Sunday, September 06, 2020

Studs Lonigan (1932-1935)

Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), Judgment Day (1935)

As trilogies go, it was hard for me to believe the three novels in James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan were actually published separately, especially the first, which is very short and more like a novella or prologue. The whole thing feels like one long novel, but I guess there are lots of ways to do trilogies. And Young Lonigan is actually the first novel Farrell ever published. Studs Lonigan is long but not difficult or too much of a slog. Like a lot of naturalism (think Theodore Dreiser) it's about piling on the details. It's hard to read in another way, however: it's just so bleak. Perhaps the hardest part—certainly what is complained about most nowadays—is the racism and anti-Semitism of Lonigan and most of these characters, rough and tough Irish-Americans making their way in Chicago in the first three decades of the 20th century. No doubt it's an accurate reflection of how people thought and felt at the time about Jews, African Americans, and Eastern Europeans (and still do, this stuff may have diminished but it has hardly gone away). It's so accurate that it's depressing. Compounding that further, Lonigan himself is more reprehensible than sympathetic. He's hard to like—an ignorant fool. I hoped he would do the right thing, but we see soon enough that he won't and never will. At the same time, his comeuppances, when they come, are not satisfying but just more sickening events, so I guess I must have liked him a little. He's also terrible and pathetic with women, no surprise. His idea of being good is doing what the Catholic Church tells him to but even that is hard for him. And Farrell is not giving the Catholic Church a pass. It may have seemed better then than it does now but it doesn't come off well here. I think Farrell fully intended Studs Lonigan to be bleak, an extended study of a spiritual malaise as he understood it, and it's quite convincing that way. But even purposefulness doesn't make it easy to take. Once finished, and taking a step back, it has to be accounted as impressive. Norman Mailer was taken with it in a big way and it's not hard to see why. His own pugilistic instincts are reflected in Studs, a selfish, self-centered git who likes to fantasize about boxing and beating people up. America, this is still your mirror. Enter with a tough skin.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)


  1. I first read the Studs Lonigan trilogy (in that same Signet paperback as your illustration) when I was a teen in the 1960's. I found it bleak and depressing too, but in a way I needed those sentiments to get some perspective on the America I'd grown up in, which was beginning to seem less perfect than we'd been taught in elementary school. I hadn't made it to Dreiser or Mailer yet, but their books certainly resonated with me when I did. In the Studs books, Farrell seemed to be indicting the Catholic Church for having kept the Irish in a sort of feudal state, both before and after they immigrated to America, which would explain a lot of Studs's attitudes. I re-read the trilogy around 1979, in conjunction with the TV miniseries made of it then, and was impressed again.

    The scene in the trilogy that's stuck with me forever is the November 1918 Armistice celebration on the streets of downtown Chicago, with everybody inspired by the victory over Germany, drinking, dancing, doing whatever they want in public without any inhibitions. Studs has joined in and has a great time, pleased that people are giving him drinks, women are letting him kiss and hug them, his life seems to be opening up in a way it never has before. But that celebration lasts only a day or so, soon everything is back to normal, with Studs's life as crabbed and miserable as always, he never recovers what seemed to be just in his grasp on Armistice day. A powerful fable for us Americans.

    -- Richard Riegel

  2. Thanks Richard! That's a great point about the Armistice Day scene, when you can really see the vulnerability of Studs and are pulling for him.