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As the trilogy opens in 1916 Chicago, young Studs Lonigan is a horny lazy 15 year old anti-Semite racist punk.  Over the course of this and the succeeding volumes, we watch him brawl, drink, smoke & carouse his way to an early grave.  Yeah?  Whooptyflip.  It's supposed to be about how hard it is to be an American Irish Catholic; a point that might have had greater weight had not a young man of Stud's generation been rising towards the Presidency even as Farrell whined.

Start with an author in the thrall of Dreiser and Anderson, add in the influence of both Proust and Joyce, and you have one of the least interesting, most technically annoying books on the list.  Plus, I couldn't find a cheap copy--strike three.


Grade: (D)


James Farrell Links:

    -REVIEW ESSAY: Rereading what might have been, but wasn't, the Great American Novel: STUDS LONIGAN: A TRILOGY: Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, Judgment Day By James T. Farrell (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell, Robert K. Landers (Ralph de Toledano, American Conservative)

Book-related and General Links:
    -REVOLUTIONARY NOVELIST IN CRISIS (From The New York Intellectuals, by Alan M. Wald. pp. 249-263)

For a much more enjoyable reading experience, set in the same milieu try:

Powers, John
    -The Last Catholic in America : A Fictionalized Memoir


---It's supposed to be about how hard it is to be an American Irish Catholic; a point that might have had greater weight had not a young man of Stud's generation been rising towards the Presidency even as Farrell whined.

Actually at the time of this books writing, the first Irish Catholic president's father was still just a successful bootlegger who hadn't quite earned enough millions to be respectable yet. And I disagree that Farrell is whining for pity for the poor Irish Catholics, if anything this book is a condemnation of the whole system.

The book is actually an indictment of Catholicism's isolationism, anti-intellectualism, and it's demand for unquestioning obedience. (That's not all it is, the book also is an indictment of America's sexism, rampant capitalism, racism, prohibition, and mindless hedonism.)

In some ways the book is archaic, the catholic church has softened its approach quite a bit with regard to its more totalitarian pre-Vatican 2 teachings. The church still expects blind obedience on it's unhealthy, dangerous, and morally dubious (especially in the AIDS/HIV era) teachings on contraception, (just a for instance, I've got other Church criticisms) the only difference is that nowadays most catholics pay no attention to what the church teaches when they disagree with it. The church has lost a lot of its blind obedience even among the faithful.

Another way the book is a bit archaic is that consumption or tb, and syphillis and gonnorrhea are not the incurable death sentences they once were, but we do still have HIV/AIDS to put the fear of god into us.

And instead of young people ruining their health by drinking homemade liquor that is little better than drinking paint thinner, we nowadays have the joys of crystal meth, crack cocaine and oxies for kids to commit slow suicide with. But at least the liquor is safer to drink now than it was back then.

So despite the fact that some aspects of the book no longer apply to today's life, there are close enough parrellels to make it still relevant.

Some people might get confused because Farrell doesn't tell you how you're supposed to feel about Studs' story, he just tells it and lets you decide for yourself. (Though he does come close, at the communist rally near the end of the book.)

PS not enough people recognize the other great characters in the book, particularly Studs' mother and father.

- hibs

- Mar-16-2007, 13:39


"Plus, I couldn't find a cheap copy--strike three."

Oh, excuse me, I was looking for the book review section. I see I've wandered into Snark land instead.

- Natty Bumpo

- Dec-01-2004, 18:45


I googled Studs Lonigan, up came Orrin's review, which I read with annoyance.

Then I read Orrin's list of the century's important cultural figures with amazement and delight. The 4/30 not only recognized Harper Lee's importance, but also the greatly underestimated U.S. Grant (try Max Byrd's recent historical novel, GRANT, which you'll love). Orrin is an independent thinker and a man of taste.

Orrin, may I humbly suggest that you retry Studs another time? A man with your values should value Studs. Something went wrong. You seem as deeply concerned with American values as Farrell was (his shifting ideas about a solution were never allowed to affect the book.) I don't dispute your dislike for Studs, but one loves the novel, not Studs himself. Farrell made the daring attempt to refuse to make Studs a hero or even a dramatic sort of victim. In the third book, when they watch the marathon dancers, you'll notice that everything they say describes themselves and the novel, the way Emma in the inn describes her own novel, and dislikes it. In the end, Studs's novel is much like Emma Bovary's, as a Frenchman of her era might have experienced her, not the way we Americans do: someone so ordinary it was almost unbearable.

The only human moment of his life is when Studs permits himself, for an instant, as a boy, to be in love and think of that song. (I'm writing in haste and don't want to stop and look it up. I mean the "Blue Ridge Mts of Virginia," I think, in Book 1.) But he has that moment. He could have been more than he became-- but not a lot more. Farrell refuses to exaggerate. Like Middlemarch, it is a work of "infinite pity, infinite rigor."

And may I add, a work of infinite restraint. For once, a novelist refuses to show off and write "well." He makes the style match his subject-- brutal, stolid. It's a daring thing to write that kind of style and make your reader endure degradation, slowly, without false drama.

People who write about spiritual poverty's corrosion (notice Farrell's epigraph) always write about the lone hero who surmounts it. Joyce always does. Such books accidentally give the message that poverty exists to test and toughen great spirits, so poverty must be somehow okay. Hugo and Zola do write about its victims who are crushed in spectacular ways. That's rare too. But Farrell dared to write about the 99% of the population who aren't heroes, and who slowly get stunted, rather than spectacularly crushed. That's the hardest, least rewarding case to stage. But it happens infinitely more often than the other cases.

As a result, many of us think Studs Lonigan is the Great American Novel, the central novel of the urban immigrant American experience. Reading it at fifteen made me a novelist. Norman Mailer has said the same, and many others. Please take another look.

Congratulations on an ambitious site and I wish you success.

With all best wishes, George

PS There was an article on JTF tonight at american prospect 26

George J. Leonard Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities San Francisco State University

- George J. Leonard

- May-03-2004, 14:53