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.


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.


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)


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.