A Lion at Bay

The Life & Art of James T. Farrell

I first came upon James T. Farrell (1904–1979) as a possible subject for a book around 1990, in a memoir by Sloan Wilson, the author of that emblematic novel of the 1950s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Wilson had encountered the older novelist, whose work he’d long admired, during a brief stay at a New York hotel in 1961, and in his 1976 memoir he made Farrell seem an interesting character. Wilson looked upon the author of Studs Lonigan, which was still regarded as a modern classic, as “a lion at bay,” roaring defiance at publishers and editors. Saluting Wilson, to his great delight, as “a real writer,” Farrell advised him to hang on to his “vitality,” as he asserted he himself had done, boasting that he’d undergone surgery for stomach ulcers—“and four days later I laid the night nurse.” “That’s vitality,” Wilson responded, though he didn’t believe Farrell’s boast.

From Wilson, I proceeded to Studs Lonigan (1935). I’d become aware in college of Farrell’s best-known work, but had never read it. I discovered that the trilogy about a swaggering young “tough guy” from a lower-middle-class Irish family on Chicago’s South Side had retained its vitality. I also read some of Farrell’s novels in the O’Neill-O’Flaherty series (based on...

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About the Author

Robert K. Landers is the author of An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell (Encounter Books).