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R. Fangston

A Note on James T. Farrell

(July 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 6, July 1942, pp. 182–184.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Those who read James T. Farrell’s article, Literature and Ideology in the April issue of this magazine must have been impressed with the fact that Farrell is pretty much of a unique phenomenon on the American cultural scene: a creative artist of acknowledged talent and power who also possesses (and here is the rarity) the ability to seriously discuss the theoretical problems of literature and literary criticism in relation to the economic and political development of society, as well as that development itself. He is both the creative artist and the serious literary and political critic – that contemporary rarity genuinely deserving the title of intellectual.

The above is written not as a gratuitous compliment with which to amend a critical review, the conclusion of which will be that his book [1] is a failure. It is written rather because of the fact that a recognition of Farrell’s unique stature is central to an understanding of the reasons for the failure of this book.

Farrell’s position as a novelist rests for the most part on the Lonigan trilogy. That, regardless of the merit of his subsequent volumes, is as it should be. For Studs Lonigan is such a genuinely revolutionary work of creative literature, so powerful in its synthesis of the naturalist and symbolist methods and their application to the American scene, that it has rightly dwarfed his subsequent writings.

The Literary Methods of Farrell

In Lonigan, Farrell writes by accumulating routine experiences and by piling up objective reportage, the power of which is greatly heightened by his remarkable facility for recording daily speech; he adds incident after incident – and then there is the flash of the symbol, the insight. All the while, the maximum objectivity is maintained, the author’s personality or sympathies never intrude; and that is why he is able to evoke such sympathies for his characters.

This effective method, the above description of which is both brief and rough, requires several extremely demanding creative powers:

  1. the ability to hold the reader’s interest through the long stretches of writing which the accumulation of his material demands;
  2. complete objectivity in order to avoid the temptation of sentimentality, and in order to heighten the interest of his narrative and make more sharp and acute the flash of symbolic insight which illumines the lengthy stretches of the novel; and
  3. extraordinary familiarity with the material and locale.

That Farrell does have the above in plenitude explains at least in part the success of Lonigan. But it is precisely in the difficulty of applying these powers to the short story form that we find a clue to the failure of the stories in $1,000 a Week. It seems to me extremely doubtful if a successful short story can be written by the long range accumulative method which Farrell has so uniquely developed. And if it can be done, it is very rare. Certainly Farrell has not succeeded in this instance.

Farrell’s method, while obviously most suitable for the lengthy novel, can also succeed perhaps when used for the writing of a sketch – written, I imagine, as if it were merely a section of a book. (Many of the stories appear to have been written with such an approach.) But a short story, in the sense of a complete exposition of an incident or a series of incidents involving a human relationship and a certain development of character, and resulting in an increase in the perspective sensibilities of the reader in the form of either an emotional or intellectual excitation – this appears to me a very difficult thing for Farrell to do with the method at his disposal.

How the Short Story Makes Out

This, I think, can be demonstrated by an examination of the stories in $1,000 a Week. Many of them lack organic development, few of them have any compelling reason to begin and end where they do. They appear to be chunks of a larger work, if not in the sense of having so been planned, then in the sense that they have been created with such an approach. At rimes, it appears as if Farrell hardly realizes the need for a beginning and an end, for a complete, organic developmental line which dominates the story, for the creation of a whole product. It appears as if the distinction between a section of a novel and a short story is not clear in Farrell’s mind, and if it is, he has failed to realize it in his work.

It is only in an occasional story that Farrell shows the ability to write within the framework of a brief, compressed story. The other pieces show the failure of attempting to transmit the leisurely method of accumulative detail to a literary form whose primary demand is economy and conciseness.

Some stories are chunks of a novel, incomplete and insufficient by themselves; others, such as Sorel, are really outlines for novels or very long stories; still others are sketches, minor in significance, partially because of the limitations of the sketch in general. Only one story stands out in the reviewer’s mind as being genuinely successful, Sport of Kings.

Therein, I think, is the basic technical cause for the failure of these stories. But the two other creative attributes which were listed above are also often conspicuous by their absence. For instance, there is a noticeable and disturbing lack of objectivity in such stories as Sorel and Getting Out the Vote for the Working Class. The former is an attempt at ridicule and sarcasm without the sharpness and subtlety necessary for such an attempt; the latter story, one of the few instances in which Farrell runs away with his bitterness, is a vitriolic attack against Stalinist intellectuals which often descends to the absurd and burlesque. It is precisely because of his abandonment of the method of objectivity in a story such as Getting Out the Vote for the Working Class and his inability to satisfactorily substitute another method, that Farrell cannot even obtain sympathy for his characters in this story. All that is left, then, is caricature, burlesque, diatribe.

What the Stories Lack

It is much the same with regard to material. Those stories in which Farrell departs from his usual type – the lower middle class – leave a feeling of dissatisfaction. To read Farrell on the expatriates in Paris and the rise of a French fascist leaves one with a feeling that he is borrowing material that is not native to him. To read him on the psychological tortures of a paralytic cripple returning to America from a frustrated life in Europe leaves one with the feeling that he is borrowing a method for which he is not, at least as yet, prepared. When he writes, however, of the life of the urban petty bourgeoisie – the domestic difficulties of a young couple (King of Sports) or the overwhelmingly ironic and pitiful joy ride of two couples attempting to escape their boredom (Whoopee for the New Deal) – he is far more successful. These stories sharpen the sensibilities of the reader and succeed in merging the specific experience with the general concept.

Thus far it might appear from this review that Farrell’s difficulties are mainly technical – the problems of methodology. But a moment’s though will show that also involved is a social and, to some degree, a political problem. That I am certain Farrell would agree to – even if he thought every other line in this review were nonsense. And it is here that I wish to return to my opening paragraph. For from the understanding that Farrell is both a creative artist and an acutely perceptive literary critic – as well as a serious student of politics – comes the conclusion that he is both conscious of and concerned with the problems of his own literary development.

Certainly, for instance, he must be aware of the problem involved in his inability to successfully move out of the milieu of his first work. Certainly he must be aware of the problem involved in his failure of write of the Roosevelt and pre-war periods. The petty bourgeoisie in the twenties and then in the depression – that is Farrell’s essential milieu. No one has even approached him on that score, but certainly if he is to continue his growth as a creative artist he must attempt to find new fields of experience, new classes and class strata to dissect. His ability to grasp new materials and integrate them into his creative product has not, I think, kept pace with his stylistic and technical growth. There is no widening horizon of subject matter corresponding to his increasing technical refinement.

The War and the Writer

Farrell’s work bears the marks of reminiscence – reminiscence of his earlier life, his experiences up until, let us say, his late twenties, and since then he has merely exploited this material to such an extent that it is running dry. The reader will gain the impression, I think, that Farrell requires a re-invigoration, a renewal of contact with new and important strata of our national life.

This, let it be admitted, is no easy task. Especially at present, when a writer of Farrell’s integrity will face the need of clashing, more than ever, with the powers-that-be and their sycophantic apologists. As an instance, let me cite the fact that thus far Farrell has not attempted to write about the war and its social effects. Certainly he is one of the few writers in this country who has either the competence or the elementary honesty and integrity to do so.

There are even more difficulties. Farrell is obviously not a wealthy writer. Quite the contrary. It is likely that one of the motives that impels him to write year after year so fecundly out of the same general source of experience must undoubtedly be the continued need to earn bread and butter. The leisure and time required to gain those new experiences and new contacts I have tried to indicate, would probably be very difficult for Farrell to acquire.

These, then, are some of the problems of the serious writer in the present period. Of course, if Farrell were a “Hollywood” Steinbeck ... But, fortunately, he is not.

This book must be considered a failure. But the reader of this review should not be misled. The failures of a Farrell are far more important, more valuable and more interesting than the successes of other writers. If only because of his rugged integrity, he towers over the rest head and shoulders. I am certain that the readers of The New International will want to read his book and will find it a valuable experience. The adverse critical judgment – and the reason I have tried to indicate for that judgment – should not deflect any reader from the fact that Farrell remains a precious jewel of competence, seriousness, integrity and promise in an utterly corrupted and decadent literary world, and that anything he writes therefore merits attention and respect.


1. $1,000 a Week, by James T. Farrell. Vanguard Press, $2.50.

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