- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

James T. Farrell died in 1979, but his critical reputation had already sunk to a level where it was scarcely recoverable; the novelist once mentioned in the same breath as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Dos Passos was now identified solely with “Studs Lonigan,” his 1935 trilogy about the adolescence and early manhood of a wayward Chicago youth.

Nothing has happened in the ensuing 25 years to improve Farrell’s fortunes. College surveys of 20th-century American fiction, eager to bring in multicultural names along with the canonized ones, have even less room for an old-fashioned unrepentant naturalist such as Farrell, whose prolific but rather unvaried productions are left to the library stacks. Virtually all his books are out of print, and if the name Studs Lonigan rings a bell in your head you’re doubtless 65 or older.

(The Library of America will republish the Lonigan trilogy in March, a bold decision.)

The title of Robert Landers’ hard-working biography, “An Honest Writer,” is not likely to make readers’ hearts beat faster, yet it speaks fairly to the reputation Farrell acquired early in his career. When Alfred Kazin devoted five pages to him in “On Native Ground” (1942), Kazin characterized Farrell as “passionately honest and passionately narrow.”

Yet that honesty seemed to go along with the lack of anything resembling an artful literary style. “He wrote with his hands and feet and any bludgeon within reach,” Kazin announced, comparing Farrell’s non-style to that of a sausage machine churning out each recorded detail with an “almost quantitative disgust.”

Mr. Landers tends to employ adjectives that accord with such an appraisal when he calls “Young Lonigan,” first of the trilogy, a “raw, relentless novel.” It is almost as though, to be truly passionate and honest, one has to be the opposite of Henry James.

Yet Farrell admired Marcel Proust and even proposed, in describing the project of a series of panoramic books that never got written, that they would treat Time in a Proustian way, resulting in an American version of “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.”

Mr. Landers renders the biographical narrative with even-handed, scrupulous attention, beginning when Farrell at age two was sent to be raised by maternal relatives who, like his parents, lived in Chicago. His tenure at the Corpus Christi parochial school, run by the Sisters of Mercy; his fascination with baseball (the Chicago Black Sox scandal occurred when he was 15, and he watched a Yankees ballgame the night before he died); his experiences with girls, pool rooms, and drinking, all became the stuff of his novels.

Except that he was also a reader from age 18 on, delving into Freud, reading novels by Samuel Butler, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, and fixing on the final chapter of Walter Pater’s “The Renaissance,” which recommended the virtues of burning with a hard gem-like flame so as to achieve success in life. (It is telling that the presumably hard-boiled Farrell would find sustenance in the aesthete Pater.)

At the University of Chicago where he spent periods of time, Farrell lost his Catholic faith, read Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship” and John Dewey’s “Human Nature and Conduct,” and even admired the prose of the philosopher George Santayana, while realizing that he would never command such a style.

Encouraged by an English teacher at the university, Farrell began his career of fiercely productive story and novel writing. At Yaddo, the writer’s colony he frequented, he was known for his industry in turning out several thousand words a day, a pace that really never faltered for better and for worse.

He traveled to Europe and had what seems an unlikely lunch with Ezra Pound to whom he gave copies of some early stories, including one titled “The Scarecrow,” an exercise in brutal realism that elicited from Pound the altogether mysterious praise that it provided “an answer to several questions posed by the late Henry James.”

Married and having moved to New York City, Farrell, when he wasn’t writing fiction, reviewed books — 75 reviews appeared in 1933. By that time his first novel, “Young Lonigan,” had appeared in a curious format: Farrell’s publisher, Vanguard Press, and his devoted editor James Henle decided that to allay possible legal action on grounds of obscenity the novel would be prefaced by a social psychologist who, while affirming that the book presented a “dramatic story of an adolescent struggle for sex adjustment and social status in the juvenile community,” warned that “it is not for children or for the unsophisticated.” Caveat emptor.

The impact of the Lonigan novels, which began to sell well when they were published as a trilogy, is testified to by Norman Mailer whose life was changed when he read them as a Harvard freshman and realized that “you could write books about people who were something like the people you had grown up with.”

When, at about the same time, I discovered them as an adolescent, their outspoken presentation of “a boyhood in the Chicago streets” was excitingly different from and more dangerous than my small town one. I wasn’t aware of the writing as writing, but rather the “life” which, as Carl Van Doren noted, “seems merely to be there before you.”

Fifty years later, however, the writing feels all too effortful, especially the dialogue in which someone will say “I GOTTA SLAP YER PUSS, and run the gang uh yuhs in, give yuh uh nice little ride in the wagon and let cher old ladies come down to the station bawlin’ tuh get chuh out.” It feels too much like the Dead End Kids movies from the 1930s and ‘40s. (Farrell later normalized the spelling.)

Mr. Landers judges that the Lonigan saga and its successor — the five-novel series about the O’Neills and the O’Flahertys — constitute an impressive claim to permanence. But although he calls the latter saga “masterly,” he doesn’t do much to make that word convincing. Edmund Wilson, reviewing one of the O’Neill novels, admitted Farrell’s importance but warned him that it was “not increased by your continuing to tell the same story.”

And though the stories of Studs and Danny O’Neill are superficially different (Danny goes up in the world, Studs goes down), there is a real and deadening sameness in Farrell’s plodding, humorless, even toneless narration (Mr. Landers notes how little irony there is in his writing). The interest is more sociological than artistic.

But Mr. Landers makes Farrell come alive in his tireless struggle to forge some kind of workable relation between art and politics. Farrell’s association with Partisan Review in its early years; his anti-Stalinism and efforts on behalf of Trotsky; his intelligent surveying of the contemporary critical scene in America as laid out in the still readable “A Note on Literary Criticism of 1936” — all these efforts are to his credit.

His life had plenty of ups and downs, divorces, domestic misfortunes, and painful dealings with his publisher Vanguard whom he finally left. But his last years, spent with the devoted Cleo Paturis, were ones in which he received a heartening measure of recognition from his peers.

Perhaps the best estimate of his talent was made by an editor who worked with Farrell for a time and found him “an extremely creative writer” but also one who “in a way couldn’t write.” She added, “He wasn’t a great writer, but he was a great author in a way.” If this sounds insufficiently precise it may still describe the case of this earnest figure who has been so well served by Mr. Landers’ labor of love.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst College and the author of “Updike: America’s Man of Lettters.”

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