James T. Farrell, “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan” (1934): Studs’ Potential Chains

With their economic rise, the Negroes sought more satisfactory housing conditions. Besides, the black boys were happiest when engaged in the horizontals. That meant an increasing birth-rate amongst them, and another factor necessitating improved and more extensive domiciles. All these factors produced a pressure stronger than individual wills, and resulted in a minor racial migration of Negroes into the white residential districts of the south side. Blather couldn’t halt the process. Neither could violence and race riots. It was an inevitable outgrowth of social and economic forces. (457)

I open with this quote because, although it is told from the point of view of James. T. Farrell’s racist characters, it suggests the author’s politics. As much as the working class characters that populate his novels seem to deserve their fate, they were chained to specific institutional and economic realities. The escape route, tended to lead to disasters, but for some that may have been preferable to accepting the confines of these institutions.

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In my last post, I looked at some of the strategies of working class empowerment employed by Studs Lonigan and his friends in the James T. Farrell’s The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. Lonigan’s commitment to whiteness and masculinity (as well as American jingoism) made it difficult for Lonigan to diagnosis the reasons for his personal immobility. We can add to this a whole host of personal failing. Even thought Studs was oblivious to the chains that bound him, the readers are not. The problem seems to be rooted in the culture of his upbringing and the options the working class communities of Chicago offered young men like Studs. He was given only three real options for community, social position, and respect outside of the streets and the pool-houses: the dialectic moralism of the Church, the banality of work, and family. I will call these “potential chains” because none of them trap Studs, but they remain ominous threats and the only sources for personal uplift offered by his community. It is easy to say that Studs should have suffered and accepted these options given to him, but this is hardly satisfying if we are after a truly free society.

We see many of the efforts of the Catholic church to hold onto Chicago’s young Catholics. Their efforts are not entirely without merit. Attempts to form clubs and hold dancers are authentic efforts to create community. The YMCA at one point attracts the men for health reasons, suggesting the Protestants were engaged in some of the same efforts. The problem was that it could not hold the men due to the strong moralism that all these actions involved. In a sense, it was a return to grade school for young men like Studs with the messages about the threat of hell, the need to live a godly life, and the generally authoritarian messages. Here is a sample of the rhetoric that I am sure rarely works on young men in their 20s.

For, my friends, your minds and your bodies are vessels of the Lord, given unto your keeping. They must not be abused. They are not tools for the indiscriminate enjoyment of what the world calls pleasure. There is one commandment which, above all, you must not violate. God says, clearly and without equivocation: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery!’ If you do, the torments of Hell await you for all eternity! (494–495)

Studs does not turn from the church at all. Instead he bears it with indifference while asserting his identity in public. Studs’ pursuit of personal freedom was real but misdirected. The promise of a banal life of guilt being offered by the Church was certainly not for him. Studs is provided an alternative. During a conversation with “an atheist,” who introduces Studs and some of his friends to the problem of evil, Studs is at least given the tools to think more critically about the church. This may have set him on a more liberatory path. Instead he remains committed to his Catholicism even though it seems to run contrary to his values. Studs and his friends rejecting out of hand the ideas of others by labelling them “atheists” or “reds” is a common motif in the book and serve as a reminder that a more creative person could have escaped some of these chain (at least at the level of perspective).

Alongside the institution of the church is the promise of work. Studs and his friends are often casually employed. It is not so much that work was hard to get. When the men needed work or set their task to finding work they tended to get it. But no one seems to particularly enjoy the choices they were given, so they mostly fall into and out of employment. It seem to me that voluntary precarious employment is a form of resistance to the work ethic and the type of life work offers. It is not the most radical or liberating of choices (especially when the burden of support falls on someone else), but it is a clear rejection of the work regimen. The Greek socialist, Christy, is the model for a more radical escape from work. Unfortunately, his approach is not so different from the priest. Christy takes to lecturing Studs and his pals about Debs, the war, and capitalism while taking singular pleasure in mocking Catholicism for hypocrisy. Clearly Christy does not know the first thing about organizing working people. His language is good for organizing the converted, but fails to convince others, especially those who evade work anyways.

Bolshevism is going to be justice for the workingman. He will no longer be a slave, work ten, twelve hours a day and have his children starved and underfed. He will have opportunities. Bolshevism will not allow greed, not allow capitalists to steal all the money to crush people, kill them in wars, to waste their toil on jewelry for silly women and silly wives. Russia is trying to make a decent world. America is trying to make a world for greed, capitalists, crooks, gangsters, criminals, and kill the working-man, make him a slave. (476)

Work, for these men, is still a burden they can avoid using it when the need to. Much like the church, it is an institution that has failed to trap them.

The final ominous threat to Studs is family. As this novel makes clear, it is quite unfortunate how young people escape one family only to be inevitably drawn into a new one. Some of his pals marry (which brings up the need for a steady job) and Studs begins to get a bit serious about courting a women he fell in love with as a child, Lucy. This is a disaster when he nearly rapes her after a rather awkward date, where he spends more time showing his contempt for other men than his affection for Lucy. Studs Lonigan’s own incompetence forestalls the shackles of marriage and we suspect that is what he wanted anyway.

So when the novel ends, we learn that however legitimate his evasion of the church, work, and family may have been, Studs is running out of time to chart an independent path for himself. This was not possible for him, because in the end, Studs was a conformist. Smart enough to reject some of the values and expectations of his parents, but not smart enough to think for himself. He had enough inspiration from contrarians, but he could never turn that into something authentic and original and adapted to his own needs and temperament.

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James T. Farrell, “Young Lonigan” (1932)

It was just a well, because he wanted to slip around to the can and have a smoke before he joined the folks out in front to be told he looked so swell and all that boushwah. Inside the damp boys’ lavatory on the Indiana Avenue side of the building, he leaned against a sink and puffed away, absorbed in the ascending strands of smoke. He wondered if it was really a sin to smoke, and told himself that was all bunk. (35–36)

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It is time to take on Studs Lonigan. Studs Lonigan, one of the important figures in Great Depression-era literature, was the creation of 28-year-old James T. Farrell. Farrell was from a working class Irish immigrant family in Chicago. He has this in common with his most well-known literary creation. I cannot say for sure how much of what happened in these novels is autobiographical, but it seems likely that much of it was drawn from life. Studs was born around the same time Farrell was. They both attended Catholic grade school and liked to play baseball. While Farrell lives a long life as a productive writer, Studs dies young and worn out from a squandered life. As with Frank Norris, we are not given a simple morality tale. Like Norris’ Vandover, Studs is a product of his culture and environment. We can blame both for individual bad choices, but we would be misreading these texts to avoid appreciating the role of fate. Farrell clearly appreciated Norris, who is quoted at the beginning of the first novel about Studs Young Lonigan. (“A literature that cannot be vulgarized is no literature at all and will perish.”) Perhaps Studs Lonigan reflects this vulgarization of naturalism.

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Studs Lonigan’s life is told over the course of three novels, written between 1929 and 1934, and published between 1932 and 1935. They probably should be read together. Farrell has already seen the novels published as a single trilogy in 1935. I can imagine Studs becoming a kind of nostalgic working class figure for the Great Depression generation, even as it works as a warning against self-aggrandizement and reckless squandering of potential. I would want to read both at the same time. Studs’ more attractive and heroic moments (even if they are few) suggest the idealization of the working class experience, so common in New Deal-era literature. The metanarrative, of improper self-confidence and wasted potential is actually the story of the entire nation.

The story of Young Lonigan covers around one year in the life of Studs Lonigan. It begins with his imminent graduation, at the age of fourteen, from a Catholic grade school in Chicago. He begins to plan to attend high school but has no clear idea of what he wants to do. (Of course, his mother wants him to prepare for the priesthood.) Instead of going back to school, he just sort of drifts into a new group of friends who spend much of their time just hanging out, smoking, drinking, and fooling around with girls. This boredom leads to episodes of ethnic and racial violence and antagonism. The climax of the novel involves Studs’ participation in anti-Semitic intimidation. By the end of the novel, Studs has moved to the wrong side of the tracks.

Young Lonigan is also a story of generational conflict, education, and the struggle between the individual and the institution. Since these themes are all combined, I want to discuss it as a single unit and suggest it as a way to approach the text from a libertarian perspective. To start with, Studs’ parents have hopes for him, but are aware that their own life does not present much of a good model for them. For this reason, they entrust the local Catholic schools to set Studs on the right path. Education is clearly presented here a moral corrective much more than as a cultivator of autonomy and critical thinking. “Old Man Lonigan” himself was familiar with the streets but in his older age sees it as a warning and the reason for educating Studs through the church.

And the old gang. They were scattered now, to the very ends of the earth. Many of them were dead, like poor Paddy McCoy, Lord have mercy on his soul, whose ashes rested in a drunkard’s grave at Potter’s Field. Well, they were a find gang, and many’s the good man they drank under the table, but . . . well, most of then didn’t turn out so well. (16)

We quickly learn what a waste the investment in education was, if the goal was to set Studs to the correct moral path. One suspects that the teachers know this was well as anyone, which is why the priest devotes his graduation speech to a final plea to the students to evade Satan’s clutches. (If Catholic education worked as a moral correction, we suspect this would not be necessary.) If anything, the children learned to have only contempt for their teachers. Much of their education seems to involve learning how to evade the regulations of the school. Smoking seems to become one way that these young men express their independence from the lessons they were taught in school.

Just another cover

Just another cover

Another tension between the individual and the institution is seen in how central the community is to the thought of Studs’ parents. They are clearly very concerned with how the neighbors look on their son, his actions, and what he becomes. At a more vulgar level, they seemed to care that neighbors might think they were cheap if they did not send Studs’ to high school. Education for the Lonigan’s is almost completely detached from utility and is mostly about image.

We should not be surprised that Studs choses the streets over the schoolhouse. This is, in fact, the more practical and natural path. Indeed, this may be a general problem in mass education. It has never been explained to me why everyone is better off going to school. It seems each career and each regional context would have its own educational needs. For some, the street provides a more useful education than does the schoolroom. Studs’ choice to abandon his education for a rather unfortunate circle of friends is not strictly speaking irrational. It was rather the practical choice, given his choices as a working class, second-generation immigrant, youth. Yet, while it may have been the moral practical and natural of the two choices, we need to ask why Studs was given only two choices. I am not calling for massive dropouts of students, but questioning why the choice we give many working class urban youth is between the street and boring, irrelevant classrooms.

We learn just how tragic this limited choice was by the end of the novel. Studs’ education does not really end when he commits to the street. One thing he learns is racism, which he takes up by the end of the novel. We are not sure how much he really likes picking on local black and Jewish youth. He is likely parroting what his peers do and say. But how is that different from the classroom?

 

Francis Parkman, “Pioneers of France in the New World: Samuel de Champlain”

What happened to the motley crew that pioneered a French Protestant community in Florida?  In the short-term, it was destroyed but in the long-term it was replaced with a very different formula of empire.

“New England Protestantism appealed to Liberty, then closed the door against her; for all Protestantism is an appeal from priestly authority to the right of private judgement, and the New England Puritan, after claiming this right for himself, denied it to all who differed with him. . . With New France it was otherwise.  She was consistent to the last.  Root, stem, and branch, she was the nursling of authority.  Deadly absolutism blighted her early and her later growth.  Friars and Jesuits, a Ventadour and a Richelieu, shaped her destines.  All that conflicted against advancing liberty–the centralized power of the crown and the tiaras, the ultramontane in religion, the despotic in policy–found their fullest expression and most fatal exercise.” (312)  It is which this diagnosis that Francis Parkman ends the first volume of his massive work on the fate of European empires in North America.

Champlain

Champlain

I have not yet seen Parkman deal with the question of slavery, but if slavery (and the general disciplining of labor for a plantation economy) is the original sin of English North America, I wonder if Parkman would agree the victory of the forces of absolutism and the missionary spirit and the seduction of power politics served as the original sin of French North America.  Parkman describes in shocking detail the misery and horror of the early explorers and settlers in the Great Lakes.  Scurvy, starvation, and conflicts with the Indians ensured that few survived.  “A rigorous climate, a savage people. a fatal disease, and a soil barren of gold were the allurements of New France.” (165)  It seems to have been a force of will that implanted France’s presence in North America, but it was the will of the state, of absolutist monarchs, and adventures lacking accountability that squeezed from men’s blood and sweat a fledgling colony.

Through good relations in the French court, the Jesuits were able to establish a strong position in early New France, ensuring yet another authoritarian (as Parkman sees it).   The Jesuits established the French position in Acadia, despite efforts by the English to displace them.  But like everything else in French North America, for Parkman, this was an exercise in autocratic tyranny.  “Rude hands strangled the ‘Northern Paraguay’ in its birth.  Its beginnings had been feeble, but behind were the forces of a mighty organization, at once devoted and ambitious, enthusiastic and calculating.  Seven years later the Mayflower landed her emigrants at Plymouth. What would have been the issues had the zeal of the pious lady of honor preoccupied New England with a Jesuit colony?”  (240)

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At the same time, as Parkman describes, Champlain is at work setting a foundation in Quebec.  Like his masters, Champlain’s goal was not an empire of liberty but the establishment of “the Catholic faith and the power of France.” (241)  Parkman blames Champlain, by creating an anti-Iroquois alliance among the Huron and Algonquins, of setting a precedent for diplomatic intervention in Indian affairs.  Again, the sin seems to be the imposition of European absolutism and diplomacy on the New World (for a mid-nineteenth century American like Parkman, a horrendous choice).  This book The Pioneers of France in North America ends with the decline of Champlain in the midst of Indian wars be entered into unwisely as a product of his patriotic and religious zealotry.

Even the commercial interests of the French in the Great Lakes was corrupted with the taint of absolutism and the absolutist monarch.  “The English colonist developed inherited freedom on a virgin soil; the French colonist was pursued across the Atlantic by a paternal despotism better in intention and more withering in effect than that which he lief behind.  If, instead of excluding Huguenots, France had given them an asylum in the west, and left them there to work out their own destinies, Canada would never have been a British province, and the United States woudl have shared their vast domain with a vigorous population of self-governing Frenchmen.  A trading company was not feudal proprietor of all domains in North America within the claim of France.  Fealty and homage on its part, and on the part of the Crown the appointment of supreme judicial officers, counts, and barons, were the only reservations.  The King heaped favors on the new corporation.” (314-315)

There are, of course, many more stories to tell, of diplomacy, war, adventure, and the challenge of the English.  The main argument of Parkman in his accounting of the era of Champlain is to define the French New World empire as an empire of authority and tyranny, betraying the promise of America.

Richelieu, advocate of absolutism

Richelieu, advocate of absolutism

Our immediate response is to scoff at his prejudices (anti-French, anti-Catholic).  As any school-child knows now, the English empire in North America was not less tyrannical.  The Puritans were anything but advocates of religious liberty.  Virginia became a slave society within a century of Jamestown.  Class discipline, capitalism, exploitation, expropriation, and incomprehensible horrors accompanied Europeans of all types in their American adventures.   I urge readers to refer to the masterly The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker for more on these horrors and our ancestors resistance to them. However, whatever his prejudice, Parkman is an ally of liberty and this comes through on every page.  And it should give us some encouragement that the “center of civilization”, France, was so horribly ill-equipped politically, religiously, and socially for an new epoch.  Champlain was of the middle ages, in Parkman’s view.  That liberty even had a chance in America, with all of these forces set against it for so long, might be enough to keep out spirits up.

 

James Blish, “A Case of Conscience” 1958

James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is an interesting exploration of the question religion in the context of interplanetary relations.  From a monotheistic perspective, in particular, the existence of aliens provides a wonderful intellectual exercise.  If aliens are part of God’s creation, what is their status within creation?  Do they have souls?  For Christians, the question of their salvation would be need to be resolved.  (Especially if churches want to invest resources in missionary activity on other planets.)  A Case of Conscience takes the question in an unexpected way by asking the question: What if a society without a belief in a Christian God achieves Christian outcomes?  For a non-believer it is simple.  Of course, atheists are capable of a good life (even a life approved of by Christians) without knowledge of the Bible.  For a Christian, however, it poses a troubling dilemma.  Where did these values come from, if not from God?

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Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, S.J. is part of an expedition to the planet Lithia.  The dominant species on Lithia are reptilian.  Their technology if different than Earthling technology due to the absence of many metals.  The lack of iron, for instance, makes electricity almost impossible due to the inability to innovate electromagnetism.   Most technology is made of wood on Lithia.  Most members of the expedition are interested in the utility of planet for earth.  Ramon’s curiosity on their society, values, religious beliefs, and conception of death makes him unique in the expedition.  Ramon’s main informant is a Lithian named Chtexa.  He learns of their mature and accepting view of morality, the reproduction methods (done without marriage).  He also learns about their harmonious society.  “Their social system works like the most perfect of our physical mechanisms, and it does so without any apparent repression of the individual.  It’s a thoroughly liberal society in terms of guarantees, yet all the same it never even begins to tip over toward the side of total disorganization, toward the kind of Gandhiism that keeps a people tied to the momma-and-popps farm and the roving-brigand distribution system.  It’s in balance, and not in precarious balance either–it’s in perfect chemical equilibrium.” (435)  This horrifies Ramon, and he believes this culture to be the creation of Satan.  Lithia provides a model that suggests perfection in a world without God.  “But now we have, on Lithia, a new demonstration, both the subtlest and at the same time the crudest of all.  It will sway many people who could have been swayed in no other way, and who lack the intelligence or the background to understand that it is a rigged demonstration.  It seems to show us evolution in action on an inarguable scale.  It is supposed to settle the question once and for all, to rule God out of the picture, to snap the chains that have held Peter’s rock together all these many centuries.  Henceforth these is to be no more question; henceforth there is to be no more God, but only phenomenology.” (448)

caseofconscience

After a lengthy debate, they could not decide as an expedition whether to open up connections between Earth and Lithia.  They return to Earth and bring with them an egg, which is raised to become an Earth citizen.  Ramon was discipline by the church for the heresy of Manicheanism, because of the suggestion that Satan could have created a world.  Satan could infect a planet (requiring an exorcism) or create a deception but he could not create.  Ramon returns to Lithia and indeed performs an exorcism on the entire planet, which follows with its explosion.  This may, however, have been caused by experiments in fissile material.  While Ramon fears the ramifications Lithia, Clever, another member of the expedition, wanted to use them to make nuclear weapons, even if it meant the destruction of Lithia and its people.

A subplot covers the influence of Egtverchi, Chtexa’s offspring raised on Earth, on the planet’s people.  Egtverchi is a bit like Foyle (or jaunting technology) in The Stars My Destination as the force that broke a people out of a static situation.  The riot that Egtverchi inspires suggests, to some degree, the danger that the Lithia indeed pose.  It seems to me that we would likely find both intense xenophobia and uncritical acceptance of alien beliefs if we ever encounter extraterrestrials.

The main anarchist themes in this work seem to revolve around the potential for a working anarchist utopia.  Lithia lacks governments and moral codes.  They even sustain a scientific and technological society without the rise of a technocracy.  Ramon lists the “Premises” of Lithia:

1. “Reason is always a sufficient guide.”
2. “The self-evident is always the real.”
3. “Good works are an end in themselves.”
4. “Faith is irrelevant to right action.”
5. “Right action can exist without love.”
6. “Peace needs not pass understanding.”
7. “Ethics can exist without evil alternatives.”
8. “Morals can exist without conscience.”
9. “Goodness can exist with God.”

Stated this clearly, we can see how much of our social order (religious or not) rests of faith, fear, guilt, conscience.  Goodness must have a purpose (salvation for Christians, social stability for monogamists and Puritans, industrial progress for Stalinists, efficiency for capitalists and urban designers).  To do good without a greater purpose is truly revolutionary since it attacks these assumptions.  Ramon, as a religious conservative, had rights to fear the Lithia, but so did every capitalist, technocrat, bureaucrat or anyone else who wants to use fear to sustain the system of exploitation that sustains them.

In any case, do not worry.  The Catholic Church has plans if we do find aliens.  And it does not seem exorcisms are in the works yet.