‘Studs’ finders

Local publisher first among fans of famed novelist James T. Farrell prepping for centennial celebration


The James T. Farrell Underground is preparing to surface in Paris next year.

There is no list of members; no one even knows how many of them there are.

But the underground is out there, and Spencer resident Marshall Brooks and another Farrell fan, Robert Fine, who lives in New Jersey, are working to bring perhaps 100 devotees together late next spring to celebrate the centennial of the American author’s birth.

Mr. Farrell, who died in 1979, is best known for writing the Studs Lonigan trilogy, which is set in a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago in the early decades of the 20th century.

Through the main character, Studs, Mr. Farrell brought to life a repressive and violent culture that demanded conformity and prohibited any avenues — reading or learning of any kind, for instance — that would free the spirit and permit one to break away.

“Studs is instantly recognizable,” Mr. Brooks said in an interview in the living room of his Victorian home overlooking Main Street. “He is someone everyone knows — a tough guy trapped in a violent world.

“Inarticulate males is a popular theme in Farrell’s novels,” he continued. “They have sensitive thoughts and feelings, but are embarrassed by them.”

Mr. Farrell, who wrote more than 50 novels and many short stories and essays, is considered among the literati to be one of the most influential writers of his generation. Kurt Vonnegut, Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer all have said they were profoundly affected by the Studs Lonigan novels, which were groundbreaking in their day for their use of violence, sex and profanity. The novels prompted several lawsuits against the publisher.

Mr. Brooks will no doubt be a central figure at the centennial celebration, which will run from June 17 to June 19, 2004: He was, in fact, personally acquainted with James T. Farrell.

When he was in his late teens, Mr. Brooks and a friend both read the Studs books and were blown away by them. They saw similarities between their own experiences and those of Mr. Farrell’s characters, as many adolescent males have over the decades.

“I encountered that world on my street,” Mr. Brooks said. “People talked with their fists. You’re in Studs’ head a lot in the book. It really rang a bell.”

After finishing high school in Newton, Mr. Brooks rejected the idea of college and went to work for The Smith, a small New York press that published some of Mr. Farrell’s work. There, Mr. Brooks ran across the author’s Manhattan address and wrote him an unabashed fan letter asking him if he would autograph a copy of one of his books. Mr. Farrell replied with one word — “Yes.”

Later, as a journalism student at Suffolk University, Mr. Brooks had to come up with a topic for a documentary; he immediately thought of Mr. Farrell, who agreed to the project.

Mr. Brooks met with the author in his New York apartment.

“He was exactly as you’d expect,” Mr. Brooks said. “He was short with real rangy arms. He was barefoot and wore chinos, big eyeglasses, a short-sleeved shirt.”

Mr. Farrell preferred standing to sitting and would rock back and forth on his feet.

“This guy was `on,’ ” Mr. Brooks said, laughing at the recollection. “He was an `on’ person.”

Mr. Brooks spent two hours with Mr. Farrell, whose apartment was filled with books.

“He wanted to know about me,” Mr. Brooks recalled. “He asked what religion I was. I said, `Right now, James T. Farrell.’ He smiled.”

When the documentary did not pan out, Mr. Brooks wrote Mr. Farrell a note of explanation and added that if he could ever do anything for him, the writer should not hesitate to ask. Mr. Farrell replied with a list of facts he needed to have checked, and Mr. Brooks performed fact-checking for him until his death several years later.

Mr. Farrell knew people from all walks of life. Mr. Brooks remembered attending a birthday party for the author in the 1970s at which he saw Mr. Vonnegut, Mr. Breslin and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Someone whispered to him, “See that woman over there? That’s Leon Trotsky’s secretary.”

Mr. Brooks’ introduction to the Farrell underground occurred at Goodspeed’s Bookshop, which was in the basement of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. The shop bought and sold people’s libraries.

Mr. Brooks was browsing and came across a collection of books that had belonged to a woman from Cambridge whose initials were R.E.R. She had been forced to sell her library when she entered a nursing home. She had owned nine Farrell novels and had made notations on the inside back covers of the dates — between 1945 and 1977 — that she had reread each one. She had read several of them four times.

In an essay he wrote for The Generalist Papers, a literary newsletter, Mr. Brooks recalled being struck by R.E.R.’s dedication to Mr. Farrell’s novels “in ways that simply defy convention, logic or expectations.”

Later, Mr. Brooks came across another collection of Farrell novels in a bookstore in New Hampshire. These were peppered with comments such as “Rich!” “So true!” “A riot!” “Oh ho!” “Magnificent!” “Well put!” The reader also had written lengthier comments and marked the books with swirls, stars, brackets and underlinings.

“Even after close to 50 years, the irrepressible thrill that a sense of recognition elicits in a reader is unmistakably alive in these books,” Mr. Brooks wrote.

Over the years, Mr. Brooks has expressed his dedication to the Farrell oeuvre in every possible way. In 1996, his literary press, Arts End Books, published “Studs Lonigan’s Neighborhood and the Making of James T. Farrell” by Edgar M. Branch, the foremost Farrell scholar.

And Mr. Brooks, who will move with his family to southern Vermont later this year, spent several weeks in 2001 and 2002 at the University of Pennsylvania library, where 900 boxes of Farrell papers are stored. He was collecting material for two books he plans to write on Mr. Farrell.

Farrell undergrounders can pop up anywhere.

“They’re working people, people you meet in your travels,” Mr. Brooks said. He has read about them and met them at unexpected moments. A woman attending a book fair approached Mr. Brooks and declared, “Jim Farrell, what wonderful eyes.”

Several fans already have indicated that they will join the celebration in Paris, where Mr. Farrell lived for several years as a young adult — and where he was admired. Among them will be the nephew of William Cunningham, who served as the model for Studs Lonigan, and an African-American lawyer from Chicago who called Mr. Brooks after “Studs Lonigan’s Neighborhood” was published to say that he had immediately identified with the culture in which Studs lived.