James T. Farrell's "The Dance Marathons." (in This Issue, P. 133) (Irish-American Literature)

By Skerrett, Ellen | MELUS, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

James T. Farrell's "The Dance Marathons." (in This Issue, P. 133) (Irish-American Literature)


Skerrett, Ellen, MELUS


It was with a sense of wonder and delight that I recently discovered James T. Farrell's 1931 report, "The Dance Marathons," in box 141 of the Ernest W. Burgess papers in the Department of Special Collections at the University of Chicago Library. For two years now, I have spent Saturday mornings reading my way through this remarkable collection for a book I'm writing on the Chicago Irish parish experience. Burgess was one of the most prominent members of the Chicago School of urban sociology, and he encouraged his students to explore the changing metropolis as part of their coursework.(1) Filling scores of folders, these student papers and exams from the 1920s and 1930s contain deeply personal accounts of the experience of city life as well as more traditional investigations into Chicago's netherworld - its gangs, speakeasies, dance halls, brothels, and rooming house districts.

I owe an enormous debt to James T. Farrell. Reading Studs Lonigan and the Danny O'Neill novels provoked my interest in the history of the Chicago Irish. As a child growing up in the city I had little inkling of the Irish as a group. I knew Mrs. O'Leary had something to do with the Great Chicago Fire and that Richard J. Daley was the mayor. But they remained larger than life, like St. Patrick and St. Bridget, with little connection to me personally. Farrell's characters, on the other hand, could have been my relatives. Their patterns of speech, their attitudes about family, neighborhood, church, and race, all rang true. Like many other Farrell readers, my first reaction was, "I know these people." That working class Irish had a past, and a story to tell, was a revelation. Each Farrell novel I read enlarged my understanding - and sympathy - for the Chicago Irish and their often tenuous sense of place in the city.

As compelling as his depiction of Irish family life is Farrell's recreation of the Washington Park neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. In stunning detail he recreates the physical world of the Lonigans, O'Neills, and O'Flahertys - the brick three-story apartments they called home, their corner stores, the streets and boulevards they invested with meaning. It is no coincidence, I think, that Chicago begins for Studs Lonigan and Danny O'Neill in the neighborhood, just as it did for Farrell. The Chicago depicted in his novels is a familiar, circumscribed place where people are recognized by face, if not by name. Farrell's intimate portrait of the city reflects his experience growing up near Washington Park in the 1910s and 1920s. By his account, his boyhood neighborhoods were "little worlds of their own." Farrell recalled that his grandmother" was always a neighborhood character" and that he also became known, "the way a boy would be in a small town." Contributing to this sense of place and belonging was the local Catholic parochial school and Sunday mass, which rendered "the life of these neighborhoods ... somewhat more cohesive" ("Note" 164).

Like many Chicagoans, Farrell did not think of his city in the abstract, but rather in terms of the particular. When asked to compose an essay on "Chicago Beautiful" as a high school student, for example, he wrote about two South Side landmarks - Comiskey Park and the stockyards ("Note' 165). No doubt because he felt so intensely and observed so much during his childhood years, at age 75 the novelist's "mental map" of the Washington Park neighborhood was as rich as it had been six decades earlier.

In reading my way through the Burgess papers I thought often of the young James T. Farrell, who attended the University of Chicago for eight quarters between 1925 and 1929.(2) Although the Gothic campus in Hyde Park was only a few minutes walk from his boyhood neighborhood, it was a world apart. Shaped by the Irish Catholic parish, Farrell's experience of city life contrasted sharply with the academic community he encountered on the other side of Cottage Grove Ave. Edgar M. …

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