An Honest Writer -
The Life And Times Of James T. Farrell


Book Review by Willard Manus

Just half a century ago, James T. Farrell was one of the best known writers in America, thanks to his powerful, realistic novels about working-class Irish families in Chicago's South Side. In such books as the Studs Lonigan trilogy and the O'Neill-O'Flaherty series, Farrell pulled no punches in his depiction of street life. So raw and vivid was his work that he influenced not only a generation of readers but such writers as Norman Mailer, Nelson Algren and Frank McCourt.

In AN HONEST WRITER--THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES T. FARRELL by Robert K. Landers (Encounter Books), McCourt recalls his first introduction to Studs Lonigan, while serving in the army. "The corporal tells me I'm to guard this book with my life, that he reads it all the time, that James T. Farrell is the greatest writer that ever lived in the U.S.A., a writer that understands you and me, kid, not like those blue-ass bullshit artists they have in New England. He says I can have this book till I finish basic training and then I have to get my own copy."

The fame Farrell won in the 1930s gave him the strength and means to keep writing. Over the next forty years, he turned out a torrent of work--not just novels and short stories, but articles, political and philosophical tracts, reviews and even poetry. Some of it was published, much was not, largely because most of Farrell's later books did not sell well. Also, the literary tide turned against him, with critics deriding him as a clumsy, hamfisted writer. Magic realism and deconstruction became all the rage, making Farrell look even more old-fashioned.

As Landers shows in his wide-ranging, compelling biography, Farrell didn't help his cause by perpetually doing battle with those he perceived to be his enemies. Always a political animal, he was briefly a communist during the 30s, until Stalinist crimes and dogma made him break with the Party; then he became a Trotskyite and a Socialist, taking part in the cultural donnybrook of the Cold War years. Also, his combative personality, hard drinking and sharp tongue led to breakups with friends, wives and lovers.

Through it all, Farrell kept writing. Powered by pills and booze, he wrote for ten, twelve hours a day, cranking out book after book, right to the end (he died in 1980 at 79). "I know what I'm doing in my books," he told an interviewer, "and if nobody reads them, I'll go on and write 'em just my way."

Like an old club fighter, Farrell battled to the end, taking blow after blow, but never going down for the count.