The Literary Life: The Honorable Menace

In 1954, James T. Farrell published a collection of essays called Reflections at Fifty. It is long since out of print, like most of his novels and, so far as I can tell, all of his nonfiction volumes. Digging it out now, Reflections is a reminder of what the author of Studs Lonigan was like -- or rather, of how he wished to present himself -- halfway to his centennial, which we mark this year.

A fitting shorthand expression for that role would be the "Great American Novelist." One of the pleasures, as well as the frustrations, of reading Farrell is that the cliché fits so neatly. By 1954, some 20 years had passed since the days when the Studs Lonigan trilogy appeared, followed by several other novels chronicling life in the Irish 'hood during the first three decades of the century. Each novel cut its slices of life pretty close to the bone. The combination of sex, coarse language, and low-life insouciance made his fiction seem a kind of menace to the public order. When the first volume of the Lonigan series appeared in 1932, the publisher included a preface by a sociologist testifying to its documentary value.

The essays Farrell compiled at 50 show an author determined to remind readers that his novels were not case studies and that he had absorbed, and made his own, a literary tradition that included Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce and Henrik Ibsen. He protests against the tendency "to lock up in facile sociological theses the wonderful, awesome, and often tragic aspects of life revealed in great and serious literature."

If that sounds defensive, well, he had reason. Even now, with Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy available in a new edition from the Library of America (the closest thing we have to literary consecration), Farrell is still known as a kind of amateur social historian. But what makes Lonigan powerful now is not the steady accumulation of detail about life in an Irish American enclave of Chicago from 1915 to 1931; no, it's the way it renders the intense, if limited and ultimately tragic, internal life of Studs -- a neighborhood tough guy (or, rather, wannabe tough guy) whose world and possibilities are hemmed in by the demands of Catholicism, work, and an ethnic solidarity that makes every other group a menace to be loathed. The fact that, in 2004, Farrell seems to be denouncing communitarian sentimentality is, of course, unintentional.

The radical social critics of the early 1930s saw in Lonigan something like an analysis of the decay of capitalist society and the emergence of fascism. And for once, the cookie-cutter Marxism of the American communist literati provided a fair estimate of what the author was actually doing. In An Honest Writer, Robert K. Landers gives an accurate if by no means complete account of Farrell's involvement in the far left -- a trajectory that lead him from fellow-traveling with the Communist Party in the early 1930s to an active role in the defense of Leon Trotsky and, later, of the American Trotskyists who were imprisoned for sedition during World War II.

By 1954, when the novelist was framing his image for posterity, Farrell was what people now habitually call "a virulent anti-Communist." But he was a left-wing anti-Communist, someone who saw the Soviet Union (and its amen corner) as a murderous travesty of egalitarian aspirations rather than their natural fulfillment. In Reflections, he reprinted an essay on his own role in getting John Dewey to go to Mexico to conduct a hearing into the Russian accusations against Trotsky. For Landers, that episode was in keeping with the fundamental decency and honor in Farrell that he wants to signal in the biography's title, An Honest Writer.

But the fact that the novelist still considered himself some kind of a Bolshevik even in the late 1940s is clearly bewildering -- in a way that Farrell's later support for the Vietnam War, and his vote for Richard Nixon in 1972, are not. At the time of his death in 1979, Farrell was one of the most prominent members of Social Democrats U.S.A., a Cold War-era conservative organization that split off from the left-leaning Socialist Party in the early 1970s. It may not be until Farrell's bicentennial that enough documents are declassified for historians to understand the group's role in American foreign policy. Landers discusses "Sedusa," as it's known, only very briefly.

I mention all this with some trepidation, because Landers is very clearly determined to include this Great American Novelist in the neoconservative pantheon. It would seem, at first glance, a logical place to put a Trot (or ex-Trot). Much has been written over the past year about the role of "Trotskyites in the Bush administration" -- including the bizarre and specious (indeed, quite incoherent) charge that the military adventures of Paul Wolfowitz and friends are an application of the old man's "theory of permanent revolution." The last thing that Farrell's now rather uncertain literary reputation needs is for him to be inserted into the more feverish scenarios being elaborated about "the neoconservative cabal."

But shoving Farrell into that foxhole is not so easy. For one thing, the loss of Farrell's revolutionary illusions corresponds to an unmistakable loss of creative power. His later novels are, in a word, terrible. After 1958, for example, Farrell threw himself into a multivolume work called A Universe of Time, which resembles Marcel Proust as translated by Mickey Spillane. The inconvenient truth (which Landers sidesteps) is that Farrell's "unrealistic" leftism somehow nurtured his literary realism.

Even more inconvenient is the fact that while Farrell was an ardent Cold Warrior, his ardency was rather idiosyncratic. But the one incident that seems to cause his biographer real embarrassment involves the novelist's resignation from the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, that redoubtable (and CIA-funded) bulwark of the anti-communist intelligentsia. Farrell quit in 1956, declaring that the United States ought to end its alliances with dubious regimes around the world and complaining that the committee was slow to challenge America's "growing apathy and complacency."

Landers suggests that Farrell's prodigious alcohol consumption was a factor in this pronouncement. Fair enough: The Lonigan novels were not a self-portrait, yet Farrell always had a bit of Studs in him, ready to prove himself in a fight. For Landers, that impulse could sometimes be a distraction from Farrell's commitment to "cultural freedom," as embodied in our no doubt wonderful way of life. But in looking again at Reflections at Fifty, I notice that Farrell includes his testimony during a 1948 obscenity trial in Philadelphia, where the police had been seizing copies of his novels. (Strangely enough, Landers does not describe the event.)

The court transcript is the last thing in Reflections, which gives it pride of place -- and it is not difficult to see why. The prosecutor complains about Farrell's realistic depictions of everyday sordidness. Farrell responds by citing Chekhov's notebooks and Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct, with occasional references to Spinoza and Dostoevsky. Even on the page, it is a bravura performance -- a reminder of his claim, in the face of any doubt, to the title of Great American Novelist.

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