REVOLUTIONARY NOVELIST IN CRISS
Until 1945 James T. Farrell was a dependable ally of the Socialist Workers Party. Except for Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, and Dwight Macdonald, he was virtually alone among the anti-Stalinist intellectuals in adhering to a revolutionary internationalist point of view during World War II. From 1941 to 1945 he served as chaimman of the Civil Rights Defense Committee, which had been formed to defend the Trotskyist trade union militants in Minneapolis Teamster Local 544 and leaders of the SWP. These union militants and party leaders had been prosecuted as the first victims of the Smith "Gag" Act, which made it unlawful to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government or to belong to any group advocating such an overthrow.
Farrell wrote and published fiction steadily during these years, arguing that there is an interdependency between the advancement of culture and the struggle for human liberation, although Farrell's fiction differed from that of John Dos Passos, who wrote explicitly political novels. Some of Farrell's work, such as his antifascist novelette Tommy Gallagher's Crusade (1939), dramatized important political issues, but his Studs Lonigan trilogy demonstrated that he was primarily a novelist of human character. Farrell was acutely sensitive to the psychological costs of living in a class society, and his conceptions of individual consciousness and social destiny were infused with a materialist outlook. This is most evident not only in the Studs Lonigan trilogy, but also in Farrell's second series, the O'Neill-O'Flaherty pentalogy: A World I Never Made (1936), No Star Is Lost (1938), Father and Son (1940), My Days of Anger (1943), and The Face of Time (1953). Although the pentalogy centers around the life of Danny O'Neill, Farrell preferred that the five books be called the "O'Neill-O'Flaherty series" because the main characters are derived from both families. Both the Studs Lonigan trilogy and also the O'Neill-O'Flaherty series, conceived about the same time and thematically interconnected, provide an expose of the false consciousness created by the institutions of capitalist society. A third series, the Bernard Carr trilogy—consisting of Bernard Claer (1946),The Road Between (1949), and Yet Other Waters (1952) -- evolved somewhat later but was still linked to the revolutionary Marxist period in Farrell's literary development.
The O'Neill-O'Flaherty series, comprising a sprawling 2,500 pages, suffers by comparison with the Studs Lonigan trilogy because its five units, read separately, lack cogency. Yet their cumulative effect is more potent and complex, and Danny O'Neill is a wholly unique creation. Studs Lonigan's humanity is only dimly perceived behind the warped values absorbed from his environment; his notions of evil, engendered by Father Gilhooley's sermons, are haunting and amorphous, and his daydreams of a better life, associated with his would-be childhood sweetheart, Lucy Scanlan, are vague and romantic. In contrast, Danny O'Neill, an autobiographical persona, is much more intelligent, thoughtful, and sensitive than Studs, and he moves, despite setbacks, unrelentingly toward victory over his environment. As Danny escapes the predestined roles prepared for him by his family and subculture, the skillful precision with which Farrell probes the processes of human consciousness demonstrates a literary debt to Joyce and Proust.
Using stream of consciousness and associational techniques, Farrell roots the emotional development of Danny in a childhood trauma when his parents, Jim and Liz O'Neill, turn him over to the care of his widowed grandmother, Mary O'Flaherty. Danny's mind and personality are thereafter subtly shaped by his interaction with the two families, one middle class and the other working class. The respective class differences in attitude and outlook are acutely dramatized by two of the central male characters: Danny's uncle, A1 O'Flaherty, a shoe salesman, and Danny's father, Jim, a teamster. A1 O'Flaherty worships conventionalized notions of education and culture, while Jim fears that A1 will turn Danny into a soft "dude."
Chronologically, the pentalogy begins with The Face of Time, published last in 1953, which follows Danny's emergence into con- sciousness at the very time his grandfather, Tom O'Flaherty, is dy- ing. It concludes with Danny's college years in My Days of Angel (1943), which emphasizes his renunciation of religion, his initial encounters with philosophy and modem literature, and his first eager steps as a writer. Of the five novels, only A World I Never Made achieved popular success, and this may have been partly due to a well-publicized trial in which Farrell was accused, and acquitted, of including obscenity in the novel. But the O'Neill-O'Flaherty series never attained the stature of the Studs Lonigan trilogy because it lacks the dramatic focus afforded by Studs Lonigan's violent eruption into young manhood followed by ill health and death. What is superior about the O'Neill-O'Flaherty series is its relentless detailing of the generational conflicts among big-city Irish-American families whose members are depicted in all of their intermediate stages of acculturation and economic advancement. Moreover, the series enjoys a distinct position: it is perhaps the definitive examination of the social basis of the emergent consciousness of an artist in the process of rebelling against the shackles of his lower-middleclass cultural heritage in order to redefine his own personality and objectives in Marxist terms.
Critics harshly accused Farrell of lacking a sophisticated literary technique, but Farrell never made excessive claims about his writing style. He stated that he wrote primarily from his unconscious, achieving characterization by intensely identifying with each of his fictional creations as he imaginatively recreated a world seen through their eyes. Although he admired the consummate craftsmanship of Henry James and James Joyce, he endeavored to achieve a "clear path" to his unconscious. Part of what Farrell meant was that he relied on his own imaginative resources in attempting to create the "body image" of each of his main characters. The notion of the "body image" -- meaning the total sense of oneself, including the visceral -- was assimilated by Farrell at the outset of his career from the Freudian psychiatrist Paul Schilder. Farrell saw a correlation between the work of Schilder and the views of William James, George Herbert Mead, and John Dewey, which argued that human character is a social product. This approach to fiction required an intimate knowledge of the thoughts, emotions, and social circumstances of one's characters; and this is part of the reason why the bulk, although not the entirety, of Farrell's work centers around the experiences of his family and acquaintances in familiar Chicago and New York environments. Even in those works in which an autobiographical persona, usually Danny O'Neill or Eddie Ryan, is not the main character, he sometimes appears in a cameo role as if to facilitate the process of empathizing with the other characters.
The Bemard Carr trilogy -- the name of the main character was changed from Bernard Clare to Bernard Carr after a libel suit was brought by a man named Bemard Clare -- relies heavily on Farrell's personal experiences as do his earlier series, but it was intended to depict the process of political and moral corruption of writers in the 193Os. As the published version of the trilogy suggests, Farrell intended Carr to become a half-willing proponent of Stalinism and then fall victim to commercial corruption. But after eight years of writing, and with many false starts and a variety of projected conclusions, Farrell's original intention never materialized; Carr's future remains undetermined at the conclusion of the trilogy.
The reason that the original plan was aborted is bound up in the political crisis that overwhelmed Farrell during the late 1940s. In early drafts of the series, Danny O'Neill was to be introduced as a foil to Carr. O'Neill was to have appeared as a mature novelist of revolutionary Marxist but anti-Stalinist convictions. In a scene describing a radio debate between Carr and O'Neill that Farrell cut from the published version, O'Neill lambasted the self-serving and even reactionary political character of one of Carr's novels: "All of the agonizing, all of the frothy talk about his [Carr's] own sincerity, his own honesty, his discovery of what are called basic human values, is really a way for Mr. Carr to console himself, to console his hero, to permit his hero to accept the status quo and thereby to apologize for his hero's failure to overcome anything."
The contrast between O'Neill and Carr was intended to expose Carr as an intellectual variant of Studs Lonigan -- as someone incapable of an authentic rebellion against cultural conditioning and social pressures. Farrell decided to eliminate O'Neill from the final version of the book because he himself was beginning to lose confidence in revolutionary Marxist ideas. Instead, he closed the second volume of the trilogy on an ambiguous note. Then, at the close of the third volume he presented some tentative but optimistic suggestions for the future. The grounds for his cautious optimism were not so different from those obtained by Laskell at the end of The Middle of the Journey: Carr had first cast off the ideological blinders of the church, then rid himself of Stalinism; now he would be free to immerse himself in the experience of life.
This pragmatic theme is also indicated by an epigram from Heraclitus in the front of the book: "Into the same river you could not step twice, for other (and still other) waters are flowing." Toward the end of the novel the theme is dramatized in a striking scene when Bernard contrasts the abstractness of his book-learning with the reality of his own son: "I talk about the downfall of civilization, about the rise of Socialism, about human culture from Peking Man and Pithecanthropus erectus to Mass Action [the Communist literary publication], and I don't know a hell of a lot about a baby—my own baby, to be specific." This change in focus took its toll on the quality and coherence of the trilogy. The change in the novel's political perspective also did violence to another important particular: Carr's choice, unlike that of Farrell and his contemporaries, is always between Communism and anti-Communism; anti-Stalinist Marxism never appears as an option.
Farrell's political crisis was under way by 1944, at which time he began to follow the thinking of Albert Goldman and Felix Morrow, who led a tendency in the Socialist Workers Party. By 1948 Farrell had begun to issue crude anticommunist statements, establishing a political association with Sidney Hook that would last beyond the Cold War years. During the Cannon-Shachtman schism in 1939-40, Farrell at first had felt sympathy for Shachtman but then concluded "that there was validity in the slogan of defense of the USSR" even though he was somewhat uncertain about the Soviet Union's social character. He enjoyed good personal relations with many members of the Socialist Workers Party, including Cannon, Novack, Goldman, and Morrow, and threw himself into the work of the Civil Rights Defense Committee, which he saw as an independent activity through which he could make a special contribution.
Nevertheless, when Goldman and Morrow began to develop a series of criticisms of the SWP leadership just before and during their imprisonment after being convicted of violating the Smith Act, Farrell was sympathetic. Goldman himself was an attractive and impressive figure. Born Albert Verblen of working-class parents in Chicago in 1897, Goldman graduated from Medhill High School and attended the University of Cincinnati while concurrently training to be a reform rabbi at Hebrew Union College. During the summer of 1919, while working in the Dakota wheat fields, he came into contact with militant itinerant farmworkers and later that year joined the IWW. In 1920 he joined the Communist Party. For several years he worked as a journeyman tailor in the clothcutting trade, but in June 1923 entered the Northwestem University Law School, graduating with highest honors in 1925. From 1926 to 1933 he was a prominent attorney for the Communists' International Labor Defense. Following a visit to the Soviet Union in 1930 he began to be critical of the party and was finally expelled from it for Trotskyism in 1933. Following his service as Trotsky's attomey during the Dewey Commission of Inquiry hearings, Goldman worked as counsel for Teamsters Local 574 in Minneapolis, resuming the post he had previously held during the 1934 strikes. In 1939 he moved to New York City to work full-time for the SWP at $15 a week. During the 1939-40 break with Shachtman, Goldman defended Cannon's position, but his tone was characteristically less harsh. In his articles for the Trotskyist press, and in popular educational lectures, Goldman established a reputation for expressing himself modestly and for being genuinely responsive to his opponents' arguments. In mid-1941 he was among the twenty-nine leaders and members of the SWP indicted in Minneapolis for allegedly violating the Smith Act; after a trial at which Goldman acted as defense counsel for those indicted, eighteen were convicted and Goldman received a sixteen-month sentence which he served at Sandstone Federal Prison in northern Minnesota.
While in prison, Goldman and Morrow began to develop a series of increasingly harsh criticisms of the SWP leadership. Their supporters never amounted to more than a few dozen, but they included several important figures, such as Jean van Heijenoort, a former mathematics student at the Sorbonne who had been Trotsky's chief assistant throughout much of his third exile and who served as secretary of the Fourth International, based in New York, during World War II. In addition, views analogous to Goldman and Morrow's were endorsed by a large minority among the French Trotskyists led by Yvan Craipeau; a majority of the British Trotskyists led by Jock Haston and Ted Grant; and virtually all of the exiled Gemman Trotskyists.
In a familiar pattern that had unfolded in previous faction fights, the Goldman-Morrow tendency began with a central argument that had a good deal of truth to it. Their criticisms of the party's organizational practices, if correct, also seem justified. However, as the debate persisted and became more virulent, Goldman and Morrow began introducing a number of less tenable positions and taking desperate actions that undermined their claim as a loyal opposition. In the final stages of the factional struggle that they had begun in the name of defending true Trotskyism and Leninism against epigones, they rather quickly repudiated both and succumbed to the simplistic anticommunism they had fought for decades, which now dominated intellectual life in the United States.
Goldman and Morrow's strongest argument challenged Trotsky's somewhat catastrophic perspective that World War II would be followed by a wave of socialist revolutions in the major countries of westem Europe, with Stalinism in the Soviet Union quickly eradicated either by an internal political revolution or an externally imposed capitalist restoration. Instead, Goldman and Morrow correctly foresaw that it would be necessary to struggle against an enlarged and politically enhanced Stalinist movement for decades. In contrast, Cannon and the majority of the SWP still adhered to Trotsky's original prediction, one that would not be realized, and they would continue to support it for a number of years. Yet the question remains as to whether Goldman and Morrow's predictions were actually based on a superior insight into the nature of the epoch; it is also possible that, in the process of losing their revolutionary convictions, they were merely projecting the existing, pessimistic situation of the mid-1940s into the future. Likewise, one can question whether the view of Cannon and his supporters simply entailed a dogmatic adherence to prewar predictions; those prewar predictions may have contained an important element of truth that Cannon should be credited for perceiving.
The course of postwar global history suggests that each position contained a mixture of subjective responses and insights into objective reality. Successful anticapitalist revolutions did occur, which undermined the stability of Western capitalism, but they occurred in China and Yugoslavia rather than in westem Europe. Powerful working-class struggles did take place in several capitalist nations, as had been predicted, but for various reasons they did not result in an overturning of the social order. Cannon's perspective had to undergo considerable changes to adjust to this new world reality, and a certain dogmatism may have delayed his recognition and theorization of the changed situation longer than necessary. Still, Cannon and his followers in the Socialist Workers Party emerged from this difficult conjuncture with a balance between their anti-Stalinism and anticapitalism. Goldman and Morrow, on the other hand, became totally disoriented and drifted steadily to the right, with Farrell following not too far behind.
In 1945-46, as the faction fight entered into its penultimate stage, Goldman and Morrow proposed that the Socialist Workers Party reunify with the Workers Party. The proposal itself was not at all implausible, and, in fact, Cannon himself (albeit skeptically) would endorse it a year and a half later at the urging of leaders of the Fourth International. After all, Trotsky had argued that the split in 1940 was unnecessary and that supporters of his views could live with the followers of Shachtman-Burnham even if they were in a minority. By the mid-1940s it was clear that the Workers Party had not, as the Socialist Workers Party predicted, succumbed to social patriotism during World War II; if anything, the Workers Party's approach to the war was ultraleftist, although there were instances when such a position only prefaced a movement to the right. Goldman and Morrow, failing to win the Socialist Workers Party to a position favoring unity, began to openly collaborate with the Workers Party leadership, thereby jeopardizing their own membership in the Socialist Workers Party. Goldman, in fact, simply walked out of the Socialist Workers Parts in May 1946 and joined the Workers Party. Soon Jean van Heijenoort was working with the Workers Party. Then Lou Jacobs, known as a longtime Socialist Workers Party leader under the name "Jack Weber," and Sarah Jacobs, who had served as one of Trotsky's secretaries under the name "Sarah Weber," developed their own disagreements with the Socialist Workers Party and left to briefly collaborate with the Workers Party as well. Morrow was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party at its November 1946 convention on the grounds of engaging in unauthorized meetings with Shachtman, but by then he had become so discouraged that he never followed through on his commitment to join the Workers Party. During the summer of 1945, Farrell had already begun associating more closely with the Workers Party. This turn was precipitated by an incident in which the Socialist Workers Party leaders refused to publish in the Socialist Workers Party journal, Fourth International, a letter by Farrell protesting what he believed to be the Socialist Workers Party's unneccessarily factional attitude toward the WP. Cannon then rather bluntly answered it in an article published in the Socialist Workers Party's Internal Bulletin. As a copious contributor to the Workers Party magazine, New International, Farrell still appeared to be an ardent champion of revolutionary Marxism. He even looked askance at young party intellectuals such as Irving Howe, who seemed to be adapting to trends in culture that Farrell thought were conservatizing because they disparaged realism and naturalism in literature. Yet in mid- 1948 Farrell and Albert Goldman suddenly broke with the Workers Party and switched their allegiance to the Socialist Party. Only a few months earlier, Jean van Heijenoort had repudiated Marxism entirely.
In 1948 Farrell and Goldman jointly had taken exception to two positions of the Workers Party: they supported the Marshall Plan while the Workers Party opposed it; and they advocated endorsing Norman Thomas's presidential campaign while the Workers Party took the position that a protest vote for the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Labor Party, or Socialist Party all were acceptable. In March 1948 Farrell suggested to Goldman in a letter that it was utopian to insist that the working class of Europe should struggle simultaneously against the forces of Stalinism and American imperialism. The former represented pure evil while the latter was an acceptable ally:
“The simple and blunt fact of the matter is that nothing stands in the way of the Stalinization of Europe but American power. The motives of the American capitalists in opposing Stalinism are not your motives and they are not my motives. But for you and I, for thousands and millions of others, the question concerning Stalinism is a matter of actual survival. For the American capitalists, in effect, it's the same issue. It is for different reasons, but it is a question of survival. There is no fooling yourself about Stalinism. You either join it, support it, stay with it, or else it has only one statement to make to you: Death.”
Trotskyism, Farrell contended, had simply failed to organize "a sufficient fighting force with which to meet Stalinism." In an ironic inversion of the Communists' Theory of Social Fascism, Farrell announced that the deluded theories of both the Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party were objectively the same as those of Stalinism.
Goldman responded by agreeing that supporting capitalism was the only way to stop Stalinism, but he wished to do everything possible to differentiate his motives from those of his would-be allies. "Only a fool or a Stalinist can be against the Marshall Plan," but, if he were a member of Congress, Goldman said that he would prefer to abstain rather than vote for the plan, unless his ballot proved to be the decisive one. He regretted having left the Socialist Party in 1937, and he dreamed of a new organization "uniting all the people who are for socialism [and] against capitalism and Stalinism into one propaganda organization.... Why should not I and you and Van [Heijenoort] and Felix [Morrow] and Max [Shachtman] and Sidney Hook belong to one organization in spite of all our differences? " Farrell was skeptical of both of these positions: for him, to support the Marshall Plan in practice yet refuse to give it a public endorsement implied a dangerous divorce between "feeling" and "formal ideas." Establishing a propaganda league to promote socialism was also a dubious effort because socialism had to present practical proposals, and all practical proposals at the moment might well "only lead to sectarianism." Farrell had come to believe that the Moscow trials should have been the tuming point for the anti- Stalinist left. At that time, the true nature of Stalinism and the viability of democratic capitalism as the only means to fight it should have been recognized. He was following the road that had been earlier traveled by Sidney Hook. In the 195Os Farrell would serve as chaimman of the Committee for Cultural Freedom and in the 1960s he would become an ardent supporter of Hubert Humphrey and a harsh critic of the New Left. By the 1970s his views on such issues as affirmative action and Israel were hardly distinguishable from those of the neoconservative writers for Commentary and The Public Interest.
A 1954 essay in the New Leader called "Reflections at Fifty" gives some insight into the philosophical aspects of this change in views:
“When I first began to write I was full of indignation because of the sorrows of the world. I was angry because of cruelty, because of the exploitation of some men and women by others, because of the coldness with which some people manipulate others, because of dirt, ignorance, aggressiveness, and the other things which ruin and sadden human lives.... It is not possible at fifty to feel the indignation of one's youth.... Indignation has turned to a stoical feeling. I have come to see that pain and agony are part of the way it is in life.”
These sentiments are reminiscent of the ideas Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed in his essays "Compensation" and "Experience"; and it was also Emerson, the forerunner of such pragmatists as C. S. Peirce and William James, whom Farrell cited in a 1978 statement announcing his decision to join Social Democrats USA, the right wing of the American Social Democracy. Although officially advocating socialism, the politics of this organization are hard to distinguish from those of traditional mainstream Democrats and Republicans. This new mood, embryonic in Farrell's writings since the Bernard Carr trilogy was under way in the mid-1940s, grew steadily during a transition in his literary activities involving several false starts that lasted until October 1958. At that time he formally inaugurated his fourth and final series of books, "A Universe of Time." In content this series of a dozen published books is largely a ratification and extension of his lifelong plan "to create out of the life that I have seen, known, experienced, heard about, and imagined, a panoramic story of our days and years, a story which would continue through as many books as I would be able to write.'' Many of the important characters in "A Universe of Time" had already appeared in earlier books, but now they were given new names -- Danny O'Neill is called Edward Arthur Ryan, the O'Neills are the Ryans, and the O'Flahertys are called the Dunnes. Another difference is that the new series has a looser organizational conception and includes novels, a prose poem, and short stories that range over a broader, although ultimately interlinked, group of people, time periods, and locales.
A more decisive change, however, is that Farrell's new stoic philosophy of the 1950s is dominant in "A Universe of Time," manifested through the autumnal and mellow tone that has displaced the uncompromising anger of Farrell's earlier books. In the 1940s Farrell wrote that his fiction helped to forge a perspective necessary for a socialist future because his novels alerted readers to the "ideal of attaining the full stature of humanity.'' In the 1950s he described "A Universe of Time" as "a relativistic panorama of our times" concerned with "man's creativity and his courageous acceptance of impermanence." This new sense of acceptance is facilitated by the settings of most of this last group of books. The situations depicted are often insular and repressed in atmosphere. And the unifying character emerging from this, Eddie Ryan, is largely preoccupied with his own personal struggles between his emotional drives and the need for artistic self-discipline.
Five weeks before his death on 22 August 1979 Farrell completed a novel about a left-wing New York Jewish intellectual, Sam Holman, published posthumously in 1983. For those familiar with the inside history of New York radicalism in the 1930s, there was no doubt that the main character is based on the life of Herbert Solow, the brilliant organizer of the Dewey Commission of Inquiry, who eventually became one of the editors of Fortune. Moreover, in addition to Holman many other characters in the novel can be identified with New York leftists of the era, often by simply reversing the initial letters of their first and last names: Carl Winston is Whittaker Chambers; Saul Miklas is Meyer Schapiro; Tommy Stock is Clifton Fadiman; Norman Rosen is Felix Morrow; Oliver Hirsch is Elliot Cohen; Leroy Margolis is Max Lemer; Henry Smart is Sidney Hook; Ernest Milan is Max Eastman; Rita Moeller is Elinor Rice; Nobel Green is George Novack; Josephine Lawrence is Diana Trilling; Tommy Lawrence is Lionel Trilling; Frances Dunsky is Tess Slesinger; Carl Leon is Lewis Corey; Frank Y. Weathers is William Z. Foster; Donald Jolley is John McDonald; Henry Abelman is A1bert Halper; A. M. Jillet is A. J. Muste; Charles Cleary is James P. Cannon; Bertram Jackson is James Burnham; Willard Endicott is Edmund Wilson; Kate Fieldstone is Freda Kirchway; Oscar Lacey is Liston Oak; Tracey Norren is Norman Thomas; and Edward A. Ryan is James T. Farrell.
Yet Farrell did not intend his portraits to be strictly biographical; they are constructed partly from memory, with considerable imaginative input. Holman, for example, receives a Ph.D. from Columbia University, which Solow never did. He also becomes involved in the Jewish-humanist publication Modern Torah while he is a radical, whereas Solow was assistant editor of the Menorah journal years earlier and quit when he became an active Marxist. Eventually Holman joins the Communist Party, while Solow remained only an ally. In 1929 Holman, not yet a radical, travels abroad where he meets Henry Smart at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow and Emest Milan while visiting Trotsky on the Turkish island of Prinkipo. In fact, Solow's trip to the Soviet Union was in 1932 when he was already pro-Communist and long after Hook had returned to the United States.
The theme of Sam Holman is indirectly related to that of the original plan for the Bernard Carr trilogy: the descent of genuine talent into mediocrity. Holman is among the most brilliant and respected of a brilliant group of young intellectuals, and he typifies their political trajectory from a revolutionary opposition to capitalism to a reconciliation with the status quo. But from first to last his achievements tum out to be disproportionately less than his promise once seemed to indicate.
Holman suffers a kind of rootlessness, an inability to locate the proper medium and vision through which to express his talents. Smart has his scholarly commitment to the field of philosophy and Miklas to art history, but Holman lives from day to day with little control over the direction of his life. This luftmensch quality is dramatized by a series of love affairs -- including a first marriage that is little more than a long affair -- that begin and end haphazardly. Reaching middle age, he stumbles into a second marriage as well as a comfortable job as a writer for Empire. In this more stable environment he is able to function productively for several decades but hardly at the level for which he once seemed destined.
The method of the book might easily lead to a misunderstanding of its point of view. Farrell's strategy in Sam Holman, as in most of his other works, is to use a minimum of authorial intrusion in order to depict the world through Holman's eyes with only occasional digressions into the minds of others. Thus the harsh judgments -- for example, about the more committed leftists Rosen and Green -- are those of the cynical Holman, not necessarily Farrell. We are pointedly reminded of this toward the end of the book when Holman muses with equal skepticism about the literary achievements of the Farrell persona, the almost-forgotten novelist Edward A. Ryan. Thus the somewhat hollow and disconnected atmosphere in the novel, as well as the shallow perceptions about various characters, are calculated to reflect defects in Holman's own emotional life.
Sam Holman is a serious attempt to tell at least part of the "personal truth" of what it was like to be a radical intellectual in the 1930s, thus in a certain sense resembling Harvey Swados's post- humous novel Celebration (1974). We are shown how men treat women; how personal and political ambitions are bound together; and how abstractions about social justice become substitutes for engagement in the real world. Yet the depiction of Holman would have been more convincing if we had also been given evidence of the quality of his intellect. Mary McCarthy's "Portrait of the intellectual as a Yale Man" more fully and effectively creates a radical intellectual of the time. Farrell's Holman, in contrast to her richly painted James Barnett, seems to have come from nowhere; the careful attention paid to the shaping forces of family and environment, so central to the vivification of Studs Lonigan and Danny O'Neill, are nearly absent. Not only do we know little of Holman's background, but we do not know much more about the reality of his presence other than that he sports a reddish-brown mustache and tends to be skeptical of the sincerity and intellect of almost every man he meets. The reasons for his astonishing sexual attractiveness to women are never explained. Moreover, the dialogue in Sam Holman suggests that Farrell found it difficult in his later years to vary the language and vocabulary of his characters within and among novels. This may be one of the reasons why some readers and critics fail to appreciate the true diversity of his oeuvre.
Although there has been a steady revival of interest since 1975 in Farrell's life and writing, his greatest impact was and probably will always be linked to his multifaceted role as a radical novelist and activist during the Great Depression and World War II years. An indication of renewed interest in him came at the time of the publication of his fiftieth book, The Dunne Family (1976). In celebration of this literary milestone, a "Salute to James T. Farrell" was held at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. Norman Mailer, one of several prominent novelists who addressed the gathering, stated that Farrell's works had modified the sensibility of many writers of his generation and that Farrell's relentlessness in pursuing his literary goals in spite of all adversity should be a model for others to follow. A second indication of a minor Farrell revival came on 7, 14, and 21 March 1979, when the National Broadcasting Company presented Studs Lonigan as a television miniseries that was seen by millions of viewers. Shortly afterward he received the Emerson-Thoreau award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
But the brief spurt of interest in Farrell during the four years prior to his death will probably not alter his literary stature significantly. Three aspects of his work have been debated at length. While he was praised in the 1930s for his powers of observation and his bold use of American speech, he was accused early on of masquerading documentaries as novels and charged with being insufficiently selective in the experiences he depicted. In the 1940s some critics began to argue that he was a prisoner of the moribund school of naturalism; others claimed that he was a repetitious writer, clumsy, and devoid of grace and style.
The issue of Farrell's selectivity is a central one. Opinions range from that of Ann Douglas, who wrote in a eulogy that "Farrell's work constitutes the last important experiment to date in American literature with what can be viewed as deliberately unedited material," to that of Diana Trilling, who said that "the truth is that Farrell is a meticulous craftsman, choosing both incident and language with care and skill." Trilling's assessment is more accurate, but the corollary is that the care and skill of selection must be guided by a clear and compelling vision that establishes priorities in the relationships revealed. During the first phase of Farrell's development, when he was animated by a Marxist anger at the manner in which class relations impeded human development, his vision was vividly sustained and focused on precise objectives. However, in the years leading up to "A Universe of Time," Farrell's anger dissipated into stoicism: a new vision had to be developed that made demands for which his technique was not always fully prepared.
The claim that Farrell was a simple environmental determinist or a prisoner of the putatively dated school of naturalism has largely been discredited. Farrell himself criticized the limitations of the naturalist perspective as early as his 1936 A Note on Literary Criticism: at that time he linked naturalism to mechanical materialism and accused it of fostering an expansive rather than an intensive approach to art. In 1964 Edgar Branch, Farrell's most reliable critic, published a convincing essay, "Freedom and Determinism in James T. Farrell's Fiction." Branch demonstrated that Farrell's "functional conception of the self" in his fiction was one that exhibited "a full pattern of human conduct ... that accommodates freedom." Branch's conclusion that Farrell is a "critical realist" seems apt.
Farrell's greatest weakness as a writer was that he failed to develop either sufficient consciousness about or a sophisticated theory of the uses of language in writing fiction beyond admirable but rather simple notions that language must serve the end of accurately recreating character and environment. There is no doubt that his heavy reliance on personal experience made Farrell's work appear redundant to many critics. In short, his prose failed to communicate to many readers the true diversity of the experiences he aspired to depict.
A famous man by the time he was thirty, Farrell's three decades from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s witnessed a reversal of fortune; his survival as a writer became an ordeal. Hounded by censors in 1948 when Philadelphia police attempted to stop the sales of Studs Lonigan, sneered at by a herd of literary detractors, and harassed by publishers who did not find his books sufficiently marketable, he persisted in a curmudgeonly sort of rebellion and drifted into near obscurity. In the 1950s friends urged him to settle down to a teaching post, but he refused. Unwilling to let monetary considerations influence his writing and inhospitable to new cultural trends, he persisted in using his art idiosyncratically to tell the truth as he saw it. At one point he was evicted from his apartment for nonpayment of rent, and on another occasion financial desperation forced him to sell the movie rights to Studs Lonigan for a pittance. But he only became stronger in his belief that he must resist commercial forces. In 1961, at what was probably the nadir of his career, he publicly declared, "I began writing in my own way and I shall go on doing it. This is my first and last word on the subject."
Future biographers will have to probe the psychological causes and artistic consequences of such single-minded determination, but Farrell himself justified his defiant pursuit of his own literary objectives in terms of social value. Quoting from Tolstoy's What Is Art? (1897-98), he explained that the purpose of his writing technique is to "infect [the reader] with feeling" so as to awaken the reader's mind to the social forces at work in shaping one's life. "The most important thing that a person can do is teach," wrote Farrell at the outset of an essay, "The Value of Literature in Modern Society." Farrell's ability to sustain a loyal readership in spite of decades of aggressive assault by critics suggests that his endeavor to transform his personal experiences into art resounded in the emotions and intellects of a significant audience.
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:32 EDT