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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
At first the books were respectfully received. Their author was, after all, the author of Studs Lonigan . Then the reviews changed. Farrell, it was pointed out, had no sense of selection or balance, he told you too much, he was too wordy, and his works were formless, rambling, banal, dull, too long by far. And he repeated the same things over and over. Anything that ever happened to him he had happen to his various alter egos in lumbering, repetitious fashion. Those who had read Studs took a look at Danny and the others and went on to something else. “Years of steadily increasing artistic impoverishment.” “Written off as a novelist of consequence.” “Once greatly admired.” “Embarrassingly bad.” “Farrell has not, as they say, developed much.” “One-book author.”
He raged: “People just want to discuss Studs Lonigan. Well, he died. I tell them to wait until they get to heaven and they can talk to him themselves.” He kept writing, fought literary wars, denounced the Stalinists and was denounced by them, reviewed books, did articles, married, divorced, married, divorced, remarried the first one and separated from her, traveled. Every day he sat with pen or typewriter for hours, at home, on a train, in a hotel. But his work became more and more difficult to get published.
“They say I’m washed up,” he said in 1960, fifty-six years old, Studs Lonigan a quarter-century in the past. “They tell me I should have quit writing years and years ago. I finished Studs and they think I should have conveniently died then. Studs was my monument, they think. Now that he’s got his monument, they think, he ought to die.
“But I won’t die; I’ll keep writing. I’ve got 40 books written right here in this apartment. Forty books. No one will publish them.”
The world he was concerned with had entirely vanished, and his South Side was now Chicago’s Black Belt, yet he continued on. Hands blotchy with ink and stained with nicotine, polishing his glasses by running his tongue over them and wiping them on whatever was handy, jumping from subject to subject, distracted, money long gone, he seemed almost unbalanced. He had thirty-two thousand pages written, he told people. “This work they won’t publish is the best I ever did. Take any page. Look. You’ll see.” He would jump up and shove great piles of manuscripts on visitors.
“What am I supposed to do—fold up and die?” he asked in 1962. “They shouldn’t write a man off until he’s dead. But they’ve done that to me.” Frequently putting in all-night writing bouts, he was planning a twenty-seven-volume work, he said through the 1960s and into the 1970s. He had the title: The Universe of Time . He even had the last line: “The world is forever old and always young and new.” No one was interested. Editors sent back his submissions.
Toward the end he hardly left his shabby New York place save for Yankee or Mets games, where the press-box reporters told him where and when they’d read Studs . That great fictional creation spent the final third of his life looking back on earlier days with longing, while Farrell spent the final two-thirds of his looking back with loathing on what he had done when young, as he repeated the same things over and over in unpublishable books, and so it was sadly appropriate that when he died in 1979, at age seventy-five, the New York Times obituary quoted yet once again what he had said so often and for so long: “‘Studs’ has been a chain around my neck.”