Almost exactly 100 years after Jim Tully arrived in Kent, Ohio, Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak have published a biography of him called, “Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler.”
Bauer first heard of Tully in 1992. A customer at his Kent bookstore walked in and requested one of Tully’s books, “The Bruiser.”
Bauer: “I did not know the book. I didn’t know the author. The person looking for it embarrassed me a little bit to say ‘this guy was considered the father of hard boiled fiction, this guy named Jim Tully. Then I was further embarrassed to find out that he had lioved and worked and started his writing career in Kent. Then I ran it by Mark whoi hadn’t heard of hium either.”
Dawidziak: I was working at the Beacon Journal at the time and we had a file on Tully. The filed said “Tully, Jim former Beacon Journal reporter. So I called Paul and said, ‘You’re not gonna believe this.’ ”
That was just the beginning of the “you’re not gonna believe this” comments. Bauer and Dawidziak spent 19 years tracking down information about Tully. He grew up poor in St Mary’s, Ohio. His mother died when he was six, and he spent the next six years in an orphanage . After two years as a virtual indentured servant on a farm, he ran away and rode the rails for the next six years.
Tully’s experiences ended up in novels. Growing up poor became “Shanty Irish.” The orphanage showed up in “Emmet Lawler.” And working in small Southern circuses became “Circus Parade.”
He had a shock of curly red hair and stood just 5 foot three. But Dawidziak says running away at 14 illustrated his courage.
Dawidziak: This is one of his greatest accomplishments in in his life that that he gets out of his hometown and experiences America. An America that was not being talked or written about. He’s meeting people who don’t have voices. Before Steinbeck and others were discovering America’s underclass. He’s not just writing about them, he’s of them. The 2nd brave thing he does is get off the road because it becomes addictive and it’s just as hard to get away from as his hometown. And when he does it’s in Kent, OH. “
Urycki: So he comes to Kent. Where does his talent in literature come from and writing?
Bauer: “It goes back to his.. the one thing he got from his family and St Mary’s: his grandfather Huey was a great storyteller in this Irish tradition, his father was a great reader, that may have been the only thing he got from him. The nuns at the orphanage taught him to write. But it was really his sister Virginia encouraged him to write and also the librarian and the Kent library, Nellie Dingley. When he made his way in Kent up from the depot up toward (to work) at the Kent chain factory, on his left he saw the Kent Free Library. It became his habit when he was on the road to duck into community libraries when he was on the road. He could escape the police, he could get warm, and most importantly there was a world of books in there, and other worlds he’d never known before.
But he didn’t write much while living in Kent. He worked in a chain factory. He was a professional featherweight boxer. He got to travel again as a tree trimmer for the Davey Tree company. He got married, had two children and moved to Hollywood. His first book, “Emmett Lawler,” gave him entre to a Hollywood party.
Bauer: “He did see his first book Emmett Lawler published and made the great connection after that book was at a Hollywood party.”
Davidziak: In 1922 his dream comes true. This is one of the longest shots in American literature that this guy would make himself into a writer coming from the poverty that he did. He almost wills himself to become a writer in the 10 years after he leaves Kent. 1922 “Emmett Lawler” is published.”
Urycki “That’s about his life in the orphanage. “
Dawidziak “It is autobiographical. But it really didn’t make him any money so he still had to find a way to support a young family at this point. And somebody introduces him to Charlie Chaplin. And Chaplin offers a job as a sort of catch-all writer on the lot.
All during this time he’s working on what’s going to become his best seller and the defining book in his career: “Beggars Of Life” which is about the 6 years he spent on the road. Within two years of “Beggars Of Life” being published there’s a Broadway production of it and playing young Jim Tully in this production – they needed a guy on the short side, full of energy, with red hair so they give it to a song and dance man who had never done any serious drama before. The guy’s a sensation. It was a young Jimmy Cagney. He and Tully continued to be friends for the rest of the 20’s and into the 30’s. “
Urycki: “Did you guys pursue this because you liked his writing or because he was interesting?
DAWIDZ Both. The first that got us fired up was: I took that copy of “Shanty Irish” home and …it took the top of my head off. It’s very gritty. It has a very hard jack-hammer style to it. It does have that hard-boiled realism to it. But with that is this other side of Tully that he was very aware of. This Irish poet, this lyricism. So Tully puts things in a way that no hard-boiled writer would ever put it. It was a voice I had never heard before. That was what really got us fired up.”
Urycki: “Who’s style was he following?”
Dawidziak: “You can see the influence of a lot of writers on him. Certainly it was Jack London was an early influence on him… But the American Realists at the time, Mark twain. He read Dickens, He shared with Dickens the use of the vernacular. Certainly Gorky, a lot of the Russian writers. Joseph Conrad was a hero of his.”
Urycki: “At the time though, his contemporaries, those who champione4d the lower class, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, did he know these guys?”
Dawidziak: “Yep. There’s a feud with Sinclair. They later patched it up. But yes, he knew Fitzgerald, a lot of the leading literary lights of the 1920’s. This guy was a household name in the 1920’s.”
Bauer: "To the point that Fitzgerald could write Ernest Hemingway and tease him, trying to goad him into a real boxing match with another writer/boxer, wanting to set up a match between Hemingway and Tully. And Hemingway passed. "
Urycki "Did he influence later authors?"
Dawidziak: That is very difficult to say. I think both of us have been very careful about not overstating Tully’s influence. We know Frank McCourt read “Shanty Irish.” We tried his name on a lot people. Leonard Maltin knew it. I mentioned the name Jim Tully on the off chance he knew it and he said “Jim Tully?” and I said ‘Yes!’ and he said “Shanty Irish’ and I said ‘Yes!’ He said ‘I read it as a young man.” I was flabbergasted that the guy who would go on to write “Angela’s Ashes” had read a book that so much echoes and that precedes Angela’s Ashes.
Bauer: "One person we know read him and was influenced by him was Robert Mitchum. Robert Mitchum read “Beggars of Life” as a kid and was so inspired by this wanderlust that Mitchum hopped a train and ended up in for Hollywood.”
Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak’s book is “Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler.” Four of Tully’s books have been republished by Kent State University Press.