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Thursday Quotables – For White Men Only

Chicago Stories (James T. Farrell)

With a sulky expression on his face, Alfred arose at the approach of Buddy and Morris.

“The water nice?” Buddy asked, his voice constrained and threatening.

“Passable,” Alfred answered, his fists clenched.

“Been out here before?” Buddy continued.

“No… Why?” Alfred said with unmistakable fearlessness.

A crowd gathered around, and excitement cut through the beach like an electric current because of the shouts and chase after Booker. A white bather tripped him as he ran and joined the four other pursuers in cursing and punching him, mercilessly disregarding his pleas to be let alone. They dragged him to his feet, knocked him down, kicked him, dragged him up, knocked him over again while he continued to emit shrill and helpless cries.

“Anybody ever tell you that this is a white men beach?” Morris asked Alfred.

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I can’t decide whether I liked this short story or not, and still it stayed with me, so there must be something I saw in it.

This is obviously reminiscent of the Race Riot which exploded in Chicago in the summer 1919, which is also referenced in the story itself, though these events take place many years later. James Farrell takes both sides, presenting the story from both POV, the black men on one side, the Irish on the other. Personally, I don’t think the black guys’ POV is very natural, though Farrell did make an effort to step in their shoes. On the other side, I really liked the Irish guys’ side, not because of what they do (of course), but because of how they are portrayed: vividly, with all their negativity, hate and violence speech and actions. Their side is very natural – I suspect because that’s Farrell’s cultural side.

On many respect, I’d say the story is interesting more than enjoyable (at least for me). As so many of Farrell’s short stories, nothing really happens. I mean, there is an inciting event (the two black guys who go swimming in the ‘white’ section of the lake), there is mounting tension… but then everyone goes home before there is any real outcome. This is Farrell’s aesthetics – and the main reason I don’t like him as much as I could.

On the other end, just because nothing happens in the end, you get a sense that this kind of events were quite common in the time the story takes place. Once in history they caused a riot, but then they kept happening and that was just life. This is also Farrell’s aesthetics – and one of the reasons why I do like some of his stories.

“Anybody ever tell you that this is a white men beach?” – James Farrell's crude story of a day on the beach Click To Tweet

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Pinteret pin. The title reads, "FOR WHITE MEN ONLY (James Farrell)  - book review". 1920s Short story. The picture shows a black-and-white picture of Chicago skyline seen from Lake Michigan.
FOR WHITE MEN ONLY (James Farrell) "For White Men Only" is a short story form Jame Farrell's collection "Chicago Stories", one of his most crude and cruel, clearly inspired by Chicago Riots

6 Comments

  • Anabel
    Posted September 10, 2015 at 14:49

    I don’t know this author but I found the quote powerful. It has connections with today and the “othering” that is going on with refugees.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted September 10, 2015 at 20:06

      You’re absolutely right, Anabel. That’s way reading stories from the past still makes sense.

  • Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies
    Posted September 15, 2015 at 01:41

    Very powerful. It makes me want to know more about the context.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted September 16, 2015 at 18:37

      It’s very strange, because the context is very simple and you can basically get it from this snippet.
      It’s a very simple episode in terms of action, but it’s so complex in terms of people.

  • Amy
    Posted September 15, 2015 at 12:41

    Wow! Pretty powerful quote! The worst part is, you can actually imagine it happening 🙁
    Thank you for sharing,
    Amy x

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted September 16, 2015 at 18:40

      This is the power of Farrell’s prose. Most of the time, he just depicts snippets of life that are so likely to have happened… and still, in the mere act of recounting them, he let us in on the innermost part of all people.

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