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February 25, 2004

A Tragedy With A Happy Ending

by Ron Hogan

studsloa.jpgTwo days before the 100th anniversary of James T. Farrell's birth, the New York Public Library hosted a symposium on his work, moderated by Donald Yannella, an American literature scholar currently editing Farrell's interviews for publication. Although some folks, like William H. Pritchard, don't think Farrell will ever truly come back into fashion, the Library of America is placing its bet on him with a flourish, and had a new one-volume edition of the Studs Lonigan trilogy for sale at a table off to the side, along with a similar omnibus from Penguin Classics.

Yannella started things off with a slide show of his collection of Farrell first editions, showing how much more the author had done than the opening trilogy which made him (for a time) a household name. There were more novel cycles, short stories, poems, literary criticism, satirical essays...some of them represented by very elegant "DJs" (a term for dust jackets I'd never heard before). Then it was over to the guests.

First up: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who basically presented an abridged overview of Farrell's life, making the first of several comparisons to Dreiser as he talked about his first reaction to reading Young Lonigan as an undergraduate. Then Norman Mailer announced, "I've got to talk about myself 80 percent of the time to give you a beautiful 20 percent on James T. Farrell," revealing how his encounter with Studs Lonigan as a Harvard student made him realize it would be possible for him to write fiction. A few of his compliments could be construed as backhanded, but he seemed utterly sincere when he'd just realized that The Executioner's Song owed a debt to Farrell, who'd taught him that one could write successfully "without style" by telling people's stories simply and honestly.

Kevin McCarthy was a bit of a wild card; his sister, Mary, was a close friend of Farrell's but unable at the time of his death to make it to New York from her Paris apartment in time for his funeral, so she dictated a eulogy for McCarthy to read at the memorial. This text he reread for the audience tonight.

Ann Douglas, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, was thrilled to see the largest audience gathered to hear about Farrell she'd ever come across, and shared some anecdotes from her encounters with him near the end of his life, describing him as "incredibly kind" and "almost nakedly trusting."

Finally, Pete Hamill admitted he'd never met Farrell but did correspond with him, receiving letters with handwriting "like he stuck his finger in an electric outlet." He read Farrell for the first time as a 16-year-old sheetmetal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, having bought a cheap Signet paperback with a "hot painting" on the cover and flap copy emphasizing the "steamy" content. Rereading Farrell recently, he said he was impressed by the subtleties of the prose, then described Farrell as "the first Irish-American novelist," making an intriguing comparison between Studs Lonigan and Stephen Dedalus. Towards the end, he mused aloud about Farrell's fade into obscurity, quoting William Dean Howells' advice to Edith Wharton: "Americans only want tragedies with happy endings." (But, Douglas would say later, students to whom she assigns Farrell today get him instantly, so maybe there's hope for him coming back into style yet.)

At this point, the panelists were invited to talk amongst themselves. Douglas commented on Mailer's appreciation for Farrell's endurance as a writer, and Mailer ran with that ball, suggesting Farrell had "a fundamental novelistic confidence most good writers don't have" in his willingness to tackle any subject, and though he didn't think Farrell was an especially gifted writer, "he got the maximum out of his gifts" and consequently was "as exciting to read when he failed as when he succeeded." Hamill asked if Mailer thought Farrell made other writers possible, and Mailer said more than that, "he made them better."

Then, as Yannella tried to close up shop, Douglas made an effort to open the floor up to questions. This led to a rambling, disheveled performance by a fellow who, as near as I could make out, only ever read three books in his life, one of which was Ellen Rogers. Once they got rid of him, Farrell's son said a brief word of thanks, and Yannella sent us home, quipping that we might want to hail a taxi to get down to the Strand to search for some of the books we'd just heard about.

Apart from the Studs Lonigan trilogy, other Farrell books currently in print include My Baseball Diary and Chicago Stories. You can also read "Memoir on Leon Trotsky" online. Some of Farrell's papers are at the University of Delaware, but Syracuse also has a few things in its special collections, and Michigan State has a couple audio recordings where he talks about 1930s America.


Your piece on the James T. Farrell Centennial event at the NYPL, 2/25/04, just came to my attention. Congratulations and thanks for such an accurate report. Would that the press were always as straightforward. I moderated the panel and appreciate having such an accurate record.
Donald Yannella

Posted by: Donald Yannella at April 3, 2004 11:13 AM

Beatrice is hot!

Posted by: Dobbs Strong at May 4, 2004 10:17 AM
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