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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Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories” (1973)

The twenty four stories in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories shift across the Jewish Diaspora creating a network of relationships and themes across Poland, New York, and Palestine. His most common characters are scholars frustrated by profound questions or hedonists without an ultimate purpose. The stories set in the United States are mostly shrouded by the legacy of the Holocaust. This was not a strong theme in some of his earlier stories that I looked at months ago in this blog. It seems that the Holocaust became a greater part of Singer’s consciousness over time. In the same way, the Diaspora becomes more significant. His first stories were all set in Poland and emerged from Jewish folklore. These carry on elements of that folklore tradition but thrust them onto a global stage. One thing that seems to run throughout his work without too much alternation is the feeling that characters have lost control of their lives, whether due to malevolent beings, malevolent historical burden, or others powers (institutions, family, and ideas). As with A Friend of Kafka, the characters in A Crown of Feathers are unable to find freedom under the heavy weight of the historical burden they carry. Even in the mundane and slightly beneficial this is true. “The man in the white uniform must have been the owner, or the manager, and the cashier didn’t want him to see that he was a customer get by without paying. The powers were conspiring to provide me with one stroke of luck after another. I went out, and through the glass door I saw the cashier and the man in the white uniform laughing. They were laughing at me, the greenhorn, with my Yiddish.” (304)

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One thing we can consistently take away from Singer’s work is that freedom is difficult and the institutions that surround us shape so much of the details of our lives that escape is often unthinkable. The solution is either resistance, flight, or acceptance. However, none of these really work out. Flight most of all, because if the demons from Poland can come to haunt Jewish immigrants in New York (or more to the point the brutal legacy of the Holocaust). I am often reminded of Melville’s thesis in Omoo when I ponder desertion, flight and migration in respect to freedom. In his maritime fiction, Melville’s characters were often seeking something better elsewhere but always feel short, necessitating a permanent state of wandering. This may be seen most strongly in Mardi, where the wandering is truly endless.  Singer’s scale is less grand and his characters less able to move. Whether due to family, tradition, language, or age, their mobility cannot take them much farther than New York (or more rarely Miami). These migrants had one chance to leave the burdens of their homeland and they failed.

A Crown of Feathers also discusses the legacy of Jewish radicalism in the later twentieth century. Movement anarchists do not often come up in American literature despite the fact that vernacular anarchists are almost always there (a point I am trying to make in this blog). Singer’s Jewish intellectuals in Poland or New York often had ties to anarchists movements, but he describes these people as used up radicals, sometimes akin to the dried up and useless hedonists he also likes to describe. This point is strongest in the story “Property,” which is a deeply nostalgic look at these radicals. “Our Socialists have completely cooled off. They use the old phrases, but the spirit isn’t there. As for our Communists, they read the Red Sheet every morning, and repeat it like gospel… If their paper came out saying that Stalin was an enemy of the people and a mad dog, they would repeat it too.” (338) The anarchists were in decline even though Singer asserts that they were the ones with individuality (“even the ignorant ones had a kind of independence.”) Most of the story is a conversation with a movement anarchist Max Peshkin, who like the narrator, has moved to New York from Poland. However, his old radicalism exists only in memory, like the pictures of radical thinkers hanging on the apartment walls of washed up movement activists. Peshkin’s story moves from discussing the state of the movement to giving a rather gratuitous account of one of his affairs. The affair becomes metaphoric for the movement. “Strange, I remember in all its details how our affair began, but I have forgotten how it collapsed.” (346) If you read any histories of radical movements and revolutions you will know that this is commonly true.  (This is actually a good thing, since it means that movements and currents never fully die. Their body is never found.)

A second story on the theme of radicalism in Jewish life takes a look from the completely opposite perspective. “Grandfather and Grandson” is about a young man who rejects his grandfather’s strong Jewish identity through the emergence of his anti-capitalist beliefs. Instead of “Property,” which looked at a dying radical spirit this story considers it at its birth. As an idealistic and rather uninformed socialist, the youth thinks that all exploitation is rooted in capitalism. His grandfather tries to correct him by looking (like Singer does in these stories) at the numerous powers working to take away our freedom. The son thinks that capitalism is the only cause of Antisemitism. But his grandfather reminds him that “whoever rules will persecute Jews.” (552) I suppose both views are narrow and can be broken down without too much trouble, but we do find in this generational tale how the immigrants were ultimately able to break free of one form of ideological confinement (only to enter another one).

Singer wrote these tales at a time when cultural malaise was strong across America, affecting not only Jewish immigrants burdened by the legacy of the Holocaust. The paralysis evident in these tales is as horrifying as any of the demons that Singer’s characters encounter.

Here is Studs Terkel’s interview with Singer.