Novels set in Chicago: Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell

Being one of the great cities of the world, many novels have been set in Chicago. This is the third of a series looking at how the city has been portrayed/described in novels.

Published in 1932, Young Lonigan is the first book of a trilogy by James T. Farrell, charting the life of William “Studs” Lonigan, an Irish-American growing up on the South Side of Chicago. The first book takes place in 1916, mostly during the summer between Studs graduating from 8th grade and beginning high school. The trilogy made Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels at #29.

The story follows Lonigan, a boy obsessed with being seen as a “tough,” which, as seen through his inner monologue, clashes greatly with what is in essence a poetic soul. This is the time he has two pretty clear paths to choose from and the choices he makes here will determine the rest of his life.

In these posts I like to take a look at how the city is described and at first it looked like, while set in Chicago, there wouldn’t be much to talk about here as characters never left a very small area. However, I realized that that was the time, that, while still “a city of neighborhoods,” at the turn of the century your neighborhood essentially was the entire city to you, your individual ethnic enclave providing all basic services. And so it was for the Irish community in Studs’s neighborhood here.

Unless I missed it, an exact address is not given for the Lonigan family home. They live on Wabash, somewhere near 58th Street, with most of the action taking place on/around Indiana Ave and in Washington Park. I usually like to post quotes describing places but there’s not much of that to work with here. However, this is a great portrait of the neighborhood:

The July night leaked heat all over Fifty-eighth Street, and the fitful death of the sun shed softening colors that spread gauze-like and glamorous over the street, stilling those harshnesses and commercial uglinesses that were emphasized by the brighter revelations of the day. About the street there seemed to be a supervening beauty of reflected life. The dust, the scraps of paper, the piled-up store windows, the first electric lights sizzling into brightness, Sammie Schmaltz, the paper man, yelling his final box-score additions, a boy’s broken hoop left forgotten against the elevated girder, the people hurrying out of the elevated station and others walking lazily about, all bespoke the life of a community, the tang and sorrow and joy of a people that lived, worked, suffered, procreated, aspired, filled out their little days, and died.

Young Lonigan, pg. 117-18

Owing to the time period and place, there is a great deal of racist language, with basically everyone hating everyone else who isn’t from their same ethnic heritage, simply for that reason. This, naturally, has led to some controversy among modern readers, but personally most of it seemed to fit with the young, ignorant characters who were mimicking the opinions of their parents, many of which in the novel lament the changing neighborhoods. This, of course, has been a theme throughout all of Chicago’s history, with ethnic enclaves changing with each new wave of immigrants.

Farrell’s first novel, much of it was based on his own experience growing up on the South Side. According to his introduction, all three novels sold poorly on their own, with Young Lonigan selling only 533 copies in its first run. Once collected as a trilogy it became much more popular. I look forward to the next two books and writing about them here!

What are your favorite novels set in Chicago? What are you reading during the pandemic? Let us know below!

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