Robert K. Landers | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Robert K. Landers 

When you think of writers defined by or who themselves have defined Chicago, you think Bellow, Algren, Dreiser, Sinclair. Maybe Sandburg; maybe Hecht. You might think of James T. Farrell too, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy--Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935)--but he's always occupied a lower level of the pantheon, perhaps rightly so. Other than Lonigan, a tale of working-class Irish-Americans getting by on the mean streets of Chicago's southwest side and widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of naturalism, how many of Farrell's dozens of titles can you name? (You can put your hand down, Mr. Terkel.) Robert K. Landers's new biography, An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell (Encounter Books), released to coincide with the centennial of Farrell's birth, is a portrait of a writer who may have been his own worst enemy. He's indeed described as an "honest writer" by more than one reviewer (as well as by himself), though Algren slagged his later work, New Republic literary editor Malcolm Cowley called him "a pretentious windbag," and H.L. Mencken told him that if he wanted to develop as a writer he should "stay away from booze, women, and politics." Critics panned him first for revisiting the same stories and then for his lack of realism when he strayed from the streets of Chicago. Landers devotes ample attention to Farrell's career but also to his messy romances (including a marriage to actress Hortense Alden), his embrace of and subsequent disenchantment with the Communist Party, his contentious relationships with publishers, and his driven but often childish nature. He was amazingly prolific, often a total mess--physically unkempt and increasingly dependent on drugs. As an admiring secretary came to think of him: "Farrell had every attribute of genius except perhaps one: genius." Landers will discuss An Honest Writer at 5:30 PM on Wednesday, March 3, in the Chicago Authors Room of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State, 312-747-4080.

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