The satirical talent of RING LARDNER (1885-1933), if much admired by his contemporaries, has not been as greatly appreciated by subsequent generations, especially in the English-speaking world outside of America. The tensions of literary presentism abound in his work, and his text is littered with the easy mannered journalese of his time and place (though charmingly so). Moreover, his subject matter is very American – its small-town mercantile class threatened by heavy industry, sport, more sport, theatre and entertainment, the gossip and pastimes that were the casual obsessions of his period. 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 progressive ideals, the buzz of the jazz age and the colloquial of the speakeasy. He remains resolutely part and parcel of his era, not only his writing but in 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; this was caused almost certainly by alcohol. 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.
Today, Lardner’s sparkling bon mot humour has had longer shelf life than the body of his work, and 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. His writing style may not have withstood so well the rigorous tests of the passage of time, though its originality has saved it from being in any way discredited and allows us to rejoice in it still. References to Ring Lardner, usually 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. Nonetheless in so many ways he is more the literary ambassador of his era than, say, Edith Wharton, his almost exact contemporary. To rhapsodise about Lardner’s literary style, especially when it is isolated from the golden age of American sport or the world of the hoofer and he radio crooners that he loved, 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 a 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 gives an authentic account of the society around him in snapshot form. As the wets and gangsters of the liquor industry pitted themselves against the progressive drys and the pietism of spiritual revival, as newspapers and wireless sets rolled out more throwaway or prurient fodder and took eyes nationwide and away from the intensity of the local, and as new etiquettes and social regards clashed with those of previous generations, Lardner presents himself as an accidental and innocent witness to this struggle. He was there to capture in literary parody the things that mattered most to him – as music moved from the rigid forms of Sousa or the knitting machine syncopation of the ragtime piano roll to the commerce and easy strains of Broadway, as sport, newly commercial and now truly national, bent its rules to accommodate a more demanding audience. We are lucky indeed that Lardner was such a perfect armchair sportsman, for sport was one of the vital ingredients that fed the growth of a homogeneous country. 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 the sport’s image forever.
Lardner made best use of his situation. His circle of friends was extensive: significant politicians, fellow journalists, sportsmen, showbiz greats such as W. C. Fields and Florenz Ziegfield (for whom Lardner wrote burlesque sketches). Lardner kept also the best literary company for a man now remembered best for writing about men running around after a ball in a sporting arena. He was a personal 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 a disappointment to both). Mencken championed him. Booth Tarkington, Theodore Dreiser and many other writers of note were keen to be associated with Lardner. Maxwell Perkins, at Fitzgerald‘s behest, became his devoted agent, and was as eager as Fitzgerald to coax a ‘big’ novel from him.
That Lardner was not so 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, for instance, that he would “come to one of those literary luncheons if you think it advisable, but it is my secret ambition not to.” 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.” Seemingly, Lardner cared little for establishment praise or encouragement, and he was a man often seen to sink his own ship. He might be cast easily as a too casual or a failed Man of Letters. Lardner resisted the novel form, for instance. But he had grasped that he was better suited to the short story. (As Lardner’s grandson, James, noted perceptively, “so, perhaps, is a good deal of life as most people live it.”) Lardner has been depicted since his death as the consummate hack who fell back on the familiar and the comfortable, too inclined to stay in the shallow waters that he knew best, although he could be distracted by eye-catching candyfloss projects, such as his daily comic strip text (although he was bored of that very quickly).
Lardner’s penchant for the comfortable was matched by cynicism. This was a quality that undoubtedly marred what might have been a contented life. By all accounts he had a good childhood. He was brought up in Niles, Michigan, an old-fashioned Midwestern town comprised of small farmers and merchants with no awareness of the metropolitan life soon to descend upon America, the sort of community for which Booth Tarkington expressed nostalgia. Lardner’s parents were devoted and loving; like-wise Lardner held his own young family dear. Yet his secure background did nothing to halt the heavy drinking or the indolent malaise into which he would slide very easily. His parents were wealthy and had wanted the best education for him, yet he did his best to fail them. Even when sent to a technology college to study engineering, Lardner flunked and failed to complete the course, and at every subsequent turn Lardner was prone to the easy life. Throughout his life he preferred to hang out with fellow loafers, and that he fell into sports journalism with its sociability and after hours indulgence should have been no surprise to anyone who knew him. Such a negligent attitude may suggest serious character flaw.
As for his published prose, Lardner clearly enjoyed to leave false clues. Edmund Wilson’s review of How to Write Short Stories (Lardner’s 1924 compilation published by Scribner‘s contains many of his finest short stories) chided Lardner 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 may have lacked the literary confidence to regard himself as anything other than a journalist who rose to the occasion when needed, or he may have preferred the contrary humour involved in its pretence. But perhaps he just didn’t care. For sure, he was by nature resistant to anything except a louche literary touch. He annoyed because he regarded his writing always as “copy” (this was Fitzgerald’s description) and it is revealing that Lardner never thought to file any of his short stories throughout his writing career; he had no manuscript to hand when Scribner‘s asked Lardner for copy for an anthology, for instance. Yet for twenty years and more, and despite himself, Ring Lardner managed somehow to bring his literary camel not only to the water, but encourage the camel to drink itdry.
At times he 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 suggests. His style is free and easy, colloquial and carefree, and, like his dialogue, it is admired for its authenticity. If it is dismissed ever as the vernacular of the barrelhouse rather than deft filigree or his satirical humour 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, and there is no doubt that Lardner’s prose is immediate, precise and affecting. His voice spoke for a generation of Americans.
‘Lardner Ringlish’ is the term given to his style, with its use of unsteady syntax, his dereliction of a wide vocabulary and his trashing of correct grammar. Lardner had a mission, and it was to “tell the reader what he already knows in terms with which he is already familiar.” What Lardner wanted, above all else, was to communicate. This came easy and was very much the reflection of his personality. Not surprisingly Lardner in real life found it easy to be extremely sociable; he was as likely to be received well in any public bar one day as to be the golfing partner of President Warren Harding the next. And he was certainly the supreme populist. (As proof he gravitated readily to the Broadway stage and vaudeville: song writing was for Lardner an ambitious occupation, and he wrote many plays although only one ran successfully – June Moon, which was written with George S. Kaufman in 1929.)
You Know Me Al, published in 1916, was Lardner’s only novel (if it can be truly termed as a novel). Perhaps one reason that Lardner never graduated to more serious long form writing is that none of his books ever sold in significant numbers: his audience had read him already in magazine format. The Saturday Evening Post, the newspaper who had originally commissioned the six stories in 1914, had a circulation at that time of over two million. And Lardner churned out new material almost relentlessly. Lardner’s moniker was therefore to be topical before profound. It is no surprise therefore that, despite the fame it brought its author, You Know Me Al had only one printing in book format. It was published by George H. Doran Company in 1916. Scribner‘s were later encouraged by a youthful and adoring Fitzgerald to repackage his writing in a more literary vein from 1924, and You Know Me Al was republished on the Scribner’s list in 1925.
The book is almost unique in American literature: a deeply observed, sardonic and humorous masterpiece concerning a popular pastime. The subject matter was hardly within the comfort zone of a literary world endowed with the patrician sensibilities of Henry James. Yet it might still be possible to claim that Lardner, with a book inspired and brought together by his proletarian sporting enthusiasm and well-honed skills of reportage, is the true American literary ambassador of his era.
Lardner had started his career in journalism in 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. Within two years he had worked his way up to reporting for the major Chicago newspapers. He had posted weekly baseball reports throughout this period until 1919; then he relocated to Long Island, New York, to write for the Bell News Syndicate. He had 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, despite the roguish if not caustic criticism of them, accepted Lardner socially and accepted him for what he was – an enthusiastic devotee of the baseball. Scott Fitzgerald’s eulogy chided Lardner for an apprenticeship that had reported so keenly on “a boy‘s game;“ he lamented the poor schooling it offered for the craft of serious writing and 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, nicknamed the ‘Peerless Leader’, was a legendary first baseman at the end of his playing career when You Know Me Al was written.]
It is noteworthy that Lardner turned his back on baseball after he left Chicago. It is assumed often that Lardner’s reluctance after 1919 to write much about baseball (certainly in his fiction, which had, after all, become a winning and 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 forever 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 – was to reverberate dramatically within the sport for many years. As proof of Lardner’s severe moral disapproval, it has been noted that the scandal is never even alluded to in the stories written about Jack Keefe, who was a small-town, greenhorn coming to terms with life in major league baseball, although, to be fair, the chronology of these tales ends before the World Series takes place. But Lardner had known already of the match fixing scandal before the story broke, and he had penned these throughout 1919 (Lardner, after a three-year hiatus, and had started to write them again in 1918). Indeed, the last of the Jack Keefe stories was published just nine days after the infamous 1919 World Series was concluded.
Altogether Lardner wrote 26 stories that featured Jack Keefe as hero for The Saturday Evening Post. Most of these 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 into book form.
Of course, the fresh career direction that was afforded by Lardner’s new post on the East Coast may have ensured that the lure of baseball was both more out of sight and out of mind – he was geographically therefore emotionally separated from his beloved White Sox team, and his attachment to the sport could be more easily broken. Further, he was no longer to be employed so frequently on the sports desk. Yet it is also true that both his move to New York and the scandal that had occupied the sport in 1919 were coincidental with changes within baseball that had tested Lardner’s sporting ardour.
Lardner was to write later in a 1924 newspaper column:
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 vision 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, both 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.
Baseball’s fall from grace in Lardner’s eyes can be attributed to more than just the less than subtle technical and tactical reforms that the baseball authorities had introduced. These changes naturally met with Lardner’s severe disapproval. That he exalted pitchers over hitters is well known. 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,“ although the more ‘lively’ ball (to make big hits easier) was in fact introduced in the early 1920s, that is, after 1919. What did vex Lardner was that the new style of play encouraged by its technical reform led 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 he castigated baseball’s audience – for its mentality, changed nature and behaviours, all of which bemused him. An article in The New Yorker as late as 1933 (’Over the Waves’) expressed a jeeringly critical view of even the new-found radio fans of the game.
It was likely then that personally Lardner felt far more at ease with the sport’s participatory nature before, say, 1919 than after this date. But however much Lardner favoured the ’old’ styles of play that he grew up with and first reported, it was more that baseball’s changing gamesmanship served best as a barometer of the crudity of American society. Baseball was witness to the disappearance of Lardner’s most cherished ideals of American life: individuality and the rewards given to merit.
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 language of the baseball world is recited, 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 undoubted talent for the game is blighted by his immense ego and hauteur. He reveals himself unwittingly to be both naive and a simpleton, shot full of hubris, oblivious always to the machinations of those who manipulate him. These traits we can read in his correspondence with Al Blanchard, Keefe’s friend from his home town of Bedford, Illinois.
The cruelty and bitterness which punctuate this book can be found in all of Lardner’s writing. Such flashes are delivered always with panache and fluster, relayed at hectic pace, and layered with biting satire and humour. “He wrapped his dreadful events in comic language,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “as you would put an insecticide in a bright can.” The archetypal character that Lardner enjoyed most to portray was riddled with failure or dishonesty, qualities always more interesting than their virtuous counterparts; similarly, the indolent, blowhard or creep were always more entertaining for Lardner than the industrious, modest or 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 (and he should have known!). Keefe is clearly loathsome, though he is even more 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 ideal for his sporting prowess. His ignorant buffoonery – we are treated to Keefe’s poor spelling, faulty grammar and slang – is the Hardy to Al Blanchard’s offstage and silent Laurel (and we can only guess at his reactions to Keefe). It was a winning formula, and the pairing certainly made their creator a celebrated and household name.
By the mid-1920s Lardner had reached the top of his career tree. By this time he was well rewarded: his yearly income for 1922, for instance, approached $100,000. 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) and 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 that time on, Lardner’s decline gained pace, until physical breakdown seemed to be inexorable. Gatsby’s obituary – “the poor son of a bitch” – was spoken by Grey Owls. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, yet the prescient Fitzgerald had modelled Grey Owls on Lardner.
Of the many superlatives heaped on Lardner, his sardonic or ironic wit is the most frequent. But it was his use of language that was the most admired, and throughout his lifetime he had many rivals eager to imitate; it need hardly be said that Lardner’s pen was never equalled. Virginia Woolf, too, was a fan of Lardner’s demotic palette. Lardner, she wrote, “writes the best prose that has come our way,” and, Woolf added, “often in a language which is not English.” Further, Woolf writes:
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.
It is not certain that Ring Lardner ever took the time to read Woolf (we can guess that he almost certainly did), but however a reader chooses to judge their respective literary merits, it can be certain that Lardner would have made a better stab at conversation over high tea at Cliveden than Woolf would have as a pitcher in the Yankee Stadium. And Lardner certainly makes you laugh.