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3:AM Cult Hero: James T. Farrell

By Robert O’Connor.

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Studs Terkel was born Louis. He got the name “Studs” after enthusiastically reading the Studs Lonigan trilogy of books (Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan and Judgment Day), and it stuck when he published his book Giants of Jazz and the publisher told him “Studs Terkel is a great name for a jazz author.”

The Studs Lonigan trilogy was written by James T. Farrell who grew up half a generation before Terkel. Farrell was raised on the other side of downtown as Terkel in the neighborhood of Bridgeport. The neighborhood was (and still is) known as a haven for Irish-Americans like future mayors Martin Kennelly, Edward Kelly, Richard J. Daley and his son. Michael Bilandic was an alderman for the neighborhood in the City Council before he became mayor.

Farrell attended St. Cyril High School (now Mt. Carmel High School), a Catholic high school on the south side, and went to college at the nearby University of Chicago.

He grew up surrounded by racism. Many of his fellow Irishmen would join gangs and fight African-Americans in the surrounding neighborhoods in the summer of 1919. Some of them became gangsters who made fortunes from banned liquor and competing with the likes of Al Capone for control of the city.

But in nearby Bronzeville, jazz and blues were being created. Bix Biederbeck, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton were in their prime, and guys like Gene Krupa and Louis Armstrong were getting started.

Farrell was a political leftist, joining the Socialist Workers Party and later the Workers’ Party. The three books in the Studs Lonigan trilogy were repudiations of his Irish-Catholic upbringing and the neighborhood they were in. In the books, Studs is a young man who is raised in the Catholic church, that instills plenty of guilt in him, and later decides to rebel and attends burlesque shows, drinks and other sins. The conflict between what he wants and the guilt within him – put there by the church – ends up killing him at the age of 30.

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The book shocked its audience when it came out, but it’s become recognized as one of the best works of 20th century American literature. When Norman Mailer decided to become a writer instead of an engineer, he reread the trilogy constantly. Illustrator Jules Feiffer also greatly enjoyed it. Farrell wrote much more after the trilogy, but it didn’t enjoy the same acclaim and most of it is out of print.

In his later years, Farrell became known as a Trotskyist, vocally anti-Stalin and a supporter of Hubert Humphrey against the New Left. He was a long time member of the Socialist Workers Party – he was the chair of the Civil Rights Defense Committee which had been formed to defend SWP members who had been prosecuted under the Smith Act – but he left due to the group’s support of Stalin’s Russia.

Farrell completed his last novel five weeks before his death on August 22, 1979. Sam Holman was about its title character, a left-wing Jewish intellectual in New York (where Farrell lived after 1932). His last book was about who he had become, while his most famous work was about who he thankfully left behind.

MORE: Profile, Library of America / Profile, University of Michigan’s “Chicago Literature” / Revolutionary Novelist in Crisis” by Alan M. Wald, from The New York Intellectuals / Collection of papers, University of Deleware / Profile, Penniless Press / James T. Farrell: My past is considered better than my future by Roger Ebert, Chicago-Sun Times, Sept. 15, 1968 / The life of James Farrell, author of a popular trilogy, recalls a time when writers’ political ideas still mattered by David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 26, 2004 / Articles by Farrell written for The Nation magazine / Robert Landers talks about his book An Honest Writer: James T. Farrell, C-SPAN, Mar. 11, 2004.

First posted: Friday, August 12th, 2011.

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