James Thomas Farrell

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James Thomas Farrell

James Thomas Farrell (1904-1979), novelist and social and literary critic, was one of the most unrelenting naturalists in American literature.

Born in Chicago, James Thomas Farrell attended Catholic parochial school. He worked at various jobs before attending the University of Chicago for three years. Here he composed a story called "Studs," which, at his professor's suggestion, he expanded into Young Lonigan (1932), a semi-autobiographical novel about a troubled 15-year-old Chicago youth. A sequel, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), deals with the protagonist's moral dissolution as a result of his involvement with the Chicago underworld. Judgment Day (1935) closes the trilogy with an affecting account of Stud's death at the age of 29, a helpless victim of biological and environmental conditions. Despite its stylistic dreariness and turgidity, Studs Lonigan is a work of power and a classic of naturalism.

After completing this widely acclaimed but controversial trilogy, Farrell began the Danny O'Neill tetralogy, consisting of A World I Never Made (1936), No Star Is Lost (1938), Father and Son (1940), My Days of Anger (1943), and The Face of Time (1953). The sensitive, spectacled Danny is a close fictional version of the author. Although Danny is able to escape the constricting familial, religious, and environmental forces of his formative years in Chicago by pursuing a writing career in New York, his inability to reconcile himself with his past endows this series with a philosophical despair more overriding than the sociological pessimism of Studs Lonigan.

Farrell's graphic studies of lower-middle-class Irish Catholic life in the slums of Chicago, although written with the seeming objectivity of a social scientist, possess a heated moral indignation over the crass materialism and spiritual barrenness of urban life in a capitalist society. An ardent admirer of the realistic novels of Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy, Farrell used a fictional style and tone closer to the work of fellow Chicagoan Theodore Dreiser. Less penetrating and less impressive in overall effect than Dreiser, Farrell is like Dreiser in his honesty, moral earnestness, and intuitive grasp of social realities.

In his later years Farrell continued to write novels and short stories, but few had the impact of his early work. Nevertheless, Farrell maintained his importance as a man of letters with valuable works of literary and social criticism. A Note on Literary Criticism (1936) is an unusual example of enlightened Marxist critical theory, and The League of Frightened Philistines (1945) presents a reasonable argument for literary naturalism. Farrell wrote of the founding of Israel in It Has Come To Pass (1955).

Farrell maintained his radical beliefs throughout his entire life and took his disdain of materialism and his belief in Communism outside literature. He was an ally of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a group advocating Marxism and Trotskyism, throughout the 1940s. From 1941 to 1945 he served as chairman of the Civil Rights Defense Committee which had been formed by the SWP to defend trade unionists and SWP members being prosecuted in Minneapolis, Minnesota under the Smith Act. This act made it unlawful to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government or to belong to any group advocating such an overthrow.

Stalinism and its defense by many SWP members forced Farrell to break with the group and in 1948 he became an advocate of the Marshall Plan which was rebuilding postwar Europe to the surprise of many of his associates. Farrell became an staunch anti-Stalinists and felt democratic capitalism was the only means to fight it.

In the 1950s Farrell served as chairman of the Committee for Cultural Freedom and in the 1960s he supported Hubert Humphrey and was a harsh critic of the New Left. By the 1970s his views on affirmative action and Israel were similar to that of many conservatives.

Although he had come to be known for his activism, the publication of his 50th book, The Dunne Family, in 1976 created a renewed interest in Farrell's works and he was honored for this literary milestone with a "Salute To James T. Farrell" at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. In 1979, the National Broadcasting Company presented Studs Lonigan as a television miniseries and shortly afterwards he was presented with the Emerson-Thoreau Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Farrell completed his last novel, Sam Holman, just five weeks before his death on August 22, 1979 and it was published posthumously in 1983. Sam Holman was a candid look at the world of a left-wing Jewish intellectual in New York City in the 1930s and has been seen by many as vaguely biographical of the New York radicalism of that time.

Farrell's literary career suffered somewhat of a stagnation in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s after reaching its peak in the late 30s. Never distressed, Farrell stuck to his individuality, always doing things the way he wanted to. At possibly the lowest point of his literary career in 1961, he said "I began writing in my own way and I shall go on doing it. This is my first and last word on the subject."

Further Reading

The strongest argument for Farrell's endurance as a fiction writer is in Joseph Warren Beach, American Fiction, 1920-1940 (1941). Other assessments include sections in Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942; abr. 1956); W. M. Frohock, The Novel of Violence in America, 1920-1950 (1950); and Chester E. Eisinger, Fiction of the Forties (1963). Farrell's life, politics, and works are discussed in Alan M. Wald The New York Intellectuals (1987); Edgar Marquess Branch James T. Farrell (1971); and by Farrell himself in a New Leader essay, "Reflections at Fifty" (1954). Farrell is also listed with a brief biography in the A&E Television Networks online biography at www.biography.com (1997). □

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James Thomas Farrell

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