In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler suggests that stories may have evolved from fireside tales designed to help youngsters prepare for their first journeys out beyond the safety of the tribal hearth. Young Lonigan, published in 1932, is the first volume of James T. Farrell’s trilogy, about an Irish-American boy, William ‘Studs’ Lonigan, growing up in early twentieth century Chicago. It’s a story about a youth preparing to set out on the journey of adulthood. We begin in 1916, with Studs graduating from his Catholic elementary school, aged fourteen, and then follow him through the summer as he waits to go to high school in the autumn. Studs hangs around his local area trying to act tough while quietly thinking poetic thoughts inspired by nature and his sweetheart, Lucy. Sadly, Studs’ more sensitive side tends to fall out of view as the weeks pass. Finer feelings are stamped on by the influence of unsavoury friends. The future looks difficult for this young man.
We could ask whether, in the Writer’s Journey sense, there is help and advice on offer here. Is the book saying, for example, that you should live for the moment? The most beautiful scenes involve Studs simply appreciating his present moment, an ecstatic yet peaceful swim in Lake Michigan, and an afternoon sitting with Lucy up in the boughs of a tree in a Chicago park. However, despite Lake Michigan and the tree, the delayed consequences of eating all your sweets at once are very clear. ‘Advice’ about behaviour is similarly ambivalent. There is certainly no sense that the moral of the tale is that youngsters should behave well and do as they’re told. The values of all parents and authority figures in the book are suspect. Studs’ father has settled for a rather empty life, where sitting on his porch reading about violent crimes in the newspaper seems to be the highlight of his day. The Church is just a mess of hypocrisy and nonsense. There is one ‘cool dad’ who seems to understand and support young people – a Mr O’Brian. But he is really the worst role model of all, a disgusting, racist bigot. He is only popular with the boys because he would rather encourage their prejudices than challenge them. Far better advice comes from one of Studs’ contemporaries, the lovely Helen Shires, a tomboy who sees the best in her friend and tries to warn him where his choices might take him. So, if we can’t say the book advises good behaviour and respect for our elders, is it advising that the young overthrow convention? Once again the answer is no. The fighting and petty crime with suggestions of graduating on to more major crime, gives no sense that defying convention is the right course. Besides, defying convention in one sense is to be highly conventional in another. Rebellious youth might seem to challenge social pressure to conform, only to find itself bowing to the equally malign forces of peer pressure.
What then does a young person, or any reader, take from this? I think they might take a feeling that life is not about simple answers and advice. You have to plan for the future and yet live for today. You have to be yourself, follow your own instincts, and yet respect the views of others. As Kipling says in If, his poem of advice to a young man, you have to trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too. As in If, the only consistency in the advice of Young Lonigan lies in its continued contradictions. And if that lesson seems complicated, well that’s often the way it is with lessons.
And if you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run
Then yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
And - which is more - you’ll be a Man my son