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Ring Lardner is considered one of the most accomplished humorists and satirists in American literature. Best known for such frequently anthologized short stories as ”The Golden Honeymoon,” ”Champion,” ”Some Like Them Cold,” and ”Haircut,” he drew upon his background as a small-town Midwesterner and experience as a sports-writer to render his amusing, biting fiction in the idiom of the semi-educated, middle-class American.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Privileged Victorian Upbringing
Ring W. Lardner, like so many of the pioneers of modern American literature, grew up in a comfortable family that was a model of late Victorian, middle-class values. Son of a successful businessman and the cultured daughter of an Episcopal minister, Lardner was born in 1885 in the small town of Niles, Michigan. In Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner (1977), Jonathan Yardley gives a vivid picture of the world in which Lardner spent his childhood—a world of teas, musicales, and literary societies; of energetic local theatrical companies; and of riverside picnics. For the affluent Lardners, it also was a world of private tutors and Irish nursemaids.
This idyllic childhood was hard to leave behind, and in the first years after his graduation from high school at sixteen, Lardner drifted between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. He worked a series of odd jobs, flunked out of the Armour Institute in Chicago, and took several extended “rest” periods at the family home. In 1905 he landed a job almost by accident as a reporter for the South Bend Times. He took to the work and became a successful and hardworking journalist for most of the rest of his life. One of his principal assignments was sports writing, at which he quickly established himself as an original, often approaching his stories from the perspective of the participants rather than just summarizing events.
A Career as a Sportswriter
In 1907 Lardner took a position on the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper, and for the next twelve years he worked as a reporter and columnist for such papers as the Chicago Examiner and the Chicago Tribune and, briefly, for the Boston American. During these years he covered many sports, especially baseball, and he traveled with the White Sox and the Cubs. Not quite respectable in the early years of the century, baseball was rough and sometimes violent. Many of the players were illiterate or semiliterate farm-boys, and other figures who hovered around the game were often unsavory.
Lardner was taken with this strange new world, so different from that of his childhood, and he observed it with an amused detachment. He turned his ear to the awkward but colorful language of the players; he soaked up their tall tales and boasts; he noted with fascination the effects of the big-city spotlight on these boys from the provinces. From 1913 to 1919 he wrote a column called ”In the Wake of the News” that appeared on the sports pages of the Chicago Tribune and that allowed him free rein to exploit his years of observations. In 1914 he published ten stories in the Saturday Evening Post, six of them about a baseball rookie named Jack Keefe. In 1916 these six stories were published in book form as You Know Me Al. Ring Lardner’s literary career had begun.
While domestic affairs run through the book, You Know Me Al primarily concerns the day-to-day life of a baseball team, and the book ends with Keefe about to depart on a world tour with the White Sox and the New York Giants. Lardner wrote twenty-six stories about Jack, a busher, or minor-league player. In addition to the six stories appearing in You Know Me Al, ten others were each collected in Treat ‘Em Rough (1918) and The Real Dope (1919). Because the quality of the stories in the latter two volumes is uneven, it would seem that these works were motivated by his audience’s rather than Lardner’s own continuing enthusiasm for the character.
Lardner drew his portrait of Keefe and the other players from his extensive firsthand knowledge of the actual players of the era. In fact, many of them, such as Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson, as well as White Sox owner
Charles A. Comiskey, are portrayed as characters in the book. As Otto Friedrich argues in his study Ring Lardner, a major result of the busher stories was to undermine forever the all-American image of the professional athlete that had dominated sports fiction. The typical baseball player as Lardner presented him is often petty, can pull cruel practical jokes, and is undisciplined and self-centered. Keefe himself is talented but must always blame his teammates for his failures. In addition, he is too pig-headed to take the usually sound advice of his coaches, and he can be fanatically stingy and supremely egotistical.
How to Write Short Stories
In Gullible, another character that he created during this period, Lardner struck a new rich vein of humor. Gullible is a twentieth-century American Gulliver whose travels are mostly attempts to climb the social ladder. This new character gave Lardner a free hand to explore comically the issue of social class in a supposedly classless society. Keefe and another, less successful character, Fred Gross, are near the bottom of society, but Gullible and his wife are lower middle class, and thus are aware of social strata both below and above.
Lardner’s best work during these early years is marked by fairly gentle satire—the shared realization of author and reader that all human beings can be petty fools at times but that no great harm will come of it. Lardner continued to write such stories throughout his career, but as the 1920s began, the vision grew darker and the satire more damning in many of his best works. Some of those stories were collected in How to Write Short Stories (With Samples), published in 1924.
Scott Fitzgerald, a noted short-story writer as well as one of the leading novelists of his time, had urged Lardner to publish a collection of his best stories and even suggested the title and the gag preface. He also persuaded his own publisher, the prestigious Charles Scribner’s Sons, to publish it. Walton R. Patrick calls the book ”the turning point” of Lardner’s career because it marked the first time that he received thoughtful scrutiny as an important literary artist. Of the ten stories, six dealt with sport, and nine were written in the familiar first-person narrative voice; but the collection displayed enough range to suggest both where Lardner had been and where he was going as a writer.
How to Write Short Stories (With Samples) was a prelude to what Patrick calls the ”peak years” between 1924 and 1929, during which Lardner wrote less than he sometimes had in the past but produced consistently better stories. Many of those stories were collected in The Love Nest, and Other Stories by Ring W. Lardner (1926), and the volume clearly indicates a second phase in Lardner’s career. Only one of the nine stories concerns athletics; most use third person narration; and the stories are less broadly humorous and more darkly satiric than the earlier works. Lardner, now financially secure and socially prominent, aimed his barbs at a higher social class. Most of his stories from the mid-1920s focus on urbanites of the middle to upper-middle classes.
By the mid-1920s, Lardner had abandoned sports as his principal subject, but his stories of unhappy marriages, such as ”The Love Nest,” portray the relations between husbands and wives as bitter contests fought with as much ferocity and as little mercy as any competition on the ball field or in the boxing ring. In 1929 Lardner published his last important collection, Round-Up. The book rounds up not only Lardner’s best writing but also stories that reflect the range of his career. All of his character types are there, from simple baseball players to slick wheeler-dealers, from small-town bumpkins to sophisticated and would-be sophisticated urbanites. In addition, the collection emphasizes the variety of his first- and third-person narrative voices. Finally, the book generously samples the range of Lardner’s wit, from stories of rib-poking fun to the dark, acerbic satire of many of the later works.
Throughout much of his career Lardner had struggled unsuccessfully with alcoholism, depression, and insomnia, and during the mid-1920s he had discovered that he suffered from tuberculosis as well. He was frequently hospitalized for these maladies in the early 1930s, although he still managed to write a large number of stories and articles. The most intriguing of these was a series of magazine essays on the state of public radio programming that, to the puzzlement of his readers and critics, was heatedly attacked on what he considered the pornographic lyrics of certain popular songs as well as the prurient humor of radio comedians. Lardner published what Ernest Hemingway—an admirer of Lardner’s earlier work—called ”those pitiful dying radio censorship pieces” monthly in The New Yorker from June 1932 until August 1933. A month after the final installment appeared, Lardner died of a heart attack.
Works in Literary Context
Lardner’s writings reflect both the humorous nostalgia as well as the deep bitterness of his personal life. He wrote in the tradition of a long line of American popular journalists and humorists who exploited slang and vernacular speech for comic ends. In doing so, he transmuted what was initially a stock comic device into something much more, an instrument of satire. At the same time, he was, however unwittingly, one of those writers, of whom Mark Twain is the great exemplar, whose sensitivity to the value of the spoken word helped to liberate American prose from the artificial diction that marked so much nineteenth-century writing.
Despite his flaws, Lardner’s hero Jack Keefe is not a totally unlikable character, thanks to Lardner’s choice of a narrative voice—that of Jack Keefe himself, as he relays his exploits in a series of letters to his friend Al Blanchard back in their hometown of Bedford, Indiana. Otto Friedrich considers the busher stories ”perhaps the most effective dialect narrative since [Mark Twain’s] Huckleberry Finn,” and readers hear in the opening words of the first story, ”A Busher’s Letters Home,” the voice of another American innocent: ”Well, Al old pal I suppose you seen in the paper where I been sold to the White Sox. This sentence establishes the colloquial voice that includes the decidedly nontraditional grammar, usage, and spelling for which Lardner is probably most famous. Maxwell Geismar claims in Ring Lardner and the Portrait of Folly (1972) that ”Lardner’s new language … made most of the previous attempts at an American style sound rather like the diction of an Oxford don.”
Lardner helped to liberate the language of fiction, doing for his generation what Twain had done for his own fifty years earlier. No writer of his time had a better ear for what H. L. Mencken called ”common American. Lardner s linguistic inventiveness paved the way for a generation of otherwise unrelated writers, from Ernest Hemingway to Dashiell Hammett, who felt free to abandon the constraints of formal literary English in order to explore the variety of American speech in their writing.
Lardner’s satiric stories illustrate two things. The first is that Lardner, as Edmund Wilson pointed out in his Dial review, had ”an unexcelled, a perhaps unrivalled, mastery of the American language, that he knew equally well the language of the popular-song writer and the ”whole vocabulary of adolescent cliches of the middle-aged man from New Jersey, and that he understood the difference between the spoken language of these types and the language they used for writing.
Lardner was essentially a satirist, and increasingly since his death he has been seen as one of the major American practitioners in that genre. As in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884), the basis for both humor and social criticism is grounded in the dramatic irony that results from the narrator’s insufficient understanding of his world and his relation to it. Like Huck, Jack’s sense of self is at odds with reality; but whereas Huck has a sense of himself that underestimates his worth, Jack consistently overestimates his abilities both on and off the playing field. Yet Lardner also makes Jack—the ballplayer always on the road—an archetype of rootless modern humanity, longing for stability and connectedness but never quite striving hard enough to achieve them.
As Lardner’s writing career progressed, his satire became darker. “Haircut,” published in The Love Nest, is a first-person narration by a small-town barber who tells a stranger about a local prankster named Jim Kendall while he cuts the stranger’s hair. The barber tells his story to praise the local cut-up, but his account quickly reveals the malice that lies behind Kendall’s pranks. The barber’s story ends with a description of Jim Kendall’s being shot and killed by the town “half-wit.” The barber assumes that the shooting was accidental, but readers clearly see that it was a case of murder as revenge for the prankster’s cruelty. The story is a splendid example of Lardner’s finely tuned ear for common speech. It also is a revelation of the dark currents beneath the placid surface of small-town life in the manner of Lardner’s contemporaries, Sherwood Anderson and
Sinclair Lewis. Finally, it is a shrewd examination of how malice often is masked in humor, a mask which is, after all, the basis of Lardner’s own satiric art.
Works in Critical Context
Many of Lardner’s contemporaries expected more of him and felt that he never made full use of his talent. In The Shores of Light (1952) Edmund Wilson complained of Lardner’s apparent lack of ”artistic seriousness.” For instance, Wilson lamented that, in How to Write Short Stories, Lardner compiled ”a book of the best things he has written and then, with his title and comic preface, tries to pretend that he has never attempted to write anything good at all.” Fitzgerald, who had suggested that title and preface and who was Lardner’s friend and neighbor on Long Island during the 1920s, also thought that Lardner never matured as a writer and blamed it on his years as a baseball reporter. As Fitzgerald declared in ”Ring,” an essay collected in The Crack-Up (1945):
During those years when most men of promise achieved 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. …[Thus, Lardner] fell short of the achievement he was capable of….Ring got less of himself on paper than any other American author of the first flight.
On the other hand, Virginia Woolf felt, as she revealed in The Moment and Other Essays, that Lardner, thanks to his mastery of dialect, wrote ”the best prose that has come our way. Hence we feel at last freely admitted to the society of our fellows [through their language].”
A generation later, John Berryman offered his opinion in Commentary that Lardner was a ”squandered talent” because he never recognized his ”special gift for… nonsense” that could have placed him in the company of ”the great fantasists [Edward] Lear and [Lewis] Carroll.” Still others, following the lead of Clifton Fadiman’s influential Nation essay ”Ring Lardner and the Triangle of Hate,” have argued that Lardner was a misanthrope whose loathing of people, especially himself, blocked his potential to be a fruitful creative artist.
Although most of Lardner’s many short stories are unknown by today’s readers, and though his work has never attracted a particularly large body of criticism, his most famous stories have been widely praised and his technique widely imitated. Elizabeth Evans has summarized the current critical view of Lardner, calling him ”a spokesman of the twenties” who ”showed how many people lived, bearing and displaying their foibles, pettiness, misguided ambition, misplaced values. He was a superb humorist, an effective satirist, and a gifted short story writer.”
- Bruccoli, Matthew J. and Richard Layman. Ring Lardner: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976.
- DeMuth, James. Small Town Chicago: The Comic Perspective of Finley Peter Dunne, George Ade, and Ring Lardner. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1980.
- Elder, Donald. Ring Lardner: A Biography. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1956.
- Evans, Elizabeth. RingLardner. New York: Ungar, 1979.
- Friedrich, Otto. Ring Lardner. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.
- Geismar, Maxwell. Ring Lardner and the Portrait of Folly. New York: Crowell, 1972.
- Robinson, Douglas and Ellen Gardiner. RingLardner and the Other. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Yardley, Jonathan. Ring: A Biography of RingLardner. New York: Random House, 1977.
- Fadiman, Clifton. ”Ring Lardner and the Triangle of Hate.” Nation 136 (March 22, 1933): 315-317.
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