Jim Burns


Writers frequently suffer from the vagaries of fashion and it's not unusual for a novelist to be forgotten within a few years of his death. In James T. Farrell's case it would seem that the collapse of his reputation has been almost complete, and it's probably only in a few universities, mostly in the United States, that his name now evokes any interest. And yet, at one time, his novels and short stories were easily available in both hardback and paperback editions and he was often mentioned alongside Wolfe, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and other leading American authors. That Farrellís standing has declined so much is curious and invites at least a brief examination of his work.

He was born in Chicago in 1904, the son of a teamster and a domestic servant. His parents were too poor to provide for him and when he was three he went to live with his grandparents, who were relatively better off. Farrell's environment during his childhood was that of the Irish-American ghetto, and although he did not personally experience great material poverty he was in a position to observe it, and its effects, at dose quarters. It would be wrong, however, to assume that his observations persuaded him that simple economic factors were responsible for what he found lacking in the lives of his relatives, friends, and neighbours. Farrell was keenly aware of the spiritual and intellectual poverty which affected even those who were in reasonably comfortable circumstances.

During his schooldays on Chicago's South Side he was lucky enough to encounter teachers who encouraged his interest in literature. He graduated from high school, did some routine jobs, and studied at the University of Chicago, then noted for the strength of its sociology department. But Farrell never completed his university courses and preferred instead to follow his own leads. He hitchhiked to New York and worked as a clerk for six months while studying assiduously and writing. He had, someone once said, "embarked on a fierce regimen of reading and writing, in and out of school, from which he never subsequently deviated." Murray Kempton, who knew Farrell in the Thirties, described him as "the best-educated young writer of his time," his auto-didacticism taking in not only literature but also history, politics, sociology, philosophy, and other subjects. A year in Paris in the early-Thirties further helped Farrell broaden his range of interests.

By the mid-Thirties he was established on the American literary scene. He had started to write his Studs Lonigan trilogy, closely based on his youthful experiences and observations, in 1929, and the first part, Young Lonigan, appeared to acclaim in 1932. The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan followed in 1934 and Judgement Day in 1935. Farrell even managed to publish another novel, not linked to the Lonigan series, in 1933, along with short-story collections in 1934 and 1935. His articles, stories, and reviews were regularly published in magazines like Pagany, Dynamo, Story, The New Masses, and The American Mercury.

Farrell had what was once described as a "modest but significant political collaboration with the Communist Party, especially in cultural activities," in the early-Thirties, though he was never actually a Party member. In 1935 he was invited to give a paper at the First American Writers' Congress, a communist-organised event, and chose to talk about the short-story, referring favourably to left-wing writers like Nelson Algren, Ben Field, and Whittaker Chambers, the latter still a struggling communist author and only later to become famous for the part he played in the downfall of Alger Hiss. But Farrell's relationship with communism was at an uneasy stage. He had begun to question Party control of creative projects and was increasingly critical of writers like Jack Conroy and Clara Weatherwax, who were seen as stalwarts of the proletarian novel, and Clifford Odets, whose plays were praised by The Daily Worker. Matters came to a head in 1936 when Farrell's A Note on Literary Criticism was published. This was a book-length attack on the way that communist critics expected writers to respect formulas laid down by the Party. Farrell's ideas were not dissimilar to those of Trotsky, in that he dissented from the notion of a proletarian culture and firmly stated that a creative artist had to follow his own dictates and not those of cultural commissars.

Trotsky's name was not mentioned in Farrell's book but the communist press took issue with his theories and activists such as Isidor Schneider and Michael Gold went into print to denounce Farrell and point out how he was deviating from the Party line. Not surprisingly, he soon aligned himself with the American Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party. This involvement was to last until the mid-Forties, when Farrell slowly but surely shifted to the right, though not excessively so. By 1948 he was a firm supporter of the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe and was quoted as saying, "Only American wealth and power stands in the way of Stalinist expansion." To be fair, he never became the kind of one-time left-winger who cried mea culpa for his past affinities, nor did he name names and indulge in the vicious anti-communist rhetoric of the McCarthy years.

In 1973 Farrell said, in the introduction to his Judith and Other Stories: "I have attempted 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." It's a good description of what he did do and it points to his concern to make his fiction relevant to the times he lived through. He often conceived his novels as part of a series, as with the three that tell the story of Studs Lonigan, five that explore the life of Danny O'Neill, and three outlining the activities of Bernard Carr. In the late-Fifties he started a new series, A Universe of Time, and had completed the twelfth book in it just a few weeks before he died in 1979. Many of the same people, sometimes under different names, appear in Farrell's fiction, and he himself is there as Danny O'Neill, Eddie Ryan, and, partly, as Bernard Carr. But he wasnít simply a writer using thinly-disguised autobiography and he shaped his material to suit his purposes. It's true that some of his books can almost be used as guides to certain events, an example being Yet Other Waters, the third novel in the Bernard Carr trilogy. Farrell's intention had been to trace the fortunes of a young writer coming to New York in the Thirties and facing the twin perils of Stalinism and commercialism. At the novel's centre is a conference dearly based on the 1935 American Writers' Congress, and a comparison with the historical record will show that Farrell only lightly fictionalised certain characters and events. In the novel an intellectual called "John Keefe" delivers a speech in which he asks for the term "Proletarian literature" to be replaced by "People's literature" and is promptly condemned by a Party activist named "Jake." In real life it was Kenneth Burke who made the speech and Joseph Freeman who attacked him, Party policy being to still support the idea of proletarian writing. Popular Front ideology, would later change that. A proletarian novelist, Pat Devlin, makes a speech in the novel and says, "There is more of the vigour of proletarian literature in a strike leaflet, however crudely written, than there is in all the style and pseudo-erudition of a college graduate's painful course from the saints to the Revolution," which Bernard Carr takes to be an attack on him. Devlin was based on Jack Conroy, who actually said, "a strike bulletin or an impassioned leaflet are of more moment than the three hundred prettily and faultlessly written pages about the private woes of a gigolo." Farrell and Conroy never did get along and fact became fiction when Farrell decided to use the feud in a novel.

The same themes were worked and re-worked in many of Farrellís writings, and he seemed anxious to record how authors and intellectuals were corrupted by too close a contact with communism and with commercialism, both leading to mediocrity. His final book, the posthumously published Sam Holman, has a main character based on Herbert Solow who passes through various phases, from fellow-travelling with the communists, to alliance with the Trotskyists, and finally a job on Henry Luce's business magazine, Fortune. It may be that this aspect of Farrell's writing is of interest only to cultural historians of the New York intellectual world of the Thirties and Forties, but it could also be that the ideas he was dealing with - political and commercial corruption of values - never really lose their relevance. Farrell always tried to hold out against any activity which he thought would endanger his principles, and in the Fifties, when his books weren't selling and he was almost destitute, he refused to take teaching posts or turn his hand to any kind of writing simply to make money. He said, "I began writing in my own way and I shall go on doing it. This is my first and last word on the subject."

If the kind of political fiction Iíve referred to does have its limitations then it may be that Farrell's reputation will have to rest on the novels and stories which deal with Studs Lonigan, Danny O'Neill, and the Irish-American world of Chicago in the first thirty or so years of this century. His rites of passage explorations move around this landscape, recording everything in vivid detail. And, contrary to many assumptions, it's not necessarily the slum neighbourhoods which are described. When he later wrote about how he had conceived Studs Lonigan, Farrell was careful to point out that he had deliberately set the book in a relatively-affluent area where people had steady jobs and owned their own houses, so that he could avoid a kind of vulgar economic determinism which would make Stud's downfall easily explainable. He was enough of a Marxist to suggest that the onset of the Depression hastened his decline by wiping out his savings and destroying his job, but he said that personal failings had started the slide as Studs drank, gambled, ran with gangs, and generally gave himself up to the life of the streets. What Farrell was getting at was the way in which social conformity - the pressure to go with the crowd, agree with the group, and subjugate the sensitive side of one's personality in favour of a rough macho image - could destroy an individual. When he wrote his Danny O'Neill novels, which roughly parallel Studs Lonigan in their time-sequence, his central character found a way out of the restrictive cultural environment, just as Farrell himself had done. The world he described may be a specific one, and its surface details consequently dated, but the situations evoked are still very real today.

Criticisms of Farrell's work have often focused on his need to record everything and the way in which this can get in the way of the story. Malcolm Cowley once alleged that "Farrellís life work ....is not a work of invention or combination or construction, as with other novelists, but an immense labour of recollection,Ē but this perhaps overlooks the care with which he shaped what he remembered into fiction that could be compelling in its intensity.

He was not just an old-fashioned naturalist and had read James Joyce and other modernists so that he knew how to use interior monologues and dreams and the intermingling of the personal life and the life of the streets. In his best work the details are an integral part of the narrative and emphasise how the characters respond to their surroundings and are, in turn, affected by them. It cant be denied that Farrell could sometimes be a clumsy writer, nor that his earnestness could occasionally turn ponderous, but he got close to achieving what he set out to do in terms of writing "a panoramic story" of the times he lived through.


Most of Farrell's books, over fifty of them covering novels, collections of stories, poetry, essays, literary criticism, and other matters, are now out-of-print. An exception is Studs Lonigan, a paperback edition of which was published in 1993 by the University of Illinois Press. The same press also published a selection of short fiction under the title Chicago Stories in 1998. Both books have useful introductions and listings of Farrell's books.

Farrellís A Note on Literary Criticism was reprinted in 1992 by Columbia University Press and has an informative introduction by Alan Wald. Wald also wrote a book, James T.Farrell: The Revolutionary Socialist Years (New York University Press, 1978), which provides a fascinating survey of Farrell's political involvements and how they were reflected in his novels and short stories. Iíve not mentioned individual stories in my article but many of them do touch on political events and personalities and, like the novel, Yet Other Waters, provide fictionalised portraits of various writers and activists. It's easy to recognise them if one has a basic knowledge of left-wing American politics of the Thirties and Forties.

A Paris Year: Dorothy and James T. Farrell, 1931-1932 by Edgar Marquess Branch, published by Ohio University Press, 1998, is a detailed account of Farrell's year abroad, using diaries, letters, and other materials, and again showing how he turned all his observations and experiences into fiction.