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Irving Howe

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Studs Lonigan

(11 November 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 45, 11 November 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Studs Lonigan
by James T. Farrell
Modern Library Giant. $1.25

Studs Lonigan is one of the most terrifying novels written in America. It is the culmination of that series of bitter commentaries on American life which began at the turn of the century when Jack London, Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, influenced by the powerful naturalist tradition of Europe, turned their attention to the social inequities which made a sham of all the talk about “the American dream.” This realist tradition in American literature was continued by Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson – each in their different ways – until Farrell, in the early thirties, wrote his lengthy study of the life of a young man born in the environment of the “shanty Irish” in Chicago and eventually crushed by it. With Farrell’s detailed, remorseless and powerful Studs Lonigan, the literary tradition in which he functioned seems to have come to fruition in America; it has not been as vital since.

Studs is a young boy when the novel opens – a rather frail and quite average chap brought up in a South Side Chicago family where superstition and ignorance prevail. The family is caught in the vice of conformity: its every move, its every habit, its every outlook, is determined for it by what is “right,” by what is socially accepted in its lower middle-class environment. Studs, who feels in himself vague sensations of dissatisfaction – feelings he is never to be able to concretize, finds this family environment stifling and escapes from it to the Chicago streets. There he is hardened and molded by the influence of the street gangs, the poolroom ethics, the side-of-the-mouth morality. Studs is not really interested in many of the things he does with his street friends: he has no particular desire to taunt and beat up Jewish lads; he has no particular desire to go to whorehouses; he has no particular desire to listen to lascivious stories.

A Life of Desperation

But he feels above all else the compulsion to be “one of the boys” – above all else, to know himself accepted somewhere in this strange and alien world; and so he goes along with the gang, gradually becoming coarsened to the point where he accepts it with hardly a murmur. In the meantime, the depression comes: Studs’ family is hit hard; he finds great difficulty in getting a job; his pathetic romance with a pale little creature (whose great virtue in his eyes is that she, perhaps alone in the whole world, accepts him as a human being of worth) is wrecked by poverty and the fear of an unwanted baby; and finally, Studs – by now worn, his health undermined by excessive drinking and debauchery – contracts pneumonia after a futile job hunt and dies.

And there, Farrell tells us, is the terminus of the American dream, there the end of the life of a little man who also wanted to taste some joy and security before going to the grave. This is life in America in the late Twenties and the early Thirties: a life of desperation and helplessness, of chaos and dissolution before the assault of forces that are unidentifiable to Studs and therefore full of terror for him.

One of the reasons for the essential success of this novel is that it was written by a man who came within a shade of falling into the pits in which Studs could find no light. Most first novels are usually autobiographical in a direct sense: a painful account of the painful assent to maturity of the very sensitive young man. Farrell was later to write in this vein and, I think, with much less success. But Studs Lonigan was written with the advantage of its creator being able to establish a certain distance from it, of being able to say: “There, but for the grace of what-you-will, go I.” And it is because of that distance that he is able to write with complete objectivity and an essential though subterranean compassion; he is able to allow the characters to develop according to the internal logic of their own personalities rather than as pitied objects of manipulation. After a while one forgets Farrell altogether: the novel has a compulsion, a direction, a movement and an inexorability of its own.

Won’t Forget It

Many of the passages are rather barren and dreary. Many of the individual sections seem repetitious. But the reader should understand that the perceptivity of the novel derives from its totality, unlike other novels, where individual passages, paragraphs and phrases bear more perceptivity than the work as a whole.

For, whatever one’s ultimate judgment of the value of Farrell’s method or the significance of the philosophical assumptions on which his book is based, no one can deny its unity and integration – and that is why most readers acknowledge that its impact after reading is somehow greater than had previously seemed possible. For it has a force and strikes an imprint on the memory which make it an ineradicable experience.

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