James T. Farrell Farrell, James T(homas) (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Farrell, James T(homas) 1904–

Farrell is an American novelist, short story writer, critic, poet, and editor. Considered a naturalist in the tradition of Dreiser, he paints an angry and powerful picture of lower and middle-class urban life. His literature is often socially oriented, exploring themes of alienation, chaos, and communication. Its realism is enhanced by the language of his characters, an accurate rendering of contemporary urban speech. Farrell is an extremely prolific author, whose work has frequently found critical disfavor. He has also written under the pseudonym of Jonathan Titulescu Fogarty, Esq. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Arthur Voss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The world of most of Farrell's fiction is not a pretty or happy one, since, as he has said, much of his writing has been concerned with portraying "conditions which brutalize human beings and produce spiritual and material poverty." (p. 267)

It must be admitted that a number of Farrell's stories, especially his earlier ones, show the influence of other writers. Farrell has frequently treated everyday characters and the emptiness, vulgarity, or sordidness of their lives in the manner of Chekhov and Joyce; he has written some Sherwood Anderson—like studies of repression and frustration; and he has written still other stories which are reminiscent in various ways of Hemingway, Lardner, and Dreiser. It must also be admitted that Farrell's work in the short story is very uneven, that at times it is overly doctrinaire, and that it is sometimes undistinguished in form and style. But though one does not find the artistry of a Chekhov or Joyce in Farrell, one does find intensity and moral seriousness and, in at least a few of the stories, an ability to powerfully affect the reader. (pp. 267-68)

Arthur Voss, in his The American Short Story: A Critical Survey (copyright 1973 by the University of Oklahoma Press), University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

Lewis Fried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Farrell's major fiction ("the story of America as I knew it") is funded so greatly by the struggles of his youth and maturity that we are in danger of reading the Bernard Carr trilogy as mere autobiography. (p. 52)

I want to suggest, however, that the trilogy is an act of, and meditation upon, the historiography of culture. The novels express—and dramatize—the problems besieging a writer who wishes to study the politics of social life. For both Farrell and Carr vivify a method of inquiry that portrays the experience of novelty, of historical emergents, as authentic expressions of change in human endeavor and nature. Breaking the backbone of a deterministic phenomenology, in this case the vulgarized Marxism of the 1930s, Farrell and his fictional alter ego wish accurately to study choice and individuality by rescuing them from an inexorable dialectic. Within this large theme, Farrell is concerned with "making of self," the process of individuation that marks the moral and intellectual growth of an American writer. (pp. 52-3)

Farrell's decision to focus on the maturation of a writer during a turbulent decade was a faultless choice; he could portray the difficulties of giving order to a past and present by exploring a consciousness concerned with that precise problem. Moreover, the period itself provided a readymade setting to examine the obligations of a writer to his solitary craft and the public's difficulties. Finally, the fictional author is a maneuverable character that permits his creator to study...

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Joseph W. Slade

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Farrell's] characters continually pat psychic pockets to assure themselves that their pasts are intact. Such characters rarely strip their personalities bare; they clothe them, instead, with steady if minute accretions of experience. Characterization is Farrell's principal strength as a novelist, and it derives from the poor man's existentialism to which he subscribes. With the possible exception of Eddie Ryan, who figures either centrally or peripherally in most volumes of the cycle, Farrell's people do not leap abysses in dramatic bursts of faith. Although they agonize over choices and despair of meaning, their universe is not absurd to them…. Their lives are almost entirely circumscribed by banality—"pitiless banality"—and stereotypical illusion, not because they are comfortable with such conditions but because it is too painful to live without them.

The humans in A Universe of Time assimilate experience slowly, usually by converting an event's significance to a cliche that will take its place with the other cliches by which they understand the world. Repeating the cliches gives their lives definition, as if they were tracing the same pattern over and over again in sand, or, as one of Farrell's narrators puts it, as if a stream were cutting its way through earth. The process serves as a holding action for the self, which the passage of time threatens to erode. (pp. 68-9)

[In] A Universe of Time characters do not always intersect, let alone interfere with each other. Hell is not so much other people as it is the failure to create any but the most ordinary relationships. More than is the case in any of Farrell's previous works, humans are isolated from one another, washed into cul de sacs by the flow of time. The very structure of the volumes makes this obvious. Although he uses traditional unifying devices such as symbols, parallel scenes, counter-balanced characters, and frequent motifs, Farrell develops his narratives along a strictly linear line with very little chronological experimentation. No major character appears without his biographical luggage, and within five pages of his entrance Farrell inevitably opens the suitcase to reveal the entire history of that character—before the next character comes along. Some people crop up repeatedly, while others never enter the plot a second time, but there is usually little room for them to interact because all those open suitcases are in the way. Numerous chapters are split into still more numerous sections; they are moments of time important in their discreteness only for their incremental value. In short, time marches on, and with it march Farrell's humans.

The nature of time is paradoxical. Its pulse gives life meaning. yet so far as Farrell's characters are concerned, its impervious monotony robs experience of significance…. [Love] between humans—where it exists—has the effect of arresting time, nullifying it if only temporarily. (p. 70)

In another sense, love is an index of time for characters who measure the ebbing of their lives by reference to a poignant former passion…. Love hardly ever flourishes in the present; it blooms in the past toward which husbands and wives yearn, or, less often, in the future toward which they look with eager, illusory anticipation.

Virtually all of the marriages in A Universe of Time degenerate into routine or discord. While men turn maudlin remembering fine hopes, the loss of love strikes women hardest….

Women in A Universe of Time crave gentle sex in their youth, achieve transfiguration in childbirth, and thereafter enter spiritual decline. To fill the void of their lives they compensate in one or more of three distinct ways, all of them detailed with the thoughtful Freudianism at which Farrell excels. The older, more pessimistic opt for religion, usually Catholicism, in order to spend their leisure in church or in calling down anathema on the men who have abused them…. By contrast, younger women flush with what can only be called pornographic fantasies low in explicit erotic content but high in sentimental stereotypes: they dream of being hugged tightly to a tweed shoulder….

A third compensation of...

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Leonard Kriegel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What I instinctively knew when I first read Farrell now seems to me his major contribution to American writing: his stubborn insistence on the validity of all lives for the creation of fiction. In this, he followed the lessons of his own masters, Balzac and the 19th-century European realists and Dreiser, writers whom we conveniently pigeonhole but who really have little in common other than their insistence that craft in fiction be matched by situation…. Studs Lonigan is certainly among the more memorable realistic fictions ever written in this country, but it would be difficult to cull a single memorable phrase from all of its pages. The work does not really rely on language but rather on the situations...

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Barry Wallenstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A landmark in American literature has just been achieved with the publication of James T. Farrell's fiftieth book, The Dunne Family. Farrell is known as one of the major Chicago novelists, a naturalist, a modern classic. Yet in many people's minds, he has been locked into a dead-issue decade; his work is thought to be synonymous with the reductive struggles and frustrated ideals of the 30's. The irony is that during the 30's Farrell was not only popular and recognized, with his fiction praised in the leading journals, but a member of the avant-garde, and already looked upon with suspicion by the dogmatists of proletarian literature. In his critical writings during the "Red Decade" he considered writers not then...

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Ann Douglas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps the central reason for Farrell's neglect is that he has confronted a problem modern America has determined to evade: our sense of history predicates a vision of Anglo-Saxon progress and expansion which our intellect no longer supports….

Farrell's work begins with his admission that our sense of historical mission, our destiny of significant resolvable struggle, is failing, but this admission does not then transmute itself into a richly textured literary sensibility: admission instead becomes a dramatized insistence. (p. 488)

[Farrell's prestige] coincided less with his merits than with a special set of circumstances operative in the 1930s. The Depression gave Americans...

(The entire section is 1399 words.)