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.