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James T Farrell: Studs Lonigan Trilogy

Farrell’s three-part novel is one of those classics of American literature that not all that many people have read. It is hailed as a masterpiece of realism and naturalism but I don’t see it like that. It does indeed paint a realistic portrait of the rise and fall of Studs Lonigan, against the background of World War 1 and the Depression, on Chicago’s South Side but it does much more. Firstly, this is one of those books where the city is the hero as much as the main character. Chicago – and not the Chicago of the rich nor downtown Chicago but its South Side – is a key player in Lonigan’s story. Secondly, we get a pretty good impressionistic account of life as seen through the eyes of a young boy and then young man during this period. His impressions aren’t direct and realistic but all over the place and often give the feeling that Farrell was getting carried away. But that, perhaps, was intentional, as he aims to give us the full story, warts and all, of failure.

Young Lonigan is a tough kid from a respectable Irish family in Chicago. His father – who has his own painting business – is a first generation immigrant and, like his friends, neighbours and sons, is rabidly racist. Much of the book involves their vicious feelings, primarily towards Blacks and Jews but also towards Czechs and Poles. Studs is small but not afraid to fight and certainly not afraid to enjoy himself. Indeed, despite the admonitions of his parents and, to a lesser extent, his sister, Studs plays truant from school and is always out on the street, fighting, playing and having fun. Indeed, most of the book is about his extramural activities. His parents spoil him and let him get away with doing what he wants. He takes up drinking and this will eventually ruin his health.

He has two loves. The first and foremost is Lucy. They fool around when he is fifteen but both are too proud to follow up. They meet again much later but, after a date, he misbehaves and is too proud to apologise. But most of the book he spends dreaming of her and it is not till he is thirty that he meets anyone else he is interested in. Catherine is younger than him and it is clear that she is second to Lucy but, when she gets pregnant, he marries her. Indeed, his love life is indicative of his failure as he spends most of his life in dissipation. Though he does go to work for his father, the business starts to fall off during the Depression, leaving Studs more time for riotous living. Farrell paints an excellent portrait of his downfall, his physical failing and his accompanying realisation that he is a failure as a person.

But it is Chicago that is almost as interesting as Studs. The change in the neighbourhoods, with immigration, is a key theme and one which drives the racism. Portraits of the unemployed during the Depression, marches, bank collapses and the anti-Hoover feeling are all vividly portrayed. And, with two heroes, you definitely feel that you are getting your money’s worth in what is an underappreciated work of American literature.

Publishing history

Young Lonigan
First published 1932 by The Vanguard Press
The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan
First published 1934 by The Vanguard Press
Judgment Day
First published 1935 by The Vanguard Press