Despite that fact that James T. Farrell wrote 27 novels, scores of short stories and essays, and more than a dozen collections of literary criticism, he is at once remembered and forgotten primarily for one work, the Studs Lonigan Trilogy (1932–5).
Farrell's vast accomplishments have faded away due to two otherwise contrary trends in literary criticism and canon construction. Early in his career, Farrell was lauded as a crucial new voice in American letters, representing the experience of Irish Americans and other Chicagoans in realistic fiction which could trace its roots to the plain-language directness of writers like Theodore Dreiser. But such praise came back to haunt leftist writers, as the formalist canon makers of the postwar period rejected such fiction in favor of the highly wrought modernism of writers like Faulkner and Hemingway.
When that formalist canon was in turn supplanted by a broader one which incorporated and valorized literature by women, African Americans, and writers from marginalized groups, Farrell's fiction remained on the sidelines despite its engagement with many of the key topics of this new canon, especially the construction of ethnic and racial identities in American cities. The Irish, having become the most assimilated ethnic immigrant group, were no longer perceived as marginal enough for inclusion in canons of American outsiders.
Yet Farrell and his milieu were only one generation removed from the bitterest anti-Irish prejudice of the nineteenth century, and the conflicted identity politics that prejudice produced. They had to face one overarching question: does their Irishness, often seen as coterminous with Catholicism, keep them out of the American mainstream, as Protestant anti-immigrant forces in the culture would assert? Or are they able to negotiate the complexities of being at once both Irish and American? Possessing a broadly inclusive interest in the world, Farrell offered complex fictional answers to these dilemmas of ethnic identity. Charles Fanning, Farrell's most astute critic, identifies the two sorts of characters Farrell most often portrayed: “the artist as an urban Irish American … and working class urban Americans who lives are thwarted by limited self-awareness” (1998, p. xxi). The two sides of this conflict are played out in Farrell's two monumental works, the Studs Lonigan Trilogy and the O'Neill–O'Flaherty Pentalogy (1936–54), together known as the Washington Park Cycle.
Critics have long misread the Studs Lonigan Trilogy in terms of both its aesthetics and its ideology. Under the influence of Joyce, Dos Passos, and other modernists, Farrell's portrait of Washington Park uses stream of consciousness as well as the intertextual interpolation of newspapers, films, and other discourses. Farrell's realism deftly combines careful observation of the environment with modernist literary technique. The Trilogy is also mistakenly thought to depict working-class Irish life. This happens only in flashbacks, as the Lonigan family has risen from immigrant poverty to the middle class. William Lonigan, Sr. owns his own contracting company and the family home in Washington Park. Studs's sisters get good educations and advance in life while he drinks himself to death at an early age.
The obverse of Studs's tragic narrative is the story of Danny O'Neill, the Irish American intellectual. Farrell depicts the conflict between American intellectual culture and the personal, religious, and political pieties and prejudices that defined much of Irish American culture. In doing so, Farrell asks an essential American question: how do we understand ethnic identity?
Near the end of Judgment Day (1935), the final work of the Trilogy, Farrell portrays an array of what could be, in lesser hands, Irish American stereotypes: the sentimentalist, the drunk, and the cop. Early in the Great Depression, Old Man Lonigan faces two crises: the bank with all his savings has failed, the bank which holds his mortgage is demanding payment for his building, and his son is deathly ill. Blaming the banking crisis on “international Jews,” he drives back to the neighborhood of his youth, now African American, and goes to his old parish church to pray. Exhausted, he drives around, sentimentally remembering his childhood, until he encounters a Leftist political demonstration and the son of his friend, now a policeman on the beat. Lonigan is shocked to find that young Jim Doyle protects the “Red” marchers from the hostile crowd on the sidewalk and sympathizes with the unemployed blacks, Jews, and Italians whom Lonigan dismisses as scum of the earth. Afterward, Lonigan repairs to a speakeasy, where alongside an older immigrant who sings for whiskey, he drinks himself into oblivion, unable to face any of the catastrophes in his life.
Who, in this telling episode, is the “real” Irish American? The devout but weak businessman? The ancient drunk? The politically progressive police officer? Farrell suggests all of them, and none. No one subject position can include all of the potential ways of being Irish or American. Priests, politicians, drunks, and brawlers occupy one corner, but in the other you have reformers, intellectuals, writers, and labor organizers. The stereotypes that the Irish community itself promotes to advance into the American middle class are as limiting as those imposed on Irish immigrants by the bigoted WASPs who kept the famine generation immigrants living in shanty towns outside the Chicago city limits.
But Farrell's fiction extends beyond the question of Irishness. In a career spanning five decades, he depicted the material struggles and the inner lives of African Americans and Jews, men and women, the powerful and the powerless, as they attempt to find their way in Chicago and beyond.
SEE ALSO: The City in Fiction (AF); Dreiser, Theodore (AF); Fitzgerald, F. Scott (AF); Hemingway, Ernest (AF); Modernist Fiction (AF); Naturalist Fiction (AF); Social-Realist Fiction (AF)
- Studs Lonigan's Neighborhood and the Making of James T. Farrell. Newton, MA: Arts End. (1996).
- Young Lonigan. New York: Vanguard. (1932).
- The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. New York: Vanguard. (1934).
- Judgment Day. New York: Vanguard. (1935).
- A World I Never Made. New York: Vanguard. (1936).
- No Star Is Lost. New York: Vanguard. (1938).
- Father and Son. New York: Vanguard. (1940).
- My Days of Anger. New York: Vanguard. (1943).
- League of Frightened Philistines. New York: Vanguard. (1945).
- Literature and Morality. New York: Vanguard. (1947).
- The Face of Time. New York: Vanguard. (1954).
- Chicago Stories (ed. Fanning, C. ). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. (1998).
- An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell. San Francisco: Encounter. (2004).
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