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THE IRISH CATHOLIC SCHOOLING OF JAMES T. FARRELL, 1914–23 RON EBEST during a 1978 symposium on the subject of the Thirties held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, James T. Farrell, the most important chronicler of Irish-American life in the Wrst half of the twentieth century, oVered an observation about his Studs Lonigan trilogy. He made his remark, he later recalled, irrelevant of any question of belief or disbelief [in God] but merely as explanatory for those who could understand. I said that few commentators on Studs Lonigan take cognizance of what it means that he had grown up as a Catholic and had gone to parochial school. This means among other things that Studs absorbed a sense of order in the world, order from the beginning of time until the end of time and then, in timeless eternity. There was nodding, but I don’t believe that many of them understood what I meant.1 The purpose of this essay is to “take cognizance” of the eVect of Roman Catholic education on Farrell’s thought and work. Catholic education oVered Farrell the framework within which he began his intellectual life, and from which he never extricated himself. It was, therefore, the most signiWcant element in the formation of modern Irish-American literature’s foremost intellect. James T. Farrell began his education at Corpus Christi Parochial Grammar School on Forty-ninth street in South Chicago in 1911, the year of his beloved Aunt Bessie Daly’s death. Changes in fortune caused his family to relocate on May 1, 1915, to the Washington Park neighborhood he would later memorialize in Studs Lonigan, in the O’Neill-O’Flaherty cycle, and in scores of short stories. There he entered, at age eleven, the Wfth THE IRISH CATHOLIC SCHOOLING OF JAMES T. FARRELL, 1914–1923 18 1 Letter from James T. Farrell to Leander Troy, O. C. C. 28 October 1978, Mt. Carmel Archives, Chicago, Illinois. grade of St. Anselm’s Parish School, which appears in Farrell’s Washington Park canon as St. Patrick’s. By Farrell’s own account, it was there that his consciousness as a writer was awakened. It was awakened by his eighth-grade teacher, a woman he later identiWed in stories and essays as “Sister Magdalen.” Born in Centerline, Michigan on June 21, 1874, and christened Margaret Miller, “Sister Magdalen” took the name Mary Magdalen upon her entrance to the community of the Sisters of Providence in 1893. In photographs of the period, she wears a gentle expression, spectacles, a full habit, a large cruciWx at her throat, and a rosary that dangles from her waist. Farrell describes her as tall and dark, with keen black eyes under heavy eyebrows. Among her fellow religious she was known for her artistic temperament, and for her prodigious skills as a teacher. When Farrell met her, she was about forty-Wve years old.2 Young Farrell’s relationship with this woman was a signiWcant one. He was by his own account a “nervous” child, “troubled,” prone to chewing Wngernails and biting oV pencil erasers. He regarded himself as an “outsider” among schoolmates who would sometimes “ditch” him. So psychologically inhibited was Farrell that he found himself incapable of articulating his thoughts in his own private diary, out of a terror that someone might read them. For such a child, the rough and tumble environment engendered by some of St. Anselm’s teachers must have proven particularly diYcult. There reclacitrant male students were “screamed and shouted at,” struck with paddles, or made to leave their seats “to stand or kneel in front of the room.” Farrell found the experience so debilitating that his class scores plummeted and he feared he would not be promoted to the eighth grade. Into this arid environment came Sister Magdalen. Kind, friendly, interested in all that interested Farrell—even baseball—Magdalen inspired such tender feelings in the boy that soon he began to think of [her] not as a mere teacher and a nun, but also as my friend.” Within a few weeks under her tutelage, Farrell “was a diVerent boy.” His class performance improved to such an extent that he was given charge of grading homework THE...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 18-32
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-31
Open Access
No
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