James T. Farrell’s childhood coincided with a period in history when “real” Americans considered the Irish colorful—and usually undesirable—exotics. His omnibus novel Studs Lonigan and collection Chicago Stories reflected the Irish-American experience of a generation of people who worked themselves to exhaustion, and death, to attain the kind of economic plenty necessary to win social acceptance.
Written in the bitter throes of the Depression, Studs Lonigan shares with many other novels of the time the ambition of being a Grand Statement, on capitalism, the myth of the American Dream, and the spiritual poverty at the heart of both. The System destroys all, in Farrell’s worldview; hard work, initiative, even luck, falter before that unconquerable truth. To illustrate the point, he invents a vivid protagonist with all the pluck and moxie and charm you could want, and destroys him.
Though increasingly obscure today, Farrell for decades enjoyed the admiration of Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, and other big hitters on the literary scene. Admirers celebrated him as a master of realism. Critics and academics pointed to his brilliant use of stream-of-consciousness and his place within Modernism. Studs Lonigan, meanwhile, shared a top shelf with novels like The Grapes of Wrath and the U.S.A. Trilogy. Farrell’s name flew around the room whenever people argued about the next Nobelist in literature.
Yet his left-wing supporters fled when he proved insufficiently devoted to the cause. His working class sympathies never earned him praise from the right. (Time magazine famously called him the worst writer in America. Farrell took it as a compliment.) Though he published 42 books, and wrote ten more by his own count, Farrell never again achieved his 1930s acclaim, nor that elusive Nobel.
Farrell was old school. He wrote twenty hours at a time, with lead pencils on paper. That habit continued even into his sixties. “They asked me to teach a creative writing class once,” he irascibly told Roger Ebert. “I said it was a fraud, nobody could be taught to write, but I would do it under two conditions. First, that I could do all the writing; second, that I could seduce all the girls.”
What about the boys?
“They could imitate their teacher.”
Often remembered as an Irish crime story, Studs Lonigan was very much a social novel, to its author and to its avid readers at mid-century. In the introduction to the UIP edition of the Lonigan Trilogy, Charles Fanning quotes Farrell:
The story of Studs Lonigan was conceived as the story of the education of a normal American boy in this period. The important institutions in the education of Studs Lonigan were the home and the family, the church, the school, and the playground. These institutions broke down and did not service their function. The streets became a potent educative factor in the boy’s life. In time, the pool room becomes an important institution in his life. [Farrell saw Studs as] “neither a tough nor a gangster nor really a hard guy. He has as many good impulses as normal human beings have. In time, because of defeat, of frustration, of a total situation characterized by spiritual poverty, these good impulses are expressed more and more in the stream of his reverie. Here we find the source of Studs’s constant dream of himself.