John O’Hara once remarked, “The Irish, especially the egg-heads, prefer their Irish to conform to the James T. Farrell prescription.” This categorization is significant. H.L. Mencken, who, with reservations, admired Farrell as a writer and a person, would write to him, “A Canadian asked me to nominate the best living American novelist. I sent in the name of a Chicago Irishman named Farrell.” “Chicago” and “Irishman” should have been underscored, as they were in Mencken’s mind, as they were for Jim Farrell’s friends and critics.
The years have softened the view of James T. Farrell, as they have of what Mencken, in a letter to Theodore Dreiser, called the Irishman’s “political hallucinations.” From birth in a tough Irish neighborhood to his life as an embattled writer and far-left political combatant, to his last years when he still held to his adolescent-style atheism but made his peace with the priests who gave him refuge, Jim Farrell never lost his fighting Irishness or the chip on his shoulder.
Of some of this I can speak with a small amount of personal knowledge. As an undergraduate at Columbia, having read and admired the power of Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, I would worship but never approach him as he stood at the bar of the Gold Rail, a Broadway bar and grill a few blocks south of the campus. Years later, as an editor of the anti-communist/anti-fascist newspaper The New Leader, I would handle his copy and applaud his vivisection of Mission to Moscow, Hollywood’s version of Ambassador Joseph E. Davies’s fictional depiction of the Moscow Trials and the Stalin terror.
I had almost no contact at all with Jim Farrell until the 1950s when, as a Newsweek editor and author of Seeds of Treason, an account of the Hiss-Chambers case, I traveled the talk-radio circuit. After one such show, on which I was paired with Jim Farrell, he suggested that we have a drink. “Sorry,” I said, “Whittaker Chambers [making one of his rare visits to New York] is at my house, and I’ve got to get back.” “That’s all right,” Jim said, “I’ll go back with you. I met Chambers back in the ’30s when he was editor of the New Masses. I’d like to see him again.” I demurred. My house was a kind of refuge for Chambers, and it was seldom that he agreed to the invasion of others. But Jim insisted. It was an interesting evening. Jim sat literally at Whittaker’s feet and, mirabile dictu for someone to whom conversation was an order of battle, he said almost nothing—just listened.
Now Encounter Books has published An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell, by Robert K. Landers—and the Library of America is re-issuing Studs Lonigan, which many years ago was dropped from the Modern Library list. For those of us who lived through the political and literary events of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and beyond, this is almost a return to things past, though in no way in a Proustian sense.
In An Honest Writer, Landers praisefully chronicles almost every word that Farrell wrote, which, given Farrell’s overwhelming and unceasing production, is quite an accomplishment. Studs Lonigan—which was his entry into the world of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the other giants of the ’30s, ’40s, and onward—the Danny O’Neill saga, and the novels and short stories that leaped from his pen and typewriter are product enough—and with them go his parallel output of literary criticism and political polemic in the pre- and post-World War II periods.
From infancy, trauma lived alongside Jimmy Farrell. Neither in this biography nor in any of his writing is there any explanation why his slum-Irish mother and father turned him over to his more prosperous maternal grandparents while they continued to have children. The Studs Lonigan books and the novels that followed powerfully depicted, sometimes in raw and brutal terms, the slums of a brawling Irish Chicago, dominated by social squalor and the Catholic Church.
Parochial school and the life around him made an atheist of Farrell. That atheism was confirmed during his years at the University of Chicago, years interrupted by jobs and the criminal activities of friends, in which he sometimes participated. It was not until he decided to become a writer that his life began to take direction. But until the last years, his writing was obsessional. The words poured out by the thousands, undisciplined and untutored. It was not unusual for him to work around the clock, missing sleep and meals. Plot and style meant little to him. He was driven always by the need to put down on paper all that he had experienced. His editors tried to stanch the flow, to give him a sense of what form and style meant—but he ignored their attempted guidance. He had power, the power of his reportage, the drive of his expression, but nowhere the skills of a writer. Mencken’s published letters include many to the early Farrell—it is odd that they were not included in this biography—but they had little effect on him. In one, written in 1932, Mencken scolds, commenting on a manuscript Farrell had sent him, “You fall considerably short of your best work,” namely Studs Lonigan. “Another defect lies in the dialogue. Certainly you cannot tell me that Chicago boys speak the Chimmie Fadden dialect that you put in their mouths.” Nor would he modify his perfervid “naturalism”—what Somerset Maugham deplored in writers who insisted on “calling a spade a damned shovel.” Farrell insisted on reporting it as it was, which by today’s standards would hardly cause a twitter.
It is both interesting and significant that the publisher of Young Lonigan, the first part of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, feared censorship and police action and issued the book as a “sociological” study, with proper academic sanction. The watch-and-ward organizations saw it differently, and were always on the tail of Farrell and his publishers. And there was always his Irishness, which at once attracted and repelled the publishing establishment. Cliften Fadiman, then the panjandrum of book reviewing from his throne at the New Yorker, skittered away, and Edmund Wilson, from the puffed-up intellectual eminence of the New Republic and the New Yorker, would not even acknowledge Farrell’s existence—at least in print. And Farrell’s heavy drinking, his readiness in political, literary, or personal debate to knock the chip off anyone’s shoulder, and his fluctuating political loyalties did not endear him to those who controlled the literary world.
Those loyalties first won him and then lost him the support of the literary establishment. Studs Lonigan and his early stories, with their naturalism, brought him the wide approbation of the Communist Left, which could make and even break a writer. Mike Gold and the New Masses beat the drums for him, as did Malcolm Cowley and the New Republic and the Nation’s Marxists. Farrell bought it, worshipping at the shrine of the Communist Party and the USSR. This made life and career beautiful until Farrell realized there was a hair in it. Still faithful to Marxist-Leninism, he turned to Trotskyism—in those days the kiss of death at the New York Times and its dominant book-review section, and everywhere up and down Madison Avenue. Farrell could have said, “Today is Friday,” and the literary establishment would have roared in anger.
At this point, Jim Farrell drifted away into the kinder and more rational areas of social democracy, and it was at this time that I got to know him and to edit his copy, but he had involved himself in the battles that raged in Partisan Review, a magazine that could at once publish T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Dwight Macdonald. In its pages—as I have rediscovered going over my own incomplete files—Jim Farrell wasted his substance debating abstruse political nonsense. And as one who had left the periphery of the Party, joining in the defense of Leon Trotsky won for him the undying enmity of the writers, intellectuals, and moguls of book publishing and reviewing.
In the literary and political battles of the day, he swung a mean shillaly—as he did in personal controversy. And he wore his rue with a difference. Those who knew him attested to his complete lack of sensitivity toward others. Whatever came to his mind he said, never considering how it might hurt or harm—and when this was brought to his attention, he never quite understood. So it was with family, friends who had stood by his side in battle, and those who came to his defense when the all-powerful Left establishment sought to derogate and destroy him.
Jim Farrell lived his life at war with the world, with the women who loved him, and most notably with himself. In private conservation, John O’Hara would say, “There are three kinds of Irish—shanty, lace-curtain, and whiskey-in-the-house-when-nobody’s-sick—Farrell was all three, and hated them all.” At times in his life the whiskey was there, in and out of the house. So were his fists and his tongue. But what this biography faithfully underlines is that in everything he spoke or wrote, whether right or wrong, there was uncompromising honesty, integrity, and passion, whatever the cost, to the disapproval of his dishonest and effete critics. For all of this, and given the liabilities of his writing and the failure of much of his later work, he contributed one very important reverse hagiography to the shelf of American writing, the Studs Lonigan trilogy—a work written with the guts of his childhood and adolescence. It is fitting that the Library of America should give back to us what is indelibly a part of the American literary heritage. Jim Farrell carried many hates through his life, but it is something to remember that in his final days he returned to the Church for the comfort that he could not find elsewhere. Putting down An Honest Writer, we can ask where the rest of the writers have gone.
Ralph de Toledano is a former editor for Newsweek and the author or editor of over 20 books, including Notes From the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960.