Sam Holman by James T. Farrell Prometheus Books; Buffalo, NY.
Achieving self-definition through self-division is a truly impossible mission, but the cordless ego of contemporary liberalism continues to try to repopulate the world with its own image. That the result would be a universe of images reflecting a totalitarian state does not disturb the liberal gestapo. Without history, they cannot see the moral measure of their own selfishness. Thus, although they claim that right and left meet at their extremes, a little thought shows the difference between individualism and selfishness. Conservatism remembers; the cordless ego always wants to forget.
The editors of the Wall Street Journal recently made this same discovery as they criticized the Stanford University academics who are opposed to the Hoover Institution and a Reagan Library:
The battle at Stanford tells a lot about what passes for the noble tradition of liberalism on the campus these days… it seems to have been appropriated by a fringe that doesn’t seem to think it should have to play by the rules it so noisily proclaims for others. When the leaders … first presented their petition, for example, they refused to disclose the names of all the signatories a tactic more typical of nightriders and witch hunters than of scholars dedicated to open inquiry and debate.
What would the editors have made of a ban on support for research in South Africa that recently enabled an eastern campus to reaffirm its liberal commitment? The logic of combating racism by burning books is the same logic that wants to keep anthropologists and researchers after new medicines out of the veldt and into the Soviet Union. Conservatives will see the boot on the other foot. Most of today’s students will miss it. The intellectual egotists posing as scholars have deliberately forgotten the prototypes. This is why current students will never be given James T. Farrell’s Sam Holman to read. They might find out something about the 1930’s and the manipulative techniques of the CPUSA if they did so. Instead they will get a copy of Studs Lanigan and a critique that misattributes that novel’s negativity to the American way. They will be told nothing about Farrell—that would require research conducted by those opposed to research in the first place.
James Farrell was first a communist collaborator, always a Trotskyite intellectual, and last fervently opposed to Marxism. Critics now speak of “his political development through various stages of anti-Stalinist socialism to the liberal internationalism of Stevenson and Kennedy,” but Stevenson and Kennedy would certainly have known the difference. At the start Farrell’s pen was no stranger to the procommunist New Masses, New Freeman, Daily Worker, and Partisan Review (originally a John Reed Club organ); later he was in The New Republic, a collective intellectual heir. His fellow traveling led him eventually to the Trot sky Defense Committee, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Workers Party in which he persisted throughout World War II. But Farrell caught up with his New York intellectual friends who had seen Hitler and the light. In Reflections at Fifty (1954) his rejection is explicit:
Since the end of World War II, America has been under constant attack by Moscow. Over and over again, Communist propagandists have attempted to convince West Europeans that America is without tradition and culture, that its freedom is a lie, and that it seeks to precipitate a third World War. Gloomily, I must grant that this propaganda has had some influence on the minds of some of the West European intellectuals, though today America has become the hope of man kind. For America stands as the biggest and strongest bastion of freedom in a world menaced by totalitarians.
So wrote Farrell having 30 years earlier approved of Lenin’s thoughts on the function of propaganda in literature. His recantation is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s 1982 discovery that communist anti-Semitism had something to do with nazism. Farrell’s Trip to Hanoi is called Dewey in Mexico, which remembers the leftist pilgrimage made to defend in person and in exile in 1937. That his tory repeats itself—for those who know history—was to be Farrell’s last discovery.
In the 1960’s American authors combined Sartre, Hesse, and Vietnam to come up with Bob Dylan. Farrell’s generation had other tastes: for them it was Dreiser plus Dewey and the Depression equals Marx. Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Farrell, et al. found Nietzsche in Dreiser. Dewey was teaching at Columbia, and his students included Hook, Schapiro, Trilling, Eastman, Hacker, Solow, Isaacs, and others who would dominate the New York intelligentsia for 30 years. All of them fell in love at the time of Sacco and Vanzetti and out of bed in the years of Stalin and Hitler. Farrell was no different in the end, and his late novels have suffered like those of Lewis and Dos Passos. For liberal critics the best works of all three are the early socialist or proto communist fictions; their later works are always the product of “declining years.” Though Farrell wrote 52 books in his lifetime, he is only known as a one book man, the book being Studs Lonigan (1935), a trilogy made of Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lanigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935). Farrell has this in common with Dante: his Hell is more popular than his Heaven. For liberal critics Judgment Day has the virtue of a final ray of hope in the form of a communist demonstration contrasted with Studs’s personal decline. Farrell’s later works remain buried in critical concrete as though they were radioactive. At best they are acknowledged in a phrase: “His humanism is friendly to reformist social thought and to modern pragmatism.” He changed his mind and wasn’t worth reading after that, intimates the liberal critic.
Certainly Farrell had only one subject—himself as lower-middle class Irish American on the way to being a writer and finally getting there. His two places are the South Side of Chicago where his young men struggle to be artists, and New York’s Greenwich Village where artists struggle to become writers by getting published. Studs fails because he crushes the sensibility and sensitivity that embarrass his tough guy image. Next came three volumes (1936, 1938, 1940) that show why Danny O’Neill succeeds and gets as far as the University of Chicago. Farrell added a fourth volume, My Days of Anger, in 1943 to make explicit just how family and church steer Danny toward fiction and away from the Party. The Village is the setting of the Bernard Carr trilogy that followed (1946, 1949, 1952). The struggle to publish quickly becomes the class struggle, but as Bernard makes it as a writer (very much a la Norman Podhoretz) he turns his back upon Party and socialists both as the two confront each other at a packed pro -Trotsky meeting. Bernard is left just about where Farrell was when he wrote in the Partisan Review:
I have long been an opponent of Stalinism, But I am not in favor of an alliance of intellectuals which is based solely on opposition to Russia. Such an alliance will only play into the hands of our own war mongers. I consider Stalin to be in the Hitler war camp and his politics to be Red imperialism. But in order to fight one imperialism, I do not want to join another one. I am against both imperialisms.
Though Farrell had twice revised both his own and his protagonists’ politics he was still a long way from the conservatism of Reflections at Fifty. But his decision to add another novel, The Face of Time (whose title tells us that Yeats’s conservatism was appealing), to the Danny O’Neill books in 1953 suggests a desire for further revision and renewed appreciation of the role of the family in Danny’s success.
At 50, Farrell appeared to be wrapping it up. He wrote no novels for 10 years, until The Silence of History appeared in 1963. It began a series about another young Irish-American writer, this time called Eddie Ryan. What Time Collects (1964), Lonely for the Future (1966), Invisible Swords (1971), and Sam Holman (posthumously in 1983) followed. If these books are unknown, it’s probably because critics like Granville Hicks admitted that they hadn’t bothered to read the early volumes while they were reviewing the later ones. The Ryan novels begin where the prior trilogy ended: “Socialism might be inevitable, but it won’t save mankind.” History is the enemy of politics because history fosters moral judgment. So Farrell needs to revise one more time—and more explicitly so than ever before. Sam Holman is a restatement of the last of the Bernard Carr books, Yet Other Waters. This time the writer hero begins working for a leftist social science encyclopedia and winds up as a senior editor at Forbes or Fortune. His final essay affirms the democracy of the American workplace. But the bulk of the novel is set in the 30’s, and both Holman and his politics are satirized by Farrell as selfishly selfless. The 30’s are rendered whole because an older Farrell was worried that leaders without history wouldn’t recognize how much the Rubin rhetoric of the 60’s and 70’s was only an echo.
Sam Holman is hardly appetizing. Political awareness that is as egotistical as it is revolutionary separates Sam and his fellow travelers “from so many other New Yorkers, from other Americans, and perhaps even more so, from other Jews.” Readers who want to know which came first—the narcissism or the alienation—soon get an answer as Sam rationalizes Party ethics, “If, in the process of raising funds to free the Booner Boys, it became necessary for the Party to direct some of these funds to other purposes, how pertinent was the criticism that the Party had used these boys to advance its own fundamental aims?” The excuse is that the Party has to corrct history, not just redirect it. In other words—and here Farrell’s analysis wins its point—”he wanted history now!” What he gets is his author’s message, not that the Party had become its own end, but that “the Party was both the means and the end.” To underline the point, Sam’s political dirty tricks become life’s dirty business when his disenchantment with his marriage is made to mirror his falling-out with the CPUSA. Sam does his best in both causes by using his marriage bed with his secretary, co-workers, best friend’s wife, wife’s best friend, and a number of Party handmaidens. (The curious will recognized Vassar graduates—just as the betraying and betrayed of the New York intelligentsia can be identified.) In other words, Sam makes his wife walk out just as he makes the Party expel him be cause he lacks the character to quit. As Farrell puts it:
The full responsibility for expulsion or for his leaving the Party had to be placed on those in control. He … should not say or do anything, unless absolutely necessary, that would lead to quitting or walking out. … If they were steamrolled, they wouldn’t proceed; they would be rolled over. Thrown out. This strategy, he thought, was the best way to get kicked out.
A martyr to Trotsky, a martyr to casual sex, but always a martyr proud that “I’m free—I have relieved myself of a wife and of membership in the Communist Party.” So the Party smears him with false editorials and his wife smears him in her autobiographical novel. He deserves as much. Sam’s martyrdom decays under the attacks. Finally he learns that “the Movement was historic but it did not have the scope of history,” and he doubts Trotsky on the Revolution. In Farrell’s words, the “conceit of history is a little ridiculous.” Unfortunately, the cordless ego is hooked on it.
Sam Holman corrects Maurice Isserman’s Which Side Were You On? The American Communist Party During the Second World War, which makes CPUSA a stepchild of knight-errant liberalism, and William O’Neill’s A Better World—The Great Schism, Stalinism and the American lntellectuals, in which Holman and company are always preferred to neoconservatives. Ultimately even Farrell had no use for either myth. His book also reveals something about politics and publishing, explaining why in The Nation Vonnegut means “good,” whereas in the New York Review of Books “good” means Vidal. In Sam Holman’s literary world writers are even now sharpening their pencils in preparation for an epic about the injustice of a Congress that censures homosexual relations with minors; a few are trying to corner the literary market by turning Sophie’s Choice into a cookbook. Worse, Sam Holman is himself the symbolic literary father of the current generation of unreadable authors mired in liberal cliches. In their books sign-language using apes (the newest noble savages) defeat military computer scientists to ward off ecological disaster; or fatuous film stars prove their liberation in un blushing bedroom biographies; or Latin American revolutions are dissected with a cynicism whose nihilism is ample justification for the policy of President Reagan and Ambassador Kirkpatrick The reader’s depressing sense of déjà vu gives evidence that the cordless ego best loves talking to itself.
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