James T. Farrell on a Writer's Inner Life

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James T. Farrell peering through a magnifying glass, February 16, 1963.

James T. Farrell, the creator of Studs Lonigan, is often thought of as a crude, dogged, naturalist writer; it's refreshing to hear the author speaking, in this recording from 1952, of what truly obsesses him: literature.

Speaking on the French Broadcasting System, Farrell summarizes a speech he gave at the recent Masterpieces of the 20th Century Festival in Paris. Exemplifying the conference's CIA-sponsored anti-Communist theme, Farrell states that the best condition for writing is "freedom." 

 Interestingly, he does not champion the Modernist concept of the writer as an individual isolated or alienated from the public as a whole. On the contrary, "the writer works out what comes and goes in the minds of other people." Even when at odds with the culture or the society, he is, in fact, experiencing what many others feel as well. "Thus the alienated poet does give expression to common feelings." He speaks of the revelation he had as a young man, working at a gas station, reading Sherwood Anderson's Tar, a semiautobiographical account of Anderson's Midwestern boyhood, and recognizing his own deep sense of bitterness and frustration, realizing that perhaps his emotions were important as well. For Farrell, "what literature, what culture does, is make life meaningful." Unlike some of the other speakers at the conference, Farrell is optimistic. He urges artists to keep up with the latest trends in science and technology. After taking the obligatory swipe at Russian totalitarianism, he states that "art and freedom will survive."

Farrell was born in Chicago in 1904. His parents were poor and the family large. At 3, he was sent to live with his grandparents. Farrell quickly immersed himself in the working class milieu of Chicago's South Side. In 1932 he published Young Lonigan, introducing readers to the protagonist of his trilogy, which would continue with The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934) and Judgment Day (1935). These books, with their unflinching look at the unsavory side of capitalism and their frank treatment of sex, created an immediate sensation. Looking back, The New York Times reported:

The three books had an enormous impact on the literary world of the 1930s: H.L. Mencken called Farrell "the best living American novelist" and many readers and critics were deeply moved by what they saw as the absolute honesty and realism of his account of Studs' boyhood, degradation, and untimely death.  

Farrell's disdain for "fine writing" was in tune with a country grappling with the mass unemployment and political upheaval caused by the Depression. He seemed to be recording just the facts, the unvarnished truth, in a flat style that implied man was largely helpless in the face of forces and events beyond his control. Although this view of his work fit in well with its time, Farrell himself fought against such a simplistic interpretation. As the website eNotes points out:

These novels established him as a leading practitioner of American naturalism, but it was a label that limited the recognition of his artistic achievements. Farrell himself took issue with the view of his work as imitative and rigidly deterministic, stating, "I've never been the economic determinist that critics have made me. …I have a functional conception of environment and character; I don't believe in environment over character or anything like that." The issue of Farrell's determinism has remained a central critical debate. Those who disagree with this narrow categorizing of Farrell point to his literary criticism wherein he asserts that literature is a liberating force, allowing one to escape the social forces that threaten individual integrity; in his literary manifestos, Farrell emphasizes free will and the capacity for freedom, ideas which his supporters argue are amply illustrated through the achievements of his writer-characters who are stimulated to success by these same restrictive forces.

One could argue that the very vehemence with which he protests this view of his work in manifestos and criticism rather than in the novels and short stories themselves is a tacit admission that it does have some basis in fact. It was certainly an aesthetic that did not wear well as readers looked for a more nuanced view of plot and character than they found in his many subsequent books. But Farrell could not change. As grimly industrious as one of his proletarian characters, he wrote 25 novels and 17 collections of short stories, none of which sold nearly as well as the Lonigan trilogy. Roger Ebert, writing a 1968 profile of him in The Chicago Sun-Times, quotes him as saying:

"I have a lot of work to do. I write 20 hours at a stretch; I hate sleep and I fight it. I've slept seven hours in the last three days. If it kills me, that doesn't matter. I've already gained more time than I'll lose." … His sentences follow one another like bricks in a well-made row. His prose is simple and direct, powerful and blunt. He has no use for the facile style of authors like John Updike. "See," he said, "I like to write. I've never had writer's block so much as a day in my life. If I block for an hour, that's a long time. I know what I want to write; my problem is to find time to get it all down."

There's something admirable, as well as horrific, in this picture of Farrell pounding away at his typewriter as if he were a chain gang inmate swinging his sledge hammer at a towering mountain of stone. Largely forgotten, his achievement may well find renewed appreciation in the future, when economic conditions more closely resemble those at the time of its inception. For now, what shines through in this talk and in his oeuvre is an overwhelming dedication, the sense of a life truly given over to art.

Farrell died in 1979, at age 75.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.