The boiler had broken down during the night, and though the young Father got things going again, it takes a while to thaw out an old romanesque church, and the small company gathered on a December afternoon sat in their coats. These were pews once occupied by the Lonigans and the O’Neills—the names James T. Farrell gave these families when he put them into his novels. But that was back in the days when St. Anselm’s parish was Irish and its stained glass windows were new. How long they’d withstood Chicago’s weather and grime. The year was almost over before the mayor got around to issuing, after many petitions and pleas, a proclamation declaring December 18, 2004, “James T. Farrell Day” to honor the centennial of the writer’s birth. A few fans, a couple of students and teachers, and some descendants of the original Lonigans and O’Neills were celebrating their small victory.
Chicago may be the second city, or third, but not in its literary tradition. Think of the twentieth century without Farrell, Theodore Dreiser, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow—all of whom, sooner or later, left home. A prophet is not a prophet in his own country.
The Washington Park neighborhood lies near the lake and the gray Gothic towers of the University of Chicago, but this is a working-class town. On hot summer nights you could smell the sweaty wind from the stockyards to the west, and the smoke from the steel mills all the way to East Chicago and Gary. Though these streets have fallen on hard times, the heavy masonry and brick give the churches, the two- and three-flat buildings, and large apartment houses a look of fortress-like solidity and permanence. They must have influenced Farrell’s prose. Not far from St. Anselm’s, at 58th and Indiana, a sign may soon be going up, renaming the block “James T. Farrell Way.” This was the heart of the old neighborhood: the Mom and Pop groceries, the drugstores where you had to exchange a nickel for a slug to make a phone call, the movies and the pool hall where the gang hung out. The corner. A corner of Chicago that belongs to Farrell, and to his most famous creation, Studs Lonigan.
In celebration of the centennial, the Library of America republished Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. The trilogy had long been recognized as a classic, but now, with the appearance of this new edition, it was official: Farrell had entered the Pantheon of American letters. Reviewers granted the novel belonged there, though to some it seemed dated—Studs didn’t amount to much of a hero, not even an anti-hero, and the racial, ethnic, and anti-Semitic slurs made them wince. Unlike these critics, the world Farrell brought to “life on the page” wasn’t politically correct. Contemporary readers are accustomed to a mudslide of words that couldn’t be spelled out in his day. It’s the epithets that startle now, like a slap in the face—the way he meant them to.
It’s no secret that Farrell came to resent the success of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. Over the course of his long and amazingly productive career, all his other work would be measured against it. The Danny O’Neill series, Bernard Clare; the novels of the Universe of Time; volumes of short stories, journalism, literary criticism; his steady and persistent portrayal of “the American way of life” through the lives he knew so well. He became a writer taken for granted; he wrote “too much.” (Those thick glasses—crystal balls in his old age—weren’t props; he was driven in part by fear of going blind.) His own favorite novel was his last, the deeply personal Invisible Swords; but by then not many were paying attention. In the final months of his life, Farrell was signing copies of a new edition of the trilogy for the publisher: another autograph, another dollar. He needed the money. At the same time a television miniseries was portraying Studs, yet again, as the movie tough guy he so longed to be. Fifty-some books on the shelves, and Farrell remained the author of Studs Lonigan.
In the Lonigan trilogy Farrell appears as four-eyed Danny O’Neill, a “goofy punk” who wants to be a writer. Farrell’s eyes were so bad he couldn’t see a ball coming, but something told him where it would be, and he won more letters for sports—baseball, football, basketball, and wrestling—than anyone in the history of St. Cyril’s High. For a time he couldn’t decide between baseball, his lifelong love, or literature. One way or another, he meant to do great deeds, to make a name for himself, a magical name. It was a choice of heroes.
As he soon found out, “to be a young man with literary aspirations is not to be particularly happy.”
It might be hard to appreciate now how bold it was then for a young man like Farrell, from Chicago’s Irish South Side, to take up such a trade. Dreiser, the son of a German Catholic immigrant, was the first American writer of anything near his stature to come from such stock and to bear a “foreign” name. (Dreiser’s older brother, a successful songwriter, changed it to Dresser.) Farrell and Dreiser met in 1936. Farrell, barely into his thirties, had published half a dozen books; Dreiser was a giant of American letters, “the Hindenburg of the novel” in Mencken’s inspired phrase. “A big bulk of a man,” Farrell recalled, “self-centered, not too graceful.” Dreiser was wondering what this young writer wanted from him. Advice, a favor, a loan? What can one writer do for another? In parting, he had to ask—he hadn’t caught his visitor’s name.
By the next time they met, the last time—it was 1944—things had changed. Farrell was famous; Dreiser had become an old man. He coughed and cleared his throat and drank a lot of water, and ranted some about the state of the art. “Farrell, why do people write books like that? Why do they write about drinking?...Farrell, that’s nothing to write about. I know all about drinking and drunks.” Dreiser was struggling with his albatross, The Bulwark, and telegrammed Farrell, anxiously soliciting “an honest opinion.” Farrell could always be counted on for that. He was asked to be a literary executor: “I accepted this as an honor.” Yes. Here was a hero of his youth. Farrell’s friendship had been a spar in a storm, and in these late exchanges we can read the isolation of Dreiser’s last years. Farrell had no inkling, in those heady days of fame, that he would become a neglected writer in his time. But that was the name of the game he had chosen to play.
Farrell was not a lesser Dreiser. He never considered himself, as so many critics have, a disciple, and except in his own gloomier moods didn’t agree with Dreiser’s ideas. (Luckily, Dreiser didn’t always agree with his own ideas himself.) Farrell never lost his sense of having to put up a fight, to define himself against. This came with being a writer “of plebeian origin”:
He sees things from the outside, not the inside....His subject is his own world around him....The feelings of alienation he meets sometimes make him hardened, stubborn and resistant. He spends his youth in struggling to get what a son of Groton acquires as if by natural right.
A son of Groton might have his own ups and downs, but the issue here is legitimation. “Dreiser had to plead his case as a writer,” Farrell wrote. “Just as he had to discover for himself, so his sympathetic readers similarly had to discover.” Dreiser gave Farrell permission—this is what one writer can do for another. It was a spiritual debt, and Farrell passed it on.
Sister Carrie, An American Tragedy, Studs Lonigan. They produced masterpieces of American realism, and that realism was the kiss of death: it offered little to Theory. Theory offered nothing to them. They were the great Bad Writers. For almost half a century, from the stillborn publication of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie in 1900 to Farrell’s obscenity trial in the forties, they would be hounded with charges of indecency, lewdness, profanity. Their books were banned, as if the undoubted power of their work resided in shock value. Its real power was moral depth. The Carries and Clydes, Danny O’Neills and Studs Lonigans hadn’t been taken seriously in American fiction before. Someone had to plead the case for them.
This wasn’t slumming. Carrie is “a fair example of the middle American class.” For Dreiser this was not a status but a struggle, and membership was self-selected—those who were not contented with their lot. Farrell considered setting his trilogy in a poor immigrant neighborhood, but that would have been polemical. And besides, it wasn’t true: not to fact—just before the Crash, Paddy Lonigan turns down an offer of $100,000 for a building he owns; the Lonigans are hardly coal Irish—and not to his subject, which was, from first to last, the making of Americans. A work in progress.
For Dreiser, born “on the banks of the Wabash” (Indiana’s anthem, a song he wrote with his brother), Chicago was the first vision of the big city, a city of aspiration, a city of light; “a city that never was on land or sea.” He’d started out as a newspaperman and, like Farrell after him, he scarcely bothered to change real names for his novels. And yet there is a nimbus of fairy tale to his Chicago, a place under enchantment, “the show and shine of life.” As in a fairy tale, the spell must vanish; all is destined to “permanently disappear.” And so the nervous vitality of his prose: he couldn’t wait to get it down before it was gone for good. The Chicago Farrell was born into more than a generation later was a city of neighborhoods, each of them smaller than any small town—“a corner of America where many of my memories hide as though in blocks of stone and dull and commonplace looking streets.” Farrell’s Chicago is a city of implacable reality, and he records it with a patient and faithful accumulation of fact. Dreiser’s characters encounter the city, as he did, with a greenhorn’s wonder and desire. They have few attachments and, usually—like a protective charm of anonymity—WA SP names. As Carrie’s story begins, she’s on a train leaving home with a kiss and a sigh, and we hear no more about it. In the opening scene of Studs Lonigan we get home, family, church, school, even a local pol (a Democrat, naturally). No anonymity here. Farrell’s characters are very much fixed by history, ethnicity, and bounded by place: the institution of the Neighborhood, “a personal past” written in stone.
There was a real Studs. According to his death certificate, William “Studs” Cunningham was born on September 12, 1903. He was single, living at home, and working for his father as a house-painter when he died. It was March 10, 1929. The cause of death was four days of bronchial pneumonia following a bout of the flu.
Farrell wrote a short story, “Studs,” for a college English class. On a visit to “the old neighborhood” the narrator attends the wake of Studs Lonigan—cause of death “a hexagonal of whores, movies, pool, alky, poker, and craps.” In spite of the bravado, the tone is elegiac. Studs had been a childhood hero; he had a lot of guts and a certain swagger, and though a little guy, “he could fight like sixty.” And he was a member in good standing of the Gang, “the bad boys” who, once upon a time, had seemed “proper models.” The elegy is for the narrator; in saying goodbye to Studs he’s saying goodbye to the old neighborhood and all it stands for. And he has the last word: “He was a slob.”
A professor thought there might be more to the story. Farrell had in mind a series of novels about his alter ego, Danny O’Neill, a portrait of the artist as an angry young man, and felt that writing about Studs would get him outside of himself, give him distance from his own beginnings. There was some unfinished business.
Something happened. “I decided that my task was not to state formally what life meant to me, but to try and recreate a sense of what life meant to Studs Lonigan.” Farrell is forsaking the trappings and vanities so dear to the heart of the young writer: subjectivity, fine writing, judgment, a moral. The unnamed narrator of the short story will become the Danny O’Neill of the novel, and Studs’s destiny will unfold “in his own words, his own actions, his own patterns of thought and feelings.” Objectivity is the morality of Studs Lonigan, a Bildungsroman as a cautionary tale.
He’s the first thing we see; in fact, two of him: “Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen,” face to face with himself in the bathroom mirror. A “Caporal pasted on his mug” and a sneer on his lip, he’s practicing his tough guy act: “looking the way Studs Lonigan ought to look.”
This is the night of his grammar school graduation. In the midst of habitual bickering the family will assemble itself respectably enough; Father Gilhooley will deliver an address as long-winded as any school principal’s, giving the proud parents their money’s worth, while in the hot stuffy basement room the graduates in question squirm in their seats. Entertainment will be staged, diplomas distributed, congratulations extended all around; and at a party afterwards, the boys and girls will celebrate their “official maturity” with a kissing game. This has been a rite of passage. They know they ought to feel different, changed; but how can they be changed, when they have not been moved? Somehow the ceremony has not been for them. Probably the only rites they recognize are those with the attraction of the forbidden— smoking in the bathroom, kissing. There are many rites of initiation in Studs Lonigan, and the ones that count most are the initiations of the streets.
Studs is acutely self-conscious, with the self-consciousness of the outsider. “He never let anyone know how he felt.” While his friends crowd around the nuns, diploma scrolls in hand, saying goodbye, Studs sneaks into the bathroom for a smoke. Lone Wolf Lonigan: “He wasn’t the kind of bird that got soft.” Enter Weary Reilley, his rival, his nemesis, a bigger boy and “looking like a much badder guy”—which he is. Studs is anxious about high school, a new neighborhood where he’ll have to fight all over again “to become somebody in the gang.” Weary isn’t going, and “the old man can lump it.” “Gonna work?” asks Studs. Weary answers with a menacing “Maybe.” They talk about “the old dump,” schoolboy pranks, and Sister Bertha (a.k.a. Battling and Battleaxe), sizing each other up and staring each other down. Studs wants to be bigger and badder; but he’s not really bad, not bad enough—not Weary Reilley.
Studs is an alter ego too. He longs to be a Somebody, to be renowned, reckoned with—to hear the magic in his name. He sees himself as in a movie, an actor before an audience. Are they wondering who he is? Have they heard his name? There can’t be many novels in which one name is so relentlessly repeated. But Studs is an outsider also to himself, a spectator in his own life; there will always be two of him. And always he will stifle his instincts, his feelings—his self—in the name of Studs Lonigan. If not he’d lose face, the face in the mirror. It’s a choice of heroes.
Once and once only Studs hears the magic in his name. “You know who that is? That’s Studs Lonigan. He’s the champ fighter of the block.”
There’s a larger world in the novel. The graduation in Young Lonigan takes place on the “historic day” when Wilson is renominated; Young Manhood opens with the older boys going off to War—and Studs expelled for playing hooky; Judgment Day begins in early 1929 and continues on into the Crash and the Great Depression. Newspapers, newsreels, radio; political speeches and soap box oratory; strikes, demonstrations, race riots, parades; vignettes of minor characters—Danny O’Neill, simple-minded Vinc Curley, the Jew Davey Cohen. As his own world narrows, the outside world expands around him, a panorama of the life and times of Studs Lonigan.
And there’s a larger world of feeling. “The summer ahead”: the joys of youth, health and strength and innocence; its romantic ideals and pleasurable sorrows; the sun and leaves of Washington Park; young love, Studs and Lucy in the tree (the high place before the fall); Paddy Lonigan’s sentimental reveries about visiting the Old Country one day. The strongest bond, between father and son, remains awkward and unspoken. “If only they could get a grip on the right words.” Like all Farrell’s stories of his Irish-Catholic South Side, this is also an immigrant novel, a poignant subtext: parents divided from their children by the very things they hoped to give them. For many at the graduation, those prized diplomas are the first in the family. Paddy Lonigan represents a generation that had to work its way up, their aspirations as material as the bitter poverty they came from. And what now? The prevailing feeling is of loneliness, disappointment, something missing.
Farrell’s immigrants speak English; there isn’t the radical disjunction in the New World of Henry Roth’s East European Jews in Call It Sleep. (My grandparents spoke that same broken English, and as a child I thought the other tongue they spoke must be broken too.) And yet, one can still hear in the words of the elders—“Sure, isn’t he the walkin’ saint of God?”—an old-country lilt, a music absent from the speech of their young. Studs’ generation speaks the language of the streets. Those “awful” names—Studs, Slug, Hink, Husk, Slew—are the sign of their initiation, the rites of the tribe. Slang in Farrell doesn’t date; it’s already dated. With repetition it takes on a cumulative force, the voice of the chorus, an epitaph: “Rough and tough and the real stuff.”
That’s the slogan of The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. With the second volume the pace picks up, a dozen years pass, and we’re in the era of Prohibition: the Roaring Twenties, bootlegging and bathtub gin and gangland Chicago the epicenter—a celebrated chapter of the American Romance. That’s not how Farrell sees it. This is a blow-by-blow account of Studs’ descent into the hexagonal; the poolroom and the corner, boozing and bawdy houses are the map of his world. The wake Studs attends for a pal in the gang could well be the wake in the short story—his own. He wants his life to change, but not himself; like most of us, he just wants to be who he is, only luckier and happier. “The old Studs Lonigan.” He means the young one.
In a crucial scene in the novel Studs finds himself at High Mass on Christmas morning. There’s standing room only in the vast open church—this is St. Anselm’s—and he keeps looking around self-consciously to see who he knows and who knows him. He’s hungover, his head aches, his ankle throbs—he twisted it jumping out a window of a brothel in a police raid. He rubs spittle in his eyes to stay awake. And to make matters worse, a blonde in a squirrel coat sits next to him, knee to knee. “He’d let himself in for it.” This is going to be long.
He mumbles an Act of Contrition, “trying to make it rise from a penitent heart.” He’d better keep his mind on this or else it won’t count. But he can’t stop thinking of the night before, “proud of his stunt, escaping the Law”; and he can’t stop thinking of the girl, smelling her perfume, trying to inch closer. Maybe she’s “the girl he always knew he would some day meet”; she’ll be “his woman,” she’ll “reform” him; he’ll feel for her what he once felt for Lucy. (He’s blown a second chance with Lucy—slobbishly.) Has she heard of him? Studs Lonigan? He palms his hands together “to look like he’s praying,” hides them so she won’t see the nicotine on his fingers. And so it goes, his thoughts chasing in circles, a dog biting its tail, counterpointed by the somber cadences, the slow and sacred progress of the Mass. He can’t keep up, he’s lost his place. What part is this? “Some Catholic he was!” The Mass belongs to memory; a familiar phrase, the sound of the choir, recalls an image of purity, his own days as a choir boy, rushing to church mornings “with the snow coming down”; and the knell of the bell, the hush, “the sudden feeling of change in the people,” recalls the mystery. “Studs would have given anything to have received Holy Communion on this Christmas Day.”
Here is the necessary sustenance: his loneliness and longing, union, communion, the need to be part of something larger than himself. He bows his head in unison, tapping his breast. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi....Studs perceives the failure of his life with a Catholic sense of sin—“a sense of sin like vomit.” The drunken orgies, the squalid sex—the only kind he’s ever known—the night before and all the days and nights have taken a toll on his body, and a toll on his soul, the venue of free will. Use it or lose it. Studs is throwing away his life.
He never gets up the nerve to talk to the girl and goes to the poolroom to brag about his exploits. “But he didn’t think that he had ever felt so low in his whole life.”
He will sink lower still.
And that’s where matters were meant to end, with Studs greeting the New Year, 1929, drunk and getting rolled in the gutter. More or less as the real Studs ended up, as the short story ended. There was something wrong with that now. Studs never let anyone know how he felt, but we know. Farrell had given him so much—given him consciousness, given him words. Why not more? There was still some unfinished business.
So Studs gets a reprieve. Judgment Day opens with Studs on a train, returning from yet another funeral. While his pals pass the bottle, reminiscing about the old neighborhood and the old gang, Studs gazes out the window at the small towns and bare February fields of Indiana, hoping to hear them talking about him, remembering the old Studs Lonigan, the champ fighter of the block. He’s on the wagon now. The pneumonia he contracted that winter night has broken his health, damaged his heart. Studs has sobered up; he’s discovered his own mortality. Daydreaming, he sees himself as a “mystery” to “the hick villagers, stopping to gape at the train.” Are they “wondering who he was, and where he is going?” The movie of his life is running.
A voice breaks in: “Studs must be in love. He’s moping so much he doesn’t even hear us talking about him.”
Studs, the outsider, is taken outside of himself. He must be in love. He’s got a girl, Catherine, a decent Irish Catholic girl, and he’s thinking of popping the question tonight. Only he’s not sure; she’s not Lucy. All through dinner, miserably self-conscious, never one with words, Studs agonizes over how to begin, when—just like that—the question pops itself. They walk through the park toward the lake, “leaving the city behind them,” and their kiss is “like an exaltation he would never forget.” This is it, the summer is still ahead, he’s going to get “everything that he wished for, all that he deserved.” But it’s windy and chilly, Catherine keeps fretting about his health—why won’t he quit smoking?—and, standing at the breakwater, watching darkness closing over the lake, waves smashing into jagged rock, Studs knows what’s ahead, where he’s been heading all along. O that day, that day of wrath.
You know how this goes. The lovers quarrel, they make up, Catherine gets pregnant. Then the Crash. Studs, the Little Guy, becomes an Everyman, part of something larger than himself at last, the Community of the Great Depression, the small individual failures in the large historical fact. And he wants what every man wants: a home, a family, a job—a life. Adult ties and adult responsibilities. That would be heroism enough. But his destiny is now Everyman’s. There are many rites of initiation in Studs Lonigan, and there remains one more. The trilogy begins with a boy on the verge of life looking at his face in a mirror. It ends as a nurse covers his face “with a white sheet.” In my tradition, the Jewish tradition, it is the custom in a house of mourning to cover the mirrors with a sheet.
Early editions of Studs Lonigan featured an introduction by a sociologist, a specialist in street gangs, lending a patina of respectability and educative value to a novel bound to be read by flashlight under the bedcovers. Certainly the book covers—cheap paper, sleazy drawings—hinted as much. Those readers seeking the hidden and forbidden, sex scenes, four-letter words, found something unexpected—themselves. A book can be a rite of passage too.
It was for Farrell. There really was more to the story. The Danny O’Neill/Farrell of the trilogy wants “to purge himself completely of the world he knew, the world of 58th street, with its God, its life, its lies.” The real Farrell, the writer, never left home. The world of 58th street, his Irish-American roots, would always be the mother lode. Those blocks of stone and dull and commonplace streets were a life.
Someone once said that there are two kinds of writers: Those whose sympathy is so great it amounts to the same thing as impartiality—that’s Dreiser; and those whose impartiality is so great it amounts to the same thing as sympathy. That’s Farrell. In getting outside of himself and inside Studs, “the would-be tough guy and archetypal adolescent” as the Library of America describes him, Farrell was developing his own kind of realism, an ironic realism in the true sense of irony—“the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning.” This accounts for the peculiar resonance of his work. He would write many books about lives of aspiration, like his own; his fullest expression would be in Studs Lonigan, a life lived without aspirations.
Dreiser had the temerity to call one of his novels a tragedy—an American tragedy. When did Farrell discover that that’s what he was writing? There is no tragedy without the quality of mercy. The short story ended with a verdict, private and final; the judgment of Judgment Day is impartial and universal, embracing us all. Yet what are we to make of the last lines of “Studs”? The image of his grave in the rain, “soppy and soaked, and fresh with the wet, clean odors of watered earth and flowers.” Maybe it was there all along. Tragedy had been reserved for heroes—warriors and kings. Dreiser and Farrell were reclaiming it for the novel, and as a native form.
“I’m not a religious person,” Farrell writes in an essay on—of all things— parochial school education. A modest understatement. In spite of the cross on his coffin—and also a wreath from the Yankees—he was as stubborn and outspoken in his atheism as in everything else. Still, nearing sixty, the former star athlete of St. Cyril’s goes on to credit his Alma Mater with feelings he tried, “as best I could,” to put into his work.
I got a sense there was something before me and something after me...and that I was living in a continuity where there was depth of experience...an idea of greatness and grandeur and also of mystery and reality—where you face tragedy, you face yourself.
To make a hero out of the likes of Studs Lonigan. To conceive of his life as a tragedy. And what else could it be, when it became his life?
Bette Howland’s last essay in First Things was “Retelling Genesis” (December 2003). She wrote the preface for Bob Golan’s A Long Way Home: A Story of a Jewish Youth, 1939-1949.