James T. Farrell, “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan” (1934): Patriotism, Racism, and Patriarchy–Failure of Working Class Empowerment

Sisters, sanctimonious hypocrites. They pray and pray and pray. Fear! Crazy! What can they teach boys? To pray and become sanctimonious hypocrites too. Silly boys, they grow up, their fathers want to make money, their mothers are silly women and pray like sanctimonious sisters, hypocrites. The boys run the streets, and grow up in pool-rooms, drink and become hooligans. They don’t know any better. Silly boys, and they kill themselves with disease from whores and this gin they drink. (Christy, pp. 476–477)

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The second volume of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, covers around 12 years in the life of the Studs, a second-generation Irish working class man living in Chicago. At the close of Young Lonigan, Studs was still a boy, just having graduated from Catholic grade school. While clever enough and capable of moments of self-discipline and focus, was easily seduced by the streets. Like many others, he savored the company of others and yearned for their recognition. As I discussed in my review of the short first book in the series, Lonigan was engaged in a substantial battle between the institutions that were imposed on him (education, family, and the Church), but rather than creating something for himself, he turned to other institutions such as the pool hall and the gang of street toughs. By the end of that first novel, Lonigan was spending his time tormenting blacks and Jews, drinking, and pursuing women. Lonigan is basically in the same place when the second volume opens a few short months later at the start of American involvement in the First World War. This is a rich novel and I will deal with is thematically, rather than chronically, over these two posts. I first want to take a look at the areas where Studs felt he was most impressive, showing these to be ultimately vapid efforts to lift himself up at the expense of others. This is seen in his Jingoistic Americanism, his participation in racial violence, and his treatment of women. In the next post, I will look at another more overly politicized aspects of Farrell’s story, the structural limitations on Studs’ life. Part of his problem lay in the fact that he was given only a few ways to enter society respectfully. Finding those inadequate, he turned to vernacular organizations (and he tried more than one). So there was a sort of institutional breakdown as well.

Farrell politics seem to begin to come out in this second novel of the trilogy. If they were suppressed in the first, I think this was due to the fact that his subject (the fifteen-year-old Studs) would have not come across much beyond his father’s over commitment to the Democratic Party. Farrell seems to believe that the immigrant working class was afflicted with a horrible case of false consciousness. We see it repeatedly in Lonigan’s language. First he openly supports the First World War. His reasons for support range from a celebration of his masculinity and fighting potential to the necessity of fighting for America. Their efforts to serve are frustrated because they are too young, but they participate in the war effort in moral terms from the home front. Mostly this involves arrogant big talk with little action. Significantly, when Lonigan feels threatened by other men, he often accuses them of being fakers, something he clearly is. So, Americanization was one distraction from class unity. Second, Lonigan is deeply committed to the everyday racism of white America. As with his big talk about the war, picking on blacks and Jews becomes a way for Lonigan to give himself some social status despite doing almost nothing to earn it. I guess in a general third way, Lonigan uses women as a way to assert some status for himself. His clumsy effort to seduce a woman that he seems to actually love, Lucy, suggests that in the end he sees women as not much more than conquests or ways to raise his status among his friends. There is an awful lot of conversation among the young men in Lonigan’s circle about the women they slept with. All three of these distractions feed into Lonigan’s false consciousness. This is at the root, according to Farrell, of the difficulty facing the American working class at the beginning of the century.

There is one character who seems to reflect Farrell’s perspective that the working class should unite under socialism, Christy. He is more than a springboard for Farrell, he reflects a path that Lonigan could have taken. Like Lonigan Christy is from immigrant blood, but since he is Greek his ideas are instantly ignored by Lonigan and his crew. After Christy gives them a good speech on the need to break free from Catholic values and embrace working class politics, guided by the Russian Revolution, they first cast off Christy’s dubious Americanism, his religion, and his masculinity. These are all the things that Lonigan is clinging too as the foundation of his value in the world that he did not create, is not shaping, and is being neglected by. In his mind, Lonigan compares Christy to the “real man” Uncle Sam. They then all talk about the fight Lonigan had as a child when he overtook Weary Reilley. This was a major moment in Young Lonigan, but that it remains significant to anyone by the time the participants and observers reached their late twenties is almost absurd, if we did not also know about people holding onto memories of their high school football careers with similar reverence.

The end of the novel highlights the failure of all three of Lonigan’s attempts to find meaning in the world. Their efforts at sexual exploits has shifted from childhood playfulness to vulgar ugliness. Lonigan alienates the women he loves by nearly raping her. Others come down with venereal diseases. Their praise for the 1919 Chicago race riots become like the victory over Weary Reilley, something raised to almost mythical proportions, when in reality it was a squalid and nasty affair. The final scene turns the tables around completely. Lonigan has been beaten by Weary over ten years after their first fight. Lonigan is left drunk, fat, and helpless on the street. In his helplessness, his body is looted by a passing black man.

The dirty gray dawn of the New Year came slowly. It was snowing. There was a drunken figure, huddled by the curb near the fireplug at Fifty-eight and Prairie. A passing Negro reveler studied it. He saw that the fellow wasn’t dead. He rolled it over, and saw it was a young man with a broad face, the eyes puffed black, the nose swollen and bent. He saw that the suit and the coat were bloodied, dirty, odorous with vomit. . . . He searched the unconscious drunk and pocketed eight dollars. He walked on. . . . It was Studs Lonigan, who had once, as a boy, stood before Charley Bathcellar’s poolroom thinking that some day, he would grow up to be strong, and tough, and the real stuff. (543–544)

It seems to me, by focusing on the decline in Lonigan’s physical prowess, his passivity while being robbed by a black man, and his isolation brought on in part by his misogynist attitude toward women, Farrell is highlighting the failure of patriotism, racism, and patriarchy as a tool of working class empowerment.

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Frederick Douglass: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself” (1845)

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revised within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afford by the triumph was the full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody army of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. (331)

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the great slave narrative of the antebellum period and it is certainly the most well-known, thanks to its clarity in exposing the myths of the Old South. It is often taught in high schools and undergraduate courses for this reason. Douglass’ main concern—besides telling some of his life story—was to show the hypocrisy of the slave-owning South. Using his own life and his experiences, he managed to dismantle pretty much every one of the major myths. We can sum this up as follows. While the defenders of slavery were saying slavery was good both masters, slaves, and Southern society, Douglass showed how it debased and made savage both slaves and masters, corrupted the legal institutions, and created irreconcilable divisions to society. The story also works as a coming of age story, beginning with Douglass’ birth in slavery, his self-education, and finally the climax consisting of his debasement in the face of Mr. Covery’s violent labor regimen, his resistance to that, and his eventual escape to freedom.

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The narrative is preceded by two introductions, the first by William Lloyd Garrison and the second by Wendell Phillips. Together they point to the historical significance of Douglass’ narrative within the growing body of anti-slavery literature. Narratives by former slaves were few at that point. They also stress that Douglass lived in a part of the country known for milder forms of slavery, so the situation described by Douglass can only be worse throughout the deep South. Finally, the suggest that his experiences are integral to the slave system. Take Phillips comments. “We know that the bitter drops, which even you have drained from the cup, are no incidental aggravations, no individual ills, but such as must mingle always and necessarily in the lot of every slave. They are essential ingredients, not occasional results, of the system.” (278)

In the opening chapter, Douglass has a fascinating look at something that may seem trivial but turned out to be central the experience of slaves: not knowing his birthday. As he shows, not knowing his birthday was merely a part of the veil of ignorance put over enslaved men and women. Much more crushing is the inability of Douglass to know his mother as mother, but this derived from the same logic that made his birthday insignificant to the working of the slave system. This chapter also looks at the phenomenon of white fathers of slaves (like Douglass’ own father) and the cruelty of overseers. He also includes the description of the torture of his Aunt Hester. Whites fathering slaves and the sadistic torture of Hester together expose one of the major myths of the old South, that it was a land of chivalrous sexual virtue.

The next few chapters follow Douglass’ childhood and the workings of farm life. He has comments on the power regiment, the use of songs by enslaved men and women to express their sorrow. Douglass points out the high turnover among overseers and even masters. Douglass himself was passed around a few times before he escaped slavery. Another myth of paternalism—that slavery exchanged loyalty for loyalty—shattered. In the first half we also learn how Douglass learned to read by interacting with local white kids, many of whom saw slavery as inevitable but learned to question it (a bit) by interacting with Douglass.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

His first lessons were from a white woman, but this education was aborted.

The climax of the story is Douglass encounter as a young man with Mr. Covey who hired the slave Douglass from his master. Covey was a poor white who managed to save enough to purchase one slave (for breeding). He lacked the intellectual training in the ideology of slaveholding, which however hypocritical at least forced some more conscientious masters to mitigate their brutality. All he had was the application of power, which he used excessively on Douglass. He used lies and force to sustain his authority. When Douglass finally defeats Covey in a brutal fight, he achieves some degree of independence and forces Covey to refrain from whipping Douglass. I like to point out this example to those enamored with non-violence. While violent resistance does not always work, it certainly has its moments and when power is so devastating to body and soul, violence is often the only way to achieve freedom.

The final chapter discusses a bit about how he got his freedom, but he does not share details to protect the people who helped him and to ensure that other slaves can use that method. He condemns the openness (the lack of a security culture) among some abolitionists who openly talk about the “underground railroad.”

In an appendix, Douglass attacks the application of Christianity in the South. He confesses some admiration for Christianity on principle (but it is spit out through a clenched jaw). Largely, his experience of religion is one of hypocrisy.

“We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church member’s. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time” (363, 364) Unlike the first three slave narratives in this collection, religion is not a part of the arc of the slave. It exists only as some of the links in the chain.

Douglass points out on almost every page the workings of power. Power transforms those in authority into monsters. Those under the whip are also turned into brutes. Part of the significance of the battle between Douglass and Covey is that Douglass was transformed into a monster before he could arise as a man. The reason terror was necessary was that the power regimen was actually quite weak, as we see in Covey’s faltering in the face of Douglass’ resistance. Power that is this weak and this unjustifiable can only survive by turning those involved into monsters. It simply cannot survive with self-conscious human beings.

Well that is Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography. He has two more, but I will reserve that for the volume of Douglass’ writings, somewhere else in the Library of America.