A Lion at Bay: The Life & Art of James T. Farrell

Article excerpt

I first came upon James T. Farrell (1904-1979) as a possible subject for a book around 1990, in a memoir by Sloan Wilson, the author of that emblematic novel of the 1950s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Wilson had encountered the older novelist, whose work he'd long-admired, during a brief stay at a New York hotel in 1961, and in his 1976 memoir he made Farrell seem an interesting character. Wilson looked upon the author of Studs Lonigany which was still regarded as a modern classic, as "a lion at bay," roaring defiance at publishers and editors. Saluting Wilson, to his great delight, as "a real writer," Farrell advised him to hang on to his "vitality," as he asserted he himself had done, boasting that he'd undergone surgery for stomach ulcers--"and four days later I laid the night nurse." "That's vitality," Wilson responded, though he didn't believe Farrell's boast.

From Wilson, I proceeded to Studs Lonigan (1935). I'd become aware in college of Farrell's best-known work, but had never read it. I discovered that the trilogy about a swaggering young "tough guy" from a lower-middle-class Irish family on Chicago's South Side had retained its vitality. I also read some of Farrell's novels in the O'Neill-O'Flaherty series (based on his own family), which I thought in certain respects were even better than the Lonigan books. Besides his literary accomplishments, and adding to his appeal as a potential subject, he had been, I knew, a significant figure in the radical left-wing politics of the 1930s, a fierce foe of the Stalinists. I hunted down the few books that had been written about Farrell. And then, after acquiring an agent and a publisher, I embarked on his biography.

The book took much longer to appear than I had imagined it would, in part because of the sheer quantity of Farrell's writings, both published (more than fifty books) and unpublished (more than a thousand boxes in his archive at the University of Pennsylvania). I was able to work on the project only part-time, and after a conflict developed with the original publisher, the search for a new one lasted several years beyond my completion of a (too long) draft of the book. But finally in 2004--by fortunate coincidence the centennial of Farrell's birth--An Honest Writer: The Life and Times o. James T. Farrell appeared (along with a handsome Library of America edition of Studs Lonigan), and it was greeted, for the most part, with warmly enthusiastic reviews.

Despite the flurry of interest in James T. Farrell in his centennial year, he is still a largely forgotten writer today, with even his best-known work, American classic though it may be, unknown to most Americans under sixty-five. He and his finest achievements--Studs Lonigan and the five-novel O'Neill-O'Flaherty series that began with A World I Never Made (1936) and concluded with The Face of Time (1953)--deserve better.

Studs Lonigan and other vivid characters in the O'Neill-O'Flaherty series were rightly declared by the pioneering critic Joseph Warren Beach in 1941 to be "among the memorable people in English fiction." But Farrell's naturalistic novels provide more than memorable characters. They afford a rare look at life in an American city as it was actually lived by ordinary people, particularly Irish Americans, in the early decades of the twentieth century. "You forget that you are seeing this life through the eyes of a selecting novelist," observed critic Carl Van Doren. "It seems merely to be there before you."

Inside those eight novels was Farrell's great subject: the world of his boyhood and youth. Blessed with a prodigious memory, he re-created that world in immense detail. When the three Lonigan novels (young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day) were brought together as Studs Lonigan in 1935, Saturday Review editor Henry Seidel Canby hailed Farrell as "an excellent storyteller" and "a first-rate artist in current speech."

  His descriptions of the cheap squalid streets of Chicago, the
  poolroom bums, the smells and sounds of the animal life of vicious
  children trying to be sports, are vivid and convincing. …