RING LARDNER (1885-1933) was much admired by his contemporaries, yet his satirical talent has not been well understood by later generations, especially in the English speaking world outside of America. The tensions of literary presentism abound in his work, for his text is littered with the easy mannered journalese of his time and place (though charmingly so). Moreover, his subject matter is very American – sport, small-town trade threatened by industry, theatre and entertainment, pleasure, the casual obsessions of his period. H. L. Mencken referred to his work as a “mine of authentic Americana.” It is just not possible 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, 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.
Lardner is regarded now as a sideshow to the rich literary scene that took root in America immediately before and after the First World War. His sparkling wit and bon mot humour has had longer shelf life than the body of his work, and his writing style may not have stood the test of time, though its originality has at least permitted his followers to rejoice in it without shame and has saved it from being discredited. References to Ring Lardner can be found in many of the memoirs and biographies of his time, usually of great esteem if not hero worship, 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 there can be little doubt that he is more the literary ambassador of his era than, say, Edith Wharton, his almost exact contemporary. To rhapsodise about Lardner’s literary style and aspect when it is isolated from the golden age of American sport or the world of hoofers and 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. It is Lardner’s pen that captures the period when America succumbed to the trappings and pains of societal pubescence best. As a continent shuffled its way from small-town hardship to novel high-rise urban landscape, Lardner recorded its habits, its pleasures and disquiet. There is something beautifully balanced and generous about his writing, and he managed to embrace both sides of nearly every divide in the America of his day. 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 is English brother.“ In this New World of continental swell and shrinkage, when anyone could move from extreme poverty for untold wealth (and back again) in the blink of an eye, Lardner was a pivotal voice. He was there to capture in literary parody the things that mattered most to him – as sport, now commercial and nationwide, bent its rules to accommodate a more demanding audience, 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. Lardner gives an authentic account 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 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.
Lardner’s 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. He was a personal friend of (and at one time the next-door neighbour to) F. Scott Fitzgerald. 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 him. Maxwell Perkins, at Fitzgerald‘s behest, was his devoted agent, 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 is very obvious from their correspondence; Lardner, always the 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.”
Lardner was a man often seen to sink his own ship, seemingly not caring for praise or encouragement. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eulogy to Lardner, published in The New Republic, is taken 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.” Lardner might be cast easily as a casual and failed Man of Letters. He resisted the novel form, and recognized that he was better suited to the short story form; 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, the comfortable, who was content not to stretch his talent and be rather too inclined to stay in the safe world of what he knew best, or to be distracted with eye-catching projects like his daily comic strip text (although he was bored of that very quickly).
A penchant for the comfortable was matched by cynicism, and undoubtedly this marred what might have been a contented life. He had a healthy childhood by all accounts, likewise he held his young family dear; yet these circumstances could not halt his heavy drinking or the indolent malaise into which he slid very easily. Lardner’s negligent attitude may have suggested serious character flaw. He had been prone to indulging his laziness ever since his childhood. His parents were wealthy and wanted the best education for him, but he did his best to fail them. Even when sent to a technology college to study engineering, he flunked and failed to complete the course. That Lardner stumbled into sports journalism would have been no surprise to anybody; throughout his life he preferred to hang out with fellow loafers.
As for his published prose, Lardner clearly enjoyed to leave false clues. Edmund Wilson’s review of How to Write Short Stories (a 1924 compilation published by Scribner‘s which contains many of his greatest short stories), chided Lardner for his spoof introduction which belied his literary accomplishment, and 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 pretence. But perhaps he just didn’t care and was resistant to anything except a louche literary touch. Lardner treated his writing as mere “copy” – this was Fitzgerald’s description – and it is interesting to note that Lardner never thought to file any of his short stories; he possessed no copies when asked to produce his work for Scribner‘s 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 encourage the camel to drink it dry.
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. But if his dialogue is dismissed ever as the vernacular of the barrelhouse rather than deft filigree (it was admired by many for its authenticity) and his humour regarded as wisecrack, it hardly matters. What does matter is its effect and how well he was able to control that.
If Lardner had a mission, it was to “tell the reader what he already knows in terms with which he is already familiar.” This was a manifesto that permitted the dereliction of correct grammar, referred to as ‘Lardner Ringlish’, but it was also, above all else, a command to communicate. This came easy and was very much a reflection of his personality. He was certainly a 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 written with George S. Kaufman in 1929.) 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.
You Know Me Al, published in 1916, was Lardner’s only novel (if it can be truly termed as that). His books never sold in significant numbers: his audience had read him already in magazine format – The Saturday Evening Post, who had originally commissioned the six stories in 1914, had a circulation at that time of over two million – and partly because Lardner churned out new material constantly; 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, published by George H. Doran Company in 1916 – that is until Scribner‘s were encouraged by a youthful and adoring Fitzgerald to repackage his writing in a more literary vein from 1924; 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. It was a book inspired and brought together by Lardner’s proletarian sporting enthusiasm and well-honed skills of reportage.
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 (his column for the Sporting News was called ’Pullman Pastimes’) as the players, who, despite Lardner’s roguish if not caustic criticism of them, accepted him socially and saw him for what he was – an enthusiastic devotee of the sport. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eulogy of his friend chided him for an apprenticeship that reported on “a boy‘s game,“ and he lamented the poor schooling it offered for the craft of serious writing and the shadow it might have cast: “However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond,” was Fitzgerald’s assessment.
It is interesting then that Lardner turned his back almost completely (though he did still do occasional match reports) on baseball after he left Chicago. It is assumed often that Lardner’s silence after 1919 to write much about baseball, certainly in his fiction (and this had proved to be 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 – eight of the Chicago White Sox players had been caught taking bribes to lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds – was to reverberate 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 that comprise You Know Me Al, even though Lardner had known already of the match fixing scandal. The last of the Keefe stories was published just nine days after the infamous 1919 World Series was concluded, although the chronology of the tales ends before the World Series takes place. (Altogether Lardner wrote 26 stories that featured Jack Keefe as hero, and these spilled into three books: six stories were included in You Know Me Al, three more in Treat ‘Em Rough (1918), six in The Real Dope (1919), other 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 the game was both out of sight and out of mind; he was, after all, no longer to be employed so frequently on the sports desk, and he was therefore both emotionally and geographically separated from his beloved White Sox team. 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. Lardner was to write in a newspaper column in 1924:
“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 romantic vision of baseball’s timeline allowed him to divide its history into the old and the new. Even though he had a romanticized image of the game, it was not the money that had ruined it for him. Lardner was ready to accept that it was commerce that made the world spin round. In an article written for Colliers in 1912 (’The Cost of Baseball’), he had declared that “baseball is a business, a mighty big one,“ and 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 scribble humorous verse, penned this rhyme to mock and highlight 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.“
The cause of this fission, for Lardner at least, was the technical reform that the baseball authorities had introduced, some of which had been less than subtle. These changes naturally met his severe disapproval. That Lardner 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). Far more importantly though, this reform encouraged a new style of play that had led the sports’ supporters to indulge in practises he found distasteful. In the essay (’Sports and Play’) 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 this new mentality, changed nature and wearisome 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. The truth is that Lardner felt far more at ease with the sports’ participatory nature before, say, 1919 than after this date, and it matched his romantic image of the sport. However much Lardner favoured the ’old’ styles of play that he grew up with and first reported, it was the crowds’ reaction to its changing gamesmanship that served more as the barometer for the crudity of American society, and gone were the ideals of American life that he cherished most – 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 the tales or the rich humour. The gist of the storyline is that Keefe’s undoubted talent for the game is blighted by his immense ego and hauteur. Keefe is a small-town, greenhorn coming to terms with life in major league baseball, and he reveals himself unwittingly to be both naive and a simpleton, shot full of hubris, always oblivious to the machinations of those who manipulate him. This can be witnessed through his correspondence with Al Blanchard, his friend from home in Bedford, Illinois.
The cruelty and bitterness which punctuate this book can be found in all of Lardner’s writing. Always they are delivered 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 was most inclined 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. Keefe is clearly loathsome, though he is even more the funnier for it, and is cursed by a disastrous love life with a side dish of too much gambling and alcohol, and he becomes “hog fat.” His ignorant buffoonery – we are treated to Keefe’s poor spelling, faulty grammar and slang – is the Hardy to Al’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 tree. He was well rewarded: his yearly income by 1922 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 – he scripted over 700 until early 1925, drawn by Will B. Johnstone and Dick Dorgan – was devoured by an ardent fan base. From then on Lardner’s physical decline seemed to be inexorable. Gatsby’s obituary – “the poor son of a bitch” – was spoken by Grey Owls; Fitzgerald, presciently, had modelled Grey Owls on Lardner.
Wit is the bait on the end of Lardner’s literary fishing line; once seduced by it, a reader will return for more. But Lardner’s use of language is the most enduring of his gifts. During his lifetime it was imitated by many and rivalled by none. Virginia Woolf, too, was a fan of Lardner’s demotic palette. She wrote to a friend that Lardner “writes the best prose that has come our way,“ and “often in a language which is not English.” Further, ”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 (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 might have if seated in the press tent at the Yankee Stadium.