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The Lonigan Curse
James T. Farrell’s greatest creation died young and took his creator’s career to the grave with him
April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
A special notice on the jacket of the 1932 first edition of Young Lonigan informed the public that the book was directed solely at “physicians, surgeons, psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, social workers, teachers and other persons having a professional interest in the psychology of adolescence.”
Wow, did those publishers miss their mark! No doubt learned observers of youth formed a percentage of Young Lonigan’s readership, and that of its successors, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan and Judgment Day , but their numbers were swamped by the adolescents themselves, millions and millions of boys over the years who came pimply-faced and heavy-breathing to Studs. You will today but rarely find a man of a certain age who does not remember.
What was the intent of James T. Farrell’s trilogy about Studs? “It attempts to deal directly,” he said, “as frankly as I was able, as truthfully as I could, with his thoughts, his hopes, his aspirations, his shames, his sufferings, his failures, his experiences with other boys, his experiences on the streets and in the home, at work, in the poolroom, his experiences while sober, his experiences while drunk, his dreams.”
The forum Farrell used to offer these thoughts is revelatory. He spoke from the witness stand of a 1948 trial contesting the right of the Philadelphia police to ban his trilogy on the ground of obscenity. That’s what brought teenagers to Studs : the dirty parts. There had been novelists of realism and naturalism before Farrell—Zola, Balzac, Dreiser—but what kid spent good money to read them ? Farrell was different. Someone told you Studs Lonigan had stuff so hot you had to use asbestos gloves to turn the pages, and you went out and bought or borrowed a copy. And likely neither knowing nor caring a whit about lower-middleclass Irish life on the South Side of Chicago in the first decades of this century, you read of things never so freely or openly written about before: brothels, boozing, craps, poker, fights, getting a girl into trouble. Studs and his friends disdained teachers, stole, beat up “niggers” and “Christ killers,” sassed cops before running away, talked dirty all day long, went to burlesque houses to yell “Take it off!”;.and as pop-eyed you saw all this in print in a real book sold by a real bookstore, you read one of the great monuments of American literature.
We meet Studs on the day of his graduation from parochial school. He sees himself as one tough bozo, takes no bushwa from nobody, pals around with the greatest bunch of guys in Chi. He’s going to set the world on fire. The trilogy ends some fifteen years later with his death from pneumonia. He has lived a life of complete spiritual poverty and vacuity, valueless, dull, entirely wasteful. He has spent his days and years waiting for something big to happen. It never does. He comes to see that the great days, such as they were, are behind him and that all he ever had was unfocused hope. Endlessly he and his friends, pudgy now with approaching middle age, talk about what great times they had when they were young. He remembers how he beat up a real toughie, and everyone said he was a great scrapper. One afternoon he played a really good pickup sandlot football game; he was the quarterback. There was a girl briefly gaga about him. There isn’t much else to hang on to.
Flatly written, heavy-handed —not to say ham-fisted—in its bluntness, showing little technique or style, Studs Lonigan , enormously powerful, formed an unflinching indictment of American values, of the Catholic Church, of urban ethnic life, of capitalism; you could find in it what you would. It also penetrated to and gave expression to the universally held deepest hopes and fears of young boys become men, whatever their type or background. The world Farrell portrayed, Indiana Avenue, Fifty-seventh and Fifty-eighth streets, Prairie Avenue, and Washington Park, we got to know as we knew Faulkner’s Mississippi and its protagonist as we knew Huck Finn. The comparisons are not misplaced. Farrell was thirty when he finished. Then he went back to work, this time to chronicle a succession of fictional creations who were, each and every one, Farrell.
He wrote about Danny O’Neill, book after book about him, and Eddie Ryan and Bernard Carr—each James T. Farrell under another name, the kid with bad vision naturally dubbed Four-Eyes by the guys and derided for his interest in reading, written off as goofy. He goes off to the University of Chicago and becomes an atheist, a Communist, a writer. He goes to Paris and New York, as Farrell did. He remembers the express company and the gas station where he worked in his youth, as Farrell did. Sister and the fathers and life and turmoil—be it Danny or Eddie or Bernard, it’s Farrell, the intellectual and artistic writhings, the love of baseball, everything.