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Resources for American Literary Study 26.1 (2000) 136-138
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A Paris Year: Dorothy and James T. Farrell, 1931-1932
A Paris Year: Dorothy and James T. Farrell, 1931-1932. By Edgar Marquess Branch. Athens: Ohio UP, 1998. xviii + 219 pp. $24.95.
James T. Farrell (1904-79) is perhaps the only deceased American novelist of major stature still lacking a comprehensive and authoritative critical biography. Journalistic accounts abound, and the steady production of critical essays and dissertations emphasizes his literary style and philosophy. But no scholar with a capacity to assemble the key components of Farrell's life and work into a coherent and compelling narrative has stepped forward. What is required, first of all, is a major research effort into the details of Farrell's personal experiences, as well as his political and cultural associations. Also necessary is a sophisticated understanding of his relation to his Irish Catholic ethnicity and the varieties of Marxism with which he was engaged for most of his life. Finally, his work cries out for a contemporary appreciation of the extraordinary potential of his novels and fiction for engaging in complex ways the current generation's concerns with mass culture, masculinity, and ethnic formation.
Edgar M. Branch, known also as a Mark Twain scholar, has certainly contributed the lion's share of the scaffolding for such a project. A Paris Year is a fresh and cogent addition to the edifice of the House of Farrell that Branch has been constructing for more than forty years. His strategy is to focus on the events leading up to the April 1931 departure of Farrell and his bride for Paris and their return to New York in April 1932. Through an intense scrutiny of Farrell's activities, Branch is able to provide a fresh perspective on a variety of concerns in the literary and personal life of the artist who would create the Studs Lonigan Trilogy (1932-35), the O'Neill-O'Flaherty Pentalogy (1935-53), and scores of other novels, as well as produce [End Page 136] memorable stories and essays in literary criticism, not to mention a smattering of poetry, drama, journalism, and a baseball diary.
The key chapters treat Farrell's attempt in the late 1920s to launch his literary career in Chicago and New York at the same time that he was courting a well-to-do University of Chicago student several years his junior, Dorothy Butler. Branch covers Farrell's residencies on the Left Bank and in the semirural suburb of Sceaux; the death of his firstborn child, Sean; and the events leading to his departure for the United States in the depths of the Great Depression. During this year, Farrell completed Young Lonigan (1932) and Gas-House McGinty (1933), as well as numerous stories. He developed literary friendships with Samuel Putnam, Kay Boyle, Ezra Pound, Peter Neagoe, and others. Moreover, in Branch's assessment, Farrell returned with a new maturity and self-confidence that would enable him to persist in one of the most remarkably productive American literary careers.
The strength of Branch's short survey lies in his meticulous use of sources, a talent already demonstrated in Branch's earlier books and bibliographies about Farrell. At a time when literary theorizing and talk of "the death of the author" seem to have unmoored scholarship from responsible documentation and clarity of statement, Branch sets a high standard for the new generation of scholars. Any future student or academic studying Farrell will have to pay careful attention to the data presented in this book, and to the sources employed as verification.
However, a future biographer of Farrell would not be able to imitate the method employed here in order to examine other years of Farrell's life, that is, not if he or she hopes to hold the attention of the reader. Branch's recitation of the facts of daily living is valuable in recreating the historical and social context: we know just how much Farrell paid for everything, from meals to abortions; we...