01 September 2008

Subway Reading: James T. Farrell’s The Silence of History

Earlier this summer, I picked up a weathered copy of James T. Farrell’s The Silence of History (1963) from the sale rack outside Walden Pond Books in Oakland and walked up to the register with a trepidatious heart. A few years ago, I had dropped by to look for the film historian Jay Leyda’s work on Soviet cinema Kino only to have the owner give me a lecture on his one disappointing meeting with Leyda, all the while shooting me a look as though I were some ugsome social democratic scalawag. Now, here I was buying a novel by a one-time Trotskyite, written well after he had started drifting rightwards. Even worse, I was open for criticism for not reading the better-known Studs Lonigan trilogy before this minor work.

I considered turning on my heel and slipping the book back to its life next to other unwanted tomes, but as weary readers of MTBE may have already caught on, I’m a sucker for minor works. Especially those produced in the later years of authors and artists, like Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent or Walker Evans’ Polaroids. Moreover, the book was dedicated to Surya Kumari, an Indian nationalist singer, dancer and actor who was well-known at mid-century, though I had (and still have) no idea why Farrell might dedicate a book to her.

Driven by curiosity, I mustered the courage to confront the owner with my purchase, come what lectures and odious glares may.

None did.


The Silence of History is a semi-autobiographical psychological portrait of Eddie Ryan, a twenty-two year old working-class Irish kid working his way through college as a service station attendant in 1926. More precisely, the novel is a portrait of one particular moment in Eddie’s life—his decision to quit his job at Rawlinson Oil and to focus on trying to make something better of himself, to escape his neighborhood, and to matter in some grand historical scheme that he is becoming vaguely aware of through his readings in history and social thought.

Or as Farrell puts it in the passage that ham-handedly reveals the meaning of the book’s title:

And he heard the clang-banging of the Rawlinson sign, and the hard blowing and whizzing of the mass of wind. He was in the silence of history. And so was Deacon and old man Jameson, and his family, his grandmother, and uncles and aunt, and his dead father, and all of them, the dead and the living…He pumped ten gallons of gasoline into the car. He was far away from history. (169)
As Eddie tries to figure out the world around him and how to escape its mundane traps and find a way into history, Farrell takes the reader on a tour of the social world of an aspiring poor kid from immigrant Chicago. We are walked through the lives and histories of Eddie’s best friend, his grandmother, his history professor, and his bosses.

The problem is that none of these sketches involve characters who change over the course of the novel. The reader is given intersection rather than interaction, exposition rather than revelation. Sometimes, when Farrell manages to portray a person just right, this clumsiness can be forgiven.

At other times, such as in the depiction of Eddie’s object of affection Thelma Carson, one wonders if Farrell is mocking his own style. For instance, here is Thelma in her room, reading nineteenth-century Russian classics and Nietzsche’s The Antichrist:
Her bright room, lined with books and with pictures of her father, her mother, her grandparents, Woodrow Wilson, General Lee, Lord Byron, and George Washington, was her virginal sanctuary, but as she read, she would sometimes suddenly have the crazy wish for the wind to smash the windows, knock her down, turn into a god and violate her maidenliness with the strength of a god. (334)

Trudging through these passages, I kept hoping that some deus ex machina would appear to reveal what Farrell was getting at with these endless, often entirely unconvincing descriptions.

No such luck. After 374 pages, I have no idea why Farrell thought the reader should indulge his rambling like a drunk, faded former high-school football star atop a barstool, remembering his glory days and how each particular play worked in his magnificent victory during the homecoming match-up his senior year.

Maybe this is what happens when a writer loses his moral and political compass and all that remains is a fuzzy realist dictum about depicting life as it is. As such, The Silence of History stands as an interesting parable about the writer lost. But perhaps it would be best if this work was lost to history itself.


Coming soon: Peter Weiss's The Aesthetics of Resistance and John Fante's Ask the Dust


discog said...

I agree I just finished this book and I'm not sure what I read, which is the reason I read this review and was relieved to find I was not alone.

BackpackerBill said...

Thanks for the review which jibes with my view.
I knew Jim Farrell before he wrote this one. I sat in a bar drinking one for one with him, while he told me in drunken fantasy about his plan, a series on The Silence of History -- twenty-three volumes!
Sadly, he was well gone in his juice, as I was too at the time. Golly this was in the late 1950s. We'd both been Trotskyites, disillusioned with the way the Soviets had gone and how they had Trotsky whacked off with an ice ax in Mexico. So we drank about the hopelessness of our idealism. I was a generation younger than him with starry-eyed ambition to become a novelist. Never happened. But I sobered up and made a great living ghostwriting and publishing.
Just relating about the general political ennui of those post-WW II days. Your review is on the button, for the novel does reflect this listless drunken side of those days for a lot of us ideologues.