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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....
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- Critical Essays
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.)
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 206
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.
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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 social and political life without compromising a sense of probability; such a protagonist's strength lies in his ability both to expose and democratize events and feelings native to particular classes by revealing them to the reading public. (pp. 56-7)
[Carr] cuts through social strata without distinctly belonging to any level. As a result, a picture of the Depression is developed unlike those found in avowedly proletarian novels in which the protagonist does not hope to intellectually appropriate a culture, but is, instead, disinherited from it.
For Carr's working-class origins (his father is a brick-layer), and spiritually impoverished background (the South Side) place him outside a community concerned with the free play of the human imagination. Early in his career, Farrell had begun to crystallize the injustice of this retrogressive heritage: a split between the promise of American life with its potential to share experience through institutions and media and the real tragedy inherent in the education of an average American youth. (p. 57)
[The] point Farrell was making, one that was the concrete center of the heady aesthetic polemics of the thirties—of whom and of what shall one write—was that culture, in this sense man's objectified self-consciousness, develops from the struggles of an historical comity of thinkers privy to experimentation and tradition. (pp. 57-8)
Farrell's individual novels are more than an examination of the aspirations, dreams, and delusions of a given number of South Side Irish-Americans. His fiction is a unified whole; it is a sustained meditation upon the emergents of the past, upon the consequences of choice, deliberation, and action. The times and places of his fiction are symbolic environments that foster platitudes, fables, and conduct that impede rational endeavor and infect the inhabitants of his art with the germ of spiritual poverty. He is arguing that a scientific method of inquiry must be applied to the self and its gregarious nature. The problematic must be confronted and mediated; energy must be directed towards the conceptualization of the unique, and the removal of obstacles in the path of rational social goals. His works, then, have a political dimension; they aid in the reconstruction of our own conduct so that we may effectively participate in the life of the community (p. 65)
Lewis Fried, "Bernard Carr and 'His' Trials of the Mind," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1976, Hofstra University Press), February, 1976, pp. 52-67.
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[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 Farrell's deprived women, occasionally shared by males, is a faith in their children. If they have been denied fulfillment, they reason, then their progeny can perhaps succeed. (p. 71)
If his women respond to time's ravages in comparatively simple Freudian or romantic tropisms, Farrell's males grapple philosophically with process—with a similar lack of success. Each time a would-be historian thinks he has distilled the laws of history, even that he has discerned patterns, Farrell undercuts him to make it plain that he has grasped illusion. (p. 72)
Older men, of course, are especially prone to [reflections on the past]. In their musings they stumble over the fault-lines of historical process and balk at endorsing purposive continuity. Again and again they are drawn to the betrayals of man's aspirations toward controlling the movements of time….
Younger men, although they may also be persuaded of the meaninglessness of history, usually beat their breasts in defiance. (p. 74)
Eddie Ryan quite early learns what his elders know intimately, that his aspirations toward Destiny can quickly be blunted by apprehensions of death…. Before he leaves the university, Eddie borrows from physics the principle that Henry Adams once applied to history with devastating effect: The Second Law of Thermodynamics. References to entropy abound in A Universe of Time. Human institutions decay, culture patterns become chaotic, random motion increases—the universe is running down to final equilibrium and death. (pp. 74-5)
Eddie's faith in the Second Law fluctuates with his moods as he tries to graft it onto a perenially renascent romanticism. The Silence of History ends on a heroic note, with Eddie speaking in first person….
[Most] characters in A Universe of Time choose, like Eddie, to sidestep the full implications of a meaningless universe. To accept entropy as a principle is to accept a bleak—if objective—view of existence. Farrell's humans prefer illusion. (p. 75)
At first glance, the pervasiveness of the concept of entropy would seem to place Farrell in the company of such postwar American novelists as Mailer, Heller, and Pynchon, but he does not use entropy in any structural sense, does not quite grasp its function as "time's arrow," as physicists fittingly refer to it, does not in fact understand entropy very well, as he has acknowledged. From the standpoint of Farrell's announced intention in A Universe of Time, to present "a relativistic panorama of our times," his failure to employ entropy in a sophisticated manner is unfortunate, if only because the Second Law would provide a foundation for a relativistic scheme and also legitimite chance, the chief element in Farrell's mature "naturalism."
By adopting time as an element in his fiction, Farrell has tried to counter the charge that his naturalism is antiquated. Unfortunately, the charge remains justified, if only because time in the cycle does not function as an entropic or dynamic force…. [The] principal difficulty centers on his approach to time and history…. Farrell has said that historical process reflects the operation of "multiple causation." Judged by this standard, the shortcoming of A Universe of Time, is that the causes are not sufficiently multiple, particularly for a cycle of so large a scale. Biological accident, Freudian influences, environmental conditioning, and economic injustices are not enough. Left out almost entirely is technology, the major force of our era. (pp. 75-6)
When [Farrell's characters] fulminate against the tyranny of time as fate, they actually are chafing under the oppression of the past. (p. 76)
Confronted with death, such men may rail against the meaninglessness of time, yet they plumb it over and over again. The net result is a stasis of the self that shades into narcissism. Farrell's characters do not lack time to do what they want. Indeed, time weighs heavily as they wait passively for "a brand new life."…
The present is vast, as Farrell's title claims, frighteningly so, and his humans dare not face it without first collecting all the bits and pieces of their selves. Besides being vast, the present is thin when measured against the past. Once good at depicting the density of life in cities, Farrell has focused on urbanness itself in another attempt at modernizing his naturalism…. The drawback is that he has lost the ambience which once served him well, so that his classic naturalism, which emphasizes environmental conditioning, is less and less compelling. Under those circumstances, the supposed alienation of his humans is not so convincing as it might be, for the reader does not always see what they are alienated from, and since epiphanies are of low-wattage in A Universe of Time, the characters do not always understand their alienation either. (p. 77)
[His characters'] very generality works against Farrell. So large a canvas requires many characters, yet it does not contain multitudes that well. Principals emerge from common molds in polished detail, but it is also true that there are too many widowed mothers, too many fatherless, rootless wanderers, and too many mongoloid infants. Perhaps humans are very much alike, but similarity does not sustain interest. This lack of discrimination is worsened by Farrell's language. For a writer who in the past specialized in direct, pungent styles, the language of A Universe of Time seems careless. Individual words appear to have lost their value; they must be combined, aggregated…. Overburdened by pedestrian dialogue and narrative, the volumes of A Universe of Time do not concentrate experience, but diffuse it. This may very well be deliberate on Farrell's part: a banal aesthetic does complement banal subjects. The risk in that method of course is that the technique can cloy, and garrulity can make time creep for the reader as well as for the characters.
These qualifications notwithstanding, A Universe of Time represents achievement and new direction for Farrell. The task of his characters is precisely the obverse of his method. Because nothing happens to them that has not happened to other humans, they must try to distill meaning from attenuated, commonplace experience….
Whether Farrell is still a naturalist is almost beside the point. Intended or not, the message of A Universe of Time is that the romantic self, which finds its last refuge in narcissism, is bankrupt. In demonstrating its exhaustion, Farrell shows that he understands human isolation, and that he understands what it means to be without significant resources to alleviate isolation. That understanding makes him very modern indeed. (p. 78)
Joseph W. Slade, "Bare-Assed and Alone: Time and Banality in Farrell's 'A Universe of Time'," in Twentieth Century Literature (copyright 1976, Hofstra University Press), February, 1976, pp. 68-79.
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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 language describes and on the relentlessness with which Farrell hunts Studs down for us. So many of the terms critics love to use to praise a work of fiction do not apply to Studs: it is neither "lyrical" nor "poetic"; it lacks the broad canvas of Stendhal or Balzac; and few great novels have been less "uplifting." Its power is that it grinds its readers down, insisting on the validity of these lives in their time and place. And it does this more successfully than many other novels labeled its superior. (p. 373)
Like all writers who have written a great deal, Farrell's weaknesses are amply illustrated. And his weaknesses should be recognized, particularly by critics who number themselves among those Leslie Fiedler once called his "few surly defenders." Farrell is certainly not a stylist of distinction. The slang of Young Lonigan was already dated when the book first appeared. The same slang appears in The Dunne Family [his latest novel] and it is still dead to the touch, even for someone who recognizes that its purpose is to establish the truth of the time about which Farrell is writing: "cripes" and "my eye" and "rats" are undoubtedly verifiable as the language of a time and group, but it is also a slang which appeals, as J. D. Salinger once remarked of psychoanalysis, to "the peership of tin ears."… His realism is often too photographic. And there are moments when one suspects his world was frozen in the 1930s and that he has cut himself off from a good deal of what is happening in contemporary American life….
At times, Farrell can be brutal. But his brutality is not contemporary. A city novelist as knowing as any this country has spawned, Farrell avoids exactly those aspects of urban life which are so brutal that the novelist's job is done for him simply by his setting down what there is. The terror of Farrell's Chicago is the terror of aimlessness and drift; violence, when it occurs, is distinctly recognizable, on a small scale. It is Studs beating up Weary Reilley or Red Kelly. Even the scene in which Studs and his team pile on Jewboy Schwartz is not really violent, not, at least, by today's standards. They build up the violence in themselves, make of it something far greater than what it was. What frightens the reader is their vain bragging afterward, their collective fear about the inadequacy of their own quests for manhood. Violence resides in the paucity of their experience, both individually and collectively. (p. 374)
No one has written better of what motivates young men in the city than has Farrell. And it is another of his virtues as a writer that has come to haunt him. He insists that he does not want to be known as a "midwestern facsimile of the Lower East Side of New York," a writer about "slums." He points to how he deliberately made Studs the son of a relatively successful painting contractor and builder who is highly optimistic until his business is destroyed, as his oldest son lies dying, during the depression. And yet, he protests too much…. With all of its faults—and it has a goodly number—Studs Lonigan is one of the very few American literary works that manage to depict a commonplace life as a tragedy because it is commonplace. It reminds me of Benjamin Britten's magnificent opera, Peter Grimes; Peter's plebeian dignity is, strangely enough, what Studs would create for himself, if only he could.
The objections usually voiced about Farrell are so much less substantial than the man's achievement. How many other writers have been able to take people on their own terms? He creates individual men and women, unable to frame the world so that it will be receptive to their aspirations. The situations in which they find themselves inherently possess that sense of "quiet desperation" that Thoreau and Henry James noted in American life. They do not wish to be rebels; they value "respectability" too much and they willingly conform to a Protestant work ethic that has given them better lives than their forefathers in Ireland knew…. In The Dunne Family, the quest is still for "respectability." The novel is not melodramatic, and it is certainly not particularly ironic, as was much of Studs. But it is filled with scenes characteristic of a Farrell milieu. The middle-aged Dunne children count the number of visitors to their dead mother's wake as a reflection of their status. Their aspirations are petty, their fears overwhelming, their pride mere self-puffery. Strangely enough, however, the reader feels sympathy for these middle-aged victims, these American failures. (pp. 374-75)
Like Balzac and Dreiser, Farrell has written remarkably well of the task of the modern city in creating those whom it must ultimately destroy. He is overwhelmingly a city writer, both because his own experience has been of the city and because the city is a natural testing ground for modern man…. Farrell's city landscapes are tightly structured. Compare, for example, the use to which he puts Chicago with the use Meyer Levin makes of it in The Old Bunch…. There are certain striking similarities between Farrell's Irish and Levin's Jews, and The Old Bunch was published in 1937, two years after Farrell had completed Studs Lonigan. In Studs, Chicago is a presence, almost a physical presence, the way a major character is; in Levin's novel, it is simply the place where most of the action occurs. Chicago is the frame in which Studs's manhood exists, and it is difficult to conceive of Studs as Studs in any other place. The city is woven into the text, just as it has been woven into the lives of the characters….
Farrell is a stubborn writer. Merely to read his latest novel is to be reminded once again of the price he has paid for his art. The characters in this book commit what must be the single unforgivable sin left in America: they lead drab lives. They lack style, they lack power, and they lack courage. They sense that they have been defeated, but they are not sufficiently aware of the causes of their defeat. Inevitably, they blame others, conceive of the world as plot. How little Farrell is willing to allow for the passage of time. It is the integrity of his vision, his ability to capture what was there, that he demands the reader acknowledge. The Dunne Family is an old-fashioned novel, as, for all its headlines and popular songs, the Studs trilogy was. The Dunnes are like the vast majority of mankind; they promise they will be better, do better, only to shrivel up into their fear and bitterness and guilt. (p. 375)
I do not mean to use Farrell's realistic method as a weapon to attack other kinds of writing. To do that would be unfair…. There is no particular virtue in writing the way Farrell does. Realism is a mode he simply accepts as natural, and he probably cannot handle the kind of material he works with in any other way…. What I want to suggest is that Farrell has made good use of what is still the primary literary tradition in the West. He is a remarkably skilled and imaginative writer and his prose reflects the themes he deals with….
[Farrell] understands that man keeps his humanity alive in seemingly small ways. And in this, he is another of the significant literary figures of the 20th century who have been forced by history to acknowledge that since ideology, any ideology, is the enemy of truth, it is inevitably also the enemy of art…. Farrell's fiction can be seen as part of the major literary struggle of our century, what the brilliant Austrian Marxist, Ernst Fischer, defined as "the struggle of the practice and recognition of truth against the domination of ideology." The loss of individual identity has reduced the human both in scope and possibility. The way in which Farrell has fought against this reduction of the human can be seen in the very fiction that has been dismissed as "naturalistic." For most of mankind, identity must be earned; for the writer, it is the manner in which his art, his culture, and he himself merge. And because he knew who James T. Farrell was, the writer was able to create Studs and Danny O'Neill and now Eddie Ryan as reflections of the human predicament. The truth to which he gave voice in Young Lonigan can still be seen in The Dunne Family. Behind the desperation with which the Dunnes live out their lives, behind their fear and hunger for something better, something more, there exists a sense of possibility. Farrell may be a pessimist, as his critics have charged. But if he is, he is a pessimist who still believes that man is capable of creating himself anew. (p. 376)
Leonard Kriegel, "Homage to Mr. Farrell," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), October 16, 1976, pp. 373-76.
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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 in fashion, such as Joyce and Ibsen, and confronted issues, like the social functions of literature, with an independent spirit. Again and again he declared that literature lay beyond the dictates of any political program, however righteous.
The two series he is best known for, the Studs Lonigan trilogy and the Danny O'Neill pentalogy, books which prompted H. L. Mencken to acclaim Farrell in 1947 as "the best American novelist," are, in a way, works still in progress. His later books merely represent more recent installments in his huge comédie humaine of making it or going under in the many strata of the American middle class.
Farrell's predilection is for assessing the flat appearance of his characters as clues to their essential natures. The fact that he is less interested in their existential possibilities has separated him from the dark ironists of contemporary fiction, writers like Burroughs, Barthelme, Heller, and Pynchon. The current taste is for the novel as an exercise of wit that takes place on the edge of human experience, not necessarily congruent with "acceptable" reality, whereas Farrell's fiction rests on a belief that objective truth regarding the social as well as the psychological state of man is available and can be rendered in art. (pp. 82-3)
Though they are called naturalistic, Farrell's books do not present characters who are predetermined animals helplessly at sea among forces they cannot understand. Rather, these characters develop within a framework which encourages a study of their motivations. Farrell's underlying Marxism is another factor here, one which blocks the pessimism endemic to naturalistic fiction.
In the more recent books, the Danny O'Neill role as author's persona has been taken over by Eddie Ryan. Eddie says what Farrell has always believed in, that "his future depended solely on himself." The artist-hero hates moral or intellectual weakness and is a warrior in a moral battle. When Eddie chooses, at a pivotal moment, to go to the library instead of going home, he regards this first as simply a "symbolic gesture," but later calls the decision a "purely personal moral assertion."…
The aesthetic pleasures of Farrell's work and its ultimate achievement have specifically to do with the way he portrays characters who appear and reappear within the complex structure of his novels. His artistry lies in the total absence of a straining after effect; all the details, the empty talk, the inflated attitudes are attended to and selected with a sensitivity that knows the truth of "the middle" is a flat truth and one that must be suffered over a long time in order to sink in. Like Faulkner's saga of Yoknapatawpha, the work demands of the reader that he lose himself in it or else fall out of touch with its geographical and moral life. Entry into Farrell's world requires the same kind of suspension of disbelief we normally connect with less direct and less realistic fiction or poetry. To enter this somewhat unattractive world imaginatively is to expend more than reading time. By calling it up for our notice, Farrell demonstrates one of the moral functions of literature, its ability to make us care more than we thought we could for people who seem so far removed from ourselves, whose world seems such a rebuke to our own.
In The Dunne Family Farrell shows again how variously he can generate sympathy without condescension for the stark, ordinary, sentimental life that is his subject. (p. 83)
Living barely above the poverty line, each of the three Dunne children gains some satisfaction from fantasy, "an ingrown life in a cluttered one-room apartment." These pipe dreamers are artful dodgers, rationalizers pressed by the need to invent masks and keep up images. The three are obsessed with upward mobility and the need to get free, but the passion of their obsession is flattened out in Farrell's language, which relies on cliché to bring home the pretext and self-deception necessary for even the modest success they do achieve. For instance, Larry is described as "on his way up in the shoe game." He is also a believer in the firm handshake and the power of positive thinking (in this he is a forerunner of Middle America's current infatuation with EST, TA, TM, etc.)….
The Dunne family is a symphony of revealing clichés that become developed in Farrell's hands into full-blown metaphors of life in the middle:
At sixty-one, Dick Dunne was still waiting for his ship to come in. The waters were rough and there was no abatement from the battering of the waves, but he still believed in the safe return of his ship with a cargo of rewards for him.
As these worn phrases float over the plot, they illuminate the condition of stasis in which the life of Farrell's characters is ineffectually lived. (p. 84)
As Farrell's persona, Eddie Ryan, who is a writer himself, functions on the periphery of the plot…. Eddie is in the story mainly to bring light and energy into the drab existence of the family. His letters are the only comfort to Grandma Dunne. When his first book arrives (Studs Lonigan, here called Jud Jennings), the Dunne household is proud and anxious at the same time.
Eddie and the purpose he serves are introduced early in the book when Jenny Dunne, musing over her hard and lonely existence, comes around to the terrible recognition that her life is meaningless and matters very little to anyone. "Who should care?" she asks.
To Edward Arthur Ryan, it did matter. Edward Arthur Ryan was a young man determined to make it matter to as many people in the world as he could reach…. It was not a case of Edward Arthur Ryan merely making the life of his Aunt Jenny matter; he would make as many lives as he could matter.
While this may sound calculating in the mouth of a young writer, it has always been Farrell's idea as a novelist to offer a perspective that encourages and rewards compassion in the midst of all the squabbles and battering, all the grief, misery, and hatred which characterize life in his world. This perspective informs The Dunne Family no less than its forty-nine predecessors, and for serving it faithfully Farrell richly deserves the measure of honor that has been coming to him in recent days. (pp. 84-5)
Barry Wallenstein, "Artist of the Middle" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1976 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, December, 1976, pp. 82-5.
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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 their first intimation of the complexity and possible termination of their historical purpose, a suspicion that they inhabited a world unyielding to their intentions and conceptions. No twentieth-century author has understood and articulated this American fear better than Farrell….
Farrell dramatized in Studs that mass culture was the indispensable agent and analogue of our vanishing historical consciousness and that, in protecting people from the pain of historical awareness, it also deprived them of experience and of history itself. (p. 489)
The logic of Studs is almost as destructive … to radical programs as to humanist ones…. Farrell's city, unlike Dreiser's, never functions as a metropolis; it is a collection of warring provinces, a conglomerate of uncongenial, if similar, suburbs. There is no hope for internationalism or political sophistication in Studs' South Side. Ethnic prejudice comprises the very identity of Studs and his neighbors; because they don't know who they are, they cling to their pride in what they are not. (p. 492)
[Through] its peculiar kind of literary achievement as well as its chosen subject, Studs is sympathetic to a radical social critique. Farrell never condescends to his characters. His style, while more powerful and various than many critics have realized, is based on a principle of non-interference with his subject matter; Studs is superior to the world it describes precisely because it refuses at any given moment to be demonstrably better than that world. The novel's structure depends on Farrell's determination to reorder but not to omit any aspect of his material. We see Studs' world finally from Farrell's perspective, but we see all of it. Farrell's art is his commitment to integrity. At his worst Farrell is verbose but never distracted…. These people's lives don't matter in any traditional sense available to the author or reader…. Yet the extraordinary quality of Studs, as of much of Farrell's work, derives from his implicit insistence that these people's lives should matter; his characters should have a sense of "history." (p. 493)
No one could deny that sociology—which one might define loosely as the examination of the status, interaction, and environment of social groups partially detached from the full context of circumstance—helped to form Farrell's literary technique. Yet it is less true to say that Farrell wrote sociological fiction than to say that he wrote about people so enmeshed and entrapped in the static stereotypes of their culture that their lives are sociology; they are not historical creatures. Sociology, in other words, is less Farrell's technique in Studs Lonigan than a kind of operative metaphor for the impoverished quality of middle- and lower-middle class existence in urban America. (pp. 493-94)
Studs, despite its third person voice, is largely a stream-of-consciousness narrative with obvious and acknowledged affinities to James Joyce's work…. [However, Studs'] inner life is not a refuge from his outer life, nor even a complex counterpoint to it. In Studs Lonigan, consciousness itself has been demythologized, demystified, as it was not in Joyce's work…. Studs' mind has no free play at all; it is a collage of accepted clichés which Studs tries to correlate to his stunted psychic needs. Studs' consciousness is the reader's subject, never his or her guide. Studs never forms the material around him into perceptions, much less ideas. In a very real way, Studs has no inner life. His thought patterns could be said to constitute an external stream-of-consciousness. (p. 494)
Studs' monologues throughout Studs Lonigan reflect the loss of … epistemological mastery. Studs is an individual, and a real one; he is "there" as few characters in literature are "there," as we know our own selves to be "there." Farrell never lets us lose touch with the longing for self-fulfillment which animates Studs and which is our test of a unique human being. Studs' tragedy, hardly an unshared one Farrell implies, is that he is an individual who needs to be and feel himself, yet who has nothing but a cross-section of the mass mind to achieve that goal. (p. 495)
The language, verbal and physical, which the characters of Studs Lonigan use reinforces [the] picture of a closed, self-cancelling world. The book is in part a contest between two languages, neither of which expresses its users. (p. 497)
Studs has slipped gradually into total conformity, not because society has given him so much, but because it has given him so little so continuously that he can conceive of no alternative to acquiescence. Throughout the novel, Studs is subjected to a series of rituals which cannot accomplish their ostensible purpose. (p. 502)
Studs had only one thing going for him: his youth, his health, his body. These had inadvertently given him clues to a sense of freedom, buoyancy and pride altogether alien to his world. Farrell is aware that society can take over the mind more swiftly than the body. Studs could be said to have inherited mental conformity; we have seen that he is unable to express himself. Yet, until he is an adult, his physical life functions in part as an interpreter of lost languages. He loses the knowledge his body gives him; his terror at this loss is less the obsession with youth it seems to us, and to Studs, than the traumatized preoccupation with the period when all the odds were not against him. His physical self had provided his only metaphor for hope. (p. 503)
It is no accident that the disease which kills Studs is a heart ailment. His consciousness narrows to a concentration on his heart: he has become a time-bomb. Time is terrifying because it is potentially divorced from experience; the hours and days notch Studs without enriching or even using him. At one point during the early days of the Depression, Studs and Catharine go to watch a dance marathon. Couples with swollen ankles and faces dark with fatigue cling to each other to stay upright, to respond to the prodding of the master of ceremonies. "'I wonder when something is going to happen,'" Studs remarks to Catharine. '"I guess this is what happens,'" she replies…. The dance marathon becomes a metaphor for Studs' existence; the m.c. keeps alive that facsimile of hope expressed by stupefied endurance. Studs and Catharine stay for hours, waiting to "see if anything will happen."… Time functions as a vigilante on guard against the possibility of significance. (p. 504)
It is rare in the annals of the novel that a controlling consciousness be allowed to die, and to die on stage. Somewhat like Studs and Catharine at the marathon, the reader must confront how much harder it is to face the end of a hopeless enterprise than to witness the demise of a flourishing one. By writing his novel, Farrell has in part redeemed Studs' life, but chiefly as a warning, and one that has no easy juncture with whatever conscious wisdom we use to conduct our lives.
Studs' death testifies to the unwanted, unbearable perception that time passes as surely when experience is repeatedly postponed as when it is possessed…. Studs' life was borrowed and it never fit him; his culture maintained rather than sustained him. There are no answers here…. Studs Lonigan tells its readers what they must not forget, not what they must do; Farrell's objective is to force and discipline perception. He offers nothing to palliate our terror of space and time, of the failure of history, of the potential collapse of significance itself; he simply brings us face to face with our fear. Farrell warns that, while genuine resources may exist, we will not find them until we explore our induced commitment to the cheapest of palliatives. (pp. 504-05)
Ann Douglas, "'Studs Lonigan' and the Failure of History in Mass Society: A Study in Claustrophobia," in American Quarterly (copyright © 1977 Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania), Winter, 1977, pp. 487-505.