Saturday, March 18, 2006


So, I just finished Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell. It is a book about the life of a South Side Irish kid from the early 1910s through the 1930s. He grows up at 58th and Michigan and 55th and Wabash, until the family moves to 71st and Stony Island or so. The family is Irish, and Catholic, and working class. Exactly the population from the interwar years I had never read about.

I will freely admit that for the first hundred pages or so, I was not enthusiastic. Studs is about 15, he's graduating from grade school, and he is sort of a young, goofy kid. Frankly, he's not that interesting. However, because his old neighborhood at 55th and Wabash is now the middle of an enormous set of projects, I was interested to read about the neighborhood. The book gets much better right about the time you start thinking that you've had your fill of the 'hood.

In any case, what shocked me about this book, written in the 1930s, is that it deals with issues that are very modern. In the milieu in which Studs operates there are gays, lesbians, Communists, racists, white flight, pedophiles, class issues, and a bunch of other people/ideas/phenomena that we tend to think of as modern. It is apparent that they are not. Instead, it seems that the way we teach the history of the twentieth century might be deficient. I mean, the way I learned twentieth century history was a straight line narrative that went thus:

1898 really starts the century when the U.S. beat Spain in the Spanish-American War.
1917 the Lusitania is sunk.
1918 America single-handedly wins World War I.
1920s Everyone is rich and drinks booze with flappers.
1930s There is a Depression and people from Oklahoma move to California.
1940s America single-handedly wins World War II.
1950s America is innocent, wide-eyed, and prosperous. Nobody has any understanding of racism, homosexuality, or any of the seven deadlies actually existing in America.
1960s We never got to the 60s.
1970s Hell, this is when the history books we used in 1984 were published!

Either Farrell was writing in the 1930s about stuff that nobody but him was aware of, or everything I learned about the 1950s was complete crap. I'm guessing the latter.

Anyway, read Studs Lonigan. Read it like a diary from the era in a neighborhood that will never return. The el that is discussed is gone, replaced by the train in the middle of the Dan Ryan. The houses are gone, replaced by red brick project high rises that are now being torn down. The Irish are gone, left only in Bridgeport, Beverely, and the suburbs. Maybe read it as a bildungsroman, but it definitely will help illuminate that which the history books ignored.


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