Academic journal article MELUS

Farrell's Ethnic Neighborhood and Wright's Urban Ghetto: Two Visions of Chicago's South Side

Academic journal article MELUS

Farrell's Ethnic Neighborhood and Wright's Urban Ghetto: Two Visions of Chicago's South Side

Article excerpt

Although often described as "naturalistic" urban writers, James T. Farrell and Richard Wright portray the city with strikingly non-naturalistic styles, rejecting the documentary methods of naturalism in favor of more expressive techniques. Wright, in order to suggest the extremity of his hero's radically alienated consciousness, describes the city in Native Son as a gothic mindscape reflecting the fear and horror that dominate his protagonist's life. Surrealistic techniques are extensively used to dramatize the fundamental lack of connection between Bigger Thomas and the world in which he is placed. Because his external life offers him so little, Bigger perceives the city as a process of fragmentation and dislocation, a strange nether world that threatens to destroy him. Farrell's South Side in Studs Lonigan, although geographically a few blocks away from Wright's city, is in fact a different universe, and Farrell uses very different literary techniques to describe it. Whereas Bigger Thomas's Chicago is a racial ghetto, a massive trap that dehumanizes the people who are forced to live in it, Studs Lonigan's South Side is an ethnic neighborhood presented in a complexly ambivalent way. While it can indeed be a dead end to those who succumb to what Farrell in The League of Frightened Philistines called "spiritual poverty" (86), it can also be the setting for human fiberation for those like Danny O'Neill who use it as a foundation for human development. To suggest the powerful duality of the urban setting, Farrell subtly combines standard realistic techniques that present the city as a densely reified environment with a wide range of poetic techniques that lyrically suggest the surprisingly rich human possibilities contained in such a world.

The first principal difference that strikes readers of the two novels is the fact that Native Son describes so little of the actual urban environment that Studs Lonigan details so fully. Because Wright was intent on filtering external experience through Bigger's radically alienated consciousness, he describes Chicago with very few coordinates in time and place.(1) We are never given a precise idea of the year in which the novel takes place and we do not see much of the actual physical characteristics of the city in which Bigger lives. Washington Park is used for one important scene but is never clearly described. Full, coherent descriptions of streets, houses, stores, schools and other important landmarks are never given. The novel's second scene, which describes Bigger leaving his family's apartment and walking the street, provides a vivid example of Wright's highly selective method of depicting city life. The few details mentioned are designed more to suggest what Bigger is thinking and feeling than to establish the setting in any minetic way. Frustrated that his environment does not present him with "a wider course of action," Bigger's attention is drawn to a streetcar rattling over "steel track" (16). This sense of confinement is intensified when he looks up at an election poster for District Attorney, which reminds blacks that "If you break the law you can't win" (16). When Gus and Bigger meet on a street comer, their sense of entrapment is further underscored by the "wall" (21) they lean up against. Observing the high-flying planes and fast-moving automobiles, which painfully remind them of the mobility and possibility extended to whites in American society, they realize that black people have been placed in "one comer of the city" that amounts to little more than a "jail" (32).

Studs Lonigan, however, provides a densely rendered, fully reified urban world. Throughout the trilogy Farrell stresses the temporal setting in a precise way, usually connecting the seasons, months and years to the development of his central character.(2) More importantly, though, Farrell physically describes the urban setting in copious detail, providing a complete sense of external reality and of how it naturally interacts with the consciousness of the central character. …

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