An Honest Life: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell

By Fyne, Robert | Film & History, July 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

An Honest Life: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell


Fyne, Robert, Film & History


Robert K. Landers. An Honest Life: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell. Encounter Books, 2O04. 562 pages; $29.95.

The Father of Us All

On Wednesday evening, February 25, 2004, Norman Mailer-pushing hard on his two wooden canes-gingerly navigated the four steps leading to a small platform located in the south court of the New York Public Library. For the eighty-one-year-old author of The Naked and the Dead, this was not an easy climb, but his wide, boisterous smile, to his many fans, low-keyed the obvious pain. Soon he was seated next to Arthur Schlessinger, Pete Hamill, and Kevin McCarthy, and moments later, the evening's program was called to order. Here, in this famous literary hall, with hundreds of admirers jammed into the audience, these four luminaries gathered to celebrate the centennial birthday of a man they considered a mentor, friend, and muse-the author of over fifty books, hundreds of essays, and an outspoken social critic and political gadfly, James T. Farrell.

As always, Mailer blended style and conviction. "Farrell," he reflected, "was the man who taught me that I could become a writer. He was the first author I encountered who wrote about real people living simple lives, full of drudgery and despair. His Studs Lonigan trilogy convinced me there was more to literature than Scaramouch." Minutes later, Schlessinger, Hamill, and McCarthy echoed similar praise. Farrell was a premier novelist, they concurred, who portrayed the Chicago, Irish-American, Catholic milieu without rose-colored glasses. Reading Farrell, they averred, was the same as walking through ones own blighted neighborhood, peeping into a kaleidoscopic world of ennui, frustration, and disenchantment.

Finally, the audience joined in with numerous comments and anecdotes about their favorite author-who died in 1979-and his literary legacy. Ideas and arguments bounced back and forth: was the Danny O'Neill pentalogy a better representation than Studs Lonigan? How about the Bernard Clare trilogy? Do not forget Ellen Rogers. Why didn't Farrell receive the Nobel Prize for literature, an honor he richly deserved? As a cultural event, this gathering sparkled with Farrell devotees and news of future conferences concluded the evening. This May, the Chicago Newberry Library hosted a centennial symposium in Parrel 1's native city, while in June another celebration took place in Paris to complement a new French translation of GCW House McGinty. Clearly, 2004 is the year of James T. Farrell.

So it is no coincidence that an elaborate biography, written by a Smithsonian scholar, continues to honor the writer whom Kurt Vonnegut proclaimed, "The father of us all." Now Robert K. Landers tells the story of a man who wrote in the same manner that he talked, with words pouring out of him like water, a man who could write books the way other people chewed gum, a man who spent his literary career dodging hundreds of slings and arrows from outrageous critics, religious fanatics, and-on more than one occasion-municipal Comstockery.

Born and raised in Chicago's Irish-Catholic south side, James T. Farrell's youthful obsession with baseball occupied much of his adolescent years and his dreams of someday playing on a professional team brightened this shy, bespectacled varsity letterman's imagination with fantasies of glory aided by his 1924 graduating yearbook's prophesy that the nineteen-year-old senior would be elected to the Athlete Hall of Fame. But after high school, these aspirations seemed unattainable as Farrell, working at some entry-level jobs, started to read serious books and-two years later-enrolled at the University of Chicago where, in a matter of days, he would recall almost a quarter of a century later, he overturned the values of his boyhood and became a rebellious young man. Here, in his on-again, off-again stint with academic studies, Farrell vowed that literature, not sports, was his true vocation, and someday his novels, depicting everyday life, would become world famous. …

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