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.