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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“The Mark Twain Anthology” Part One

Culture is hardly a new idol but I long to hurl things at it. Culture can scarcely burn anything, but I am impelled to sacrifice to the same. I am coming to suspect that the majority of Culture’s modern disciples are a mere crowd of very slimly educated people, who have no natural taste or impulse; who do not really know the best things in literature; who have a feverish desire to admire the newest thing, to follow the latest artistic fashion; who prate about ‘style’ without he faintest acquaintance with the ancient examples of style, in Greek, French, or English; who talk about the classics and criticize the classical critics and poets, without being able to read a line of them in the original. Nothing of the natural man is left in these people; their intellectual equipment is made up of ignorant vanity, and eager desire of novelty, and a yearning to be in fashion. Andrew Lang (79–80)

The Mark Twain Anthology is a rather odd volume in the Library of America series. It is one of a handful of special publications that is still officially in the series list (along with a similar volume on Lincoln and American Earth). This volume is a collection of short pieces by “great writers” about Mark Twain. It may have been more useful to read in parallel with the others Mark Twain volumes. That said, I find it rather surplus to the project. A much-needed volume on Margaret Fuller would have better served. It is perhaps too much hero worship for my tastes. Yes, the world agrees on Mark Twain’s contributions, but I rather enjoyed discovering those on my own rather than listen to “great  writers” tell me what to think about his works. As a collection of contemporary reviews on commentaries of Twain, it has value and the global scale of the anthology is at the very least interesting. A fair number of left libertarian writers found Mark Twain rich in meaning. He was also popular globally among anti-colonial activists. I will highlight some of these.

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Jose Marti—a Cuban nationalist and radical writer—identified Twain’s importance in his sympathy for the people at the bottom and his disgust with hierarchy and privilege.

He has been in the burning workshops where the country was forged: with those who make mistakes, with those who fall in love, with those who rob, with those who live in solitude and people it, and with those who build. He liked to wander and once he had seen man in one place, he took his leave, longing to see him in another. . . . He knows men, and the trouble they take to hide or disguise their defects; and he loves to tell things so that the real man—hypocritical, servile, cowardly, wanton—drops from the last line of this story like a puppet from the hands of the clown who toyed with it. (50)

In this way, Twain was a writer who understood that looking at the world from below meant getting a bit dirty. Working people, the marginalized, the exploited are not saints and their stories are not often pretty. Marti sums up very well the importance of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as a document about class struggle and the odious nature of privilege.

Jose Marti

Jose Marti

One thing that anti-colonial history teaches us is that the essential values of freedom, equality, and the potential for human progress existed across the world. In my view one of the greatest of these voices (and one of the most important to be revived at a time when the Chinese state is expanding its power and state capitalism is tightening its noose around Chinese working people) is Lu Xun. The selection here is just his introduction to a Chinese translation of Eve’s Diary and reveals little of his broader libertarian values, but like Marti, Lu Xun was a nationalist, but a nationalist whose values were focused first on expanding human freedom. The state-makers of modern China co-opted Lu Xun for their purposes, the fate of many nationalist writers.

Lu Xun

Lu Xun

Many writers were drawn to Mark Twain because of his informal and free style of writing. This is particularly true of William Dean Howells: Twain’s good friend. “He would take whatever offered itself to his hand out of that mystical chaos.” (88) This is rare and potentially powerful in the hands of a person with a great ability to observe and understand the world. If, as Italian writer Livia Bruni said: “[Mark Twain] remained an enthusiast for liberty, truth, and justice, a staunch enemy of every kind of oppression,” this is because he was recording the world as it was, without overly intellectualizing or organizing the facts.

Many foreign writers seemed to look at Mark Twain as the quintessential American writer. George Ade pointed out that his long period abroad made him well known, but never risked his status as an American writer (unlike, one suspects Henry James). Ade, an American, called him “the best of our emissaries.” (126) And foreigner writers seemed to always talk about Twain not just as an American writer, but as a student of American democracy, finding his backwoods upbringing and unpretentious lifestyle crucial elements in his work. For class-conscious and aristocratic Europe, this was striking. Jorge Luis Borges wrote that “Mark Twain is only imaginable in America.” (177) Yet, the comparison with Voltarie and Cervantes is made by a handful of writers. It is likely significant that the world was coming to know America through Mark Twain at a time when America’s rise was clear to observers. No longer a distant and insignificant republic, the US was becoming an empire. For all of his anti-imperialism, perhaps Twain serviced this empire in a strange way, for he was often describing an America long dead in the age of industrialism and capital.

H. L. Mencken contrasts Twain with Hawthorne, Poe, Whitman, and Emerson. Of these writers, only Twain was American in an unalienated sense. The others were great amid “a very backward state of culture.” (145) For Whitman, democracy was “simply a figment of his imagination.” (145) Twain was of America and his greatness emerged from America of reality, not of ideals. Mencken may be suggesting that this makes Twain the first post-revolutionary American writer (although he does not say that). In a revolutionary era, culture had to be self-conscious, idealistic, and work in the world of abstractions. The very non-ideological nature of Twain’s writings, which made him so difficult to label or interpret, is at the heart of his libertarian Americanism.

James Baldwin, “The Devil Finds Work” (1976)

The long essay by James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, is a personal history of film.  It is a rather clever approach because us moderns learn a great deal about the world and ourselves from films.  Particularly in our youth, films are quite real to us. Television and cell phones may be taking over the function as cultural parents but screens have this power of telling us what we want truth to be, even if they best the can manage are clever simulations.  On my Philip K. Dick project, I was just writing on the images of work in television and film.  Series like Seinfeld and The Office stress that work is something boring, odious, and to be avoided.  Much of these series involve people avoiding work while they are there, or (in the case of Seinfeld) surviving without jobs.  Films like Office Space and The Good Girl make a similar point that work is essentially mind-numbing and useless.  This has been a powerful image for me and I likely have internalized many of these messages, but the fact is for millions of workers, labor remains physically demanding, scientifically managed, and constant.  I doubt we could ever see a series like The Office documenting the lives of Foxcom workers.  We simply cannot believe they would have time for games in such a place.  But now I am wondering if the average office environment is much more accommodating of the workers’ whims.  The Office is what we want work to be, because we cannot face the reality.

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Benedict Anderson argued that print culture was the glue that united the people into an “imagined community” at the time that loyalty to religion and empire faded.  To survive death, we needed to new device and that became nation.  Print capitalism made nationalism possible by forcing on us a common language, a common culture discussion, common expectations, and a common mythology.  Subcultures and alternatives were not cultivated because it was not cost effective to do so.  I believe that argument is convincing for the 19th century.  It is also convincing for the 20th century, but we need to add films and television now as the conveyers of a common culture.

So, Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work can be read as cultural studies.  He explores a couple of questions.  The first is, what was the role of film in his personal development and emerging consciousness of the color line?  As we know from his other writings, there is little that films could add to daily life in Harlem to convince Baldwin that he was an outsider in his own country, but films did seem to play a role.  The second question has to do with the role of film in interpreting and sustaining the color line.  He moves on from the films of his youth to deconstruct popular films like The Exorcist and racially progressive films like In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  The trajectory of the analysis goes from the childhood subjectivity to adult objectivity and criticism.   I wonder how many film viewers today make this chance?  I know adults who get excited about summer blockbusters as if they were still grade-school children.   But maybe this maturation is a bit sad.   There is a wonder in how children look at film.  “I was a child, of course, and therefore, unsophisticated.  I don’t seem ever to have any innate need (or, indeed, any innate ability) to distrust people: and so I took Bill Miller as she was, or as she appeared to be to me.” (481)

One of the issues Baldwin seemed to face as a child was that most of the faces he saw on the screen were white, or to be more precise, not familiar to Baldwin’s world.  “It is not entirely true that no one from the world I knew had yet made an appearance on the American screen: there were, for example, Stepin Setchit and Willie Best and Manton Moreland, all of whom, rightly or wrongly, I loathed.  It seemed to me that they lied about the world I knew, and debased it, and certainly I did not know anyone like them–as far as I could tell; for it is also possible that their comic, bug-eyed terror contained the truth concerning a terror by which I hoped never to be engulfed.” (492)  After 25 pages of these youthful memories, Baldwin moves straight into cultural analysis.  I will just point out a couple highlights.

He contrasts In the Heat of the Night and The Birth of a Nation, seeing them as similar films that simply shift some of the roles and do so in ways that strain credulity, considering the context of racial conflict and violence surrounding the film.  “In The Birth of a Nation, the Sheriff would have been an officer of the Klan.  The widow would, secretly, have been sewing Klan insignia.  The murdered man would have been a carpetbagger.  Sam would have been a Klan deputy.  The troublesome poor whites would have been mulattoes.  And Virgil Tibbs would have been the hunted, not the hunter.  It is impossible to pretend that this state of affairs has really altered: a black man, in any case, had certainly best not believe everything he sees in the movies.” (521)

He was harsh on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, the film about a successful black doctor who wants to marry a white woman.  The story climaxes with the acceptance of the parents of this union.  Spencer Tracy plays the liberal white father who is forced to take seriously his views on racial equality.  He was troubled by the film’s inclusion of a stock figure of American film, “the loyal nigger maid.” (532) This figure existed in films for decades and even finds its way into this progressive deception of interracial coupling.  He also found the portrayal of the physicians parents unrealistic, both in their condensation of his upward mobility.  In reality, their pride would have been more conspicuous and the lack of it suggested a misunderstanding of “the wonder doctor’s eminence, and the effect that this would have on his parents.” (535)  Worst, however, is the quick exile of the couple from the United States.  This was a failure to follow through on the challenge of the film.  An interracial marriage is acceptable to society and to the parents, as long as the couple leaves as soon as possible.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Lawrence of Arabia justified empire.

Baldwin discusses his work on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, although this was a failed effort, Spike Lee used this script as the basis of his film on Malcolm X.  He talks about how difficult it is to make the transition from novels to film and reveals anxiety over the loss of creative autonomy when working with a group, a necessity in film making.

The Exorcist terrified Baldwin for it told the true story about how we are surrounded by demons.  “For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror.  It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself.  The devil has no need of any dogma–though he can use them all–nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention.  He does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.” (571)

I found this to be a wonderful and engaging book.  It makes us ponder the power of film over how we look at the world and a reminder that the real world is much worse or much better than the crude simulacra we have managed to construct.