By Irish America Staff
August / September 2004
James T. Farrell (1904-1979), born in Chicago to a struggling Irish Catholic family, became a celebrated writer by drawing on his own experiences in his well-known Studs Lonigan trilogy. As we celebrate the centenary of Farrell’s birth, Pete Hamill, himself the son of Irish immigrants, explores the character of Studs and writes about how Farrell influenced his decision to become a writer.
I first read Young Lonigan in 1951, when I was only a few years older than the main character. I was then a high school dropout, working as an apprentice sheet metal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and trying to imagine a way to live my life. Sometimes I thought about becoming a cop. Or a comic book artist. Or some sort of writer. It depended on the day, or the weather, or the counsel of older men. Then I found this novel in a used Signet paperback, for which I paid five cents. It had a decisive impact on my raw, uncertain adolescent consciousness.
The impact was based on obvious affinities. After all, I was the oldest son of Irish immigrants, and lived in a tenement, and had gone to Catholic schools, and knew a lot of tough guys in my neighborhood. This fellow from Chicago, James T. Farrell, told me by example that if I were to become a writer I could draw upon the life I knew in Brooklyn. I didn’t need to create colonies on Mars, or ride through an imaginary American West, or follow the lives of bullfighters in Spain. The stuff of fiction right up the block. I knew at least four guys who could have been Studs Lonigan, and one of them was me. In a mysterious, indirect way, Farrell had given me my own world. I began to look at my neighbors and relatives, the men in bars and those who worked beside me, as parts of a long story. I bought a notebook and wrote down what they said or how they dressed and what they did. That notebook was lost many years ago. But for more than five decades, I’ve been drawing on those notes.
Reading Young Lonigan again, after living a life has been an experience full of surprises. The most powerful surprise was the novel’s pervasive innocence.
In memory the saga of Studs Lonigan was a dark narrative, a classic tale of decline and fall, played against a spiky urban landscape of tenements and empty lots. The tenements are there, of course, and the lots, and a social narrowness that could be considered bleak. But this first volume in James T. Farrell’s great trilogy today seems almost sunny. Nobody uses “bad” language, except the ugly language of bigotry. Nobody shoots anyone. Nobody lives in grinding poverty. The kids work hard at becoming men, but what they’ll settle for is a double chocolate soda.
This impression of innocence is almost surely driven by the great changes in American cities since the novel was published in 1932. That year the Great Depression was ravaging the nation, and the cities were heavy with despair, breadlines, ruined hopes, destroyed certainties. None of that is in Young Lonigan, which is set in Chicago in a year when the United States was edging closer to entering the Great War in Europe. Studs has just graduated from grammar school and as a member of the Irish-American lower middle class he has options in life that are not available to the poor. He can go on to high school, which his dull but hardworking father wants him to do. He can become a priest, which is the burning desire of his mother. He can go to work. His inability to make any choice is the heart of the novel.
If Studs Lonigan is not living in Depression-era America, he is even farther away from the American city we’ve all come to know. There is plenty of drinking in his slice of Chicago, but it is not the city where heroin and crack cocaine have erased so many hopes. He doesn’t live in the city of AIDS. He doesn’t live in the city of a million small daily brutalities and some very large ones; the city of smashed families, of single mothers, of uncertain parentage; the city of welfare and stasis; the city where television plays incessantly, that ultimate mood-altering drug, mindless creator of passivity and the need for conflict; the city of hip-hop, where there’s a numbing rhythm but no melody, where women are reduced to bitches and hos, where violence is the core of the lyrics, and where there’s almost no presence of love. Studs Lonigan did not live in the modern American city.
Instead, he drifts through the empty streets of a city that now evokes a certain nostalgia. In some ways, it resembles the Brooklyn of my own childhood and youth. There are hard guys around; there are demands made upon boys to be “tough”; there is a conflict between the precepts of Church or family and simple boyish lust. Some of the Chicago language is also the language of my lost Brooklyn. We, too, called softball “indoor,” Italian-Americans were called “guineas,” and we used phrases such as “like a bat out of hell.”
But Studs is an immobilized teenager. His mind is filled with notions about a personal image, but not of a self. He wants others to think he is tough, a natural desire for a kid who weighs one hundred ten pounds. He poses in front of the bathroom mirror, turning his face into tough-guy masks. He wins some street fights, and achieves something of a reputation, but even this small neighborhood identity doesn’t make him happy.
He “likes” a girl named Lucy Scanlan, but he cannot act on his desires. There is a famous scene in the novel where he and Lucy sit on a tree branch in a park and he kisses her. The scene is as sweet and tender as anything in the work of William Saroyan. But Studs cannot follow up. He cannot speak. He cannot express what he feels because he fears that if he did, he would seem soft – to his friend, to himself, to Lucy. He says nothing. And in the summer that follows the moment in the tree, he finds himself in an emotional dead zone of his own making.
This is in contrast to the way Stephen Dedalus roams Dublin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, one of the two writers Farrell most admired (the other was Marcel Proust). In several insightful essays on Joyce, Farrell goes to the heart of the matter in Ireland, the long national history of defeat and martyrdom and the heartbreaking choice of exile. He reminds us that young Dedalus is intelligent, ambitious to the point of arrogance, consumed by the need to escape the dead zone of Irish life. He has a goal: to escape in order to fully live as an artist.
Studs Lonigan has no such goal, which in his world would have been hootingly dismissed as pretentious. He has no goal at all. That is why, for the contemporary reader, Studs is such an exasperating figure. Instead of planning a return to school, he chooses to be stupid. Instead of getting a job, he chooses to drift through the summer days, cadging money from his mother. He is self-absorbed, and self-conscious, but no true self. Nothing drives him forward. No ambition. No dream of escape from the platitudes of lower middle-class life. He has no interior narrative in which he plays the principle part. A vague, inarticulate melancholy rises from him like fog.
In the novel, Farrell offers no explanation for why Studs is Studs. He simply shows his life in impeccably recorded (or remembered) detail. Unlike Joyce’s young man, the character of Studs is not autobiographical (it was based on a fellow Farrell knew named William Cunningham). But the world of Studs Lonigan was indeed the product of Farrell’s own biography. He was born February 27, 1904, in southwest Chicago. His father was a teamster, his mother a former domestic. James Thomas Farrell would be the second of their seven surviving children, but at two, he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents, both immigrants from Ireland. They were illiterate, but their children contributed enough money for them to live in comfort. If there was true poverty in their world, it was spiritual and emotional. Their influence on the boy was apparently quite strong. And they gave him a childhood. Farrell started going to White Sox games when he was six, got to see some games in the 1913 World Series, and would be a baseball fan all of his life. The character in this novel who most resembles Farrell is Danny O’Neill, who wears glasses, remains in school, learns how to play baseball; Farrell would later write five novels about him. Farrell finished high school (where he played baseball, football and basketball), and after the usual assortment of odd jobs, he started writing stories. In 1925, he enrolled in the University of Chicago and began his lifework. Clearly, Farrell was more Stephen Dedalus than Studs Lonigan. The young Chicago writer wanted to escape into freedom. Studs Lonigan only wants to go swimming.
In this novel, and in later fictions, Farrell would push deeply into the character of Irish-Americans, identifying what they shared with the Irish in Ireland and what made them different. On his own journeys to Ireland, and in his deep reading into Irish history and literature, Farrell saw the paralyzing power of history. As a Marxist and a pragmatist, he rejected most versions of Celtic Ireland and the enduring power of its myths. He also had a certain contempt (mixed with sympathy) for the power of the Catholic Church. But he recognized that hundreds of years of British oppression, and too many defeats, had created a general Irish attitude of passivity, fatalism, and acceptance of the Christian dogma that no man or woman could be truly happy until after death, when they would join the company of the Lord in heaven. His Irish heroes were James Connolly and Jim Larkin, men of the left, believers in the possibility of happiness and justice here on Earth. But the combination of Irish parochialism and Irish defeatism, along with the bitterness that came with the Irish nationalist Civil War, made any such goal seem impossible. Farrell believed (correctly) that William Butler Yeats was the greatest poet of his time, and surely would have agreed with his line “Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.”
Farrell also knew that Irish-Americans were living in a different narrative, although it was one stained by the Irish past. In America, the Irish immigrants met, lived with, and sometimes married people who were not like them. That cracked the wall of Irish parochialism. The nineteenth-century ghettos were based on class, not race, and so the Irish in New York’s notorious Five Points lived in the same streets as African-Americans (and later in the century, Chinese immigrants). For complicated reasons (best described in Noel Ignatiev’s 1995 book How the Irish Became White) many working-class American Irish became the enemies of blacks. Farrell would deal later with the appalling violence of their enmity, but he foreshadows it in Young Lonigan.
Here, too, he depicts the casual anti-Semitism of the world in which Studs lives. Late in the novel, the boys take part in a “gang shag” with a willing young woman. The only kid she rejects is a Jew named Davey Cohen, whose fury at her, and at the Irish, is hard and visceral, although contained in an interior monologue. But another scene is one of the most brutal in the novel. Studs and his boys are walking aimlessly through the day when they spot two young Jews. One of Studs’ friends starts the familiar rigmarole about “Christ killers” and they set out to beat up the Jews. Both Jewish kids fight back. Studs takes no part, except to give one of the Jews a kick in the butt, which leaves the boy vulnerable to a sneak punch. One boy escapes the Irish gang. The other is beaten into a moaning heap in an alley. One of Studs’ friends, Weary, says, as they walk away, “Now it will be a perfect day, if we can only catch a couple of shines.” Studs, being Studs, is silent.
When I was young, in the 1940’s, there were still kids like those portrayed by Farrell with such admirable rigor and lack of sentimentality. Out of boredom, or malice, they would go off to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park “to beat up Jews.” At the time, all of us had already seen the newsreels from Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, and we thought these guys (a few years older than my friends) were sick. But I also had friends who were like Studs Lonigan. They lived in a kind of paralysis. They had no concept of the future. Many of them believed that the deck was stacked against them, that if they were Irish or Italian, there was no point in having too large an ambition. Take the cops’ test, they were told. Become a fireman. Try for a clerk’s job in an insurance company. Get real. Their parents reinforced this self-imposed limitation. Among the Irish, there was what I once called the “Green Ceiling.” If the teenage son of a mechanic said he wanted to be a writer, an actor, a painter, the parents would say, “Who do you think you are?” If a young woman declared such an ambition, she was dismissed with scolding laughter, as if committing the sin of pride. Farrell would have known every one of them.
Not all Irish-American parents were like that, of course. And those who established the Green Ceiling usually had decent motives. They had come through the Depression and the war, and they didn’t want their children to be hurt. If their kids wanted what they could not get, they could be injured for life. Many of those parents knew that, for too long a time, the deck was stacked. They had learned this lesson the hard way.
That all changed very quickly after World War Two, which alas, was too late for the generation of Studs Lonigan. The agent of change was the GI Bill of Rights. For the first time the children of all blue-collar Americans had the chance to go to university. They had risked everything for their country, and now the country was giving them something back. If they had visions of another kind of life, and they had served in the armed forces, all they had to do was work. In neighborhoods like mine, and neighborhoods filled with the children of people like Studs, the world was turned upside down. It took a while, but it changed everything. The sons and daughters of factory workers, taxi drivers, and longshoremen could study Spinoza and Yeats and, yes, James T. Farrell.
For the GI Bill broke something open in America, the iron barriers of class that Farrell had tried to fight as a Communist, a Trotskyist, and finally a social democrat. As a writer of fiction, he had the great good sense to avoid imposing abstractions on his own fictions, but to insist that the breath of life was the most important component of a true novel. You might want to shake young Studs Lonigan, and tell him to get off his ass and do something; but there is no denying that as a character he is a living human being, even if we readers know him better than he knows himself. We’ll never know what Studs might have become if there had been a GI Bill in his time, some hope of a future where the stacked deck had been tossed forever into the air, to be scattered on the wind.
If he were alive today, Farrell surely would be appalled at much of the nonsense about literary theory now being retailed in American universities. Today, as was true in the 1930’s, the notion that theory must direct literature can only lead to bad literature. But he would have understood that every Irish-American novel could be discussed with profit in postcolonial studies. The story of the Irish in America is still being unraveled, but as with the story of every other ethnic group, it’s invariably connected to the past. As Malachy McCourt once said, “I come from a long line of dead people.” With his consciousness of those who came before him, and his fidelity to the truth as he saw it, James T. Farrell led the way for all of us who have tried to tell parts of that larger story. Like Studs, Farrell wasn’t from Ireland, but he was of Ireland.
His work remains alive, a century after he was born. I like to think that some young kid, who isn’t even remotely Irish, will pick up this book and discover himself, his friends, and America, too. ♦
The above is Pete Hamill’s introduction to Young Lonigan, the first volume of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. It is reprinted with permission from Penguin Group. The full trilogy, edited by Hamill, is available from Library of America.