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You Know Me Al
Ring Lardner


This epistolary novel, one of the greatest sporting and comic fictional pieces of writing of the last century, was written for The Saturday Evening Post in 1914. Jack Keefe, a small-town, greenhorn, bush-league baseball player, writes letters to Al, his friend back in his home town. Keefe is both naive and a simpleton, blighted by his immense ego and hauteur.

Neither the book’s subject matter nor its vernacular language (referred to as ‘Lardner Ringlish’) was within the comfort zone of a literary world endowed with the patrician sensibilities of Henry James or Edith Wharton (Lardner’s almost exact contemporary). Yet it is possible to claim that Ring Lardner is the true American literary ambassador of his era.

Ring Lardner ranks alongside Jack London, Damon Runyon, W. C. Heinz and James T. Farrell as one of the great fictional sports writers of America in the twentieth century.

ISBN 9781913464080
C format paperback (216mm x 135mm)
cover design by Alexandra Andries


THE SATIRICAL TALENT of Ring Lardner (1885-1933) was lauded by his contemporaries but it has not been greatly appreciated by subsequent generations, especially those outside of America. His text is littered with the easy mannered journalese of his time and place, often charmingly so, but the tensions of literary presentism abound in his work. Moreover, his subject matter is very American – sport, more sport, entertainment and theatre, the gossip and pastime that were the casual obsessions of his period and of its small-town mercantile class threatened by the new heavy industry of that time. H. L. Mencken referred to Lardner’s work as a “mine of authentic Americana.” It is all but impossible to remove Lardner from his association with early twentieth century America – its hope and expansive ideals, the buzz of the jazz age and the colloquial of the speakeasy. Not only in his writing but in his life too. His early death in 1933 is so typical of many American writers of his generation. He died aged only 48 from a heart attack brought about by complications of tuberculosis: alcohol was probably the root cause. F. Scott Fitzgerald used Lardner as a model for the tragic Abe North in Tender is the Night: too much drink and an abandonment of early promise.

Lardner’s writing style may not have withstood the passage of time well, though its originality has saved it from being in any way discredited. It allows us to rejoice in him still. His sparkling bon mot humour has had longer shelf life than the body of his work, and today he is regarded perhaps as a sideshow to the rich literary scene that took root in America immediately before and after the First World War. References to Ring Lardner, almost always of esteem, can be found in many of the memoirs and biographies of his day, and it is easy to assume that the influence he had on his fellow writers was greater than the sum of his own literary abilities. But it might still be possible to claim that Lardner is the true American literary ambassador of his era. You Know Me Al is a deeply observed, sardonic and humorous novel (if it can be truly termed a novel). It is almost unique in American literature. Inspired and brought together by his proletarian sporting enthusiasm and well-honed skills of reportage, its subject matter was hardly within the comfort zone of a literary world endowed with the patrician sensibilities of Henry James or Edith Wharton, Lardner’s almost exact contemporary.

To rhapsodise today about Lardner’s literary élan – especially when isolated from the golden age of American sport or the world of the hoofer and radio crooner which he adored – may be for devotees only; but it gets to the nub of his worth as a writer and why he should be of keen interest to us still. As the American continent shuffled its way from small-town hardship to novel high-rise urban landscape, Lardner recorded its habits, its pleasures and its disquiet. It is Lardner’s pen that captures best the period when America succumbed to the trappings and pains of societal pubescence, for there is something beautifully balanced and generous about his writing. Lardner managed to embrace both sides of nearly every divide in the America of his day. In this New World of continental swell and shrinkage, when anyone could exchange extreme poverty for untold wealth (and back again) in the blink of an eye, Lardner was a pivotal voice.

Lardner offers an authentic account of the society around him in snapshot form. The wets and gangsters of the liquor industry pitted themselves against the progressive drys and the pietism of spiritual revival; newspapers and wireless sets rolled out more throwaway and prurient fodder and took eyes nationwide, away from the intensity of the local; and new etiquettes and social regards clashed with those of previous generations. Lardner presented himself as an accidental (and innocent) witness to this struggle. He was there to capture in literary parody the mundane and the vulgar aspects of life which mattered most to him and to so many others. Music, as it moved from the rigid forms of Sousa and the knitting machine syncopation of the ragtime piano roll to the commercial and easy strains of Broadway or jazz; and sport, newly commercial and now truly national, bending its rules to accommodate a clamorous, less discerning yet more demanding audience.

We are lucky that Lardner was such a perfect armchair sportsman. Sport was one of the vital ingredients that fed the needs of a country newly inclined to homogeneity. Virginia Woolf observed that Lardner wrote about “games“ because “it has given him a clue, a centre, a meeting place for the diverse activities of a people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games gives him what society gives his English brother.“ There is clearly more to You Know Me Al, then, than the world of baseball during its Silver Age (that is before the great Black Sox Scandal of 1919 which altered its image forever). Lardner may even have been able to see the United States of his day from a perspective not available to other writers.

His perspective and social situation were extensive, as was his circle of friendship – fellow journalists, significant politicians, sportsmen, show-biz luminaries like W. C. Fields and Florenz Ziegfield (for whom Lardner wrote burlesque sketches). It is odd that Lardner, now remembered best for writing about grown men chasing after a ball, kept the very best literary company. He was a close friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald; at one time they were next-door neighbours. He was a great influence on the young Ernest Hemingway, who had used the pseudonym Ring Lardner Jr. when writing for his school magazine, although their eventual meeting in 1928 was to prove disappointing to both. Booth Tarkington, Theodore Dreiser and many other writers of note were keen to be associated with Lardner. He was championed by Mencken. Maxwell Perkins, at Fitzgerald‘s behest, became his devoted agent, eager, like Fitzgerald, to coax a ‘big’ novel from him.

Lardner never fitted into the narrative thrust upon him by others. Fitzgerald’s eulogy to Lardner, published in The New Republic, is taken too often as gospel: “whatever Ring’s achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude toward his work.” He was a writer often seen to sink his own ship, but Lardner knew well the limits of his ability; he also cared little for praise from the literary establishment

He clearly enjoyed to leave false clues in his books. Edmund Wilson’s review of How to Write Short Stories (Lardner’s 1924 compilation published by Scribner‘s) chided the author for his spoof introduction, which, Wilson claimed, belied his literary accomplishment; Wilson concluded that “one suspects him of a guilty conscience at attempting to disguise his talent for social observation and satire.” Lardner might have lacked the literary confidence to regard himself as anything other than a journalist who rose to the occasion when needed, but perhaps he just didn’t care that much: he was by nature resistant to writing that did not succumb to a louche literary touch. He annoyed Fitzgerald because he regarded his writing always as “copy” (Fitzgerald’s description). Lardner, it seems, never thought to keep on file any of his short stories throughout his career; certainly he had no manuscript to hand when Scribner‘s asked for copy for an anthology. Yet for twenty years and more, and despite himself, Ring Lardner managed somehow to bring his literary camel not only to the water, but also to drink it dry.

That Lardner was not keen to step up to the plate and become the highbrow scribbler Perkins and others wished him to be is very obvious from his correspondence. Lardner, always the arch delinquent, wrote playfully to Perkins that, for instance, he would “come to one of those literary luncheons if you think it advisable, but it is my secret ambition not to.” He might be cast easily as a lackadaisical, failed man of letters. As proof, he was prone to be distracted with eye-catching candyfloss projects such as the text for his daily comic strip (although he was to tire of that quickly). Lardner resisted the novel form, for sure, and, perhaps as a result, Lardner has been depicted since his death as the consummate hack who fell back on the familiar and the comfortable, inclined to stay in the shallow waters that he knew best. More likely, he realised that he was better suited to the short story from; as Lardner’s grandson, James, noted perceptively, “so, perhaps, is a good deal of life as most people live it.” Lardner was only interested in life as most people lived it.

A penchant for the comfortable was matched by Lardner’s well-developed cynicism, a quality that undoubtedly marred what might have been otherwise a contented life. By all accounts he had a good childhood. He had been brought up in Niles, Michigan, an old-fashioned Midwestern town comprised of a small farming and mercantile class with little awareness of the metropolitan life soon to descend upon America (the sort of community for which Booth Tarkington expressed nostalgia). Just as Lardner held his own young family dear, so too his parents were devoted and loving. A secure emotional backbone to his life, however, did little to halt the heavy drinking and indolent malaise into which he could slide easily, traits apparent from his earliest days. His parents were wealthy and wanted the best education for him yet he did his best to fail them. When sent finally to a technology college to study engineering, Lardner flunked and dropped out. At every subsequent turn Lardner was prone to the easy life. He preferred to hang out with fellow loafers. That he fell into sports journalism with its cosy sociability and after-hours indulgence should have been no surprise to anyone who knew him.

Nonetheless at times Lardner wrote prolifically. Between 1913 and 1917 he wrote seven columns each week as well as a host of short stories and other pieces. Some argue that there is little more to his writing than this typewriter temperament. His descriptive writing is free and easy, colloquial and carefree, and, like his dialogue, it is admired for its authenticity. His style can be dismissed as the vernacular of the barrelhouse rather than deft filigree and if his satirical humour is regarded as wisecrack rather than polished gemstone, it hardly matters. What does matter is its effect and how well he was able to control that. There is no doubt that Lardner’s prose is immediate, precise and affecting, and that his clear, clarion voice speaks for his generation of Americans.

A commercial reason behind his failure to graduate to long form writing may be that none of his books ever sold in significant numbers, for his audience had read him already in magazine format. Lardner was conscious of the newspaper medium he worked in and, throughout his heyday, he was capable of churning out new material as though it were factory assembly line product; naturally his moniker was topicality and brevity before profundity. The Saturday Evening Post, the newspaper which in 1914 commissioned the six baseball stories that comprise You Know Me Al, had a circulation at that time of over two million. It is no surprise that, despite the fame it brought its author, You Know Me Al had only one printing in book format, published by George H. Doran Company in 1916. A youthful and adoring Fitzgerald encouraged Scribner‘s later in 1924 to repackage his writing in a literary vein. You Know Me Al was republished on the Scribner’s list in 1925.

‘Lardner Ringlish’ is the term given to his writing style – its use of unsteady syntax, its trashing of correct grammar, its dereliction of wide vocabulary. Above all else, Lardner wanted to communicate. This was both studied endeavour and a reflection of his personality. Not surprisingly he gravitated readily and ambitiously to vaudeville and the Broadway stage, where he longed for recognition. [Song writing was for Lardner an ambitious occupation. He wrote many plays; only one ran successfully – June Moon, which was written with George S. Kaufman in 1929.] Popularity was his lodestone. In his public life he found it easy to make himself attractive to whoever came his way. He was as likely to be received enthusiastically in any public bar one day as to be the golfing partner of President Warren Harding the next. Lardner’s mission as a writer was to be familiar and personal yet popular also, to “tell the reader what he already knows in terms with which he is already familiar.”

Lardner had started as a journalist in 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. Within two years he had worked his way up to reporting for the major Chicago newspapers. He posted weekly baseball reports throughout this period until 1919. He stayed in the same hotels and travelled on the same Pullman cars as the players (his column for the Sporting News was called ’Pullman Pastimes’). The team members, in spite of Lardner’s roguish if not caustic criticism of them, accepted him socially for what he was – a baseball devotee. Scott Fitzgerald’s eulogy chided Lardner for an apprenticeship that had reported so keenly on “a boy‘s game,“ and, most unfairly, lamented the poor schooling it offered a craft of serious writing. He regretted also the shadow it might have cast on Lardner’s literary career: “However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond,” was Fitzgerald’s assessment. [Frank Chance, known as the ‘Peerless Leader’, was a legendary first baseman at the tail end of his playing career when You Know Me Al was written.]

Lardner had written baseball fiction from 1914; after a three-year hiatus, he resumed writing these stories in 1918. He seemingly turned his back on writing such stories after he left Chicago. It is assumed often that his reluctance after 1919 to write much about the sport (certainly in his fiction, which had, after all, become a profitable formula) was due to the disappointment and betrayal he had felt over the match fixing scandal which dominated the close of that season. The afterlife of this baseball calamity, known as the Black Sox Scandal – eight of the Chicago White Sox players had been caught taking bribes to lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds – reverberated dramatically within and without the sport for many years. He had known already of the scandal before the story broke, and he continued to pen some of these later stories throughout 1919; indeed, the last of the Jack Keefe stories was published just nine days after the infamous 1919 World Series was concluded. The scandal is never even alluded to in the later stories written about Jack Keefe, proof, it is said, of Lardner’s moral disapproval. But to be exact, the chronology of these tales ends before the World Series takes place. Anyway, Keefe is only a small-town, greenhorn coming to terms with life in major league baseball.

Lardner relocated to Long Island, New York, to write for the Bell News Syndicate in 1919. The fresh career direction that was afforded by Lardner’s new writing post on the East Coast may have ensured that the familiar lure of baseball was both out of sight and out of mind. He was geographically (and therefore emotionally) separated from his beloved White Sox team; his attachment to the sport could be more easily broken. Further, he was no longer employed as frequently on the sports desk.

But it is true also that both his move to New York and the baseball scandal that had occupied 1919 were coincidental with changes in the sport, changes that tested Lardner’s ardour. In 1924 he wrote:

I got a letter the other day asking why I didn’t write about baseball no more as I usen’t to write about nothing else, you might say. Well, friends, I may as well admit that I have kind of lost interest in the old game, or rather it ain’t the old game that which I have lost interest in it, but it is the game which the magnates have fixed up to please the public with their usual good judgement.

The use of the phrase ‘old game’ is significant. Lardner’s regard of baseball’s timeline allowed him to divide its history into the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. The cause of this fission, for Lardner at least, was not the money that had flooded into the sport. Even though he had a romanticized image of baseball, Lardner was keen and ready to accept that it was commerce that made the world spin round. This was true in sporting terms and in his own life. In an article written for Colliers in 1912 (’The Cost of Baseball’), he had declared that “baseball is a business, a mighty big one.“ When Connie Mack, manager of Philadelphia Athletic, had sold off his team’s great players in 1914 (to offset losses and to take advantage of players ’jumping’ their contracts to join the Federal League, which had been formed the previous year), Lardner, who was apt to dash off whimsical or humorous verse, penned this rhyme to mock the sardonic comedy of the situation:

Players who jump for the dough
Bandits and crooks every one.
Baseball’s a pleasure you know
Players should play for the fun.

Magnates don’t care for the mon.
They can’t be tempted with gold.
They’re in the game for the fun—
That is why Collins was sold.

But for Lardner, baseball’s fall from grace need not be attributed only to the less than subtle technical or tactical reforms that its authorities introduced. Predictably these changes were met with Lardner’s severe disapproval. It is well known that he exalted pitchers over hitters. He lamented the demise of the pitcher in an article for The New Yorker in 1930 (’Br’er Rabbit Ball’), and he wrote in a letter of 1932 that “Baseball hasn’t meant much to me since the introduction of the TNT ball.“ This more ‘lively’ ball that had been introduced to afford big hits – to increase the marketability of the game – was in fact not introduced until the early 1920s, the year after Lardner’s baseball truancy. What vexed Lardner most was that the new style of play encouraged supporters to indulge in practises he found distasteful. In the essay he contributed to Harold Stearns’ monumental sociology of America published in 1921, Civilization in the United States, he broached the topic of hero worship. Throughout the 1920s and until his death, Lardner castigated baseball’s audience – its changed nature, mentality and behaviours, all of which bemused him. An article in The New Yorker as late as 1933 (’Over the Waves’) went further, and was to express a jeeringly critical view of even the new-found radio fans of the game.

Lardner’s undoubtedly had felt far more at ease with baseball’s participatory nature before 1919. However much Lardner favoured the ’old’ styles of play that he grew up with and first reported, his disquiet was challenged again by baseball’s increasing gamesmanship, which might, to Lardner, have served simply to be the barometer of the growing crudity of American society. Baseball, both on the pitch and off, was a witness to the disappearance of those ideals Lardner cherished most about American life: individuality and the rewards given to merit. As these virtues evanesced, so did baseball grow in popularity. Lardner’s best option was to recoil from the sport.


ALTOGETHER LARDNER wrote 26 stories that featured Jack Keefe as hero for The Saturday Evening Post. Some of these stories were shoehorned into three books. The first six stories were contained in You Know Me Al, three in Treat ‘Em Rough (1918), six more stories in The Real Dope (1919). The remaining stories never made it in to book form.

Jack Keefe, hero of You Know Me Al, is a fictitious rookie pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. Real characters and heroes of the time occasionally make ’guest’ appearances in Lardner’s other baseball stories though not in You Know Me Al. The jargon and technical language of the baseball world is referred to, of course, but no deep inside knowledge of the sport is needed to appreciate these tales. The gist of the storyline is that Keefe’s talent for the game is blighted by his immense ego and hauteur, even though he is naturally gifted. He reveals himself unwittingly to be both naive and a simpleton, shot full of hubris, and oblivious always to the machinations of those who manipulate him. Jack Keefe’s traits are revealed in his correspondence with Al Blanchard, his friend from his home town of Bedford, Illinois.

Flashes of the harshness of life are delivered always with panache and fluster, relayed at hectic pace and layered humorously with biting satire. “He wrapped his dreadful events in comic language,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “as you would put an insecticide in a bright can.” The unconscious cruelty and bitterness that punctuate this book are to be found in all of Lardner’s writing. His favoured archetypal character is riddled with failure or dishonesty; these qualities appealed to him more than their virtuous counterparts. Similarly, the indolent, the blowhard or the creep he found to be more entertaining than the industrious, the modest or the pleasant. “I can recall no character in the Lardner gallery, early or late, male or female, old or young, who was not loathsome,“ declared Mencken. Keefe is clearly a loathsome individual, and is the funnier for it. He is cursed by a disastrous love life with side dishes of too much gambling and alcohol. He becomes “hog fat,” not an ideal condition for sporting prowess. His ignorant buffoonery – we are treated to Keefe’s poor spelling, faulty grammar and incoherent slang – is the Hardy to Al Blanchard’s silent and always offstage Laurel. The pairing was a winning formula and made their creator a celebrated and household name.

Lardner’s writing developed after he had finished writing these baseball stories. His finest short stories – How to Write Short Stories is a knock-out collection and the best place to start – have the same subtlety and nuance of observation, yet break free of the occasional studied cliché he fell back on sometimes to describe Jack Keefe.

By 1924, Lardner had reached the high tide of his career. His income for 1922 was not far off $100,000, and we might assume that this wasn’t his most profitable year. His newspaper column for The Chicago Tribune was syndicated throughout the United States in over a hundred newspapers. His potential readership therefore numbered more than eight million. Also his text for his daily comic strip, drawn by Will B. Johnstone and Dick Dorgan, was devoured by an ardent fan base; Lardner scripted over 700 of these until early 1925.

From 1925, Lardner’s decline gained pace; hereafter, Fitzgerald, away on the Riviera, was apt to refer to Lardner as “my alcoholic.” Lardner’s physical breakdown was inexorable. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby mostly in the summer of 1924; it was published in 1925. A flavour of Lardner seems to hover over the book. Its hero, Jay Gatsby, had only one obituary, and it was spoken by Owl Eyes (an erstwhile nickname used for Lardner): “The poor son of a bitch.” The prescient Fitzgerald had modelled Owl Eyes on Lardner.

Humour and wit – sardonic or ironic – are the superlatives most often heaped on Lardner, yet it is his use of language that is the jewel in Lardner’s crown; many rivals were eager to imitate him over the course of his life. Virginia Woolf was a fan of Lardner’s demotic palette, too. Lardner, she wrote, “writes the best prose that has come our way… often in a language which is not English.” Woolf continued:

Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us. As he babbles out his mind on paper there rise up friends, sweethearts, the scenery, town, and country—all surround him and make him up in his completeness.

Whether he was writing about suburban cities, homemaking and families, or the claustrophobia of small-town life and its casual self-employment, Lardner related his storytelling to the same world view of hidden motive and interior monologue that preoccupied and fascinated Virginia Woolf. Lardner’s effortlessly confident, brash and democratic American style might even be seen as a Star-Spangled variant of the modernist stream ofconsciousness.

The respective literary merits of Ring Lardner and Virginia Woolf can be judged. Academia and popular trend would have it that Woolf wins the day. One thing that is certain, however, is that Lardner, in real life as in his writing, would have made a better stab at conversation over high tea at Cliveden than Woolf would have made as a pitcher in the Yankee Stadium. Lardner certainly gets you on his side, and for sure he makes you laugh.


Mencken on Lardner

Ring Lardner

from A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writings, 1949

H. L. Mencken

You know, I haven’t read much Ring Lardner. A piece here and there (some of them are anthologized in the various New Yorker collections that have come out), and of course F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a rather famous obituary for him (they had been friends). Fitzgerald, though, fell into the trap of thinking that because Ring Lardner wrote so much about sports he was somehow not serious, it wasn’t a topic worthy of him. He felt his friend could have done so much more. Virginia Woolf did not agree. She thought Ring Lardner was one of the best prose writers alive. A giant in his time, one of the most popular writers writing, and now suffering from near total obscurity, although he has his devoted following. I should remedy my own error in not knowing more about Lardner. I have read some of his baseball pieces and they are as incredible as you would imagine. There’s a Damon Runyon quality to some of the stories he wrote, and yet his focus wasn’t so much on the underworld as the regular old malooks who circulated the streets of New York, the boxers, the butchers, the cab drivers. Ring Lardner died in 1933. The following piece, by Mencken, a huge Ring Lardner admirer, came out in 1924. Mencken went about (in other essays) destroying many of the beloved giants of the day. His essay on Theodore Dreiser is pretty devastating. He recognizes the skill but says most of it is “bilge”, and that of the many words in An American Tragedy, about 250,000 of them “are unnecessary”. Hahaha. Mean. Now I’m not an enormous Dreiser fan (haven’t read much of his work, in other words), but Mencken felt he overdid it, he wrote sloppily, he didn’t know what was important, he had no idea how to zoom in. His themes were big and important and he over-wrote compulsively. This is Mencken’s take. Ring Lardner, on the other hand, wrote spare perfect little pieces that absolutely captured individual characters in a way that had the breath of spontaneous life.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” In Mencken’s essay, he praises Lardner’s mastery of the visible. We’ve covered this before but writers who fancy themselves to be Serious Commentators on the Zeitgeist sometimes are horrible at describing “the visible”. They can’t create characters, they can’t describe a damn room and make it pop into the reader’s mind in 3-D. Now, some writers aren’t “about” those things, it’s true. Some writers are not character-driven, they are more language-driven. I would put Jeanette Winterson into that grouping, but she’s a genius (in my opinion), and her stuff can’t be imitated. And when she imitates herself, she veers into self-conscious pretension. But when she’s “on”? She can’t be touched!

I am just putting this together from what I have read: Mencken was annoyed at the big serious writers like Dreiser who were over-praised by a gullible critical establishment who were in love with his “themes”, while superb popular writers like Ring Lardner didn’t get the laurels they deserved. So in this essay he tries to right some of those wrongs.

His stories, it seems to me, are superbly adroit and amusing; no other American of his generation, sober or gay, wrote better. But I doubt that they last: our grandchildren will wonder what they are about. It is not only, or even mainly, that the dialect that fills them will pass, though that fact is obviously a serious handicap in itself. It is principally that the people they depict will pass, that Lardner’s incomparable baseball players, pugs, song-writers, Elks, small-town Rotarians, and golf caddies were flittering figures of a transient civilization, and are doomed to be as puzzling and soporific, in the year 2000, as Haliburton’s Yankee clock peddler is today.

The fact – if I may assume it to be a fact – is certain not to be set against Lardner’s account; on the contrary, it is, in its way, highly complimentary to him. For he deliberately applied himself, not to the anatomizing of the general human soul, but to the meticulous histological study of a few salient individuals of his time and nation, and he did it with such subtle and penetrating skills that one must belong to his time and nation to follow him. I doubt that anyone who is not familiar with professional ball players, intimately and at first hand, will ever comprehend the full merit of the amazing sketches in “You Know Me, Al”; I doubt that anyone who has not given close and deliberate attention to the American vulgate will ever realize how magnificently Lardner handled it. He had more imitators, I suppose, than any other American writer of the first third of the century, but had he any actual rivals? If so, I have yet to hear of them. They all tried to write the speech of the streets as adeptly and as amusingly as he wrote it, and they all fell short of him; the next best was miles and miles behind him. And they were all inferior in observation, in sense of character, in shrewdness and insight. His studies, to be sure, are never very profound; he made no attempt to get at the primary springs of human motive; all his people share the same amiable stupidity, the same transparent vanity, the same shallow swinishness; they are all human Fords in bad repair, and alike at bottom. But if he thus confined himself to the surface, it yet remains a fact that his investigations of that surface were extraordinarily alert, ingenious and brilliant – that the character he finally set before us, however roughly articulated as to bones, was so astoundingly realistic as to epidermis that the effect is indistinguishable from that of life itself. The old man in “The Golden Honeymoon” is not merely well done: he is perfect. And so is the girl in “Some Like Them Cold.” And so, even, is the idiotic Frank X. Farrell in “Alibi Ike” – an extravagant grotesque and yet quite real from glabella to calcaneus.

Lardner knew more about the management of the short story than all of its professors. His stories are built very carefully, and yet they seem to be wholly spontaneous, and even formless. He grasped the primary fact that no conceivable ingenuity can save a story that fails to show a recognizable and interesting character; he knew that a good character sketch is always a good story, no matter what its structure. Perhaps he got less attention than he ought to have got, even among the anti-academic critics, because his people were all lowly boors. For your reviewer of books, like every other sort of American is always vastly impressed by fashionable pretensions. He belongs to the white collar class of labor, and shares its prejudices. He can’t rid himself of the feeling that Edith Wharton, whose people have butlers, was a better novelist than Willa Cather, whose people, in the main, dine in their kitchens.

Fitzgerald on Lardner


from The New Republic, 1933

F. Scott Fitzgerald

For a year and a half the writer of this appreciation was Ring Lardner’s most familiar companion; after that, geography made separations and our contacts were rare. When my wife and I last saw him in 1931, he looked already like a man on his deathbed—it was terribly sad to see that six feet three inches of kindness stretched out ineffectual in the hospital room. His fingers trembled with a match, the tight skin on his handsome skull was marked as a mask of misery and nervous pain.

He gave a very different impression when we first saw him in 1921—he seemed to have an abundance of quiet vitality that would enable him to outlast anyone, to take himself for long spurts of work or play that would ruin any ordinary constitution. He had recently convulsed the country with the famous kitten-and-coat saga (it had to do with a world’s series bet and with the impending conversion of some kittens into fur), and the evidence of the betting, a beautiful sable, was worn by his wife at the time. In those days he was interested in people, sports, bridge, music, the stage, the newspapers, the magazines, the books. But though I did not know it, the change in him had already begun—the impenetrable despair that dogged him for a dozen years to his death.

He had practically given up sleeping, save on short vacations deliberately consecrated to simple pleasures, most frequently golf with his friends, Grantland Rice or John Wheeler. Many a night we talked over a case of Canadian ale until bright dawn, when Ring would rise and yawn: “Well, I guess the children have left for school by this time—I might as well go home.”

The woes of many people haunted him—for example, the doctor’s death sentence pronounced upon Tad, the cartoonist (who, in fact, nearly outlived Ring)—it was as if he believed he could and ought to do something about such things. And as he struggled to fulfil his contracts, one of which, a comic strip based on the character of “the busher”, was a terror, indeed, it was obvious that he felt his work to be directionless, merely “copy”. So he was inclined to turn his cosmic sense of responsibility into the channel of solving other people’s problems—finding someone an introduction to a theatrical manager, placing a friend in a job, manoeuvring a man into a good club. The effort made was often out of proportion to the situation; the truth back of it was that Ring was getting off—he was a faithful and conscientious workman to the end, but he had stopped finding any fun in his work ten years before he died.

About that time (1922) a publisher undertook to reissue his old books and collect his recent stories and this gave him a sense of existing in the literary world as well as with the public, and he got some satisfaction from the reiterated statements of Mencken and F.P.A. as to his true stature as a writer. But I don’t think he cared then—it is hard to understand, but I don’t think he really gave a damn about anything except his personal relations with a few people. A case in point was his attitude to those imitators who lifted everything except the shirt off his back—only Hemingway has been so thoroughly frisked—it worried the imitators more than it worried Ring. His attitude was that if they got stuck in the process he’d help them over any tough place.

Throughout this period of huge earnings and an increasingly solid reputation on top and beneath, there were two ambitions more important to Ring than the work by which he will be remembered; he wanted to be a musician—sometimes he dramatized himself ironically as a thwarted composer—and he wanted to write shows. His dealings with managers would make a whole story: they were always commissioning him to do work which they promptly forgot they had ordered, and accepting librettos that they never produced. (Ring left a short ironic record of Ziegfeld.) Only with the aid of the practical George Kaufman did he achieve his ambition, and by then he was too far gone in illness to get a proper satisfaction from it.

The point of these paragraphs is that, whatever Ring’s achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude towards his work. How far back did that attitude go?—back to his youth in a Michigan village? Certainly back to his days with the Cubs. During those years, when most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy’s game. A boy’s game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure. This material, the observation of it under such circumstances, was the text of Ring’s schooling during the most formative period of the mind. A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.

Here was his artistic problem, and it promised future trouble. So long as he wrote within that enclosure the result was magnificent: within it he heard and recorded the voice of a continent. But when, inevitably, he outgrew his interest in it, what was Ring left with?

He was left with his fine ethymological technique—and he was left rather helpless in those few acres. He had been formed by the very world on which his hilarious irony had released itself. He had fought his way through to knowing what people’s motives are and what means they are likely to resort to in order to attain their goals. But now he had a new problem—what to do about it. He went on seeing, and the sights travelled back to the optic nerve, but no longer to be thrown off in fiction, because they were no longer sights that could be weighed and valued by the old criteria. It was never that he was completely sold on athletic virtuosity as the be-all and end-all of problems; the trouble was that he could find nothing finer. Imagine life conceived as a business of beautiful muscular organization—an arising, an effort, a good break, a sweat, a bath, a meal, a love, a sleep—imagine it achieved; then imagine trying to apply that standard to the horribly complicated mess of living, where nothing, even the greatest conceptions and workings and achievements, is else but messy, spotty, tortuous—and then one can imagine the confusion that Ring faced on coming out of the ball park.

He kept on recording but he no longer projected, and this accumulation, which he has taken with him to the grave, crippled his spirit in the latter years. It was not the fear of Niles, Michigan, that hampered him—it was the habit of silence, formed in the presence of the “ivory” with which he lived and worked. Remember it was not humble ivory—Ring has demonstrated that—it was arrogant, imperative, often megalomaniacal ivory. He got the habit of silence, then the habit of repression that finally took the form of his odd little crusade in “The New Yorker” against pornographic songs. He had agreed with himself to speak only a small portion of his mind.

The present writer once suggested to him that he organize some cadre within which he could adequately display his talents, suggesting that it should be something deeply personal, and something on which Ring could take his time, but he dismissed the idea lightly; he was a disillusioned idealist but he had served his Fates well, and no other ones could be casually created for him—“This is something that can be printed,” he reasoned. “This, however, must join that accumulated mass of reflections that can never be written.”

He covered himself in such cases with protests of his inability to bring off anything big, but this was specious, for he was a proud man and had no reason to rate his abilities cheaply. He refused to “tell all” because in a crucial period of his life he had formed the habit of not doing it—and this he had elevated gradually into a standard of taste. It never satisfied him by a damn sight.

So one is haunted not only by a sense of personal loss but by a conviction that Ring got less percentage of himself on paper than any other American of the first flight. There is “You Know Me, Al”, and there are about a dozen wonderful short stories (my God, he hadn’t even saved them—the material of “How to Write Short Stories” was obtained by photographing old issues in the public library!), and there is some of the most uproarious and inspired nonsense since Lewis Carroll. Most of the rest is mediocre stuff, with flashes, and I would do Ring a disservice to suggest it should be set upon an altar and worshipped, as have been the most casual relics of Mark Twain. Those three volumes should seem enough—to everyone who didn’t know Ring. But I venture that no one who knew him but will agree that the personality of the man overlapped it. Proud, shy, solemn, shrewd, polite, brave, kind, merciful, honourable—with the affection these qualities aroused he created in addition a certain awe in people. His intentions, his will, once in motion, were formidable factors in dealing with him—he always did every single thing he said he would do. Frequently he was the melancholy Jaques, and sad company indeed, but under any conditions a noble dignity flowed from him, so that time in his presence always seemed well spent.

On my desk, at the moment, I have the letters Ring wrote to us; here is a letter one thousand words long, here is one of two thousand words—theatrical gossip, literary shop talk, flashes of wit but not much wit, for he was feeling thin and saving the best of that for his work, anecdotes of his activities. I reprint the most typical one I can find:

“The Dutch Treat show was a week ago Friday night. Grant Rice and I had reserved a table, and a table holds ten people and no more. Well, I had invited, as one guest, Jerry Kern, but he telephoned at the last moment that he couldn’t come. I then consulted with Grant Rice, who said he had no substitute in mind, but that it was a shame to waste our extra ticket when tickets were at a premium. So I called up Jones, and Jones said yes, and would it be all right for him to bring along a former Senator who was a pal of his and had been good to him in Washington. I said I was sorry, but our table was filled and, besides, we didn’t have an extra ticket. “Maybe I could dig up another ticket somewhere,” said Jones. “I don’t believe so,” I said, “but anyway the point is that we haven’t room at our table.” “Well,” said Jones, “I could have the Senator eat somewhere else and join us in time for the show.” “Yes,” I said, “but we have no ticket for him.” “Well, I’ll think up something,” he said. Well, what he thought up was to bring himself and the Senator and I had a hell of a time getting an extra ticket and shoving the Senator in at another table where he wasn’t wanted, and later in the evening, the Senator thanked Jones and said he was the greatest fella in the world and all I got was goodnight.

“Well, I must close and nibble on a carrot. R.W.L.”

Even in a telegram Ring could compress a lot of himself. Here is one: WHEN ARE YOU COMING BACK AND WHY PLEASE ANSWER RING LARDNER.

This is not the moment to recollect Ring’s convivial aspects, especially as he had, long before his death, ceased to find amusement in dissipation, or indeed in the whole range of what is called entertainment—save for his perennial interest in songs. By grace of the radio and of the many musicians who, drawn by his enormous magnetism, made pilgrimages to his bedside, he had a consolation in the last days, and he made the most of it, hilariously rewriting Cole Porter’s lyrics in “The New Yorker”. But it would be an evasion for the present writer not to say that when he was Ring’s neighbour a decade ago, they tucked a lot under their belts in many weathers, and spent many words on many men and things. At no time did I feel that I had known him enough, or that anyone knew him—it was not the feeling that there was more stuff in him and that it should come out, it was rather a qualitative difference, it was rather as though, due to some inadequacy in one’s self, one had not penetrated to something unsolved, new and unsaid. That is why one wishes that Ring had written down a large proportion of what was in his mind and heart. It would have saved him longer for us, and that in itself would be something. But I would like to know what it was, and now I will go on wishing—what did Ring want, how did he want things to be, how did he think things were?

A great and good American is dead. Let us not obscure him by the flowers, but walk up and look at that fine medallion, all abraded by sorrows that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies, because he was kind, and to many millions he gave release and delight.