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The Lonigan Curse

June 2024
5min read

James T. Farrell’s greatest creation died young and took his creator’s career to the grave with him

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.

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.”

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