Monday, May 25, 2009

Whatever Happened To: James T. Farrell

I haven't done this "whatever happened to" feature on the blog in a while. So today I'm going to post on an author who has long since faded from everyday lips: James T. Farrell.

Studs Lonigan is his most famous work. Remember this novel? About the boy Studs and his journey into manhood in Chicago? (It was voted #29 on the Modern Library's list of 100 best novels.) James T. Farrell (1904-79) was a contemporary of Steinbeck, Dos Passos, and Hemingway, and I wonder why in the world he's not still remembered more today? I have a theory on that, but I'll come to it in a minute.

First, I want to say that Farrell is the author of around 30 books, including the Studs Lonigan Trilogy, This Man and This Woman, An American Dream Girl, and A Brand New Life. I have no idea, actually, how many of these titles are still in print. Beyond Lonigan--which I began because of my interest in 1930s America--I've recently tackled his early volume The Short Stories of James T. Farrell (1937), which brings together in one book three early books: Calico Shoes (1934), Guillotine Party (1935), and Can All this Grandeur Perish? (1937). Let it be known that Farrell published 9 books during that span. The guy was definitely prolific.

In "Helen, I love You" from Calico Shoes, Farrell tells the woeful tale of a boy in love with a girl who doesn't love him. Which sounds like my high school experience. Much of the story revolves around this boy, Dan, and his argument with another boy named Dick. They argue. It's what boys do. The words "Helen, I love you" appear as a kind of sad refrain--desperate, really. By the end of the story, little has actually happened. Dick and Dan have grandstanded, Dan for the love of Helen and Maybe Dick too. But to no avail. Helen never appears.

Let me say now why I think Farrell's all but forgotten today: He was a socialist. His work is imbued with the spirit of rebellion and social injustice. A working class bloke, he was not afraid to write on what it was like to come out of that milieu. It is for these reasons that I enjoy reading him today, but also for these reasons--I am pretty sure--that he is nearly forgotten. Steinbeck, we might recall, was a socially conscious writer but one who never really took a stand one way or the other. Sure, he wrote pretty well, and empathetically, of dust bowlers in Grapes of Wrath. But in his private life he seemed neutral, more concerned with his art. Farrell was the opposite: a man who joined the Socialist Workers Party and later the Workers' Party. He lived his beliefs. It's also possible he let his beliefs groove too far into his literary work--but I will have to read more to verify that.

How's this for socially aware?

"For White Men Only," from Can All This Grandeur Perish?, is exactly what you'd expect. Two black men defy "rules" and go to a whites only beach, only to be beaten savagely by racist whites. Written long before Jackie Robinson, long before the Civil Rights movement, the story is somewhat of a watershed (for me). Here was a white writer writing on the travesty and injustice American blacks knew intimately. Farrell certainly was no apologist to racists; in this story the racist whites come across as the villains they are. It's a bleak story, and given the fact that we know today just how desperate the times were, also a very heartrending story.

But I give Farrell credit for writing it.

And so I want to say: Try reading James T. Farrell. Overall, the stories in this collection are uneven. There's "The Wedding Bells Will Ring so Merrily" from Guillotine Party that describes the life of a young family struggling to make ends meet, and a father who's trying to reconcile his past dreams with his current situation. It's tough, it's gritty, but it's every bit as real as what we're seeing today. People struggling, people trying to get ahead but, due to circumstances beyond (in some cases) their control, unable to move beyond inertia.

Some of his work is a little thick, a little old-fashioned. "Helen, I Love You" strikes me this way: a story that spends a lot of time telling us what it is rather than showing us. It's a quibble, and one growing out of my several writing workshops (which always lean us toward show not tell). But all in all, I'm taken in by Farrell's deft control of language and story, by his ability to flesh out characters using very little but the bones of dialogue and a few carefully chosen bits of meat.

The fact that he's got a heart for the little guy is an added bonus.

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