WALTER BAUMHOFER (1904-1987) American illustrator, known for his pulp fiction cover paintings
There are more manly pursuits than writing. Being a fireman, for instance, or racecar driver, or lumberjack, or violent drunk. Even if women have had to pretend to be men in order to do it (women have had to pretend to be men to do lots of things), writing has not always been the most masculine activity. Not exactly up there with bullfighter, as Hemingway might have told you.
James T. Farrell (February 27, 1904 – August 22, 1979) was one of those writers who helped make writing a tough guy thing. Or, he made tough guys feel okay about writing. His Studs Lonigan books inspired Norman Mailer to pursue a career as a writer. The radio broadcaster and writer Louis Terkel changed his name to Studs after Farrell’s famous character. The name alone. What a writer. What a stud.
Farrell, like his fictional creation Studs Lonigan, grew up among the poor Irish of Chicago’s South Side. Being Irish certainly helps make a man a good writer and clever with language, just look at Oscar Wilde. Growing up poor is useful too. “The problem with you,” a teacher told me once, “you’re not poor enough. Or rich enough either. If you were poor you’d have nothing to lose, and you’d starve and bust balls and take risks and write. Or if you were rich you could do the same thing because you’d be able to afford to.” He shook his head sadly and not without a touch of contempt in his voice he added, “but you’re middle class. So you don’t have much but you have just enough you’re afraid of losing, and that will keep you back.”
I wasn’t Irish either, I might have added, so really it’s a wonder I’ve learned to string words together at all. As for masculine, let’s just say my taste in literature has always leaned toward English lady novelists. Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Bowen, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark. Tough, yes, but not quite in the way that will win you fights on the playground.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I like tough guy writers too. “What literature does,” Farrell once said (Here) “is make life meaningful.” And I would agree, whether it’s meaningful in a masculine way or any other way. Farrell also says that “the writer works out what comes and goes in the minds of other people.” Not just what’s in his own mind, you see; the writer projects: he (or she) looks at you and inside and beyond you, and beyond himself, and if it doesn’t kill him he tries to write what he finds. And that’s tough, I think. That takes guts.