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Analysis of James T. Farrell’s Novels

An understanding of James T. Farrell (February 27, 1904 – August 22, 1979) and his work on the basis of one novel, or even as many as three individual novels, is impossible. Farrell’s vision was panoramic, however limited his subject matter may have been, and cannot be understood except in terms of large, homogeneous blocks of fiction. He did not write exclusively of Chicago or of Irish Catholics, but it was on this home “turf” that he most effectively showed the effects of indifference and disintegration on an independent, stubborn, often ignorant, urban subculture. He was at once appalled by and attracted to the spectacle of an entire people being strangled by the city and by their own incapacity to understand their position, and he was most successful when he embodied the society in the life and times of an archetypal individual.

Farrell’s three major, complete works total eleven novels; each of the eleven creates another panel in the same essential experience. Although the Studs Lonigan trilogy, the five novels of the O’Neill-O’Flaherty series, and the Bernard Carr trilogy have different protagonists, they all share a common impulse and reflect Farrell’s almost fanatical obsession with time, society, and the individual’s response to both. Studs Lonigan, Danny O’Neill, and Bernard Carr are extensions or facets of Farrell’s primal character, pitted against a hostile urban environment.

Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy
The Studs Lonigan trilogy, arguably Farrell’s best and certainly his best-known work, is the story of the development and deterioration not only of the title charactStuds is doomeder, but also of the Great Depression-era, Irish Catholic Chicago society from which he springs. In the fifteen-year span of Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day, Farrell shows the total physical, moral, and spiritual degeneration of Studs Lonigan.

Studs is doomed from the moment he appears just prior to his graduation from grammar school. His announcement that he is “kissin’ the old dump goodbye tonight” is ominously portentous. He drops out of high school, goes to work for his father, a painting contractor, and becomes a member and leading light of the gang that hangs out in Charlie Bathcellar’s poolroom. The association with the gang is Studs’s life—everything else is “plain crap.” Through a swirl of “alky,” “gang-shags,” “craps,” and “can-houses,” Studs fights to prove himself to be the “real stuff” and ultimately finds himself a frail, thirty-year-old shell of the vigorous youth he once was. The physical ruin of Studs Lonigan, however, is only the result of larger deficiencies.

Studs is a sensitive, moral being who consciously rejects his innate morality as a weakness. He blindly accepts his Roman Catholic upbringing without believing it. There is never a present for Studs Lonigan—there is only a future and a past. In Young Lonigan, the future is the vision of Studs standing triumphantly astride the fireplug at 58th and Prairie proclaiming his ascendancy to the brotherhood of the gang. The past is his rejection of juvenile harassment he suffered as the result of his one moment of ecstasy with Lucy Scanlan in Washington Park. He proclaims himself the “real stuff” and flees from human emotions and the potentialities of those experiences with Lucy.

Studs consistently refuses to allow his emotional sensitivity to mature. The spiritual stagnation which results confines him to dreams of future aggrandizement or of past glories. The future dies, and Studs is left with memories of his degeneracy. His affair with Catherine Banahan awakens new sensibilities in Studs, but he is unable to nurture them, and they die stillborn. His heart attack at the beach, his dehumanizing odyssey through the business offices of Chicago looking for work, his shockingly prurient behavior at the burlesque show, and his final delirium are simply the payment of accounts receivable.

As Studs dies, his world is dying with him. His father’s bank has collapsed, the mortgage on his building is due, Studs’s fiancé is pregnant, and the gang has generally dispersed. These are not the causes of Studs’s failures, however; they are reflections of that failure. Studs is the product and the producer. He is not a blind victim of his environment. He makes conscious choices—all bad. He is bankrupt of all the impulses that could save him. He batters and abuses his body, he strangles his emotions, and he clings to the stultifying spirituality of a provincial Catholicism. As Lucy Scanlan dances through his final delirium and his family abuses his pregnant fiancé, Studs Lonigan’s dying body becomes the prevailing metaphor for the empty world it created, abused, and in which it suffered.

The O’Neill-O’Flaherty series
Danny O’Neill, of the O’Neill-O’Flaherty series, is the product of the same environment, but recognizes that he controls his destiny in spite of overbearing environmental pressures and, by the end of the series, seems on the verge of success. If he succeeds, he does so because he refuses to fall into the trap that Studs builds for himself, and he thus escapes into the larger world that Studs never knows. In the five novels of the series, AWorld I Never Made, No Star Is Lost, Father and Son, My Days of Anger, and The Face of Time, Danny not only escapes the strictures of environment but also sloughs off the psychological and spiritual bondage of family and religion and creates his own freedom.

Farrell’s most clearly autobiographical work, the O’Neill-O’Flaherty series, portrays Danny’s growth from 1909 to 1927—from a five-year-old child to a man breaking from college and Chicago. Unlike the Studs Lonigan trilogy, the O’Neill series portrays a larger world and more diverse elements of that world. Although the Lonigan trilogy is dependent on the portrayal of its central character for action and meaning, Danny’s story introduces more people and more settings and thus illustrates one of the major differences between Studs and Danny. Whereas Studs demands his personal image as a loner but actually depends heavily upon his gang as a prop, Danny begins as an atypical child—the result of his life in a bifurcated family much like Farrell’s own—and learns the hypocrisy of the accepted values around him, which prompts him to formulate and depend on his own personal values.

The process by which Danny reaches this understanding is the contorted progress of a hybrid adolescence. Born to Jim and Lizz O’Neill, a poor, working-class Irish couple, he is taken to live with his grandparents, of the lace-curtain Irish variety, because his parents cannot support their already large family. He is accepted wholeheartedly by his grandmother, and he accepts her as a surrogate mother, but he has problems rationalizing his relatively opulent life while his natural siblings are dying of typhoid and neglect. He also refuses, violently, to return to his natural parents, to the poverty in which they live, and to the oppressive Roman Catholicism that his mother practices.

The tensions forged between the two families are the stuff of which Danny is made, but he is also affected by the lonely, drunken promiscuity of his Aunt Peg, the decorous commercialism of his Uncle Al, and the maternal tyranny of his grandmother, Mary O’Flaherty. Danny grows up alone in a world that he has difficulty understanding and that seems to engulf but reject him summarily. He is not a clear member of either of the families that are the heart of the story, he is rejected by Studs Lonigan’s gang because of his youth and because he is considered a neighbourhood “goof,” and he cannot find the love he desperately seeks. Only late in the series does he understand Jim, his father, and come to accept him for what he is—a hardworking, decent, poor, Irish laborer, who loves his children desperately enough to thrust them into a better world than he can make for them.

By the time Danny understands his father, Jim is dying, Danny has discovered the importance of books, he has had a hint of love through a college affair, and he has realized that education may be his key to a broader world. In the course of his intellectual discoveries at the University of Chicago, he has rejected religion and become something of a socialist. He has also discovered that New York City is the hub of the world, and, after quitting his job and dropping out of college in order to pursue his dream, seems on the verge of simultaneously discovering himself and success by migrating to New York.

The O’Neill series, then, comes full circle—from Chicago back to Chicago both actually and metaphorically; the distinction is unimportant. For all his effort to escape what he views as mindless and oppressive, Danny finally seems to understand that his basic character is still that of the poor, hardworking Irishman that, with all its flaws, is at least pitiable rather than repugnant. As Danny prepares to escape from Chicago, he escapes with a fuller appreciation and self-preserving understanding of his heritage and an ability to progress beyond his previous angry rejections. He does not give up his new certainties, particularly in relation to the Church and religion (he has become an avowed atheist), but he displays a tolerance and acceptance of himself and his culture that are the foreground of promised success.

The Bernard Carr trilogy
Bernard Carr seems to take up the story where Danny leaves it. The trilogy of Bernard Clare (Farrell changed the name to Carr in the second novel after a man named Bernard Clare brought libel proceedings against him), The Road Between, and Yet Other Waters, is Farrell’s attempt to represent the lives of a generation of artists in New York during the Great Depression era and in the circles of politically radical activism.

The trilogy, for the first time in Farrell’s fiction, is largely set in New York. Bernard’s life in New York, however, is highlighted with periodic flashbacks of Chicago; thus Farrell’s integrity of vision is preserved, and Bernard’s lower-class origins are discovered. Bernard is the last member of Farrell’s Irish Catholic trinity—he is the embodiment of the whole man whom Studs could not become and Danny might well have become had his story been continued.

Bernard’s New York is a world of struggling artists and communists. In the early New York years, Bernard becomes involved with communists and then rejects them as being little more than a gang—brutes who demand mindless adherence to the party propaganda, no matter what that adherence does to artistic integrity and vitality. He also recognizes that the dogma of communism is akin to that of Roman Catholicism—that they are both crutches for weak men.

Bernard’s marriage introduces him to family life and the wonder of birth and rearing a child, and it is the spur in his attempt to recover and understand his family and his heritage. During all of these events, Bernard is achieving a limited success from his writing, and by the end of the trilogy he has brought all the pieces together and has found himself, his vocation, and an enlightened ability to see life for what it is and make the most of it.

The Bernard Carr trilogy does not carry the impact of the Lonigan saga, but the diffusion necessary to present Bernard’s story precludes the grim concentration necessary to portray Studs and his life. The world expands for Danny and Bernard, and that expansion naturally admits the people, ideas, ideals, and philosophies that are the components of an expanded sensibility.

The dovetailing of the experiences and environments of his three major characters is what ultimately makes Farrell’s work live. Their stories make up a tapestry that mirrors the world from which they sprang and rivals it for true pathos and vitality.

Major works
Long fiction: Young Lonigan: A Boyhood in Chicago Streets, 1932; Gas-House McGinty, 1933; The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, 1934; Judgment Day, 1935; Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy, 1935 (collective title for Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day); A World I Never Made, 1936; No Star Is Lost, 1938; Tommy Gallagher’s Crusade, 1939; Father and Son, 1940; Ellen Rogers, 1941; My Days of Anger, 1943; Bernard Clare, 1946; The Road Between, 1949; This Man and This Woman, 1951; Yet Other Waters, 1952; The Face of Time, 1953; Boarding House Blues, 1961; The Silence of History, 1963; What Time Collects, 1964; Lonely for the Future, 1966; When Time Was Born, 1966; New Year’s Eve/1929, 1967; A Brand New Life, 1968; Judith, 1969; Invisible Swords,1971; The Dunne Family, 1976; The Death of Nora Ryan, 1978.
Short fiction: Calico Shoes, and Other Stories, 1934; Guillotine Party, and Other Stories, 1935; Can All This Grandeur Perish?, and Other Stories, 1937; Fellow Countrymen: Collected Stories, 1937; The Short Stories of James T. Farrell, 1937; $1,000 a Week, and Other Stories, 1942; Fifteen Selected Stories, 1943; To Whom It May Concern, and Other Stories, 1944; Twelve Great Stories, 1945; More Fellow Countrymen, 1946; More Stories, 1946; When Boyhood Dreams Come True, 1946; The Life Adventurous, and Other Stories, 1947; A Hell of a Good Time, 1948; An American Dream Girl, 1950; French Girls Are Vicious, and Other Stories, 1955; An Omnibus of Short Stories, 1956; A Dangerous Woman, and Other Stories, 1957; Saturday Night, and Other Stories, 1958; Side Street, and Other Stories, 1961; Sound of a City, 1962; Childhood Is Not Forever, 1969; Judith, and Other Stories, 1973; Olive and Mary Anne, 1977.
Play: The Mowbray Family, pb. 1946 (with Hortense Alden Farrell).
Poetry: The Collected Poems of James T. Farrell, 1965.
Nonfiction: A Note on Literary Criticism, 1936; The League of Frightened Philistines, and Other Papers, 1945; The Fate of Writing in America, 1946; Literature and Morality, 1947; The Name Is Fogarty: Private Papers on Public Matters, 1950; Reflections at Fifty, and Other Essays, 1954; My Baseball Diary, 1957; It Has Come To Pass, 1958; On Irish Themes, 1982.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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