Letters From James T. Farrell
An essay 

By Steven G. Farrell

Steven G. Farrell is an Associate Professor in the Speech & Theatre Department at Greenville Technical College in Greenville, South Carolina.

In my forty years as a writer I have communicated with numerous writers of all rankings and ratings, but the only one I can claim to have been a classic American novelist would be James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan Trilogy. Another writer I conversed with an Irish Pub was James Liddy, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a famous Irish poet and memoirist. However, Liddy was Irish so I’ll save his story for later. Farrell, the author of over fifty books, is largely forgotten by the American literati here in the 21st century. The artistic impact of this Chicago novelist probably ended with the deaths of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. It’s odd to think of this but I may be the last American writer to have been influenced by this man who reached the zenith of his career in the Thirties with his three novels detailing the saga of Studs on Chicago’s South Side in the period from 1916 to 1929. (Studs Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day).

When I was a budding young writer at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside I dug up the address of Mr. Farrell and sent him a letter. My correspondence, full of misspellings and errors of grammar, was hammered out on my old manual typewriter. Within days I received a response from Farrell, full of misspellings and errors of grammar, hammered out on his even older manual typewriter. Thus began the exchange of roughly a half a dozen poorly written letters by two writers by the name of Farrell. I have been a restless wanderer for much of my adult life, so the letters have long disappeared. Much of what we wrote back and forth now escapes my memory. I do remember that we both started off each letter with Dear Mr. Farrell. 

One of the first things we discussed was our mutual Irish lineage and our shared name. His Farrell’s line came from Tipperary while my own crowd hailed from Waterford. His mother was a Daly and my grandmother was a McNamara. We both had numerous siblings and we had a love for baseball: the Chicago White Sox for him, the Chicago Cubs for me. We shared a common Catholic upbringing and fathers that were grounded in the union movement of the early twentieth century. Essentially we both had a loyalty to the American underdog. 

He attended three years at the University of Chicago while pumping gasoline and I made it through to complete a degree at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside on the G.I Bill of Rights. He went to New York City to work in a cigar store while he cut his teeth as a rookie novelist. I visited New York City a few times before I attained work as an accounting clerk in Boston. Jim’s early works were published and made him famous as I buried my early manuscripts in a rice paddy in Japan and carved out a career in academia.

James T. Farrell lost his faith during his freshman year of college when he found a library full of book written by the atheist, agnostic, deistic and existentialist writers of Europe. He was immensely impressed with the great writers of imperial Russia while I had a taste for the writers of Ireland and the United Kingdom. I jumped into many of these same writings and realized that I was happier being a cafeteria Catholic than an angry rejecter of God and the rest of it. Farrell’s depictions of his characters, based on the cast in his life were relentlessly harsh and unforgiving. I never could stay mad at anybody for very long, including my enemies. My Days of Anger is a very revealing title from his Danny O’Neill series of five novels. Farrell, like Beethoven in his compositions, was forever shaking his fists at A World I Never Made, a title of another one his harder hitting works.

James T. Farrell was born in Chicago in 1904 and spent his first twenty-five years on the South Side of that city. His father was a tough Irish-Catholic teamster who drank hard and brawled even harder. Young Jim was actually raised in the household run by his grandmother, uncle and aunt. Money was more plentiful and the living more comfortable with the middle-class Daly family than it was with the large working-class Farrell family. The neighborhood he lived in wasn’t an Irish shantytown or slummy hellhole. Jim Farrell’s upbringing had very little to do with the New York’s Hell Kitchen of Owen Madden, the South Boston of Whitey Bulger or the Kerry Patch of St. Louis’ Egan’s Rats. The children attended disciplined Catholic schools, the fathers worked for city hall or at trades, and the mothers took care of the households and kept watchful eyes over the men and children.

Farrell’s world ran from 51st Street to 61st Street (north to south) and from State Street to Cottage Grove Avenue (west to east). Edgar W. Branch provides an extensive map of the locale (Studs Lonigan’s Neighborhood and the makings of James t. Farrell pp 7-8). The world was anchored by St. Patrick’s Parish. The drugstore, pool hall, Greek restaurant, and L train tracks were the key landmarks in the world of Studs and his gang. It wasn’t an Irish enclave but the Irish comprised roughly a quarter of the population. Americans from Yankee, Swedish, German, Polish and Jewish backgrounds swelled the ranks as much as the Irish. The most dreaded outsiders were the Blacks who had migrated from the south to find work during the industrial boom triggered by the First World War. The infusion of unwanted darker skinned neighbors led to the 1919 race on the south side and, later, to the white flight movement of the Twenties. By the time of the Great Depression the neighborhood of James T. Farrell and Studs Lonigan had transformed forever. It was a time and place that Farrell wanted to wash away from his memories with his books while Studs Lonigan would march to his early grave with his memories of his golden youth and the glories of his feats in with his old gang ringing in his ears. Farrell’s goal was to pen a replica of his South side of Chicago that would parallel James joyce recreation of Dublin in his works.

I was a senior at Tremper High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin when I came across the Studs Lonigan books at a downtown bookstore in the spring of 1973. Up until then I had been an avid reader of the current best sellers like Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

All three these bestselling novels had been made into blockbuster movies in the early seventies and they were my speed. I only chanced upon the works because I had randomly begun to look for my surname when I was in the area where the authors last names started with the letter F’ in the section for modern American novels. I was delighted to find a Farrell there and with the first name of ‘James’ like one of my older brothers. I counted three of his book and I selected the one in the middle The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan which also happens to be the middle book of the trilogy. All ardent readers have had the magical spirit of immediately connecting with a book that has the power to draw you into the action like you’re one of the characters in the book. The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan was one of those books that reached out and grabbed me.

William Lonigan is the son of Patrick (aka ‘Paddy’) Lonigan, a successful owner of a house painting contracting business and the owner of the apartment building that the family lived on Indiana. William, who is called ‘Studs’ by his friends, is about ready to graduate from the eighth grade. The Great War is about to suck the United States in after several years of avoidance by President Woodrow Wilson. I was quickly struck by how the book seemed to be a cross between The Dead End Kids, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and the Penrod stories of Booth Tarrington. However, Farrell’s stuff was harder hitting and, at times, had a meaner edge to it. Studs was a rougher, cruder and lustier teenage than had ever been depicted before in American literature or film. In one graphic scene he found himself sexually attracted to his own sister. Studs would soon join the neighborhood gang that included the likes of Kenny Kilarney, Tommy Doyle, Red Kelly, Paulie Haggerty, and a host of second generation Irish-Catholic who are as equally violent and sex-driven as Studs. The worst of the lot is Weary Reilly, a boy Studs licks in a battle that would be the highlight of his short life. Weary would go on to become a vicious adult sentenced to a long prison for a violent rapes that leaves his victim handicapped for life. 

The tough urban Irish in Farrell’s novel seemed to be a thing of the long past by the time I was 18. Mostly the members of my ethnic group appeared to be college educated men and women who lived in the outskirts of the big cities who were now starting to vote Republican after generations as devout Democrats. The world of James T. Farrell was the world of my father and grandfather: a time when the Irish ruled the streets like James Cagney in Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties. At the time (1973) I was unaware of the enclaves of South Boston and Charlestown in Boston, the Hell’s Kitchen section on the West Side of New York or the neighborhoods of Greenwood, Beverly and Bridgeport in Chicago where the Irish still held sway as politicians, police officers, gangsters and a wide variety of working-class positions.

I did find it a bit sickening how the Irish in Studs’ world were so bigoted, especially towards Jews and Blacks. One scene made me upset where the gang ganged up on two boys passing through the neighborhood minding their own business. One of the Jewish lads is slapped around and another is urinated upon. I didn’t mind the Irish fighting for their turf like the Jets in West Side Story but I was repelled when they turned to terrorist acts. I didn’t find it amusing when the boys were overly hateful or vulgar. Were these kids that brutal or was James T. Farrell kicking sand into the face of the very same people who kicked sand into his face and bullied him as a boy. Was this a depiction of harsh reality or was it a payback? The residents of the old Farrell’s neighborhood were horrified by the book, protesting that it wasn’t the truth. The Cunningham family who served as the model for the Lonigan clan never forgave Farrell for his roughshod treatment of their beloved William. Farrell, like James Joyce, forces his readers to smell the manure on the city streets and hearing the curses of angry people. 

Studs Lonigan, for all of swagger and hatred, was still essentially a decent human. Perhaps it is more correct to write that he was a complete human being with many dimensions to his character and behavior. Like Archie Bunker Studs was more angel than demon. He had his tender moments and he was never a bad egg like Weary Reilly or a barroom bum like Barney Keefe. He had the Celtic capacity to dream big. He would defeat the Huns single-handedly for the rape of nuns in Belgium. It would be easy for him to beat heavyweight champions Jesse Willard and, later, Jack Dempsey without breaking a sweat. After showing some promise in a football game against another Chicago neighborhood called the Monitors, Studs dreamed of getting offered a contract by the NFL Chicago Cardinals. He daydreamed about being a lone wolf gun man, prospecting for gold in Alaska, spying in Europe and hitting it big in the stock market just before the crash.. However, Studs Lonigan's destiny lead straight to an early grave after his body is weaken beyond repair by Spike O'Donnell's rot gut bootleg alcohol. He can only die broke and leaving behind a pregnant woman and his grieving parents. James T. Farrell was relentless in his belief that we’re all victims of our own fate. It is a very Irish and Catholic worldview. 

Studs finest moments are when his imagination takes flight over his love and administration for Lucy Scanlon, a classmate at nearby St. Patrick's Catholic School and a very near neighbor. She brings out the noblest aspects of this roughneck street mick. His feelings for her are tender and pure. The finest day of Studs Lonigan's life would be the one where he licked Weary Reilly in a street fight and late on kissed Luck on top of a sturdy tree branch inside of Washington Park. Life would never be as sweet and as grand as it had been that one warm summer day in 1916 and Studs would spend the rest of his life remembering each minute of that day up until his death roughly thirteen years later. When Lucy and her mother move away Studs walks by her old house and still dreams that in the future they'll reunite. He is even thinking and wishing about Lucy years later when he hears that she has married an accountant and was the mother of three. She was to be his muse forever.

James T. Farrell's presented himself as Danny O'Neill, a younger boy growing up in the same neighborhood as Studs and attending the same Catholic school. Farrell would go on later in the Thirties to produce five heavy volumes devoted to the intellectual and physical wonder voyages of Danny O'Neal, tracing his footsteps from 57th & Indiana to his beginnings as an author. I believe that with the Danny O’Neill series Farrell used the Irish writer Sean O’Casey as his role model rather than James Joyce. O’Casey’s five volume autobiographical novel Mirrors in my Hallway seem to echo in Farrell’s later works. When I mentioned myth is pet theory of mine to Mr. Farrell he wasn’t buying it.

Jim Farrell’s path took him to New York and Paris, France, where he hammered out his novels and stories to help him and his wife survive the lean years right before the outbreak of the Second World War Two. Unbeknown to Farrell, the zenith of his writing career would be the thirties & forties with his Studs Lonigan and Danny O'Neill books. The quality of his books dipped drastically by the time Farrell reached middle age and they became increasingly more depressing and hopeless.

Farrell's Danny O'Neill could fight, drink and swear with the best of them in the hood, but he also had other interests that differed from the gang. There was a life-long love affair with the Chicago White Sox. His favorite player was Eddie Collins, aa Irish-American second baseman had over 3,000 career hits and stayed white during the notorious Black Sox scandal during the 1919 World Series. Eight of the White Sox were thrown out of baseball for life for throwing the Series to the Cincinnati Reds by the lure of a big payout by Sport Sullivan, Arnold Rothstein and an assortment of gamblers and petty crook.

Whereas Studs Lonigan went to work for his father, Danny saved his coins and bills to start up a course of study at the University of Chicago. Danny, like Farrell, would never graduate as he knew his calling was to be a writer. Studs, like most of the gang, never wavered in his loyalty to the Unites States' capitalistic system and the Roman Catholic Church's traditions, ceremonies and dogma. Farrell, hand in hand with Danny O'Neill, would have a long journey to go before he eventually rejected socialism, communism and Catholicism. He was too individualist and independent to accept the rules of any man-made structure.

Hollywood produced two movie version of Studs Lonigan with Farrell disliking the first while approving of the second. Christopher Knight played the leading character in the 1961 black and white film. He was a handsome young man who brought a certain James Dean-like quality to the part of Studs. The screenplay took many liberties with the novel, including a romance with an older woman who had been his teacher in high school and Studs trying to teach himself how to play the saxophone (!!!). The biggest sin according to Farrell was the salvation of Studs’ soul and life by Father Gilhooey who was rather a windbag in the book. It was interesting to see the priest played by Jay C. Flippen, who normally played tough guys on shows like Gunsmoke and Route 66. Dick Foran, another long-time character actor, was a very good Patrick Lonigan. Stanley Adams, who was normally cast as a gangster, had a very small part as a gangster in Studs Lonigan.

The highlight of the film, however, has to be the kickoff of the film careers of Jack Nicholson and Frank Gorshin in the respective roles of Weary Reilly and Kenny Killarney. Jack’s Weary Reilly is a more likeable one than in Farrell’s books and he is also a close friend of Studs’. Frank Gorshin’s Kenny actually leaves the 58th street gang to become a low budget and unfunny standup comic. Of course, Frank would go on to become the Riddler on Batman later in the decade.

I spent years looking for the 1961 Studs Lonigan and I finally saw it on a PBS station out of Houston in 1988. I was expecting the movie to be a dud but I thought it was surprisingly decent. The grainy black and white images gave the movie a grim and grubby feeling that reminded me of episodes of The Untouchables and The Naked City. However, a scene where Studs, Kenny, Weary and Paulie Haggerty harassed and degraded a tired old drunken whore in a seedy speakeasy made me feel harassed and degraded. I watched the movie a second time on a VHS tape in 2008 when I researching the subject Irish-American in films for another paper. Once again it held up well.

I did see the 1979 Studs Lonigan when it first ran as a miniseries on a network channel in the spring of 1979. Color film, a bigger budget and a upscale cast made it a very worthwhile event. A young Harry Hamlin was a great Studs Lonigan. Hamlin’s portrayal actually made Studs Lonigan a more tolerant and appealing young man. Charles Durning stood-out as Patrick Lonigan. David Wilson’s Weary Reilly was a nasty piece of work and Brad Dourif’s Danny O’Neill was a voice of reason in Studs’ ears. Although I saw the episodes when they first aired about thirty-five years ago but I haven’t caught any sight of it since. 

The second version of Studs Lonigan put James T. Farrell back in the literary limelight for the first time in many years. Sadly he died suddenly within a few months of the viewing of the miniseries.

In one of his letters to me he wrote that the University of Wisconsin had treated him like he had died in 1945. His lack of critical success bothered him less than his lack of commercial success. The mass production of cheap paperback books in the Sixties and Seventies led to a resurfacing of Farrell’s books on the shelves of bookstores throughout the country. The influx of new revenues kept Farrell afloat as his last books generally flopped and failed on all counts. The only full scale autobiography of James T. Farrell that I’m aware of was Robert K. Landers An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell. The biography was published in 2004 by Encounter Books of San Francisco. Landers did an excellent literary job and superior research with the work. The reader discovers that Farrell was a friend of such heavyweight authors as H.L. Mencken and Ernst Hemingway in the Thirties, but by the Sixties he was being mocked by the likes of Nelson Algren and avoided by just about everybody else. We have the image of a man down on his luck wearing suits long out of fashion and getting thin at the elbows. We envision an aging lion living in a tiny den in a decaying New York apartment building. We can visualize a writer long tapped out tapping away at his worn-out manual typewriter, grinding out page after page of torrid prose that very few will bother to read. Once a literary superstar, this man is ignored at conventions and conferences. However, to the very end James T. Farrell is proudly Irish: independent and individualistic. He didn’t give a damn what others though or said about him; his destiny was to write his story over and over again until he dropped dead. 

I had informed Mr. Farrell that I was majoring in Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and he responded that the discipline of Communication was just so much ‘fakery’ and that the last time he gave a lecture at a college in Wisconsin that the faculty and student body gave him a pass so they could stay home and watch Green Acres on their television sets. When I visited New York City in 1977 with my college friends Terry Sexton and Mike Morey I had asked Mr. Farrell if he wanted to meet me in Central Park. He never replied to my invitation and I moved on to Jack Kerouac and the literary output of the Beat Generation.

Since the spring of 1973 when I first came across the Studs Lonigan books I have read all three books again at least a dozen times. I imagine I have read the second book of the series, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, twice as many times as the other two books as it is by far the best of the lot. Young Lonigan is a pretty decent short novel that I can recommend to anybody. Judgment Day is hell itself and is a painful read. I suppose it must be hellish on account of the fact Studs Lonigan himself enters the gates of hell at least a year or two before his death at the age of 27.It was what Farrell had intended as the final fate of Studs as it had been for his neighborhood crony William Cunnigham.

I have long thrown in the towel of any re-emerging of James T. Farrell’s as a major American novelist, but I personally resubmit his name to American writers and readers for serious consideration as the author of one of the true classics in American literature. To me the tale of Studs and his old neighborhood drips with as much Americana as Huck Finn and Jim’s raft voyage on the Mississippi, Jay Gatsby’s wooing of Daisy, and any number of other vivid imagery in American literature.

I will never forget the impact that Studs Lonigan had upon my youthful imagination and I shall always regret the loss of the letters I had received from the great James T. Farrell. One can only hope James T. Farrell made his peace with Studs Lonigan and the old neighborhood in the Here After. 

Branch, Edgar M. A Paris Year: Dorothy and James T. Farrell. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1998.

Branch, Edgar M. Stud Lonigan’s Neighborhood and the makings of James T. Farrell. Newton, MA: Arts Ends Book, 1996.

Farrell, James T. My Baseball Diary. Carbondale, IL: Southern University Press, 1998.

Farrell, James T. Farrell. The Studs Lonigan Trilogy: Studs Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan and Judgment Day. New York, N.Y, 1932, 1934, 1935.

Landers, Robert K. An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell.San Francisco, CA: Encounters Books, 2004.


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