James T. Farrell was very familiar to readers of my parents’s generation, and not very familiar to my own.


James T. Farrell              South Side Chicago

Studs Lonigan is the anti-hero who suffers a remarkably difficult life in Farrell’s novel trilogy about life in the South Side of Chicago. Lonigan goes through a long downhill slide into alcoholism, defeat and death, and the novel belongs to the tradition of american naturalism — where social and economic forces determine a person’s life more than character or morality. Like Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, human potential is worn down and wrecked by capitalism,  Farrell was able to capture not only the degradations of wage labour but the cruel, often intolerably cruel behaviour and words of the American working class at home.

As an anti-Stalinist and member of the Committee to Defend Leon Trotsky, Farrell’s contribution to the first issue of the new style Partisan Review — “Mrs. O’Flahrety and  Lizz — does not glamorise the life of working people; rather it demonstrates the ways in which capitalism and religion break down and corrupt human authenticity.

Next to Wilson’s high minded Marxist discussion of Flaubert, Farrell puts the reader face to face with the misery of the O’Flaherty women, who are engaged in a three way set of rivalries, self-justifications, and accusations.  By the end of this four page short story, the reader is appalled by the characters themselves, by the social and economic struggles that pit them against one another, and by damage wrought by cliches of Catholic piety. Its a dramatic juxtaposition — Wilson’s view from above alongside Farrell’s immediacy — and Farrell’s sentences can shift around, at one moment violent, at another benign, and contradictory  even within a clause.  This piece was part of his novel, A World I Never Made. 

A World I Never Made.jpeg

In her Intellectual Memoirs, New York 1936-1938, Mary McCarthy, so closely associated with PR in the 1930s and with the group of New York Intellectuals for her whole life,  writes that it was Farrell who introduced her to the world of the Trotskyist Left Opposition against Stalin, and to ‘the boys,’ as McCarthy and Hannah Arendt referred to Rahv and Schwartz and others in the PR circle of talents.  She went to a party at the Farrell house, where

“the guests were all intellectuals, of a kind unfamiliar to me. I could hardly understand them as they ranted and shouted at each other. What I was witnessing was the breakup of the [Communist Party’s} virtual monopoly on the thought of the left. Among the writers who had been converted to Marxism by the Depression, Farrell was one of the first to free himself”

{ AJ: I grew up thinking that shouting and ranting were always the best way to discuss intellectual matters, and always urged my own students to go on that way. This may have been an error……}

It was McCarthy’s awakening, and she remained a strong. Leftist throughout her writing life, even while others moved rightwards, and even as she was criticised for her way of living, her love of beautiful clothing, and her sexual adventures.

NEXT: Lionel Abel on Ignazio Silone