The Correspondence of James T. Farrell: a smorgasbord of the 20th century

The ring has been cast into the fires of Mount Doom; the dragon has been slain. The sword has been released from the rock and the spell lifted from the lands.  Nearly two years and three hundred boxes later; it is finished.  The correspondence series of James T. Farrell (1904-1979) has been my project since I started working here in the Special Collections at Penn, and while it has certainly sent me through the entire Kübler-Ross cycle of grief, I cannot be happier that this collection is now available to researchers.

Aside from the literary and biographical insight, Farrell’s correspondence  includes a wide range of materials dealing with 20th century thought: political figures, philosophies, the arts, and sports. Additionally, due to Farrell’s intent to keep a record of nearly everything, a variety of materials from fan mail, scathing and silly messages to organizational bulletins, solicitations, and cultural ephemera are preserved in the correspondence.

After sifting through thousands of pages, let me share a few of my favorite offbeat themes found within the Farrell.

Quirks

One cannot start sifting through Farrell’s correspondence without noticing at times it feels as if you are working through graphology puzzles, or as I affectionately like to put it, looking at an electrocardiogram.  Having personally endured Palmer method penmanship classes in grade school, I feel confident assuming that Farrell, who also had a parochial school upbringing, would have been subjected to the same torment.  However, despite my best efforts, often times I found myself wondering if I needed to consult a hieroglyphics expert at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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A mild example of Farrell’s handwriting

Farrell’s handwriting at times was a bear, perhaps accentuated by the use of amphetamines and alcohol, and could quickly became illegible over the course of a letter.  It was very reassuring to see that throughout the correspondence, this was a common issue.  On occasion, Farrell’s handwriting lead to many misunderstandings and arguments, to include a fallout with arguably his biggest professional supporter, James Henle.  However, despite the difficulties presented by Farrell’s scrawling, I believe a letter from Marcus Cunliffe (January 9, 1960) expresses working through the challenge best, “I am getting the hang of it, and the struggle is certainly worthwhile.”

On many occasions, Farrell’s publishers repeatedly pleaded  for him to use a typewriter and eventually he obliged, at least some of the time.

HotelduDanube box 119folder41

Interesting post script

Despite their legibility, these typed letters were not always without Farrell’s idiosyncratic ways.  One of my favorite examples of this is from a letter written to the Hotel du Danube. The letter itself is particularly mundane however, after typing the contents in very light ink, Farrell announced at the very bottom, that he finally had changed the typewriter ribbon.  Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm if the letter was actually sent–copies of unsent correspondence are very common within the collection– however, I find little quirks such as these to be very revealing to the inner workings of James T. Farrell.

Mums and Nuns and Guns, Oh My!

Scholars have asserted that Farrell often was writing autobiographically and used his life and family as blueprints for his stories. Much like himself, a key element to characters found in Farrell’s writing is that they are born and raised Catholic, often attending parish schools.

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A mother, who is none too pleased

On quite a few occasions, Farrell would receive letters from mothers expressing their displeasure with themes in his novels, and the corruption of “the minds of young people.” One mother even took it upon herself use the cover of her son’s copy of Young Lonigan to express her dismay, labeling it “a bad book for boys.”  Mrs. T. Luhy  (Box 153 Folder 10) writes, “I was ashamed that you have on the back cover that you graduated from a Catholic school. Please ask yourself if you wish your little son to read this book when he is in his teens.”

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Letter from Mrs. T. Luhy

As if his penmanship wasn’t enough, Farrell’s portrayal of everyday Catholics also drew the ire of the religious community.  Sister Roberta of the College of Paola (Box 201 Folder 3) warned Farrell about his own salvation. “Mr. Farrell, do you realize you are either directly or indirectly irresponsible for the moral sins committed by every person whom there is a deliberate stirring of venereal pleasures as a result of reading your filth.”  However she concludes, “If you are as your work indicates a fallen away Catholic for whom a good dear old mother prayed or is still praying, get down on your knees, beg pardon of the God whose law of purity you have handled so lightly and broken so violently. Go to a priest and get your past cleared.  I shall be happy to pray for you.  And in future consecrate your creative gift to God spreading His kingdom on earth through a clean, Catholic press.”

Although most of these letters were not met with replies, Farrell did make it a point to document them and include them in his papers.  He even offered additional information for this lively correspondent.

Szostak, Aleander Box233 Folder 9

Szostak, Alexander: A lunatic who wrote letters to me, once threatened to kill me.             (Box 223 Folder 9)

The Triumph of Farrell

Although he endured many personal attacks on his character, James T. Farrell enjoyed a large share of fans and friends, who seemed to revel in his non conventional ways. Never a silent by-stander, Farrell fought to ensure he would be remembered, by any means necessary.  The James T. Farrell papers represents his legacy as an insatiable writer and collector who by personal effort and determination, left an amazing collection of 20th century thought for those in the future to dissect.

I leave you with poem written by Paul J. Gabriner, an early fan of Farrell.

Gabriner, Paul J. Box102F50

“Poem for a Die-hard Writer of Great Novels” (Box 102 Folder 50)

“…and though time is growing late, greatness never leaves the great.”

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