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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Unpopular Front: James T. Farrell then, Margaret Hassan now

Seaghán Ó Murchú • 21 November 2004

Among leftist writers once lionised in America, James T. Farrell suffered (along his slightly older counterpart John Dos Passos) one of the most precipitous declines. Imagine: having published his Studs Lonigan trilogy before the age of 30, he was not even 50 when he was assumed dead—at least on a plaque put up to honour past literati who had resided at New York’s bohemian accommodation, The Hotel Chelsea. When I read his trilogy, considered the quintessential Irish American expression in print, it had just been reissued along with a 1979 TV version. I never saw the adaptation, but the evocation of documentary detail combined with sociological re-creation appealed to me much as some science-fiction has. That is, clumsily but engrossingly told. For Farrell, like authors of other genre fiction, conveyed the force of ideas and scenes rather than the polish of style and craft. The energy of his vocation propelled him past the fifty-book mark by his death, the same year that I read him and that the TV series appeared.

Self-absorbed, self-pitying, and self-righteous, these traits kept Farrell a type himself. Robert K. Landers, in An Honest Writer, offers a comprehensive biography drawing on not so much Farrell’s fiction as his character. Many installments in his large oeuvre gain barely a sentence or so of comment from Landers. This approach discourages newcomers from seeking out his lesser-known works, but apparently, Landers implies from the lack of coverage given the vast majority of his published product, they aren’t worth the bother.

Like Wordsworth, an earlier radical doomed to outlive his Romantic contemporaries and driven to keep churning out sub-standard contributions in order to support himself and satisfy his compulsion to create, Farrell poured out much of his waking time—aided by amphetamine addiction—into manic bursts of immersion, He could conjure up, as he had in Studs Lonigan’s Southside Chicago’s Washington Park neighbourhood, a wealth of precisely recalled descriptions, exactly rendered conversations, and characters drawn from life—his life, and his family. This did not endear him to all of his childhood and adolescent chums, not to mention his relatives, who found themselves not caricatured but recorded in his fiction, with only their names changed. But, protecting no innocents.

A dropout from the eminent University of Chicago, Farrell’s studiously amateur but doggedly pursued course of largely autodidactic education led him early to reject the Church and embrace atheism. But, perhaps like Joyce in his creative vision if not his intellectual rigour, he could never truly leave Rome in favour of more rational or chilly cultural climes. As Joyce limned Dublin, so Farrell Chicago. Despite living in New York City most of his life, his best work emerged from his early encounters on the Southside.

Encouraged by John Dewey’s U of C pragmatic theories, Farrell captured his youthful milieu and forced it to speak not only for his own growth but--more to the point of his most successful fiction--to illustrate how his slum bred prejudice, narrowmindedness, and addiction. Like Joyce’s paralysis, Farrell sought to link his native environment to its religious, cultural, and familial blights, and to blame on them the failure of those who lacked the guidance, the will, or the courage to escape impoverished early 20c tenements.

Landers, in his study, examines what for readers of The Blanket may prove especially instructive events. Farrell became, rare for an Irish American from a Catholic upbringing in the 1930s and 40s, a prominent promoter of first Marxist and later democratic socialist causes. Landers, revealing a low-key but persistent distrust of Stalinist manipulation as he charts Farrell’s entry into the hazardous territory of the Cominform-directed fronts operating within American progressivism and radicalism during the Depression, shows extensively and carefully how Farrell’s idealistic intentions were consistently tainted by those to whom he could not ultimately pledge allegiance: the majority of the Left who defended the Man of Steel. To his credit, as early as the bloodletting in 1934 following the murder of Sergei Kirov--Leningrad party boss, too independent for Stalin’s liking-- Farrell suspected that his intellectual colleagues, all too eager to defend the Great Terror that would ensue past the end of the decade, were hoodwinked at best and dismissive at worst to the crimes committed in the name of a worker’s state by its supposed first among equals. Farrell’s resistance to the Communist Party in the USA aroused hatred by his peers, many of whom, ironically, would only confess decades later their own complicity in excusing and propagandising the fates of millions who were charged, more often totally innocent of such allegations, of the crimes with which Stalin and his millions of willing defenders outside of the CCCP blamed and condemned them to exile, incarceration, or murder.

As a pioneer in the non-Stalinist Marxist left, Farrell found himself isolated. Having severed himself from the Church, he could expect no support from his Irish American constituency. Working first in Chicago and then New York, he was despised by most on the Left for his subversive stance. As an anti-capitalist (although all too eager to keep earning his royalties), he found few others to sustain his independently conceived arguments against totalitarianism. Although he never became a Trotskyite, he co-directed the campaign to defend the exiled Soviet strongman against Stalin’s prosecutors, and visited him in Mexico. Gradually, fair-minded leftists understood the convictions shared by Farrell in his spirited and long-standing efforts to urge an international investigation from a third-party faction into the charges leveled by Stalin against his rival. It is to Trotsky’s credit--although he no less than Stalin favoured a bloody hand in crushing opponents to Soviet dictates as they kept being rewritten--that he would have, Landers quotes, have willingly gone back to Moscow to face death if even one of the claims made by Stalin could in the slightest way have been proven by an international tribunal.

Trotsky, at least in this matter, and Farrell shared a quality mentioned more than once by those who knew James T. Integrity: this characterised Farrell’s determination. In politics and in his writing, he shared a tendency familiar to many Irish people. He was blunt, incapable of honeyed words not out of cruelty but out of a habit of bypassing the social graces. He’d blurt out, uncensored, right away in whatever situation he found himself in, no matter whom he spoke with. He was simply childlike in this sense. He couldn’t grasp, intelligent although he was, that anyone would be offended if he simply told what was on his mind. Too often, in New York’s leftist circles, he was derided as a drunken buffoon. This led, as he attempted to advance his career past Studs, into a long slide downwards.
Like many youthful revolutionaries, he would have to learn to live with the failure of his stillborn utopia, and he would live long after the failure of Stalin shrouded but never fully extinguished his beliefs: up to death, he supported what became Social Democrats-USA.

This lifelong desire to improve the lot of those with whom he was raised and among whom he visited in his crusade to forge a united non-communist Left demonstrates Farrell’s inherent decency. I admired, near the end of Landers’ incisive and exhaustively researched study, a quote unearthed when Farrell, in 1963, addressed students at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey. This excerpt reveals that he, like the best of us, attempted to remain open to honest awareness wherever he found it. Concomitantly, he never reneged on his youthful commitment to fight for his own right to think, freed of dogma, creed, or commissar. He speaks of the benefits of a Catholic education of which he had long been a foe. Acknowledging his opposition, he admits he was wrong when it came to four points:

  1. That truth is possible, it’s possible to think of the world in terms of order;
  2. I was never told a lie; I was given a conception of the meaning of the truth as important;
  3. I got a sense that there was something before me and something after me, that there was a depth of experience, and that I was living in a continuity where there was depth of experience and where there was an idea of greatness and grandeur and also of mystery and reality—where you face tragedy, you face yourself. You ask yourself if you sin or not. That can have the effect of making you see rather realistically.
  4. I get the idea that there are things so important in this world that it’s your duty to die for them if necessary, and that the values are more important than you.

Transcribing this, I think of the decapitation of Margaret Hassan. In the long catalogue of crimes committed by those who have invaded Iraq listed in The Blanket as well as so many media, her loss was unmentioned. Certainly (4) above can serve as an epitaph by one activist, four decades earlier, to one barely dead. Farrell, I believe, would never hide behind the fact that the West had brutalised so many of those among whom he canvassed as he rallied for a united Left in excusing the barbaric calculus employed by those who would claim the moral high ground by assassinating one of their own. A CARE director, on behalf of whom those who she had assisted in Baghdad had rolled out on their wheelchairs to ask that clemency be shown her by those who cowardly drape themselves in the garb of the righteous against all of us infidels. Having adopted Islam, married an Iraqi, learned the language, and for three decades laboring selflessly among the people she had joined, how can her murder be ignored? If Margaret Hassan, by her decision to leave (as so many of her fellow Irish have done in service to a higher purpose than their own profit) the West for the Third World, can be judged by her captors as guilty, who is innocent? Irish people, who as Bertie Ahern testified, have so supported the Arab nations, should be ashamed that one of their own has been beheaded by fanatics of an insurgency urged by so many Irish today. I urge readers to re-examine Farrell’s quote. He can place the shortcomings of an ideal aside to praise its valuable insights. This goes for both sides in any debate. We, as with the Left in the 1930s, must not fall into defending evil, as if no ethical advantage exists. Dogma can blind those who seek justice. Farrell’s generous acceptance of a message that he rationally could no longer follow but which he nonetheless could acknowledge in its noble intentions should--as another form of totalitarianism threatens those of us who assert tolerance--serve also as a warning for those who, on the left or the right, Stalinist or Wahhabi, refuse to return tolerance to us.

Farrell, in his own weaknesses exacerbated by drink and pills, could also lapse from good graces. From the 1950s on, he began to berate editors as he continued to churn out increasingly shopworn themes drawn from his early Chicago days. While his strongest work flowed from a seemingly effortless ability to express the feel of the times in which he grew, in time this soured the reading public and failed to spark sustained innovation on his part. Born in 1904, as the century lengthened, he failed to catch up with its growth in terms of literary sophistication. He never liked the modernists, and the realists who began to eclipse his naturalism after WWII looked at Farrell as they would Theodore Dreiser or Emile Zola—too wedded to mechanistic theories of conditioning to allow any free will for individuals. As with many idealists, he early embraced and ultimately became a prisoner of his unbending, resolute, and myopic allegiance to a grand unified theory.

Outside of his writing, he floundered. As the Cold War began he started to find more sympathetic ears for his globetrotting efforts to rouse a non-Stalin international leftist movement; in his personal life he lacked direction. One afternoon, after making love to his wife, he announced to her that he was in love with another woman. This woman, a mysterious actress, gave him two sons, but the older one was verbally abused by her and the younger one was so retarded that he never recognised his parents. In the fashion of the time, he was sent to a home for the rest of his life. Farrell himself, born into the stereotypically lower-class slum family, was given up by his own parents at a young age to be raised by his aunt and her folks. This inability to love easily, a trait of many real and fictional Irish and Irish American families, shows his life imitating his art.

Farrell could be unsparing in detailing the aspirations achieved and dreamed by those who grew out of the Southside into the ‘petty bourgeois’ but, again, this knack found itself balanced by his own inability to live on what would now be $150,000 a year. He lost his second wife to her own paranoia (she apparently lied to him about a miscarriage to get money out of him when he was abroad) and his workaholic drug-fueled passion. He remarried his first wife only to discover in the pages of the African American magazine Jet in the 1950s that she had, it claimed, married, after she first divorced James, a black musician. This revelation did not bother Farrell, as he knew of their relationship if not its formalisation. Uncovering a stash of his wife’s ongoing correspondence and sharing of funds with him after Farrell had remarried her, however, did upset Farrell.

Later, he found comfort with a number of younger women, confirming the mystery of the disheveled, addicted, drunken, slovenly, and portly older man who attracts fans of the opposite sex all too eager to bask in his early fame. The 1960s and 1970s found him, eventually, happier in love and vowing to produce a Balzac-like 25 or so interlinked novels called The Universe of Time (the type of title all too recurring in his list of published works). Fighting with his publishers, seeking more outrageous royalties, imagining bigger deals, he never stopped being a bantamweight contender. Such stubbornness to accept criticism, listen to others, or change his direction, in the end, crippled Farrell from gaining eminence as a great writer. He remained a one-hit wonder, doomed to always be noted as ‘the author of Studs Lonigan’ rather than his latest work. And, like a musician playing the oldies circuit, audiences never wanted to hear his new album, his claims that the art he’d just done was his best effort yet. He knew he had made it once, and had to keep that bittersweet realisation for the next forty-five years.

But, in his defiance of the easy way out, in his view of function as a method by which the struggles of an Irish American slum family could be demonstrated, and by his forthright adherence to a cause called by many idealistic but by him somehow achievable, Farrell leaves a legacy better found, as Landers shows, in his refusal to put his characters into either revolutionary romanticism or socialist realism. As early as his first and best work, Farrell promised that he would never toe the party line. When writers were expected to kow-tow to how Lenin ordered art to be manufactured, Farrell broke the mold and hand-crafted his own awkward but endearing figures. When artists were threatened to hammer heroic figures out of proleterian clay, Farrell cleared a path for those for whom truth could never surrender to an ideology. For this, Farrell’s Studs and Landers’ Farrell deserve credit.

Robert K. Landers, An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell. (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004). Studs Lonigan has been reissued in the Library of America hardcover series this year.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

23 November 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Dropping the Last Veil
Tommy Gorman

No Place for Silence
Anthony McIntyre

The Vacuum

The Unpopular Front: James T. Farrell then, Margaret Hassan now
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Reflection on an Election
Patrick Hurley

New Work on Perry Anderson
Liam O Ruairc

I, a Collaborator
Dorothy Naor

The Murder of Margaret Hassan
Ghali Hassan

The Orange Order and the KKK
Richard Wallace

19 November 2004

Another Fine Mess
Mick Hall

Dr. John Coulter

Address to QUB Vigil for Fallujah
Brian Kelly

Hearts and Minds
Fred A Wilcox

Smell the Coffee, not the Latte
Kristi Kline

Arresting Vanunu While Burying Arafat
Mary La Rosa

Weary of those stubborn indigenous resistance stains? Pretend they're not there...
Toni Solo

The Village
Anthony McIntyre



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