . the green of the trees at twilight, and then the curves, the surprises, with your seeing one view that couldn't be more magnificent, and then coming on another that was, and you just felt awe—that's all, awe."
The American couple in this story, incidentally, is a good deal more awesome than the scenery, for they quarrel from start to finish over everything from the pronunciation of "Louvre" to whether to sleep in a hotel or the back of the car. It's a marriage that breaks up very quickly, leaving nothing behind it but memories of the Alps. But the story introduces elements of humor and charm that demonstrate that Mr. Farrell can write entertainingly and perceptively about other things than the old days in Chicago.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403
SOURCE: Introduction to Childhood Is Not Forever, Doubleday & Company, 1969, pp. vii-viii.
[In this essay, Farrell answers those critics who question autobiographical elements of his work.]
I began, not as a novelist, but as a short story writer. For more than two years after I had decided to become a writer, I worked to write publishable short stories. Long before I had completed the first volume of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, my short stories had received recognition.
Ezra Pound tried to get me a publisher for four of my stories which he himself had selected. Had he succeeded, Young Lonigan would not have been my first book.
Whit Burnett published two of my short stories. One of them, "A Casual Incident," has remained popular.
And H. L. Mencken had accepted for publication "Helen, I Love You" before Young Lonigan had appeared.
Most of the stories in this selection were written in the 1950's. There are many who insist that there was nothing to write of in this period. These stories show that there is much, very much, to write about. In them, there is a variety and range of experience as well as a variety and range in the locale and in the time.
These stories are not filled by the morals of crippled despair that make a universal axiom out of hopelessness, an evil out of aspiration. Many of these characters strive. They strive for different ends. The reader may judge these ends favorably or unfavorably; but the characters strive for them.
In a number of these stories, there is an autobiographical character.
"Can't he stop writing about himself?"
As a rule, I ignore such questions; but here I shall comment. In many instances, my use of an autobiographical character can be considered functional. Or, it can be called a device. The social and geographical areas that I am introducing into my fiction are too extended, too full of contrasts, too numerous for me to achieve unity in the whole body of my fiction by any other means. To impose unity by principle or theory, by a political or philosophic conviction, would be dogmatic and didactic. But with an autobiographical character, I can achieve a unity of association.
My work, from the very beginning, has been written with purpose and from a perspective. These stories contain much of the world that I have been conceiving out of that ". . . world I never made."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 784
SOURCE: A review of Childhood Is Not Forever and Other Stories, in The North American Review, Vol. 255, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 73-5.
[In the following excerpted review, Phillips observes that several of Farrell's more recent short stories are among his best short fiction.]
Childhood Is Not Forever [is] a selection of stories written largely in the 1950s. While all the tales are not as impressive as the last novel [A Brand New Life], or many of Farrell's fine earlier stories such as "The Scarecrow" and "Calico Shoes", the collection does not deserve the indifference it has been met with in the popular press.
Most of Farrell's large body of work has been written with purpose and from a perspective. Childhood Is Not Forever fills in some of the cracks between his interrelated novels, especially the Eddie Ryan and Danny O'Neill cycles. Both characters are encountered within these stories. The book is also more overtly political than Mr. Farrell's recent novels, with the McCarthy era, the Bolshevik revolution, and Adlai Stevenson's campaigns all serving as occasions for fiction.
But, as the collection's title implies, the most important agent in the stories is Time, which robs us of opportunities, changes all things, separates souls, and tyrannizes over us. A story such as "Reunion Abroad", for instance, a tapestry woven about the disparity between appearance and reality, is ultimately a statement on time's corruption of us all. The title story is a memorable portrait of a bigot and would-be politician, a man who resists change in any form. He sees all Europe as a rathole and all Democrats as Stalinists. He would like everything to be just as it was when he grew up in Chicago, and resents any changes time has wrought in his friends. Yet his enemy is essentially kind to him, for he dies an early death, being spared further disillusionment. Yet had he known he would die young, he would have feared time all the more.
"Monologue of an Old Pitcher" portrays yet another man out of sympathy with the times he lives in. It is a short character study of one who deplores the lack of respect for tradition and the absence of proper hero-worship by today's youth. Yet Farrell's monologue ends with a twist: the pitcher claims the 1920's to be the best of all times to have been young, because that was when Al Capone was alive.
Loneliness pervades the lives of Farrell's gallery of characters. "Sunday Evening" explores the loneliness of a writer's life, and posits the thesis that the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era crippled much creativity in America. "Small-Town Taxi Cab Driver" portrays a man of faith who lives a life with little to hope for, while in "Vivian Thanks God", a woman longing for romantic fulfillment in life sublimates her desire through her children. "Jump to Chicago" is the story of a weak-willed man trapped by his occupation and his appetites. His release is through digging his grave with a fork. Not all of Farrell's characters find a form of sublimation, however. "Ray Taite" is a more overtly naturalistic story, in the tradition of Farrell's earliest novels, showing the roots which determined the future of two boyhood playmates, each "traveling separate roads toward a future that controlled them".
The collection's finest story, and one which deserves to be preserved, is "Native's Return", a long piece uniting the three dominant strains of loneliness, politics, and the tyranny of time found in the shorter stories. It is a fitting conclusion to the volume. Highly autobiographical, "Native's Return" explores one day in the life of a writer named Edward H. Ryan (James T. Farrell). Ryan's return to Chicago as a celebrity triggers comment on the inexorable flow of time and events, and America's propensity for treating the vulgar and trivial with the same gravity accorded the genuine and important. With high seriousness, the story exposes the financial insecurities of a very good writer in America, and shows how a person who is, at least in the homes of the well-educated, a household word can wonder where next week's groceries will come from. The story captures completely the temper of the 1950s. The middle-aged writer throwing handfuls of Stevenson buttons into a crowd which doesn't even bother to pick them up is a powerful synecdoche. The defeat of Stevenson and all he stood for parallels the defeat of the artist and the intellectual in America.
Though Childhood Is Not Forever is not one of Farrell's major books, nor even a consistently good book of stories, this reviewer welcomes its appearance in the Farrell canon, And "Native's Return", "Jump to Chicago", and "Ray Taite" deserve a place beside Farrell's best short fiction.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946
SOURCE: A review of Judith and Other Stories, in The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1973, pp. 7, 14, 18.
[Below, Oates takes issue with Farrell's compression of characterization, which she sees as a distortion of truth.]
Judith and Other Stories is James T. Farrell's forty-fourth book, and it is a sizable one. In an introduction, the author speaks of his stories as stories "of time." The book is a continuation of his lifework: the attempt to "create out of the life I have seen, known, experienced, heard about, and imagined, a panoramic story of our days and years, a story which would continue through as many books as I would be able to write."
The time-span of Judith is enormous, especially since it is contained within a single individual's memory: some stories are set in 1973, the earliest in 1918. They are evidently forms of reverie, some of them sheer stream-of-association reminiscence, like "Sister" (which takes us back to a Catholic school similar to the one in the first volume of Studs Lonigan); some are journal-like accounts of the experiences of one Eddie Ryan, a writer originally from Chicago who now lives in New York, at the Hotel Chelsea. The most interesting stories in the book are those dealing with Eddie, who despite, his having evidently achieved recognition of sorts as writer, is an incurably lonely man. He both wants and does not want permanence: he is fairly romantic at times—he falls in love easily—and at other times so reasonable about the failures of his various love affairs that he seems almost inhuman. "Maybe Judith would be permanent, I thought,"—no, maybe it should be Moira—but then again, perhaps, a married Frenchwoman named Jeanette whom we never meet—and all this within the course of the book's title-story. Eddie's on-again, off-again love affair with Judith, a talented concert pianist, is only one of many affairs, all of which come to nothing. And Eddie is, all the while, still married to, or not satisfactorily divorced from, a woman named Phyllis.
The difficulty with fiction that originates so firmly and authentically in "real life" is that artistic arrangement, compression with necessary distortion and the introduction of non-naturalistic elements like the symbolic (which is really a kind of shorthand, not a violation of the real), might seem a betrayal of what really happened. If a man has loved and been loved by a multitude of women, it might seem a distortion of the truth to compress them all into two or three women, in order to dramatize their personalities more vividly. How tyrannical the ostensible freedoms of literary naturalism turned out to be, after all—once the censorship battles were won, and what was shocking could not carry its own inherent dramatic value. The hero of Mary Lavin's brilliant "A Memory" may have, in actual fact, been involved with a dozen women—assuming hypothetically that he is based upon a "real person"—but short fiction, and even long fiction, cannot really deal with the dissipation of primal emotional energies over so many individuals. Somehow, everything gets lost. The weariness of which Eddie Ryan complains so frequently may be a result of his failure to have meaningfully experienced any one of his love affairs.
Another of Farrell's writer-characters, Tom Langley, who very much resembles Ryan, drifts in and out of relationships with women named, respectively, Florence, Rose, Yvette and Thelma; though he seems to be very fond of Yvette, he does not really hesitate to leave her. Again and again, there is a man's failure to unify his experience, and the author's refusal to "falsify" it. We are ready to believe (absolutely) that much of this happened exactly as presented, and yet we are distanced from it, unable to share the experience.
It may be, however, that there is an inherent and perhaps extra-literary virtue in "naturalism"—that is, the scientific and objective setting-forth of the truth, at least as the writer sees it—that bypasses any critical assessment of it. Since James T. Farrell has written American classics, and since his naturalistic technique is obviously a deliberate and conscious expression of his philosophy, it would be audacious for any reviewer to suggest that he change. Perhaps simply the introduction of newer themes, as in Judith, will be refreshing, and lead to a reorganizing of thought.
One is drawn particularly to the title story about a career woman's dilemma—her need for permanent love and her dread of it. She finally rejects what is offered her, and Eddie Ryan thinks: "Several generations of women will be sacrificed to the emancipation of women before they can feel fully at home with their freedom. There will have to be confusion, agony, and anguish." Eddie is well-acquainted with that "freedom."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455
SOURCE: "Old Master," in The New Republic, Vol. 169, No. 25, December 22, 1973, p. 30.
[In this review of Judith and Other Stories, Barnes remarks that Farrell's work continues to be dominated by grim and hopelessly limited characters.]
The works of James T. Farrell cannot be discussed singly. His 22 novels, 14 collections of short stories, essays, literary criticism and poetry all center on his pessimistic determinism, conditioned by personal experiences and confirmed through intense observation of the human scene. He is indeed considered by some to be the literary heir of Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser through his consistent depiction of urban decay, social corruption and individual despair.
In Studs Lonigan (1935) Farrell created an epochal document detailing as no one has surpassed, the environment of prejudice, inferiority, foamy sentiment and violence of lower working class Chicago. This was succeeded by the Danny O'Neill pentalogy, the Bernard Can trilogy (major but unevenly written novels) and over 200 short stories—often peopled with recurring characters, like faces in changing crowds, contorted always by the same hopeless grimace.
Judith and Other Stories presents few surprises. It possesses both the major deficiencies and cumulative persuasion of many of Farrell's preceding works. The themes of the 11 stories are familiar, the style is flat and the characters one-dimensional. These are dwarfish people even when the author, as in the title story, stresses monotonously his protagonists' highly applauded musicianship and literary productiveness. The banality of their relationship and the drone of their self-expression belie the credibility of Farrell's insistence upon their artistry.
Of the 11 stories, reflective of the author's organic thesis that "the conditions of American life create alienated and truncated personalities," only three succeed in arousing interest or empathy. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" is a moving account of the tedious hardship experienced by the common laborer. One is pierced by the meaningless work, futile resentment and unnoticed hysteria in Bill Eliot's daily life. In "Mr. Austin," Eddie Ryan, a Farrell spokesman, effectively relates the struggle of a petty stockbroker to maintain respectability against inevitable, faceless defeat. "Tom Carroll," a lengthy and perhaps partly autobiographical story, concerns the faded days of a former radical, "hero" and esteemed historian. He is betrayed by his wife, denounced as a fascist by his son and viewed with estranged puzzlement by drifting friends. But Carroll is too tired to express his political insight which far excels that of his detractors. Fatigue overcomes him—as it does most of the characters in the other stories.
Nevertheless the complete collection succeeds in presenting a compassionate kaleidoscope of man's limitations and hapless yearning for a meaningful existence. Leslie Fiedler's comment on Farrell's prolific creativity may well, however, be revived upon this volume's appearance: "James T. Farrell has some contemporary admirers who are a few surly defenders."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1919
SOURCE: "Relevance in Literature," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, February, 1976, pp. 19-25.
[In this excerpted paper, which was originally presented as a lecture at Southampton College in 1974, Farrell asserts that genuine writing demands both knowledge of and respect for the past.]
In recent years much has been said about relevance: relevance in education; relevance in the subject matter of what is taught in the various departments of colleges and universities; relevance in the books that are studied; relevance in the books that are read. And, generally speaking, topicality is what is meant by "relevance."
When we consider the general social, political, and economic problems of the immediate present, we do so in terms of how various people pose them. The posing of these questions is generalized and is, therefore, more or less abstract. And often when demands are made upon writers to write about the problems of the day, the demand is to write about the problems as they are posed by journalists, propagandists, and others—and not necessarily about the problems but about the way these problems are phrased, the way questions are stated. In most cases this is a journalistic posing of questions rather than a scholarly one.
Also, these questions are very large: inflation, poverty, energy. And they are usually posed in a most generalized manner. Art and literature are concerned more with the concrete. They are concerned with individual impressions and individual character and individual stories. Generally speaking you cannot write a novel about one of the large questions of the immediate present. If you set out to do it, by the time that you have explored the material the problem will have changed, or at least the posing of the question of the problem will have changed. The demand for relevance is similar to the demand for propaganda; and those who have usually called for or demanded propaganda on the part of the artist have actually wanted to bureaucratize and control him and his subject matter.
In the 1930s much was said about propaganda and literature, particularly by those who called themselves Marxists, and most specifically by the Stalinists. They claimed that what they called bourgeois literature was dead because bourgeois society was decadent. The society of the future would be a proletarian, a classless society. And during the first five years of the 1930s the line of the Communist party, dictated by the Third International from Moscow, was that the workers all over the world were on the eve of revolution; bourgeois society was on its last legs; the workers were going to take power. Therefore, the workers should take power in culture. Consequently something called proletarian literature should be written; all other literature was defeatist and decadent.
What stood behind this was an attempt to bureaucratize writing and to control it, and that of course was what was done in the Soviet Union. Then the theory of "socialist realism" was advanced. Socialist realism was realism about the future. You should write not only about the present, about the decay of capitalist society, but also about the future society of hope, the future socialist society. Well, no one can write more than speculatively about the future. All knowledge is based on knowledge of a kind—all knowledge is of the past. Until something happens, we cannot know that it has happened. Nothing about the future can be known in the sense that it is knowledge, because knowledge is about facts or about what has happened; and to write about the future is to speculate, to dream, to project. Quite obviously, the establishing of a program called socialist realism, in which you write about the decadent present and the heavenly future, is impossible. It's either a fantasy, a Utopian dream, or a means that is used to control people.
The question of propaganda in literature occurs with almost every movement. In Ireland during a period of the national revolutionary struggle, many of the Irish nationalist revolutionists, the Irish who were for independence, for nationhood for Ireland, demanded propaganda. And one of the great martyrs for Irish freedom, Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, who died in a hunger strike in 1920 in protest during the Black and Tan struggle or war, wrote a remarkable book in 1912 called The Principles of Freedom. At one point in it he says, "It is because we want the truth that we do not want propaganda playwrights."
Before the First World War there was a discussion in the social-democratic press in Germany about the writings of Émile Zola. One group of German socialists argued that Zola should not be read because his pictures of decadence would demoralize the workers. Another group argued that his pictures of the decay of capitalism were so powerful that they would teach the workers and energize them to struggle for socialism. The distinguished, great, prewar-socialist Jean Jaurès in France wrote that he sided with those who said that the workers should read Zola. It never occurred to either of the German groups or to Jaurès himself that the workers ought to read what they wanted to, not what they were told to.
Usually those who demand relevance, who demand topicality, who demand propaganda, have a purpose other than the purposes of art. They want to impose a subject matter or a form of treatment. When you go to literature and you get from it only a confirmation of what you think and what you feel, it's absolutely pointless. One of the great values of literature is that it is a means of expanding our consciousness. The world's meaning to us is locked up in our minds. We are locked up in our own skin and our own consciousness. We must either tell ourselves or be told everything that we know. Through literature we expand our consciousness. It's possible to feel that we know characters in literature more intimately, more surely, more completely than many living people with whom we are acquainted or even are friends with. It's even possible for husbands and wives to know the characters of literature in a way they cannot know one another. In this getting to know others, what life is like to others, what life was like at one time or another time, what patterns of experience were like to people living at different strata of society than one lives in oneself, or living in past times, one expands the boundaries of one's own consciousness.
The past exists only in the present. The present is a moment between the irrevocable, disappearing past and the unbecome, the unhappened future. I plan a book I hope to write someday (I have written only the first chapter) which I would call The Vast Present, by which I mean that in the present, in terms of what we know, how much we have experienced and can command consciously, how much we have acquired in the past, we can live, we can summon up the experience, the scenes, the times that are no more. We can summon up the story of Rome, the story of Greece, the story of civilization. Leo Tolstoy, in his remarkable book What Is Art? took the position which I am criticizing. Tolstoy argued that any work of art which could not be understood and appreciated by the Russian peasant should be dismissed. He didn't say that Shake-speare, Beethoven, or Leo Tolstoy himself in his earlier period had written bad books or composed bad music; he said that it was irrelevant because the Russian peasant could not understand it. There were remarkable things in Tolstoy's books, remarkable insights. Psychologically his insight was unerring. He says, "Thanks to art and culture and literature, which can infect us with feeling"—and that's a good phrase, "infect us with feeling," because that is one of the essential effects of a work of art when we re-experience or in any degree experience it or appreciate it—"we can know all that has been thought and felt in the past and all that is being thought and felt at present." And because of this, and because we can be infected with feeling, we will be less barbaric; we will not live as barbarians. We cannot know all that has been thought and felt, or all that is being thought and felt; but we can know some of what is being thought and felt. Furthermore, two essential concepts of science and history and thinking are continuity and change. Without continuity you cannot recognize change. . . .
Now to say what I've said in no sense means to ignore the present or the problems of the present; but that you recognize that human life is a long tragedy of generations in which man slowly is coming to what I would say is his fundamental problem: the control of his own destiny. Today, out of the dreams of the past, we can fulfill the dreams of the past. Almost every dream man has had, except perhaps immortality, is now achievable with modern knowledge, modern resources, modern technology. But to retain a memory of this long, slow, and tragic development, to retain a memory of the heroes of this development, of the men whose thoughts are part of the growing tradition of our lives, is in itself not only a charm but a simple act of human self-respect. Because we too have pasts. And before many of those who are now saturated and sunk in cheap topicality and contemporaneousness have come to their last day, they'll probably learn how infantile, and to what a degree they dishonestly betrayed what is one of the essential things that makes our life valuable; and that is the achievements of other men. Personally, I feel this: just as other men have sacrificed and we have gained the consequences, it is our duty to continue as they did. We never enjoy our own victories. We enjoy and benefit mostly from the victories of the dead. And those who come after us will benefit from our victories, if any.
As far as writing is concerned, it's impossible, except on rare occasions, to saturate yourself immediately with a subject. You have to give it time to crystallize. Furthermore, the subjects that attract writers are not always the subjects that will attract a political scientist or a politician. Ibsen wrote about Norwegian society, but he took individual incidents and they weren't central or crucial to that society. One of the ways in which he wrote about Norwegian society of his time was in terms of the meanings of truth, the meanings of broken contracts, the relativity of truth. But he didn't take the immediate, central problems. And it's rare that that can be done. Now one man has done it to a certain degree: Solzhenitsyn. But only partially. His writing is largely about the past, the 1940s and 50s in Russia. Only philistines expect the artist to have complete command of the subject matter and to be able to go out and take any sort of subject matter and make it work and make it pay and write about it. It depends upon individual disposition and temperament. And in most cases a writer needs time to crystallize feelings and characters and events before he can write about them. Usually you write out of the unconscious. Those who demand relevance and topicality, those who demand that a writer fit his or her propagandist purpose, know nothing about the process of writing and care nothing about it.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693
SOURCE: A review of Judith and Other Stories, in Commonweal, Vol. XCIX, No. 19, February 15, 1974, pp. 493-94.
[In this review, Phillips notes that although Farrell returns to the same themes and types of characters of his earlier works, one finds in this collection a mellower and warmer writer.]
It astounds to learn that this is Farrell's forty-seventh published book. But perhaps it should be more astonishing to learn it is also his fourteenth short story collection. What other serious writer of fiction in America has published that many stories?
And while Farrell's stories often present many of the same themes and characters from his novels, there are examples when the shorter form is the more successful. He has a way of perceiving the hidden occasions of success or failure (more often of failure, in Farrell) which are the kernel of good short stories, and transmuting them through his own unmistakable vision and voice.
As a theorist of the short story form, however, Farrell seems to sell himself short. "You've written books with warmth," the wife of Tom Carroll, a Farrell alter-ego says in one of these new tales. "But people can only get so much out of a book, Tom. They can't get the warmth of a man out of his books. They must get it out of him."
Wrong. In the best short stories, as Sean O'Faolain has shown, one encounters a combination of both plausibility and personality. Without the charge of personal voltage, we get the yarn and not the man. Fortunately, there is plenty of Farrellian warmth in Judith and Other Stories, and it is as much for this distinctive, communicated personality so many of us continue to read him, as it is for his objective recording of an historical time and place.
Yet the voice sounds more autumnal here—as it well might: Farrell will be 70 this month. As before, the elementary forces of the universe still provide the drama and the tension. But that pertains to plot only. The personality informing the plots seems mellower. The themes of the volume are the death of love and feeling in the world (a death Farrell sees as far worse than physical death), and the humiliation of pain to man. As Farrell concludes in one story, "Pain was a symbol of man's biological tragedy," a notion he explored to great lengths in his last novel, Invisible Swords.
Thus, Judith and Other Stories is a gallery of characters for whom the peak of life is passed, if it were ever attained at all—people reviewing their pasts in what Farrell here calls "the memory of lost ecstasies." There is Tom Carroll, experiencing the deaths a man dies before he finally expires; Bill Eliot, who "expected something he would never get. He waited for news that wouldn't come"; Eddie Ryan, who, in one story, comprehends too well the violence of frustration, and in another, muses upon "the sad, tragic destiny of people"; and Tom Langley (who might just as well be named Tom Carroll or Eddie Ryan—all three are barely-disguised Jim Farrells) who realizes, "Life was full of farewells . . . and one farewell would be the final farewell."
The settings range from New York to Paris to Rome and even on to Jerusalem—some distance from the Chicago Farrell is often accused of writing about exclusively. But the Farrellian vision of a struggle between the will and the passions, with the passions always winning, remains much the same as in his first book, Young Lonigan, published in 1932.
A collection of eleven restatements, then, this book will reward Farrell fans. Especially of interest are the title novella, tracing love's trajectory when the couple are each more faithful to their artistic careers than to one another; "Mr. Austin," which concludes with a fine grim irony worthy of Thomas Hardy; and "Only Tomorrow and Tomorrow," the tale of a latter-day Richard Corey, whose apparent sense of superiority creates a barricade between his inferiority-ridden self and others.
His story sets the tone for the entire book:
"All life narrows down to one mortal career, and all the many promises of youth prove to have been illusions, not promises."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6765
SOURCE: "The Lost World of James T. Farrell's Short Stories," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, February 1976, pp. 36-51.
[In this essay, O'Connell argues for the centrality of Farrell's vision of the Irish-Catholic experience in his fiction.]
James T. Farrell can be an easy mark for a critic. His faults and his failures have often been attacked and are, as we shall see, only too obvious. Many of his some 250 short stories and roughly twenty-two novels are inferior pieces of literature and sometimes embarrassingly bad. At his best, however, in a number of the short stories and in Studs Lonigan, he renders accessible to us a world which we might otherwise never encounter. And for the Irish-Americans among us, indeed perhaps for all those Americans from an ethnic or racial minority, were it not for his voice it would be harder to take the first necessary steps toward a recognition of what we have been, a recognition without which we could not begin to understand what we have become, or to imagine what we might yet be.
I intend to venture in this essay an assessment of Farrell's achievement, using his short stories, particularly the stories about Irish-Catholics on the South Side of Chicago where Farrell grew up. Farrell has written about other experiences and has created other fictions, but none of them equals in the mass of observed detail or in intensity of feeling his stories about Chicago Irish-Americans. More importantly, his experience of Irish-Catholic life in Chicago has persistently occupied Farrell throughout his long career; how he makes sense in his fiction of this experience defines his practice, even when he is working from the materials of his later life.
Farrell's short stories are shaped by the experience of adolescence even when they are not directly about it. Many of his most believable characters are adolescents; others are preoccupied with its loss, looking back upon it with regret, their present constantly diminished in the light of the past. Farrell typically, and often unintentionally I think, creates adult characters as they would be perceived by an adolescent. They are seen remotely, at some times as authority figures, at others as hypocritical or ridiculous. Even when a story is far removed from the experiences of Farrell's childhood, the adults are perceived similarly. They are mocked or rendered so flatly that they are like portraits made by someone either without the inner experience to create the illusion of dimension, or without the capacity to attend to adult experience as fully as to that of adolescence. He has an unerring ear for adolescents' speech while he is surprisingly tone deaf to adults.He has difficulty capturing emotional states precisely, succeeding only with extreme or inchoate emotions.
Even Farrell's failures can teach us, not merely about his inadequacies, but about the world he comes from. He commonly relates to his fictional world as though it were in a past irrevocably severed from his life in the present. At times his ability to experience the world seems frozen in the patterns of adolescent perception. The explanation for this can be found in the central experience behind his best fiction: his separation from the Irish-American community in which he grew up. Most of us leave the communities of our childhood behind, but few experience a displacement as intense as Farrell's.
The Irish-American community, as Farrell perceives it, forces upon its children, at a crucial point near adulthood, an absolute submission to its assumptions about the world. The refusal to submit brings a summary banishment from the life of the community. The banishment is made the more cruel by the insistence of the loyalists that the recalcitrant few are wilfully betraying the community and their loved ones. The effect of the banishment on Farrell is that he writes about all his experience as though he were just at the border of it. He is an expatriate, alternately blaming himself for his exile and making his homeland fully responsible. He sees himself separated from the world which nurtured him by an insurmountable barrier. A return to it would entail the death of his imagination; continued exile means being forever outside another way of life.
The nature of this experience forces him to be, almost invariably, self-conscious before the materials of his fiction. He is thus, in his short stories as well as in his novels, essentially an autobiographical writer. He cannot assume a sympathetic audience who share a world of meaning with him. As a result his writing often verges on being a transcription of actual life—more accurately, perhaps, he attempts as nearly literal a translation as possible of life into fiction. It is as though he seeks to establish for himself (and for us) the "facts" of the world, before he can allow his imagination to interpret them. Indeed, Farrell's stories are usually less plotted than reported from the world. Danny O'Neill, a barely disguised figure of Farrell himself, characterizes this writing in an apologia at the end of Boarding House Blues: "nor is this a story with all the standard ingredients. It is not a story at all. It is an account of some bits of life lived, and of thoughts that have been thought and an effort to bring both together."
The autobiographical materials Farrell renders are not the record of an individual's inner life (as they are, for example, with Anaïs Nin or Henry Miller). Instead, he attempts to chronicle the life of an entire community. His is sociological, rather than (if the distinction is tenable) psychological fiction. In such fiction the writer commonly stands outside the world of his characters, even when he presents that world through them. This presentation implies a world of alien or exotic experience. As I have tried to suggest, Farrell consciously stands apart from his world. This consciousness "tips its hand" in the very structure of most of his fiction. Farrell cannot help revealing the alienation he feels. It nearly determines a sociological account of the world.
Farrell is often criticized for his literalness. Characters and incidents in his fiction are taken, little changed, from the events of his own life. His stories and novels can be read as a continuous roman à clef. Farrell acknowledges this in an important defense of his practice in the preface to Childhood Is Not Forever, a late collection of stories:
My use of an autobiographical character can be considered functional. Or, it can be called a device. The social and geographical areas that I am introducing into my fiction are too extended, too full of contrasts, too numerous for me to achieve unity in the whole body of my fiction by any other means. To impose unity by principle or theory, by a political or philosophic conviction, would be dogmatic and didactic. But with an autobiographical character, I can achieve a unity of association.
Farrell's justification of so mechanical a principle, potentially as dogmatic in the making of fiction as political or philosophical convictions, suggests the faults common in much of his writing. Stories are often too long because the material for them has been insufficiently worked on by his imagination. They sometimes have the formlessness of an arbitrarily edited transcript. His narrative voice can be too explicit, anxiously telling the reader "everything" he needs to know. His explicitness risks, and sometimes falls into, banalities about ordinary experience. Characters other than the narrator or his protagonist are rarely developed.
These failures are evident to anyone who reads much Farrell. My main concern is not with them, though they illustrate the dangers of deriving fiction too directly from autobiography. However unconsciously or unartfully, Farrell inevitably engages in the selection of incident, the creation, not just the reproduction, of characters. We can learn a great deal about his experience when we attempt to discover what shapes his perception. His own sense that he introduces a range of "social and geographical areas" (implicitly ones new to American literature) is crucial to this task. His claim indicates his major ambition as a writer: the approximation in fiction of what he takes to be the already existent reality of a little-known Irish-American world.
My comments should suggest some of the difficulties involved in the creation of a chronicle of a minority ethnic culture. These difficulties are compounded when the writer is, like Farrell, the first member of his ethnic group to assume this role. In this context the very act of writing is analogous to being an anthropological informant. The writer must simultaneously share the assumptions of his own culture and dissociate himself from them. He may be expelled from his group if he reveals his ability to separate himself from it. Like the informant, he belongs, finally, neither to his native culture nor to the one he reports it to. He takes on the burdens of cosmopolitanism with few of its benefits. For those who depend upon him for their knowledge of his culture there is the difficulty of judging the adequacy of his revelations.
As Farrell composes his chronicle in the short stories he presents an extraordinary range of life and work experiences at nearly every stage in the life cycle within an urban Irish-American community. The stories constitute a comprehensive sociological survey of a community. Sexual mores, work habits, education, the role of religion, the nature of leadership, patterns of courtship and marriage, modes of child-rearing, deviance, and the nature of status distinctions are revealed in one story or another. But, as I have suggested, these institutions are usually regarded through the eyes of adolescence. The members of the gang from 51st Street and Prairie, familiar to readers of Studs Lonigan, appear in most of the stories: Studs himself occasionally, Danny O'Neill, Red Kelly, Phil Rolfe, Paulie Haggerty, Phil Garrity. When they are absent from a story the cityscape remains theirs; the characters who take their place are familiar figures in their lives. They themselves are only off-stage, likely to reappear at any moment.
In some of the stories the focus is the older generation: a genteel lace-curtain family in "The Hyland Family," fathers struggling to make decent lives for their children as in "Jim O'Neill" and "A Teamster's Payday," the nuns and priests who dominate the schooling and the religious life so central in an Irish-Catholic community—"Reverend Father Gilhooley," "The Little Blonde Fellow," "The Bride of Christ," "Father Timothy Joyce," "Sister"; and the old and dying like "Mary Reilly." In others, the subject is generational conflict, the stories most central to Farrell's canon and often his best: "The Only Son," "Saturday Night," "Oratory Contest," and "All Things Are Nothing to Me." Some stories take place at work: the teamsters and dispatchers at the Continental Express Co. furnish the cast for a major group of Farrell stories, as do the gas station attendants for the Nation Oil Co.
These categories identify only the external dimensions of the lives in Farrell's Irish-American world. By themselves they tell us nothing about his conception of his people's inner worlds. Regardless of differences in age, or status, or occupation, Farrell's characters inhabit remarkably similar emotional worlds. The content of their lives varies little. Farrell's characters spend most of their time creating fantasies. It is, in fact, their major activity; all of living itself is subordinated to it. He creates a community of people who live through their dreams, or with regrets for the defeat of those dreams. It is a community in which the present disappears in the anticipation of the future, or under the weight of the memory of dead dreams. Life itself never quite begins.
Whatever the form, the dreams are invariably about being "somebody," a person of importance. In childhood one may dream of winning the affection of the prettiest girl on the block as in "Helen, I Love You," or of outfighting everyone else in the gang, or of growing up to be a great athlete. One's activity in the world, and the world itself, is always subordinated to the richness of an imagined place in an imaginary world.
The most pervasive dreams involve sexual conquest. In them one's importance and self-respect depend upon the quality of one's conquests. The few successful conquests in the stories are overwhelmed by a barely interrupted flow of fantasy. In "Scarecrow," an early and melodramatic tale, a pathetically ugly fourteen-year-old called "Scarecrow" and "Miss Nickel Nose" by the other kids makes herself available to any boy who will have her. Her sexual experiences sustain a dream life in which she will someday become "the beautiful wife of a handsome millionaire . . . a beautiful queen in a beautiful palace" (Calico Shoes). Her ugliness and terrible loneliness are subsumed in a magnificent fantasy life, her only sustenance and the fatal disguise of her disintegration. Like most of Farrell's characters her fantasies are her only possessions.
Sexual fantasies in Farrell nearly always entail being someone else. A man's imaginary conquest of a rich, elegant, and beautiful woman establishes a magnificent self-transformation. Don Bryan in "Looking 'Em Over" enacts this typically Farrellian situation. He goes to the beach hoping to "shag" "a rich virtuous girl who rated." Nothing happens, of course, but as he waits he tries "to stand . . . like a young man who was somebody, who had gone places and done things, who rated" (Calico Shoes). Jack Stratton, in "A Jazz-Age Clerk," uses his lunch hour to walk through the city dreaming of some gorgeous "sheba," all the while unable to forget his "cheap suit that had faded quickly" and the old, greasy hat on his head. He maintains his fantasy by going into the lobby of the most fashionable hotel in Chicago where he imagines being paged "and it would be some millionaire on the wire waiting to close an important deal. . . . He'd close the deal and come back to wait for a mama. . . . some hot movie actress . . ." ("$1,000"). When he awakes to reality, the outcome of such fantasies is a more devastating realization of the lowliness of his station.
As people grow older the kinds of dreams change. Some continue to dream of exalting the self through sexual conquest. Others, like Willie Collins, the expressman who has risen to the high post of dispatcher, imagine their superiority to their fellows, fret about the threatening hostility of the less fortunate, imagine "others" waiting for the first chance to pull their betters down. Willie, for one, thus identifies himself with the rich and powerful: "he imagined himself upstairs, moving about among the high muckety-mucks, getting slapped on the back. But the continuous shouting drowned out his dream; he gazed about in a daze" (Life Adventurous). Although Willie still dreams of sexual advances, the fantasies of economic advance preoccupy him. On the night of Calvin Coolidge's election Willie (as a self-consciously upwardly mobile Irish-American he is, of course, a Republican) imagines himself, Chief Dispatcher that he is, as one with the new Chief of the Nation:
He resolved that from now on in his work, he, too, would be a strong, silent man. He wouldn't blabber and gas with the Route Inspectors. He would be quiet, dignified, strongly silent, and he would impress them all. . . . Just think—he had almost met Eddie Chance, had almost been taken up to headquarters where he would have met the muckety-mucks. But, then, a strong, silent man in whose soul the still waters ran deep could bear such disappointments (Life Adventurous).
"Had almost" again and again defines the experience of these people. And in response to the repeated, almost predictable disappointments of their lives they fantasize all the more strongly. When reality overpowers their imaginations, as it usually does, they remember their old dreams and prepare to die.
Even the successful, by the standards of the community, live by fantasy, preening themselves with images of the lowly looking up to them. The Hylands in "The Hyland Family" wait in church every Sunday until all the other parishioners have left and then make a grand exit from the church for the admiration of the waiting multitude. "The Reverend Father Gilhooley," spiritual head of the community, dreams of the greater glories before him when he has built the most beautiful parish church in Chicago, become a Monsignor and, surely, someday "Bishop Gilhooley."
Few people can long sustain such fantasies when they are so thoroughly and constantly defeated by life, as these are. Willie Collins is one of Farrell's most comic creations because no actuality, however humbling, can undermine his imagination. Yet the comedy, for Farrell, signifies only the self-delusions of a fool, not the triumph of mind over circumstance.
In Farrell's stories aging is the process of yielding one's dreams, not to an acceptance of who one is, or in the satisfactions of work well-done, or of a happy family life, but to regret and bewilderment about the loss of hope. Old age comes early for most of his characters. It begins when adolescence ends. "Things ain't like they was" (Guillotine Party), is people's repeated lament. School is barely done with, adulthood just begun, when the past, which had been rich in fantasies about the future, takes on magical properties as the time of "being free and without responsibilities" (Guillotine Party). A few people refuse to give up adolescence and avoid the awful disillusions of adult life. Drink and talk with aging companions prolong youth. Either way life is impoverished. ("Jo-Jo" and "Saturday Night" are Farrell's most powerful stories about those who refuse to give up adolescence.)
Some transfer their dreams to their children. In "Jim O'Neill," one of Farrell's best and most directly autobiographical stories, O'Neill looks back on his life with more measured regret than most of Farrell's characters. He takes pride in having survived, cherishes few illusions about his accomplishments—but one: "he was in a position to give his kids a better start in the world than he had had" (Calico Shoes). The story ends with a recognition rare among the people Farrell creates: "he experienced a moment of intense clarity, and he saw what kind of a fight his kids would have, the same kind of struggle that he'd gone through" (Calico Shoes). His modest illusion drops away and he sees his life fully as it has been—an unending struggle for a modicum of economic security and self-respect with few, if any, victories. O'Neill's insight is rare in Farrell's world, but the conditions of his life are not. Some people have greater margins of security, a few live closer to the bottom, but these represent significant differences only within the community. As one moves away from it they fade into an impression of a mass of dismal, defeated lives.
When one survives life by means of such fragile fantasies one rarely risks sharing them. They are too easily exposed and ridiculed. And so most of Farrell's people live extraordinarily lonely lives. People live together but "in walls of solitude and frustration" (Calico Shoes). Adolescents keep their deepest fears and hopes from each other; parents and children commonly share only the enforced intimacies of living together; married couples rarely share their troubles or take pleasure in each other; and old age, at best, brings only melancholy memories. Farrell's characterization of a group of old people describes most of his characters: "Each was a personality sealed to the others, inter-acting on a basis of patterned word formulas which generalized commonplaces" (Calico Shoes).
There are no more lonely people than these in American literature, itself a literature so often about isolation. The emotions and dreams Farrell explores in his fiction are those of the lonely. People's sexual hungers, their obsessions with status, express their separation from each other. The precise nature of their isolation is conveyed by a scene which Farrell repeats in several stories (as well as in a famous scene in Studs Lonigan). The character, in this scene, looks into a mirror in order to discover how others see him. The motive reveals the inability of Farrell's people to possess any secure identity apart from an almost narcissistic obsession with how others regard them. Beyond the door of the family bathroom aliens and the hostile lurk. With them one enjoys no companionship; without them one does not exist.
The pervasiveness of fantasy tells us a good deal about the nature of this community. People do not work so hard to escape from the actualities of their lives when they have some foundation for self-respect. Economic security is unusual, respectable status more so. The dreams of these Irish-Americans articulate their awareness of being among the lowly in the United States. They are poor, Catholics in a Protestant society, a minority not so much despised as disregarded. They have few of the material symbols by which the society measures people's worth. They respond to their exclusion by attempting to prove their "all-Americanness" in fervent proclamations of patriotism. Their rebellions are private and unpolitical, their lives all the more diminished by their affirmations of a society which denies them.
Given the frailty of their own relationships, it is not surprising that Farrell's characters see their community as constantly endangered. They imagine themselves in a state of seige. The "eight-balls" and the "Hebes" are the main threats. But the world is peopled by enemies—"Hunkies," "Polacks," "APAers," and even Republicans. The blacks will destroy the neighborhood when they move into it. The Jews conspire with them. For the most disaffected members of the community, like the hero of Tommy Gallagher's Crusade, the Jews are responsible for all the accumulated frustrations. "They" account for one's lowly economic position, the pressure of blacks on the neighborhood (because to make money they will rent to anyone), and the disdain other Americans have for the Irish.
The only unity the Irish-American community can achieve, as Farrell depicts it, is in defense against outsiders. But the hostilities do not stop at the boundaries of the neighborhood. Self-respect is so scarce that people demean each other as a means to it. They exploit the slightest differences to downgrade the status of their neighbors and friends. Greater poverty, less ostentatious piety, a "bad" kid in the family, the loss of a job provide the material for finely elaborated hierarchies. But the slightest evidence of "high-hatting," of any gesture of nonconformity associated with snobbery, brings a quick condemnation as a rejection of family, friends, and community. The children's epithets name the fears: "goofy," "queer," "four-eyes," "sissy," "yellow." An absolute conformity is demanded; people's security depends upon the enforcement of mediocrity on each other.
Farrell presents these internal wars in many stories. "Boyhood," one of his best, suggests the poignance of the divisions. Two seventh-graders, Danny O'Neill and Jimmy English, meet in the park. Both are "goofy," Danny because his parents are so poor that he must live with his grandparents; and Jimmy, goofier yet, because his father deserted the family and his mother is a cleaning lady. Jimmy vainly tries to make friends with Danny who resists for fear that someone from the gang will see him with Jimmy.
Families provide no better shelter. Generational warfare, when it is not overt, is signified by the unconditionality of the children's surrender to the order of their parents and Holy Mother Church. Any hint of deviance brings immediate attack from fathers and siblings, and prayers from the mothers. Any expression of individuality is always seen as a challenge to the community, an attempt to elevate oneself at the expense of others. ("All Things Are Nothing to Me," "Monday Is Another Day," and "The Only Son" are the stories in which this warfare is most ferocious.)
Thus far I have left Farrell's stance toward the world he, at least partially, creates, implicit. I want, for the remainder of the essay, to illuminate as best I can what leads Farrell to make sense of this world in the particular way he does. Leaving aside for now the question of the adequacy of his revelation of this Irish-American world, it should be apparent that, for Farrell, it is a pathological community. It impoverishes people beyond material deprivation by preventing them from seeing or seizing the world more richly or individually. Each is held back in the name of the other, to the common damnation of all. Life is closed to questions and thus people are doomed to the still-point of their prisons. If one begins to see the community in this light, it becomes imperative to detach oneself from it to some degree. The alternative is a willed resignation to spiritual impoverishment, a more desperate act of self-destruction than those which make up the daily life of the community.
I referred earlier to this process of separation as the central fact in Farrell's autobiography. It defines his perspective on the world. Farrell focuses on moments in the separation in several stories (as well as in the O'Neill tetralogy). "All Things Are Nothing To Me," "Monday Is Another Day," and "The Only Son" provide the most concentrated accounts. These stories date from the 1930s when Farrell was just beginning his writing career and still living in Chicago. In them the protagonists have gone to college, as Farrell did for a time, and have begun to question the communal norms, causing bitter conflict within their families. They see their homes in the same way: "he had the feeling of being in a tomb that had been turned into a museum" (Guillotine Party); "their home was redolent of death" ($1,000).
They want to escape, but they want also to make some accommodation with parents and friends. They would stay were there an independent path available. But the community offers no middle ground. At least as these three young men see it, nothing less than complete submission will be tolerated. Nothing about the Church is to be questioned, no suggestion of imperfections in American society allowed. A silent independence provokes even greater hostility. They are trapped, forced to make a choice which either rejects their loved ones, the very fabric of their past lives, or to destroy themselves. If they leave they must be Ishmaels.
Homelessness is not the only handicap they will suffer. Their discovery in college of how much of the world has been shut out from their consideration has moved them toward expatriation. But, in each of these stories, as the heroes engage in the critical confrontation, they realize how much they have already lost: "he had become aware of the poverty in his home life, his background, his people, a poverty not only of mind, but of spirit, even a poverty of the senses. . . . And [that] he, too, had been afflicted with this poverty" (Guillotine Party). The choice they have is almost a mockery. They can live apart from the community which nurtured them, but they can never be free of it: "the world of Fifty-Eighth Street. . . he would always carry it with him, as a sense of pain, as a wound in his memory. And it was stupid and prejudiced, and he no longer felt as if he fitted into it" (Guillotine Party).
Farrell's stories turn upon this recognition. They document this impoverishment even when Farrell allows himself to appreciate some of the people. His own failures as a writer add to the documentation. They make the stories, taken as a whole, speak even more powerfully. Farrell asserts that Irish-Americans have impoverished senses—and he himself writes stories without any ornament, creates no memorable landscapes, cannot make a character physically distinguishable except as a grotesque, does not know how to explore feelings. Does he create or merely reflect a world in which everything is denoted? When he writes a story to show the sexual puritanism of his people he cannot do it without demonstrating his own. His characters are as surely punished in the joylessness of their sexual encounters as though Farrell remained among the faithful.
In most of his stories Farrell does not achieve a narrative voice which "fits into" the created world, nor, most of the time, is he able or willing to create a world independent of that voice. His fictional world is literally one he is apart from, but rarely sufficiently free of to give it a life of its own. The literal quality of his fiction reflects, at least in part, an imagination unable to fully realize or recreate the experience which dominates it. The very profligacy of Farrell's output suggests a man whose only way of resolving the past is an obsessive recounting of every detail of it. His fiction affects us when his emotional entanglement is so great that he forgets himself. Or, to put it another way, his fiction works when Farrell's presence in it as a protagonist draws him, and thus us, into a world, instead of determining our attitude to it before we have experienced it. His most powerful effect, rarely concentrated in a single story but manifest in the collectivity of the stories about his past, is a sense of people entrapped beyond the possibility of liberation in a community which denies their most fundamental needs.
The most dramatic expression of Farrell's own displacement is his treatment of his characters. Few of them have any self-respect, fewer yet are respected by their maker. In story after story Farrell's narrative voice establishes his contempt, anger, sometimes even hatred for the characters. He has a repertoire of verbal gestures which keep people "in their place." They are often physically grotesque or caricatured: "[he had] a vertical face, slightly pocked . . . and ratty greenish eyes," "her swollen blob of a face . . . toothless gums and a sick, purplish and yellow-green tongue," "a middle-aged woman with a reddish bovine face called . . . for them to hit the black skunks" ["Looking 'Em Over" (Calico Shoes), "Meet the Girls" (Calico Shoes), "For White Men Only" (Guillotine Party)]. Physical descriptions signal his attitude toward a character. Father Gilhooley is "corpulently contented." Red Kelly in middle age has "a growing pot belly, and a sleek, shiny, puffed face" (Guillotine Party). These characterizations make the stories about the two men redundant demonstrations of their smug self-satisfaction. His descriptions often make it impossible to take the characters seriously. In "Honey, We'll Be Brave," a story about a young married couple which ends with their discovery that the wife has an hereditary venereal disease, Farrell disposes of our sympathy well in advance of the conclusion by picturing "a boy with the outer shell of a sleek, up-and-coming, ambitious young booster in the bond business, and a girl with blonde bobbed hair, a vapidly pretty doll face, and the assumed manners of maturity" (Calico Shoes). In many of these stories Farrell either cannot tolerate the possibility of an ambiguous response to his characters, or does not trust his own storytelling to reveal their nature. His rejection of his own characters is often as unqualified as their rejection, in his account, of dissenters and outsiders.
These verbal gestures maintain his distance and establish his superiority to the people whose lives he chronicles. On occasion the gratuitousness of his gestures suggests a desperate need to be distant from the characters. Farrell almost ruins one of his best stories, "The Oratory Contest," in this way. He creates in it a convincing portrait of a father coming to the realization that his son is ashamed of him. The story takes place almost entirely within the father's consciousness. Farrell breaks our (and more significantly his own) sympathetic identification with the father, at the crucial moment in the story: "[he realized] how Gerry must have an entire life closed out to his father and mother, a life they could never get their little fingers on" (Grandeur). The voice of the son, unheard before or after this moment, intrudes here. It is Farrell's voice, of course, unable to sustain his realization of the poignancy parents feel at the loss of their children. The manner and subject of the story are unusual enough in Farrell's canon, but "their little fingers" makes unmistakable, I think, Farrell's entrapment in the psychological warfare of his own adolescence in the community. It is as though any sympathetic re-creation of the culture threatens to enclose him within it again.
Farrell is generally savage toward the adults, especially parents, in his stories. They are, after all, the primary enforcers of the communal norms Farrell found so suffocating. When he overcomes this savagery and writes sympathetically about adults in the community, he creates his best stories: "The Oratory Contest," "Jim O'Neill," "Mary Reilly," "Jo-Jo," among others. One can only imagine the struggles involved, but his art unquestionably gains in power when he achieves the disinterested distance through which characters take on their own life.
His stories, in this reading, become a justification for his decision to leave the community. They are frequently reenactments of his sense that the community "was stupid and prejudiced." In "Studs," the story out of which the Lonigan trilogy grew, Danny O'Neill speaks for Farrell, I think, when he characterizes the neighborhood gang as just a bunch of "slobs" whom "I grew up contemptuous of" (Guillotine Party). The stories prove the contempt.
The contempt diminishes as Farrell himself grows older. He is explicitly able to see his childhood world with more understanding. In the stories like "Childhood Is Not Forever," written in the 1950s and 1960s, the narrators often remark a change of heart. But even at this distance the depth of his bitterness can break through the surface. In "Childhood Is Not Forever" he describes the diners in a Chicago restaurant as "fat or nearly fat; they all shed an atmosphere of prosperity. They had the appearance of men who had eaten many a thick steak and had poured plenty of good whiskey down the hatch" (Childhood). But it is in the later stories drawn from his experiences after leaving his community that one gets the full measure of his exile. In most of them he transfers his contempt to a new cast of characters—to the Communists in stories from the Forties like "The Dialectic," "Comrade Stanley," "The Martyr," and "The Renegade"; or to the would-be artists and writers of his tales of the intellectual world, "Mendel and His Wife," "Summer Try-Out," "Edna's Husband." His satirical intention in these stories is defeated by his uncontrollable scorn for his subjects. They are unredeemed by the power of hatred or love, unlike most of his Chicago stories. They succeed only in being spiteful.
Farrell's displacement from his native community often disables him as a writer. But it also gives him a great subject. His particular address to it through the eyes of adolescence makes him extraordinarily sensitive to the dimensions of loneliness and regret in the lives of his people. For him adolescence, for all its pains, was a privileged state. It was the time in his own life when he both belonged to the community and began to question it. It was the storehouse of experience he could most reliably draw upon to write, the source of his revelations about the culture. Once he passed beyond it he was cut off. The feeling of irretrievable loss, of impoverishment itself, which underlies the emotional world of these stories expresses his own exile, as much as it does the actual worlds of the real life counterparts for his characters. Life stops for them with the end of adolescence just as, in some sense, it did for Farrell.
His world of Irish-Americans is finally a partial one. Unlike Tillie Olsen, for instance, a writer whose characters belong to a similar social world, Farrell is rarely able to bring us within his people's inner lives. He cannot, as Olsen does, help us experience the world as though we were the characters. Nor can he create, as she does, adult characters with as emotionally complex inner lives as those of the most cultivated Jamesian characters. We should not, for that reason, conclude that the lives of lower-middle class Irish-Americans replicate their lives in Farrell's fiction.
As he grows older the hold of his past weakens, but so too, as I have indicated, does his ability to create fiction worth reading. The shortcomings which flaw his earlier work become fatal to much of the later, unredeemed as they are by his attachment to his primary community. His literalness becomes boring, his distancing gestures leave us with characters so tired that the author himself seems almost bored with them. The acuity of feeling which imposed a design of sorts on many of his earlier stories is lacking. Many of the later stories have only the form given by rumination, occasionally interesting, but almost never compelling. The voice speaks in the tones of ordinary conversation, the kind of conversation which can only escape banality if moved by a need to make sense of the details of daily life, to create a design, a meaning for them.
Even these failed stories teach us something about what is involved in leaving a culture like Farrell's. Once one moves beyond it to new experience the obsession with detail, no longer a necessary instrument for resolving the leave-taking, becomes a disability. Farrell's later stories invoke a world where nothing can be taken for granted because no experience is securely possessed. He acquires knowledge and accumulates experience self-consciously. A writer requires more deeply felt experience than this address to life permits.
Farrell is too astute a self-critic not to have himself recognized elements of these criticisms. In a 1946 letter to H. L. Mencken he describes a stance towards his work like the one I have depicted here: "as I recall my moods and feelings when I wrote much of [my] fiction, I would feel so often outside of the material, and looking on. . . ." His fullest description of his situation is in another, well-known, letter from the mid-Forties:
[A writer from lowly origins] is brought up on banalities, commonplaces, formal religious fanaticism, spiritual emptiness, an authoritative educational system. . . . He usually has to work his own way through college, and in doing so, he learns that most of the talk about education is not meant except in the sense of where it will get you. He sees things from the outside, not the inside. And seeing them from the outside, he not only acquires a different point of view than earlier writers like Emerson and Henry James, but he also knows that he can't get inside except by deforming his own nature and his impulses. . . . He doesn't begin with the complications which are the source material of writers in a more sophisticated culture, and he doesn't absorb forms and traditions. His subject matter is his own world around him, and from that he gradually expands. . . . The feelings of alienation he meets sometimes make him hardened, stubborn and resistant. He spends his youth in struggling to get what a son of Groton acquires as if by natural right.
[Edgar M. Branch, James T. Farrell, 1971]
One could simply note the defensive self-pity of this statement, interpret it as the apologia of a writer aware of his failure to make art out of life, and dismiss him. But to do so would be to deny what we can learn from the statement, and from the fiction of the man who made it. Farrell's stories and novels are the most extensive documentary in American literature of the process of separation from an ethnic culture. No one else tells us so well about the damages suffered, as writers and as people, by those who first make available in literature the experiences of an excluded minority. The world left behind is irretrievable and yet inescapable. The cost of leaving, the death of remaining, the anger and the defensiveness about one's group—themes common in most ethnic writing—are unforgettably captured in Farrell's best work.
Those of us from racial and ethnic minorities in America who have had the good fortune to grow up after such writers owe them a special debt. Through their books we can find our feelings and experiences. They reflect our world, give names to wordless feelings, and characterize our situations in ways we can find no place else in American literature—at least not until our Farrells free us to make the connections between our experience and that of others from different backgrounds. These books create an imaginative space within which we can see our ethnic pasts less grievously than their authors must. Rightly read they can free us from the burden of isolation. Because of them we may imagine a less drastic passage from our past to our present. And we may escape the doom of being forever fixed in a lost world.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3419
SOURCE: "The Literary Record," in James T. Farrell: The Revolutionary Socialist Years, New York University Press, 1978, pp. 132-43.
[In this excerpt, Wald contends that Farrell's political concerns are a significant aspect of his work.]
The clearest manifestations of [Leon] Trotsky's impact on Farrell were inspirational and political; but there was a special bond in their mutual search for "new perspectives" for Marxist writers and intellectuals. As a novelist, Farrell emerged from the 1920s looking favorably upon the literary tradition of modern realism and naturalism; but as an intellectual, with a wide-ranging knowledge of history and philosophy, he condemned the limited vistas of Dreiser, Anderson, and others. Originally, Farrell advanced beyond these other writers in his assimilation of the pragmatic social philosophy and psychology of Dewey and Mead. Like the New York intellectuals around Partisan Review, Farrell believed in the necessity of literary as well as Marxist tradition; and unlike Max Eastman, and many in the Stalinist school of the early 1930s, Farrell accepted the 1920s revolution in technique and sensibility (although he found it inadequate for the 1930s).
Drawn initially to ideals he mistakenly associated with the Stalinist movement, Farrell felt a visceral disgust with the Communists' literary politics and began to forge a critique. Gradually, as in the case of other theoretically oriented intellectuals of an independent mind and revolutionary outlook, he came to prefer the critique that Trotsky had evolved of Stalinist policy: It provided greater depth, breadth, and the authenticity of being espoused by a genuine revolutionary leader. . . .
It has been affirmed that Farrell's world of fictional creation in the 1930s and 1940s was imaginatively created primarily from the experiences of his childhood—especially from his observation of the social forces involved in the fall of Studs Lonigan types, as well as from his comprehension of the ordeal requisite for escape from the cultural shackles which victimized the O'Neill and O'Flaherty (Farrell and Daly) families. Farrell was brooding over and formulating the underlying concepts of his first two major cycles of novels in the late 1920s. Had Farrell succumbed, like so many other young plebeian writers, to the pressures of Stalinism or commercialism during the early 1930s, it is doubtful that either the Studs Lonigan trilogy would have been completed, or the O'Neill-O'Flaherty series ever written; for, as has been shown, these works were undertaken in defiance of the Stalinist line, government and local censors, and popular taste. Although Farrell's central literary projects were grounded in the 1920s, it is justifiable to assert that his gravitation toward Trotskyism was one important aid which assisted him in standing fast against currents which could have undermined the realization of his goals in fiction during the thirties and forties.
Trotskyism gave Farrell, the author of fiction, a revolutionary perspective for the sustenance of his art. The qualities Farrell came to admire the most in Trotsky—his faith in his ideas, his willingness to stand alone in defiance of Stalinism and capitalism—were those which nourished Farrell in his own struggles. Farrell's fight to keep art free from various forms of dictatorial and commercial corruption was as firm as Trotsky's resolution to liberate the revolutionary workers' movement from Stalinism. Farrell's search for truth in the Moscow Trials, and his willingness to face it, stemmed from the same urge which drove him to ruthlessly probe the world of Danny O'Neill.
But in addition to this general impact of Trotsky on the course of Farrell's fiction, it would be hard to imagine that Farrell's intense involvement with Trotsky (the man and his ideas), his impassioned defense of Trotsky, his thorough reading and re-reading of Trotsky's major works, his immersion in the milieu of Trotskyist and left-wing anti-Stalinists, his political battles against the Popular Front from a Trotskyist perspective, his adherence to the Trotskyist conception of the struggle against fascism—that all this could have passed without some specific observable impact on Farrell's fiction. And, of course, the evidence is there.
If one surveys the large quantity of Farrell's fiction which concerns radical intellectuals and particularly the Stalinist movement, there is one overriding characteristic: the conception of Stalinism, with its cultural arm, as a deforming and perfidious social movement. V. F. Calverton noted the absence of this approach in A Note on Literary Criticism; Farrell's polemic, Calverton had argued, seemed to be mainly against the ignorance of various Communist party critics. However, if the Trotskyist notion of Stalinism remained undiscussed in A Note on Literary Criticism for tactical reasons, the situation was soon reversed. In the following months and years Farrell demonstrated no lack of aggressiveness in promoting a Trotskyist understanding of political and cultural Stalinism in its Third Period, Popular Front, wartime, and post-Browder phases. (It was precisely this kind of incisive political critique which made Farrell anathema to the Stalinists and to those liberals who chose to ally with them.) And to some degree, Trotskyist critiques of the phases of Stalinism are concepts underlying parts of two novels (The Road Between and Yet Other Waters), scores of short stories, and one important play, The Mowbray Family.
Farrell's fictional world of the Stalinist political-cultural movement is not peopled with simple scoundrels, conspirators, or especially naive or warped individuals (although some of these types are present). As a social force, Stalinism is portrayed as a magnet of attraction, offering (in its different periods) combinations of material and spiritual rewards. In the beginning of Yet Other Waters (depicting Stalinism in transition from the Third Period to the Popular Front), novelist Bernard Carr and Mel Morris (the editor of Social Theatre) have a revealing discussion. Mel, to whom the party has given a magazine and an audience, sings praises to what the Stalinists have done for him in a very material sense:
"Look how we've both got ahead already," Mel went on. "We're going places. And the Movement's going places. After the Writers Congress next month, Bernie, there's going to be nothing to stop us in American culture. You remember how we both came to New York a few years ago, poor and unknown, without a pot to piss in?"
The pull and appeal of the Communist movement is described in other Farrell stories, such as "John Hitchcock," which treats a starving book reviewer attracted as well as repelled by the movement:
Many writers . . . had gone left. In the circles in which he moved, Marxism, Revolution, the Communist Party, were constant subjects of loud discussion. . . . Few of those who participated in these discussions were well read in Marxism; few knew the history of the Russian Revolution; and the level of the discussions was generally rigid, sloganistic. The Communists and fellow travelers who defended the Party line consistently spoke with great confidence and self-assurance, with, literally, the conceit of history in their voices. . . . Most of them were in circumstances essentially similar to those in which John found himself. They were declassed intellectuals. They wanted to be writers, critics, employees in publishing houses, figures in the literary life of New York. Times were bad, very bad in the publishing business. America was in the depths of the Hoover era. There was widespread unemployment. There were riots, starvation, hunger marches. American economy was shaken. The future looked miserable. The declassed intellectuals were insecure, shaky, worried. They did not know where to turn. The effort to survive harried them, warped their character. Communists and fellow travelers spoke to them with assurance and self-confidence, convinced that they were absolutely right.
Fear and insecurity made them more susceptible to the pull; there was also idealism—the kind of idealism which moved Bernard Carr during the 1927 Sacco-Vanzetti demonstration (and which he tended to associate with the Communists). As Farrell later wrote: "Stalinism was . . . a house of cultural assignation, where one guy could get two girls for the night, the glamour girl of success, and poor little Nell, the beautiful but ragged proletarian girl of integrity" [unpublished manuscript, Farrell Collection]. Yet, as Farrell's stories reveal—and as the record authenticates—for most of the plebeian writers the success was short-lived. Many pro-Stalinists (such as Henry Roth, Robert Cantwell, Jack Conroy, Clara Weatherwax, Leane Zugsmith, Edwin Seaver, Isadore Schneider, Mike Gold, Edwin Rolfe, and Edward Newhouse) ended up writing little fiction, and much of that was soon forgotten. And, like many other characters in Farrell's stories, his literary representations of these pro-Stalinist writers end up as middle-aged men with lost dreams.
Intellectuals who gravitated toward the Trotskyists tended to write fiction about themselves, their group and its problems, frequently in the form of romans à clef. Max Eastman's Venture, Edmund Wilson's I Thought of Daisy, Tess Slesinger's The Unpossessed, Mary McCarthy's The Oasis, are a few examples. And Farrell is no exception to the trend, especially inasmuch as The Road Between and Yet Other Waters are peopled with an abundance of figures from the radical literary movement. Some of these characters operate in other fiction as well, with the same or similar names. The degree of the portrait's accuracy seems to fall into one of three categories: the recreation of a person in full detail; the creation of characters who simply make statements or perform acts once carried out by an actual person; the depiction of composite or hybrid figures.
Jake (a recurring figure in several stories) is extremely suggestive of Joseph Freeman, especially in his attempts to hold dissident fellow travelers together by criticizing the Communist party's sectarianism in private. (In fact, like the Freeman observed in Farrell's diary, Jake even praises Trotsky in secret.) Certainly the short story "The Dialectic," which embodies a Trotskyist critique of the affinity of liberalism and Stalinism in the late 1930s, features a character very much like Joe Freeman. The story tells of two young students who became radicalized in the early 1930s. Jake is an admirer of Trotsky and Eddie seeks to emulate John Reed. Jake, however, joins the Communist party and a decade later is forced to suppress his real views in regard to Trotsky and the Moscow Trials (as was Freeman). Eddie, in contrast, goes to Moscow as a correspondent, becomes disillusioned, returns to the United States, and is treated as an outcast by the Stalinists. But in a dialectical reversal at the end of the story, Jake is expelled by the Communists and Eddie becomes one of their allies in the Popular Front. . . .
"The Martyr" is more authentically a story of its time (the midforties). It demonstrates the profound emptiness of the lives of the men from the Communist literary milieu. A fictionalized account of the famous post-Browder literary dispute in the Communist party, it tells of Leonard Luckman, a thinly disguised Albert Maltz, who returns to New York after six years in Hollywood. At age forty, he makes an ill-fated attempt to change the literary policy of the Communist party that he once helped forge but now feels has sterilized his literary work. With keen psychological insight, Farrell probes the convoluted logic of self-deception by which the characters justify their own self-betrayals.
It was frequently because of their approach to character development that Farrell judged novels of the pro-Stalinist writers to be shallow; no doubt Farrell felt drawn to and was influenced by Trotsky on a literary plane because of the marvelous character portraits contained in The History of the Russian Revolution. Of these, Farrell once wrote [in Partisan Review, Vol. 7, September-October, 1940]:
He [Trotsky] saw in everyone the representative of a class or of a social group, and in everyone's ideas he perceived their political consequences. His estimates of character, despite the charges of his critics, were generally not personal: they were political and intellectual. His brilliant character vignettes in The History of the Russian Revolution are actually social studies in miniature.
Although the class differences of characters—for example, in the O'Neill-O'Flaherty books, Jim O'Neill, the worker, and Al O'Flaherty, the salesman—were in the material itself, Trotsky's approach may have helped Farrell make full use of all possibilities. The crowning achievement was probably Farrell's magnificent portrait of his father, represented by Jim O'Neill, as the embodiment of the American working man in Father and Son.
Additionally, since Farrell was a novelist of character, the nature of the Communist movement was also revealed in Farrell's fiction by the way it attracted and shaped character. Some of Farrell's best literary portraits feature this concern: especially that of Norman Griel in "Victim or Hero?", a careful representation of a journalist (again, suggestive of a real figure) pulled into the Stalinist movement. Griel suppresses his doubts about the Moscow Trials and tries to escape his deteriorating personal life through a trip to Spain (during the Civil War). There he is accidentally killed, having been propelled into the situation by a destiny almost (but not totally) beyond his control.
"Breakfast" is a character sketch of Arthur Stein, who sneers at bourgeois culture and clings to a notion of Marxism as the "locomotive of history." "A Story About Money" is another portrayal, although cruder, of a wealthy cultural dilettante who ends up in the Communist party.
Other stories tend to reflect concerns of those in the anti-Communist left. "Comrade Stanley" focusses on the intrigue and factional mentality of the Communist movement. "A Love Story of Our Time," similar to Dos Passos's Adventures of a Young Man, exhibits a young anticapitalist poet literally seduced into going to Spain, only to discover the true treacherous role of the Stalinists there and be denounced.
Farrell's attitude after the forties toward the Trotskyist movement—a hostile one in most of his published fiction—is concentrated in a group of five stories (in addition to the appearance of Joseph Benton in "Tom Carroll"). Some of this work consists of character likenesses: for example, "The Mayor's Committee," in which the clever, witty, and somewhat shallow narrator suggests Max Shachtman, and "Episodes of a Return," in which Albert Goldman may have been the model for the tired exradical and former Smith Act victim. "Digging Our Graves" is a bitter satire about the impotence of a squabbling, sectarian left, with swipes at James Cannon (probably suggested by the figure described as "the Lenin of America if he hadn't drunk whiskey") and Dwight Macdonald (the likely point of reference in "The Yale man's moral resolution").
The most extensive fictional critique of the Trotskyist movement is "The Renegade." It is the story of Hal, an arrogant unattractive person who breaks with the Communists almost accidentally and gravitates toward Trotskyism. There he is taken under the wing of the party's philosopher (reputed to be a budding David Ryazanov), Joseph Zinn, whose party name is "Benton." (This is the same name as that of the character resembling George Novack in "Tom Carroll," and is also meant to be a fictional portrait of Farrell's one-time friend. Patrick Nolan suggests James Cannon, and certain of Hal's experiences may have been inspired by Felix Morrow, although Hal seems much more of a composite figure than the other two.) Hal is impressed by the Trotskyists' righteous talk about the integrity of their party, and their claim to be "the only moral people."
Under the supervision of Benton—a man perpetually on the alert for potentially dangerous scratches and infections which can lead to political gangrene—Hal rises to the position of a party journalist. He quits college and joins the small group of dull, unimaginative, but courageous and hard-working members. However, at the end of the story, again almost accidentally, Hal discovers himself to be a leading member of an opposition group and, although he recants, he is expelled by Benton. "The Renegade" is a hostile literary reaction against the factional struggles of the Trotskyist movement, which had irked Farrell at least since the time of the imbroglio in the Socialist party. But the unkind portraits of Novack and Cannon introduce an element of subjective personal bitterness that is rare even in Farrell's most autobiographical fiction, and is an index of the deep wound left by his disillusionment with the Trotskyist movement.
With the exception of Tommy Gallagher's Crusade, the collection When Boyhood Dreams Come True (1946) is probably the book of fiction most overtly reflective of Farrell's positive attitude toward the Trotskyists before his break with them. This is especially evidenced in the play contained in the book, "The Mowbray Family." Here, in contrast to Yet Other Waters, we have anti-Stalinism combined with a radical alternative. In this three-act comedy (written with Hortense Farrell), the wealthy home of the Mowbrays has become filled with a gallery of Stalinists from the Popular Front movement, because of the foolish gullibility of Mrs. Mowbray. The play contains excellent social-political likenesses of all the types attracted to the Stalinist-liberal enterprise: Mortimer, the Lost Generation poet of patrician character who is revered because he, for one, is now "doing" something besides just "talking"; Sandy Warren, a hardboiled Communist party journalist; Eric, a tortured middle-class writer.
However, counterposed to this morass is Philip Bentley, a disciple of John Dewey and a philosophy instructor, who is anticapitalist, revolutionary, but opposed to the totalitarian features of Stalinism and who predicts the Hitler-Stalin Pact. (The Pact occurs at the climax of the play when it is announced over the radio.) Philip seems a positive force, and he is clearly a Trotskyist intellectual, although not an orthodox Marxist (Farrell, in fact, makes Philip a conscious opponent of dialectical materialist philosophy, and attributes to the Stalinist, Mortimer, a speech on dialectics similar to Trotsky's brief treatment in "The ABC of Dialectical Materialism") [When Boyhood Dreams Come True].
Farrell's short fiction is also permeated with representations of other social types cast up by the radical movement, including the exiled left-wing Social Democrat from Spain in "Man on an Island of History"; the narrow politico, "Dumbrovic"; the ex-Stalinists in "The Lady and the Masters of History"; the former labor radicals in "Reunion Abroad." The most explicitly revolutionary of all Farrell's short works is "Summer Morning in Dublin." This is reportage of the first order, in the 1930s genre, and ends with a revolutionary summons (after a survey of Dublin's brutal poverty): ". . . the only alternative is for all workers to rise up and seize power themselves."
Especially when Farrell is compared to other American realists like Dreiser, his work shows indications of an international and historical consciousness which Trotsky's Marxism may have partially inspired and partially broadened. In a taped interview with David Madden, Farrell emphasized the importance of the first World War at the beginning of the second volume of the Studs Lonigan books, an event which resulted in an "unsure moral consciousness" after its occurrence. Apparently an important conception underlying Farrell's forthcoming book How Our Day Began (of which some excerpts have been published), is the worldshaking opening of what Lenin deemed "the imperialist epoch" of war and revolution, in 1914:
We were born the same year and, thus, we can say that we are of the same generation and have felt some of the same general pressures of history on our own lives. Our characters, our minds, our feelings, have grown, developed, evolved within the field where these pressures are at work. You are Dutch and Jewish and were born in Amsterdam, and I am American and Irish, and was born in Chicago. We are children of the twentieth century, but we were born before the twentieth century became fully what it is. In 1914, this century exploded in its own face, and ever since it has been face-lifting and doctoring itself, and seeking to develop a better mirror in order that it may see its own reflected image more clearly.
["How Our Day Began," The Smith, Vol. 3, February 15, 1968]
Nevertheless, it is not the argument of this book that Farrell's outlook derives from a single source of influence—be it a man like Trotsky, a historic movement like socialism, or a liberal philosophy like pragmatism. Rather, what has been demonstrated is how Farrell's social, moral, and political concerns not only underlie much of his fiction but also how they are expressed in his fiction—sometimes more directly than at other times. A comprehensive and judicious assessment of Farrell's contributions to American letters is thus impossible without taking into account his long and intense involvement with Marxism and Trotskyism. If Farrell's work had been exclusively provincial rather than intertwined with political events of the day (even, in some instances, virtually rotating around international events), then one might be justified in ignoring the relationship between Farrell's literary output and his involvement with Trotsky and revolutionary Marxism. But Farrell's work is not provincial—nor divorced from his Marxist experience.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1240
SOURCE: "The Question of Regionalism: Limitation and Transcendence," in The American Short Story, 1900-1945, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 147-82.
[Below, Rohrberger observes that modern civilization's lack of spiritual values is the cause of individual and societal failure in Farrell's short fiction.]
Best known for his Studs Lonigan trilogy, James T. Farrell writes of the failure of institutions to provide moral sanctions sufficient to maintain spiritual values that define civilization at its best. The disease that takes over when a moral vacuum exists is both personal and social, manifesting itself in the disintegration of character. Farrell's popularity in recent years has diminished, although at one time he was considered to be one of this country's important writers.
As a short story writer, Farrell is better than [Sinclair] Lewis, though Farrell, too, often gets no further than surfaces; still, his range is greater and his tone more varied. "The Power of Literature," is, for example, more subtly ironic than overtly satiric. Hardly complex, this very short story concerns itself with the essential loneliness of people in a big city. Told in the third person and focused through Samuel Lord, the protagonist, the story is based in an ironic reversal. Lord is the author of a first novel having to do with alcoholism and delirium tremens. Having himself been an alcoholic, Lord is able to write the novel with such force that it has become a best-seller and is discussed widely in the press and on the radio. The publishers decide to take advantage of its success by having a large party in recognition of the author. The focal situation is the party where hundreds of people mill around drinking the free liquor and staying until they are all very drunk. At the end of the story, Lord goes home alone, realizing that before the became famous he had been poor and an alcoholic, lonely and unhappy. Now he is rich and not an alcoholic, but he is still lonely and unhappy.
Farrell places a great deal of emphasis here on crowds of people who mill and jam and talk endlessly in excited voices. These crowds are compared with the isolation of the protagonist who soon is forgotten in their midst. At the end of the story, Samuel Lord sits in his penthouse looking down on the streets of New York, which are shrouded in mist. The lights appear to beckon him to life and romance. They appear to want to reveal to him the meaning and mystery of life. But the lights are an illusion. What they reveal is that everyone is alone in the crowd, destitute of values, and poisoned by blight.
With a little more direction by Farrell, "The Power of Literature" could have become more complex and thus more interesting. The protagonist's name is suggestive, as well as the fact that he is a creator, but there is no evidence in the story to suggest the mirroring that would be necessary to carry a substructure to completion. In the beginning was the word and the word has power, but, unfortunately, this story does not.
When reading stories written during the thirties, as many of Farrell's were, one must remember the force of the Depression and perhaps even speculate that social and economic conditions were such that Americans were faced, for the first time, with an image of failure powerful enough to become a backdrop against which was played everything they did or read. Thus ironies in a story would be strengthened not by the structure of the story but by the environment in which the story was read. "The Virginians Are Coming," for example, might have made a more lasting impression on Farrell's contemporaries than on readers of today (though, given another depression, who can tell?). The title of the story refers to a poem by Vance Linden which says, among other things:
Babbitt, your tribe is passing away,
This is the end of your infamous day.
The Virginians are coming again.
The protagonist of the story, Roland, and his friends are the next generation referred to in the poem, but they are making no impact. Roland is already graduated and the others soon will be, but there are no jobs for them, and for the few jobs that are available, they are overqualified. Before graduation Roland had always argued that there were not many Babbitts in the world, but after looking for work day after day and talking to businessmen, employment managers, department heads, and chief clerks, Roland has decided that they are Babbitts, giving gratuitous advice, eulogizing the value of time, boasting and bragging of their own rise in the world, lauding capitalism; all this, when Roland simply wants a job.
"John Hitchcock" has much the same theme. John wants to be a writer, but he is so busy writing reviews for a few dollars so that he and his wife can feed themselves, he is filled with frustration and fear: "He wished he were old, that he were at the end of his life. He thought how the old were the lucky ones. They had so little to go through. They didn't have to face this terrible future that he . . . had inherited." The story ends with John thinking: "Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!" It is, of course, hard to read the end of "John Hitchcock" without being reminded of the "Nada" that ends Hemingway's "A Clean Well-Lighted Place," but the stories are clearly different. Hemingway's is a microcosm and in it the nada is given cosmic force. Farrell's nothing is tied to a place and time.
"When Boyhood Dreams Come True" is a far better story because in it Farrell attempts not only to present a microcosm but also to use techniques and devices identified more with the twentieth-century experimental and avant garde than with nineteenth-century tradition. The protagonist, a soldier named Tom Finnegan, becomes an American Everyman, and insofar as American racism is identified with Nazi racism, Tom becomes a Western European Everyman who suffers from anxiety and guilt, associated with a set of sins deriving from the distorted values by which he has lived and dreamed. These values have resulted in a nightmare world where people run mazes of every sort, either chasing or being chased, either hunting or being hunted, looking for ways out of the darkness by means of family, church, country, but always frustrated. Central among these perverted values is the kind of crazy ambiguity that makes it necessary for men at one and the same time to be macho and tender, domineering and submissive, soldier and poet, God and Christ; and for women to be loving mother, wife, and seductive whore/angel and witch/devil.
The dream Farrell skillfully presents is flawed only by his apparent belief that somewhere he had to explain that Tom is dreaming. Otherwise, the surrealistic juxtaposition of images crazily coalescing and dispersing to form different combinations forms a picture of a carnival/hell on earth where everyone is fast moving to an absurd judgment day. All life has led to the precipice on which Tom stands, when boyhood dreams are true. The past is dream, the future illusion, the present the space between ticks of the clock.
"When Boyhood Dreams Come True" is a superb short story, valuable in itself, intricate in design, and aesthetically pleasing. It is, however, not regional, and some people might even consider it to be more an example of surrealism than of realism.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2623
SOURCE: "James T. Farrell: The City as Society," in Makers of the City, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pp. 119-58.
[In the following excerpt, Fried discusses the role of the city in Farrell's writing, particularly Farrell's understanding of the city and its culture as a crucial determinant of human experience.]
No novelist of our time has so persistently identified the substance of his fiction with the teachings of the liberalizing city than James T. Farrell. His novels depict how characters make use of the city's commitment to build a public through shared, rational experience. His narrative strategy has been to present in great detail the often unnoticed and small ways these democratizing occasions are made possible. As a result, his writing often deals with the means by which a community or group helps widen an individual's understanding of self and others. His fiction, generally autobiographical, is so deeply implicated with this pattern of events that it is, by now, a commonplace to argue that Farrell's writing is not only what he experienced, but what only he experienced.
This is true, but qualifiedly so. Farrell's novels and short stories are concerned not simply with a specific community, but rather with it as a generalized community trying to understand the city. Influenced by his reading of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead and by his understanding of the accomplishments of the Chicago school of sociology, his fiction minutely, even tediously, dramatizes the "incremental" nature of choice as part of the culture of democracy.
The uses Farrell made of his city are found in his fiction. In 1927, he was twenty-three, putting himself through the University of Chicago by working in a gas station. One day, he picked up a book of poetry to read while waiting for customers: He wanted to be a writer. Chicago, his native city, had no special meaning for him. Decades later, he recollected that as a youth Chicago had been for him a "city to study" and that he had dreamt "of love and adventure elsewhere." Reading Carl Sandburg's "Chicago," Farrell discovered his vocation: he would be a novelist of the city. "I was beginning to find in myself," he recalled, "to feel in myself, and to feel into all that I had known, and was getting to know, day by day, in Chicago, a significance which was material for head, heart and imagination." Sandburg's poem, he wrote, "lifted me with excitement . . . whipped me into impatience." "Chicago" he added, "acquired size in my imagination, and what happened there, and what people did, that was of human meaning; it was the stuff for literature" ["Dreiser and Chicago," n.d.]. . . . In his writing Farrell would move beyond his fascination with how Chicago youths inherited their city to a concern for how they interpret their social heritage. For Farrell, this heritage is the idea of the democratic city.
This social meaning of the city was, for him, a live issue. Farrell believed that his life was intimately and irrevocably bound to his urban past. His fiction almost obsessively deals with the poverty of his parents, the cripping parochialism of the South Side's Irish Catholicism, and the suffocating middle-class pieties of the relatives who raised him. Yet these themes also serve as a prologue to his novels that deal with the liberation he saw promised by what he believed was the city's culture of democracy. His novels would focus on the ethical crises of his protagonists, usually radical and progressive writers in Chicago and New York, as they tried to find how their present accommodated the meanings of their past and their hopes for a chosen future. . . .
Chicago remained his pole star, even after he settled in New York. It defined his fiction and his life. In his letters and notes he would compare it to New York or Paris. He would jot his impressions of the city when he returned to it. He invariably wrote of his alienation from it. In a fragment obviously trying to capture the city's epic richness and yet its inviolable, frustrating claims upon him, Farrell called it "my home town, my native city, my natal city" ["A Visit to Chicago," n.d.].
Farrell's Chicago and family had immense literary uses. Chicago, the "American" city, reflected the emerging "tendencies" of the nation. Writing in 1942 to Saul Alinsky, Farrell discussed the literary task he had formulated a decade ago. It was a "project or programme of books" that would deal with "The American Way of Life." Its focus is concrete; it would discern the "patterns of individual destiny." Chicago assumes a major role: in the main, the project "will be Chicago up to the depression." Farrell believed that Chicago, a city connected to the broad stretch of American life rather than closely tied to international trade served as a "rather concentrated focus of the social life of modern America" ["Chicago and American Culture," n.d.].
His family was "a mirror of a whole American social genre" [Letter to Hortense Farrell, 1936]. It is fair to say that Farrell described his family as an agent of urbanization enacting the tensions of the city. As a result, his identification with a city that he saw as commandingly American and with a family that he believed represented a significant national and urban theme invested his own struggle with an importance far beyond its individual nature. Moreover, his attraction to the city—first Chicago and then New York—is bound up with an equal fascination for his success and for his becoming the kind of progressive American that his past and place could not predict. . . .
Earlier, Farrell had discovered the setting and people of his fiction, the South Side of often illiberal Irish Americans. Now he had a theme explaining the relation of his characters to their place. Individuals enacted the culture of their place. Their character was forged in the clash between the parochialism of their group or neighborhood and the open future offered by the surrounding alien city. Farrell rendered this struggle as an individual's understanding of the meanings the city transmits of its culture.
Farrell's major writing deals with this tension between heritage and prospects. His novels and stories indicate that his obsession with the making of self is the force that drives his fiction. His novels depict the chosen destinies of South Side Irish Americans from the early years of the twentieth century to the closing days of the thirties. His characters morally rise or fall by virtue of their willingness to commit themselves to what John Dewey called problem-solving activity.
Farrell's commitment to have his fiction raise these problems is his literary development. This accounts for his being called, often unimaginatively, tediously honest or sincere. He did not define his work in terms of hard, deterministic naturalism, a tradition his critics, who often read his fiction as a study of the authority of mass culture, find important in understanding his rendition of characters. In fact, those who most deeply influenced him—Dreiser, Joyce, and Zola—and who could be seen as philosophically conservative precisely because of their experiments with naturalism, were seen by Farrell as insurrectionaries. Their opposition to a culture of fixed meanings and their struggles to break the limiting repertoire of conventional literary explanation were Farrell's literary tradition.
Farrell saw himself as a writer outside the company of contemporary writers and yet part of a community of men of letters who worked in the face of hostility. As a young man, Farrell admired Dreiser's defiance. His example, as Farrell put it, "his strength, his persistence in the face of opposition, the sympathy and depth of feeling in his writings—all this had encouraged me." Similarly, Joyce "rejected religion; he had launched forth against the 'rabblement'; he had asserted his views and his determination to be independent" [Reflectins at Fifty, 1954].
Joyce, Farrell observed, was "the first Irish writer to arise, after a national literary regeneration had begun, who introduces the city" [Letter to John Switalski, 1942]. Dreiser became the great novelist of America's epoch of urbanization, finding unassimilable the "cultivated traditions of Europe, the culture of New England, the culture of Victorian England" [Literature and Morality, 1947]. These men were writers of the city, announcing the significant themes of the modern artist's development: the individual's struggle against the conventions of the public and, paradoxically, the individual's attempt to appropriate the culture of the city.
Farrell's reading of the tradition of struggle, a struggle he saw as pitting urban plebeian writers with enriching, iconoclastic imaginations against an arid literary establishment, is his version of literary creation. Certainly, this was not the only interpretation of creativity he talked about but it was one that he believed was his. Functioning as a measure of authenticity, the struggle indicated how the writer as an outsider established an original, perhaps visionary, relationship with society.
Ironically, Farrell's work is victimized by the environment of his past that he interpretively transformed. His past became the terrain he knew best and he believed that returning to it would somehow prove insightful: it would remain an enduring subject for fiction. He writes in 1939 [in a letter to Mary Farrell] that "I have not exhausted its [the neighborhood's] possibilities by a darned sight. There are plenty of new emphases to be drawn." His writing remained inseparable from the psychological circumstances of the time and place of his youth. His novels and collections of short stories (which number well over sixty), however, could not sustain what he called the story of "America as I knew it" because, finally, there was so little of then contemporary America in the works themselves. Reworking again and again the same events and the same pattern of moral existence made his fiction repetitive and categorical. Farrell understood this but pointed out that writers "can only deal with so much. The world is bigger than anyone. And one has to take certain types, moods, problems, conditions, eras, social areas and then try to explore them thoroughly. So on "Can All This Grandeur Perish?" they [the critics] say—he has said all this" [Letter to Felix Kolodziej, 1937].
Clearly, though, he did not believe he had said "all this." Even given his insistence on exploring the formation of a democratic public, his fiction became aesthetically privatizing and narrow. He had written all this before; its variations had meaning only for him. Sadly, and finally, it was less a meditation and less a chronicle. It became, simply, a report.
For Farrell, the city is an environment of socially created meanings in process. The range and variety of urban encounters offer opportunities for individuals to see themselves as others do, as well as to understand the experiences of others. From the home to the school, from the street to the church, from play to conversation, an individual is forced to reassess and to partake of another enlarging interpretation of experience. This gradual and finally cooperative process in which we identify ourselves with a common good as well as an interested one, creates a public. That is, democratic life enables us to understand ourselves by means of others. Doing so, we share in and control a common destiny.
For Farrell's characters, fate is the summation of their choices. The individuals he portrays create themselves by thinking, choosing, and acting within the possibilities of their society. His fiction's unrelieved attention to the commonplace captures these slow, incremental acts that are finally seen as a destiny. As Danny O'Neill, one of Farrell's fictional selves [in Slum Street, USA] puts it,
I am thinking in terms of destinies. Destinies are made up of the happenings of a life. These follow one after the other, the phrase to use is "in serial order." . . . They do not add up, but they accumulate . . . in a tendency, a direction, and they are like the "cometogether"—currents that compose the current of the wind. A life is blown by a wind called destiny, and that wind is controlled by the mind as much as by circumstances.
As Farrell himself explained [in New Republic, 1940]: "I seek to answer the question: what happens to people? I hold a functional conception of character, viewing it as a social product embodying the reciprocal play of local influences on the individual and on society. I am concerned with the concrete process whereby society, through the instrumentality of social institutions, forms and molds characters. . . ." Farrell's success is just this. He is not an ideologue but rather an ideational writer, one who depicts the situation of ideas and their perceived function in the lives of his characters.
Farrell brought to his fiction the liberal promises of his coming of age. And these were the possibilities of the democratic city articulated by such figures as Mead, Dewey, and members of the Chicago school of sociology such as Robert Park, E. W. Burgess, and Frederic Thrasher. Given the evidence of his fiction, these are his Chicago school. These men wrote about what he believed he had lived through, understood, and escaped. Their writing confirmed for him the significance of his struggles.
Farrell's thoughts about sociology, including the Chicago school of sociology (and in his letters and essays he usually identifies this with the work of Park, Burgess, and Thrasher) were not always generous, even though its influence on his writing is obvious. He had a distaste for what he saw as sociology's dry work. Its inclination, he felt, was with abstraction robbed of significance, so he argues in 1929 [in "Ingredients of the Personality," Chicago Evening Post]. By 1931, he is soured. His concerns were with understanding how a self is formed by its interplay with society, and he argues that sociologists had cordoned off a "fact" from its network of relations and meanings. "University Sociology fact finders," as he calls them, ignore what the artist knows: that "life has meanings" and that "there are values, and that for human beings these values are the most important things." In contradistinction to sociological theory, he claims the best definition of culture he had read is Tyler's, whom Dewey quotes: culture is "that complex whole of knowledge, belief and morals, custom, and any other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society" [Letter to Theodore, 1931].
He acknowledged, nonetheless, that the members of the Chicago school affected his writing. In "The Story of Studs Lonigan," he wrote how Studs's experiences were "concrete and specific" and pointed out that he "made sociological analyses of the neighborhood in which Studs lived, applying conclusions and hypotheses from the studies of University of Chicago sociologists. . . ." He did not do this, he added, to confirm their theories but to "clarify" his own understanding of the material of this fiction. . .
The theses of the Chicago thinkers gave Farrell's work its urban perspective. The city was not simply a physical presence to be described in terms of its appearance; it incarnated social intelligence. It could be described through a character's enactments of the culture it transmitted. The urban crises of class and racial antagonism were, in reality, failures of civility. The democratic city paradoxically exists through its conflicting, sectarian and shared life. The city extends one's comprehension of self, others, and experience into that of the enlarging community. The influence, if not inspiration, of the Chicago thinkers upon Farrell's work is ultimately found in how his characters think the city and in how they choose to act upon this. And again, the significance of the Chicago school is found in his notion of functional writing—fiction as shared experience, as participation in a common understanding. As Farrell put it [in "The Social Obligations of the Novelist: I," Humanist, 1941], "if we read books honestly, and do not try to repress ourselves, it is likely that we will identify ourselves with all that is human."
Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 250
Branch, Edgar M. James T. Farrell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971, 192 p.
Provides an overview of Farrell's writing, with an emphasis on the "O'Neill-O'Flaherty series."
Flynn, Dennis, and Jack Salzman. "An Interview with James T. Farrell." Twentieth Century Literature Vol. XXII, No. 1 (February 1976): 1-10.
Farrell discusses the critical reception of Studs Lonigan and how this trilogy has dominated his career.
Fried, Lewis F. "James T. Farrell: The City as Society." In Makers of the City. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, 244 p.
Examines Farrell's representation of and engagement with the urban landscape.
Phelps, Donald. Hearing Out James T. Farrell: Selected Lectures. New York: The Smith, 1985, 167 p.
Provides a number of important lectures in which Farrell discusses his writing career and literary aesthetics.
Schickel, Richard. "James T. Farrell: Another Time, Another Place." Esquire Vol. LVIII, No. 6 (December 1962): 157, 272-75.
Biocritical study focusing on Farrell's turbulent writing career in which Schickel asserts "What is needed now is an honest scale in which to measure the contribution of Farrell to the life of his times."
Wald, Alan M. James T. Farrell: The Revolutionary Socialist Years. New York: New York University Press, 1978, 190 p.
Discusses Farrell's politics and how they are an integral part of his writing.
Additional coverage of Farrell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8 (rev. ed.), 89-92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 4, 8,11, 66; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 86; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 2; and Major 20th-century Writers.