By Leonard Bishop
Sensible writers live with the knowledge that no matter how great or popular they become, they are quickly replaceable. Who today, ever reads or remembers James T. Farrell?
In the 1930’s, 1940’s, and into the 1950’s, writers and readers were overwhelmed by the power and magnitude of his books. His American classic Studs Lonigan was so blunt and naturalistic it had to be issued as a medical book. His short stories about the peat-bog Irish in Chicago were printed in all magazines. His books of critical essays, particularly The League of Frightened Philistines is still a model of organized outrage against the “big lie” of society, the asininity of the political mind, the fakery and corrupt influence of Hollywood.
In his later years, when he was sick and realized that he was ignored by the ‘award givers,’ he still wrote what he believed should be written.
I used to play chess and party with James T. Farrell. He was a friendly, hard drinking man who always helped younger writers. His review and testimony about my first novel helped it become a best seller.
In 1958 he was asked by Columbia University to “team-teach” a course in creative writing. He asked if I would teach with him. It almost destroyed our relationship.
His eyes were becoming weak and I was openly antisocial. We came to an arrangement. I would read the students’ manuscripts and save his eyes; he would attend the faculty functions and save my reputation.
We were vigorous instructors. The students were working on their master and doctoral degrees. Their years of academic training had lobotomized them from personal expression, from an awareness of human drama. They were horrible writers. They were unteachable. I kept reading the banal, pedantic stories. Jimmy kept going to the faculty teas to chat with the professors of history, music, sociology, Greek philosophy, etc. We disliked the students because they were educated frumps. The students hated us because we were not professors.
One evening, before a class started, Jimmy came charging into the room and began cursing me out as a clever, shrewd, cunning Jew who had taken advantage of him, a genial, happy-go-lucky Irishman. He pounded the desk, kicked the chairs, flung erasers at the blackboard. I stood there, not knowing whether to hear him out or to punch him out. “What the #&*($# is wrong with you Jimmy? What the *%#^&#$ did I do?” He shook his fist at me. “You deliberately maneuvered me into believing my eyes were weak so you could read the manuscripts to drive me into attending the faculty functions. I’d rather go blind and lose my virility than attend another one!”
We argued. I refused to relent on the arrangements. Being in the presence of the academic mind is like living in the center of stale bread.
He got drunk that night. The next day he was calmer. He concluded that only a truly great writer and a magnanimous humanitarian had the nobility to endure a prolonged interval with a university faculty. He kept to our arrangement but taught through clenched teeth.
James T. Farrell is dead now, and I miss him. When I re-read his books, I feel his presence.
(first published June 3, 1984 The Manhattan Mercury)
©by Leonard Bishop