Lardner, Ring(gold Wilmer)
Ring(gold Wilmer) Lardner 1885-1933
(Also wrote under pseudonym of James Clarkson) American short story writer, journalist, dramatist, autobiographer, essayist, and poet.
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 as a sportswriter to render his amusing, biting fiction in the idiom of the semi-educated, middle-class American "boob." Praised during his lifetime by H. L. Mencken and other major critics as a formidable satiric adversary of American provincialism, Lardner has since been recognized as a master storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson. Like the works of these classic American authors, Lardner's writings reflect both the humorous nostalgia, as well as the deep bitterness, of his personal life.
Born into a wealthy family in the town of Niles, Michigan, Lardner was raised and privately educated in the genteel environs of his parents' estate, where he developed a strong interest in baseball, music, and drama. After his family suffered a severe financial setback in 1901, he worked unsuccessfully at a variety of jobs in Niles and in nearby Chicago. One position that he held and apparently found particularly harrowing was that of the sole bookkeeper, bill collector, and meter inspector for the Niles Gas Company, an ill-paying, discouraging experience that was later described in his story "The Maysville Minstrel." Leaving the gas company in 1905, Lardner wrote the lyrics and music for his first published work—the Niles American minstrel group's musical comedy Zanzibar—and, shortly thereafter, began work as a reporter for the South Bend, Indiana Times. During the next few years he developed into a highly respected sportswriter, leaving South Bend and working for several Chicago newspapers. Travelling with the White Sox and the Cubs, Lardner came to understand the humor, quirks, and concerns of the individual ballplayers, becoming their friend and confidant. His first attempts to incorporate the players' breezy, slang-filled language into fiction appeared in "In the Wake of the News," a widely read daily column that he wrote for the Chicago Tribune from 1913 to 1919. Shortly thereafter, The Saturday Evening Post published a series of Lardner's stories featuring the adventures of a semiliterate bush-league pitcher named Jack Keefe. They were collected in 1916 in You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters. By then Lardner had become an established contributor of fiction to such popular magazines as Redbook, McClure's, and The Saturday Evening Post. These works were later collected in Gullible's Travels, Etc. (1917) and Own Your Own Home (1919). During World War I, Lardner served as a war correspondent for Collier's, recounting his overseas experiences in that magazine and in My Four Weeks in France. He put Jack Keefe in a military uniform for the stories collected in Treat Em Rough: Letters from Jack the Kaiser Killer (1918) and The Real Dope (1919), which marked Keefe's last appearance in Lardner's fiction.
In 1919 Lardner ended his career as a variety columnist and sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune and moved to the East, where he hoped to establish himself as a successful writer of Broadway musicals. His decision to leave sportswriting was prompted and augmented by his deep disillusionment over certain developments and events in professional sports, most notably by the 1919 "Black Sox Scandal," which resulted when a group of mobsters bribed eight members of the heavily favored Chicago White Sox to lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Lardner settled in Great Neck, Long Island, where he was a neighbor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Groucho Marx, George M. Cohan, and other Jazz-Age writers and show business people. He had been completely unsuccessful in interesting Broadway producers in his sketches for musicals when, in 1923, his friend Fitzgerald directed the attention of editor Maxwell E. Perkins of Charles Scribner's Sons to the short story "The Golden Honeymoon" and suggested that Scribner's publish a collection of Lardner's best stories. With Lardner's approval he gathered what Fitzgerald considered Lardner's ten most significant stories (including "Champion," "Some Like Them Cold," "Alibi Ike," and "The Golden Honeymoon"), persuaded Lardner to write a humorous, explanatory preface to each story, and published the resulting collection as How to Write Short Stories (with Samples) in 1924.
Throughout much of his career Lardner struggled unsuccessfully with alcoholism, depression, and insomnia, and during the mid-1920s he discovered that he suffered from tuberculosis, as well. He was frequently hospitalized for these maladies during the early 1930s, although during this time 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 which, to the puzzlement of his readers and critics, was heatedly attacked by the noted satirist for what he considered the pornographic lyrics of certain popular songs as well as the prurient humor of radio comedians. Lardner published what Ernest Hemingway 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.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The epistolary "busher" stories of You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters evidence Lardner's maturity as a yarn-spinning storyteller as well as his thorough knowledge of the average rookie's struggles to reach the major leagues. They feature the bellicose Jack Keefe, who offers his "idears" on life, baseball, and—most importantly—his own greatness, in a progression of comically misspelled letters to his long-suffering friend, Al Blanchard. Stories collected in Gullible's Travels, Etc. and Own Your Own Home humorously portray the lives of affable, middle-class Midwesterners who strive to attain the status and material pleasures of highbrow society, only to make ludicrous fools of themselves. How to Write Short Stories was Lardner's first book to appear under the imprint of a major publisher; as a result, his fiction, for the first time, came under the scrutiny of America's most influential critics, who praised Lardner as a master of satire and—with Sinclair Lewis and Mencken—as an important voice in the then-raging cultural war against American provincialism. With the appearance of The Love Nest, and Other Stories in 1926 Lardner reached the height of his fame. In addition to such works as "A Day with Conrad Green," "Zone of Quiet," "Mr. and Mrs. Fix-it," and "The Love Nest"—stories that are considered among Lardner's very best—the collection contains what is today regarded as a masterpiece of satiric short fiction, "Haircut." Narrated in the blithe, first-person ramblings of a talkative village barber, "Haircut" tells of the heavy-handed antics of a small-town practical joker, of the respect accorded him by the townsfolk for being such a "card," and of his violent death in a dubious hunting accident. Upon reading the story, Perkins wrote to Lardner, "I read 'Haircut' . . . and I can't shake it out of my mind;—in fact the impression it made has deepened with time. There's not a man alive who could have done better, that's certain."
Since the time How to Write Short Stories was published, Lardner has been recognized as a masterful humorist and satirist, with critics of his day especially amused that members of the American "booboisie" avidly read his stories while failing to perceive his mockery of their speech and values. A few months before Lardner's death, Clifton Fadiman posited that there was more to Lardner's satire than critics had previously seen, writing: "The special force of Ring Lardner's work springs from a single fact: he just doesn't like people. Except Swift, no writer has gone farther on hatred alone. I believe he hates himself; more certainly he hates his characters; and most clearly of all, his characters hate each other. Out of this integral-triune repulsion is born his icy satiric power." Fadiman's "triangle of hate" theory dominated criticism of Lardner's works until recent years. Such stories as "The Golden Honeymoon," "The Love Nest," "Ex Parte," and "Who Dealt?"—works that are concerned with the foibles of married life in suburban America—were viewed as misanthropic denunciations of the institution of marriage, while the early "busher" stories and the boxing story "Champion" were found to evidence Lardner's contempt for professional athletes. In the character of welterweight boxer Michael ("Midge") Kelly of "Champion," Lardner created what Forrest L. Ingram called "one of the most despicable characters in American fiction." Although considered one of Lardner's bitterest, albeit flawed, stories, "Champion" is perceived by more recent critics as a work indicative of a concern that runs throughout Lardner's canon: his disillusionment with the values and morals of America's Jazz-Age culture. Jonathan Yardley has argued that having been raised in a highly protective home and in a slow-paced small town, and having spent the formative years of his career travelling—as Fitzgerald described it—"in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy's game," Lardner retained throughout his life the provincial values of trust, fairness, mannerliness, and scorn for pretense. Likewise, he registered the provincial's unfailing shock when these values were violated; hence his contempt for self-centered bullies like Midge Kelly, for liars like Kelly's public-relations man, and for gullible dupes like the "champion's" admirers. Such critics as Yardley and Ring Lardner, Jr. have also noted that Lardner's bitterness was probably deeply rooted in the troubles of his personal life, such as his alcoholism, depression, and sleeplessness, as well as his longtime lack of success as a professional playwright. In spite of the extreme bitterness of many of Lardner's stories, modern critics tend to agree with Yardley's belief that Lardner's middle-class readers laughed at his characters in recognition, not in ignorance or derision, and that Lardner "understood that it is the fate of most of us to struggle toward insubstantial goals and to fail even in that, and he was amused in a sad and pensive way by what he saw from that Olympian peak he occupied, but he watched with compassion rather than contempt, dismay rather than distaste."
Although most of Lardner's many short stories are unknown by today's readers and his work has never attracted a particularly large body of criticism, his most famous stories have been widely praised and his technique widely imitated. J. D. Salinger, Mark Harris, and Hemingway have acknowledged Lardner's influence, while evidence strongly suggests that in his novel Tender Is the Night Fitzgerald portrayed his friend in the character Abe North, a tall, would-be songwriter who possesses Lardner's sad, deep-set eyes and a serious drinking problem. Another inebriated character, which appears in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, bears a nickname given to Lardner by Chicago ballplayers during his sportswriting days—"Owl Eyes." Sherwood Anderson has called Lardner a natural storyteller and such noted authors as Virginia Woolf, J. M. Barrie, Thomas Wolfe, and Dorothy Parker have deeply admired his work.
You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters 1916
Gullible's Travels, Etc. 1917
Treat 'Em Rough: Letters from Jack the Kaiser Killer 1918
Own Your Own Home 1919
The Real Dope 1919
The Big Town: How I and the Mrs. Go to New York to See Life and Get Katie a Husband 1921
How to Write Short Stories (with Samples) 1924
What of It? (short stories, sketches, dramas) 1925
The Love Nest, and Other Stories 1926
Round Up, the Stories of Ring Lardner 1929
Lose with a Smile 1933
Some Champions: Sketches and Fiction (short stories and essays) 1976
Other Major Works
Zanzibar (drama) 1905
Bib Ballads (poetry) 1915
The Story of a Wonder Man: Being the Autobiography of Ring Lardner (autobiography) 1927
Elmer the Great [with George M. Cohan] (drama) 1928
June Moon: A Comedy in a Prologue and Three Acts [with George S. Kaufman] (drama) 1929
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SOURCE: "Ring W. Lardner," in The American Mercury, Vol. II, No. 7, July, 1924, pp. 376-77.
[In the following review of How to Write Short Stories, Mencken claims that no contemporary American writes better, though he doubts Lardner's work will stand the test of time.]
Some time ago a young college professor brought out a "critical" edition of "Sam Slick," by Judge Thomas C. Haliburton, eighty-seven years after its first publication. It turned out to be quite unreadable—a dreadful series of archaic jocosities about varieties of Homo americanus long perished and forgotten, in a dialect now intelligible only to paleophilologists. Sometimes I have a fear that the same fate awaits Ring Lardner. The professors of his own day, of course, are quite unaware of him, save perhaps as a low zany to be enjoyed behind the door. They would no more venture to whoop him up publicly and officially than their predecessors of 1880 would have ventured to whoop up Mark Twain, or their remoter predecessors of 1837 would have dared to say anything for Haliburton. In such matters the academic mind, being chiefly animated by a fear of sneers, works very slowly. So slowly, indeed, does it work that it usually works too late. By the time Mark Twain got into the text-books for sophomores, two-thirds of his compositions, as the Young Intellectuals say, had already begun to date; by the time Haliburton was served up as...
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SOURCE: "Ring Lardner and the Triangle of Hate," in The Nation, Vol. CXXXVI, No. 3533, March 22, 1933, pp. 315-17.
[In the essay below, Fadiman accuses Lardner of viciousness, arguing that "the hates himself; more certainly he hates his characters; and most clearly of all, his characters hate each other."]
There is a story about a famous orchestra conductor who during rehearsals noticed that the countenance of one of his best first violinists was overcast by a peculiarly woebegone and dissatisfied expression. For some time the musician refused to offer any explanation. Finally, after much urging, he owned up: "Well, maestro, I'll tell you how it is: I just don't like music."
The special force of Ring Lardner's work springs from a single fact: he just doesn't like people. Except Swift, no writer has gone farther on hatred alone. I believe he hates himself; more certainly he hates his characters; and most clearly of all, his characters hate each other. Out of this integral-triune repulsion is born his icy satiric power.
There is no mitigating soft streak in him as there is in the half-affectionate portraiture of Sinclair Lewis; and none of the amused tory complacency of H. L. Mencken. He can be utterly savage with his "puppets" because he is merciless with himself; his rage, a double-pointed sword, turns inward and outward at the same time. Ring Lardner has spent his...
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SOURCE: "Pongo Americanus," in The American Mercury, Vol. XXIX, No. 114, June, 1933, pp. 254-55.
[In the following review of Lose with A Smile, Mencken argues that critics ignore Lardner because of his attack on idealism and sentimentality.]
Writing in this place in July, 1924, I permitted myself to predict that it would be a long while before the professors of literature would become aware of Ring Lardner—indeed, I ventured to say that they would probably not discover him and begin to titter over him until years after he had got to the electric chair. That prophecy has now gathered a considerable age, as such things go, and is become mellow and even mossy. Lardner goes on publishing his incomparable studies of the low-down American, and the professors continue to look straight through him, just as they looked through Mark Twain in 1900 and Walt Whitman in 1875. A few critics outside the academic breastworks, notably Clifton Fadiman, have begun to write about him appreciatively, but not, so far as I know, a single debaucher of youth. He remains, by the classroom standard, a mere popular entertainer, clowning for the club-car and the locker-room in the Saturday Evening Post. But he is really very much more than that, and in some remote age, no doubt, a pedagogue rooting in the past will unearth him and be enchanted by him, as William Lyon Phelps unearthed and was enchanted by Mark Twain....
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SOURCE: "Ring," in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920-1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright Publishing, 1972, pp. 131-37.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1933, Fitzgerald eulogizes Lardner, lamenting the fact that Lardner expressed so little of what he felt so deeply.]
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 an ordinary constitution. He had recently convulsed the country with the famous kitten-and-coat saga (it had to do with a World 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...
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SOURCE: "Ring Lardner's Success-Mad World," in The New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1944, pp. 3, 18.
[In the essay that follows, Farrell evaluates Lardner's characters in Round Up, finding that "they are among the most banal characters in all of modern American fiction. " Yet these vile characters, Farrell concludes, ultimately lend pathos to Lardner's stories, thereby giving them "an enduring place in contemporary American fiction."]
Ring Lardner began his career in fiction most unpretentiously with You Know Me Al and other baseball stories. These pieces are lighter, more gay than his later work. He took the heroes of the sport pages and showed that they were made of anything but the cloth of heroism. Some of them were eccentric Yahoos; others were boasting braggarts, irascible and childish in their vanity. Later he scored the same points with greater melancholy, with increased scorn. His major work is the collection of his stories, Round Up; this book has attained both a wide popular audience and a high critical praise. It is well worth discussing now, more than a decade after Lardner's death.
The first trait which strikes you about most of Lardner's characters is their intense competitiveness. When they are not engaging in some highly competitive business or sport, they are amusing themselves with a cut-throat game of bridge or golf. They...
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SOURCE: "The Talent of Ring Lardner," in New Statesman, Vol. LVII, No. 1467, April 25, 1959, pp. 580-81.
[In the following essay, Pritchett argues that Lardner's principal contribution to American prose is his welding together of the "stream of consciousness " and the "stream of garrulity."]
What is the specifically American contribution to literature? In the Twenties, when Ring Lardner's How to Write Short Stories first appeared, with Hemingway and then a whole school, the answer was certain: talk. Mark Twain was not a lucky and accidental exploiter of the vernacular, a folk writer who represented the end of a way of life; he was one of the founders of a tradition that was going to last and be built on. The notorious, subversive garrulity has become literary capital. Even the dilatory, latinised, officious style of respectable American prose with its unrelenting and deliberate long-windedness, its love of ten words where one would do, and its flavour of cardboard, is a talker's prose translated. Its ceremoniousness may even have egged on the vernacular protest, although when one considers the vitality and real depth of the vernacular, one wonders whether ceremony is not a desperate and massive attempt at educated weed-choking.
In England the vernacular did not have the same chance. It was shut off in the vegetable patches of dialect. Cockney, Irish, Loamshire, were...
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SOURCE: "The Meaning of Ring Lardner's Fiction: A Re-evaluation," in American Literature, Vol. 31, January, 1960, pp. 434-45.
[In the essay below, Webb asserts that the "dominant theme in Ring Lardner's writing was not the pettiness and meanness of modern life; it was the problem of communication."]
Our judgments of Ring Lardner and of his work have become stereotyped and thus distorted. Because of the seeming finality of Clifton Fadiman's argument that "Except Swift, no writer has gone farther on hatred alone,"1 we have come to think of Lardner as a man who despised his fellowman. Because of the clarity with which he caught the social, professional, and linguistic traits of his characters—has "athletes, salesmen, surburbanites, song writers, barbers, actresses, stenographers, and the like"2—we have come to believe that his achievement went no further. So long as we rest with these conclusions, we will miss the more fundamental, and far subtler, point of his writing. The dominant theme in Ring Lardner's writing was not the pettiness and meanness of modern life; it was the problem of communication. In his work he analyzed, more in amusement and pity than in anger, the flaws and failures that impede its smooth and even flow.
This theme is manifest in both the matter and the manner of Lardner's work. Such factors as debasing of standard English, banality of...
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SOURCE: "Ring Lardner," in Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays, Random House, 1977, pp. 59-63.
[In the following essay, Hardwick observes that Lardner's characters are unexpectedly mean and desperate during a time when the country is booming and other authors are writing about the "Roaring Twenties. "]
When Ring Lardner died in 1933, Scott Fitzgerald wrote an interesting and somewhat despairing tribute to him. "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 toward his work." Fitzgerald thought Lardner had developed the habit of silence about important things and that he fell back in his writing on the formulas he always had ready at hand. It is easy to imagine how this might have appeared true thirty years ago when the memory of the great short story writer working away at his daily comic strip text was still painfully near to those who cared about him. Lardner was a perplexing man, often careless about his own talents. How to account for the element of self-destroying indifference in the joshing preface to How to Write Short Stories, a volume that contained "My Roomy," "Champion," "Some Like Them Cold," and "The Golden Honeymoon." Edmund Wilson's review of this volume in The Dial spoke warmly about the stories and mentioned the disturbing unsuitability of the...
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SOURCE: "The Peak Years: The Love Nest and Round Up," in Ring Lardner, Twayne Publishers, 1963, pp. 98-120.
[In the following essay, Patrick surveys Lardner's stories from 1925 to 1929, noting his switch in narrative technique from first to third person.]
After slackening his production of short stories in the early 1920's and even passing through an idle period in 1923 and 1924 when he wrote none at all, Lardner resumed writing them in 1925 with fresh energy and a new seriousness. Within the twelve months from March, 1925, to March, 1926, he published nine, all of which soon reappeared in Love Nest (1926), a collection of far better overall quality than How to Write Short Stories, During the next three years, he published twenty-one more, sixteen of which he included in Round Up (1929), together with the nineteen he had already reprinted in his two earlier collections. From 1925 to 1929, he published thirty new stories, or an average of more than seven per year, thus attaining a rate of production he had exceeded in only one other four-year period, that from 1914 to 1918. Although he chose to reprint less than half of the stories of the earlier period, he reprinted all but five of those written from 1925 to early 1929.
Lardner displayed sound critical judgment in choosing to reprint as many of the stories as he did; for...
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SOURCE: "Short-Story Writers of the 1920s: Wilbur Daniel Steele, Ring Lardner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Conrad Aiken, and Stephen Vincent Benét," in The American Short Story: A Critical Survey, University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp. 199-219.
[In the excerpt below, Voss provides a brief assessment of Lardner's short fiction, noting in particular those qualities that distinguish Lardner's best stories.]
A journalist turned short-story writer, who began his careers as a sportswriter and newspaper columnist in Chicago, Ring Lardner (1885-1933) first achieved popularity with a series of humorous letters purportedly written by one Jack Keefe, a bush-league pitcher who is signed by a big-league team in Chicago and who reports on his experiences to a friend back in his Michigan home town. Published in the Saturday Evening Post, beginning in 1914, they were collected in You Know Me Al (1916) and later volumes. Most of Lardner's short stories about baseball players follow the pattern of the You Know Me Al letters, having the same kinds of characters, situations, and complications. The bush-league pitcher in "Hurry Kane," for instance, is almost an identical twin of Jack Keefe. Although we may feel a little more kindly toward him than toward his prototype, he is essentially the same kind of boob and braggart. As is the case with Jack, his stinginess, vanity, and gullibility make him...
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SOURCE: "Ring Lardner: Not an Escape, but a Reflection," in The Twenties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, Everett/Edwards, 1975, pp. 101-10.
[In the following essay, Spatz surveys Lardner's short fiction, placing the major stories in the literary tradition of despair that had begun in the early 1920s with T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."]
The twenties were an age of humor. The list of names—Mencken, Benchley, Thurber, Parker, Lewis, and Lardner, to mention a few—is impressive. And there was plenty to laugh about. The war to end all wars had ended. Prosperity was in the air, and with it arrived what we have come to recognize as a particularly modern brand of hedonism, compounded of potent drugs, constant movement, and uninhibited sexual expression. What gave the twenties their special character (achieved again in the sixties) was this feeling of having been freed from traditional moral and social restraints. Comedy was, in this sense, an overflow of animal spirits, a celebration of the pleasures of this world and of the present moment. The Puritan, defined by Mencken as one who is tortured by the thought that somewhere, somehow, somebody is enjoying himself, was in retreat on all fronts. Much of the urban humor of this period depended on the consciousness of having escaped from those barren small towns which still stubbornly adhered to the old values. Its targets were personal quirks...
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SOURCE: "Ring Lardner: Reluctant Artist," in A Question of Quality: Popularity and Value in Modern Creative Writing, edited by Louis Filler, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976, pp. 26-39.
[In the essay below, Holmes evaluates Lardner's career and short fiction against earlier criticism, concluding that Lardner was "a realist, an ironist, and a satirist" who created both "a comic and distressing image of the American common man."]
Lardner is a striking example of the writer as both popular entertainer and genuine artist. He was first, last, and always a journalist. He started out as a sports writer and columnist in Chicago, and after the success of "A Bustler's Letters Home" in The Saturday Evening Post, in 1914, the bulk of his writing appeared in the big slick mass-circulation magazines—the Post, Collier's, The American Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Redbook. His syndicated newspaper column brought his iconoclastic wit and comically low-brow idiom to an even larger national audience. At the peak of his fame, in the middle 1920's, his writing earned him between $50,000 and $60,000 a year, and he was almost as well known to the average American as Babe Ruth.
At the same time he was recognized by writers and critics as a craftsman and satirist of rare talent. H. L. Mencken and Carl Van Doren first called attention to his superb imitation of common American speech ("a...
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SOURCE: "Epilogue," in Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner, Random House, 1977, pp. 385-93.
[In the following excerpt, Yardley claims that although Lardner's prose style had a major affect on American journalism and fiction, critics have neglected—not rejected—the bulk of his work.]
By the time of his death Ring's books had to all intents and purposes stopped selling; in the last three years of his life Scribner's was able to pay him the sorry total of $1,019.83 in royalties. But in the years that followed, his popularity and reputation grew rather than shrank. He has never had a revival such as that Scott Fitzgerald began to enjoy after the publication in 1951 of Arthur Mizener's biography, The Far Side of Paradise; it is most unlikely that as a writer of short fiction, nonsense and satire, he ever will. But he has never vanished, either, as have many other popular writers of his period, and in large measure that is because of four posthumous collections of his work.
The first of these, The Portable Ring Lardner, was published by Viking in 1946. Edited by Gilbert Seldes, who wrote a sensitive and sympathetic introduction, the book contained much of what Seldes had included in First and Last as well as the full texts of You Know Me Al and The Big Town, and a discriminating selection of eleven short stories....
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SOURCE: "Harpies and Gold Diggers," in Ring Lardner, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979, pp. 51-72.
[In the following essay, Evans details Lardner's misogynist depiction of female characters.]
Jonathan Yardley has suggested that Lardner "tended to divide women into two separate and absolutely hostile camps." On the one hand were "harpies, gold diggers, and two-timers typified by the women he had seen hanging around ballplayers; these were women who had somehow betrayed their sex because they were just as coarse as the men in their lives, and frequently more clever." Opposite these were women "who remained faithful to his pre-Jazz Age sense of femininity but who also had wit, humor, ebullience and style" and in this group were diverse women he admired—Zelda Fitzgerald, Kate Rice, Dorothy Parker, Claudette Colbert, his sister Anna, his wife Ellis, his mother Lena.
Examples from the first camp exist in Lardner's fiction, but women characters seldom (and never in a fully developed sense) exhibit wit, humor, ebullience and style. The women he portrays vary in temperament, background, and ambition. Generally, they are either unpleasant or unwise, too aggressive or too subservient, too naive or too worldly-wise. Although most of the women characters are married, Lardner rarely shows a marital relationship that is happy, growing, and content. Instead, women characters struggle to survive,...
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SOURCE: "Comic Alienation: Ring Lardner's Style," in Markham Review, Vol. 11, Spring, 1982, pp. 51-7.
[In the following essay, Bordewyk traces four types of communication failures in Lardner's fiction, each of which leads to a sense of alienation among his characters.]
Mark Twain once said that "an author's style is a main part of his equipment for business."1 and Ring Lardner was fastidious in his use of this tool. In fact, some crities believe that Lardner's chief contribution to American letters is the style he employed in his stories, a vernacular voice that is authentically middle-class and Midwestern.2 Lardner's style is apparently spontaneous, fresh and natural, but it is not simply intuitive. Although Lardner had a good ear for the nuances of phrasing and the vagaries of pronounciation, he also systematically categorized his observations, and within a story his characters use or abuse language according to a consistent pattern.
Lardner's thorough familiarity with informal American speech is apparent in a review he wrote in 1921. Commending J. V. A. Weaver for his depiction of vernacular in In American, Lardner also singled out some instances where the author failed to observe the subtleties of rhythm or pronounciation. Lardner wrote that occasionally Weaver's ear
plays him false. It has told him, for example, that...
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SOURCE: "Man As Thing: Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al," in South Dakota Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 114-22.
[In the following essay, Hart argues that in You Know Me Al Lardner lampoons the "twentieth-century American," who is both egotistical and conformist.]
When You Know Me Al appeared in book form in 1916, Ring Lardner was already a veteran sports writer. Beginning in 1905 at the Times in South Bend, he had worked for two years as the "sporting editor." For five years in Chicago, he had reported major-league baseball for the Inter-Ocean, the Examiner, and the Tribune before taking on the sports column in the Tribune in 1913. His first fiction, which appeared in 1914, had a baseball setting. Indeed, Lardner had known baseball all his life. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1933 that "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."1 Fitzgerald's analysis that the game was "bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure" applies more to the fictional character of Jack Keefe than to Lardner himself.
What the game had given Lardner was a keen insight into the average American, into the country or city joe who might develop one special talent and who was...
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SOURCE: "Lardner's Discourses of Power," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XXII, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 331-37.
[In the following essay, Gilead investigates abusive language in Lardner's stories, noting its effects on both the narrator and reader.]
Influenced by Michel Foucault's investigations of the manifold relations between discourse and power in given cultures,1 recent literary critics and theorists have begun to examine the power strategies expressed or concealed in literary interpretation, and in narrative forms, themes, and styles. Jane P. Tompkins sums up a central idea shared by contemporary reader-response critics, who "assert that meaning is a consequence of being in a particular situation in the world. . . . " "When discourse is responsible for reality and not merely a reflection of it, then whose discourse prevails makes all the difference." Language is "the ultimate form of power."2 The critical frameworks resulting from these or similar views yield questions such as the following: "What makes one set of perceptual strategies or literary conventions win out over another? If the world is the product of interpretation, then who or what determines which interpretive system will prevail?"3 In "The Text, the World, the Critics," Edward Said remarked, "as Nietzsche had the perspicacity to see, texts are fundamentally facts of power, not of democratic exchange."...
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SOURCE: "The Barber of Civility: The Chief Conspirator of 'Haircut'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 450-53.
[In the following essay, Blythe and Sweet revise the standard interpretation of the barber-narrator as senseless in "Haircut," perhaps Lardner's most famous story, suggesting he is the principal instigator of the murder.]
Although critics have traditionally adopted the view that Whitey, the barber-narrator of "Haircut," is "stupid"1 and "ignorant,"2 more recently Charles May has advanced the theory that Lardner's protagonist is "neither so crude that he applauds Jim's joke on Julie, nor so stupid that he thinks Jim's death was 'a plain case of accidental shootin'."3 A closer look at the story, however, suggests not only that Whitey understands what is going on and offers an "apparent sanction"4 of the killing, but that he is, in fact, the chief instigator of the town's deadly conspiracy. The barber's narration is subtly hubristic, and Lardner's irony is, in reality, directed at the reader who would accept Whitey as a mere gossiping clod.
Whitey certainly has sufficient motives to want Jim Kendall dead. First, like so many others, the barber has been given ample reason to desire revenge. Jim Kendall's primary reputation is that of a prankster, and his perennial butt is Whitey. The barber's use of...
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SOURCE: "Ring Lardner: Absurdist Ahead of His Time," in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 111-17.
[In the following essay, Pellow describes how Lardner's "baseball dialect" in You Know Me Al serves to create a universe devoid of communication or logic.]
In writing that is about baseball, language sometimes has a more than normally symbolic function. In particular, "bad" language may function symbolically, not only for purposes of characterization (and for comic value, of course), but to further thematic intentions in some rather surprising ways. By "bad language," I do not mean obscenity, profanity, etc. Rather, I mean what I shall here call "baseball dialect"—a specialized lingo, consisting not only of jargon, but of all those abuses that range from the lexicographer's favorite label, "colloq.," to the grammar-teacher's catch-all, "substandard." The "dialect" includes, but is not limited to, eccentric spellings, malapropisms, zeugma (and other twists of syntax), misremembered cliches, and the non-sequitur. The characterizing uses of these verbal atrocities are fairly standard: indication of a character's low-level of intelligence, or verbal skills, or both; an ensuring of the ingenuousness of the character; the designation of a country bumpkin (in Lionel Trilling's term, the "Young Man from the Provinces")—who may or may not also fit in the two...
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SOURCE: "Ring Lardner's The Love Nest': Illusion, Reality, and the Movie Mogul," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 103-05.
[In the following essay, Payne describes how the protagonist of "The Love Nest" violently manipulates language to impose his will]
Ring Lardner criticism has come a long way since Clifton Fadiman's comprehensive denunciations in his essay of 1933, "Ring Lardner and the Triangle of Hate" ("Except Swift, no writer has gone farther on hatred alone")1 and James T. Farrell's equally sweeping accolades eleven years later in "Ring Lardner's Success-Mad World" ("no other American writer has achieved the mastery of satire which Lardner had")2 More recently, Webb (1960)3 Bordewyck (1982)4 and Gilead (1985)5 have helped to redirect the focus of Lardner commentary, with the result that we are now able to view the author in a more subtle light, as also deeply concerned with "the abusive potentiality of cultural codes and discourses, verbal and written texts, and speech-acts."6 Within this context, I wish to consider "The Love Nest," Lardner's short story of 1926, both as an instance of the "abusive potentiality" of the speech act and, through analysis of the protagonist's linguistic performance, as another variation in Lardner's A to Z of idiosyncratic pseudo-communicators.
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SOURCE: "Ring Lardner's Dual Audience and the Capitalist Double Bind," in American Literary History, Vol. IV, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 264-87.
[In the following essay, Robinson traces the scholarship on Lardner and analyzes it in terms of "shifting class polarities."]
[Lardner's vernacular humor] appeals to two types of mind that are at opposite extremes. Lardner is read with delight by people who talk in the very way that he writes, and by highly educated people who find relief and amusement in a lack of education in others. (Graham 508)
The mere fact that Lardner's stories have been collected into books is a sign that he has been taken up by the highbrows. For he wrote originally for people who do not read books. (Matthews 36)
That a newspaper humorist, a comic-strip designer, a baseball writer, should rise to the heights of art and do it without turning a cold shoulder to the Saturday Evening Post public, seemed to many critics a delightful demonstration. (Nevins 1089)
Ring Lardner . . . is recognized by both hoi polloi and intelligentsia as one of our best writers of short fiction. . . . (Tiverton 8)
These stories convey simultaneously two different impressions, one for the Saturday Evening Post reader and one for the civilized reader. (Fadiman 316)...
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SOURCE: "The Reader's Role in Ring Lardner's Rhetoric," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 207-16.
[In the following excerpt, Cowlishaw counters the argument that readers are helpless to battle the effects of Lardner's "authorial manipulation."]
Readers' responses to Ring Lardner's short stories are remarkably homogeneous. Who, other than the "confirmed pursuer of ironies" (Booth, Irony 5), finds Whitey, narrator of "Haircut," sly and perceptive?1 Or Nurse Lyons, character in "Zone of Quiet," intelligent and charming? Few readers miss either Lardner's irony or his satire; they perceive the invitation to seek darker meanings below the innocuous surface, and they determine those meanings with consistent results.
Yet despite the strength and consistency of Lardner's rhetorical effects, critics have not thoroughly explained how they are achieved. Primarily critics overlook readers' activity, portraying readers as passive and helpless before Lardner's authorial manipulation. For instance, T. S. Matthews, reviewing Round Up in 1929, writes that "when you have finished the story, in each case, you are compelled to hate the person you have been hearing about" (36; emphasis added). Sarah Gilead claims that in Lardner's stories "the illusory moral authority of the authorial personae itself becomes symptomatic of...
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Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Richard Layman. Ring W. Lardner: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976, 424 p.
Comprehensive bibliography listing all the works attributed to Lardner, including newspaper accounts, movie scripts, drama, and interviews.
Geismar, Maxwell. Ring Lardner and the Portrait of Folly. Ne w York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1972, 166 p.
An introductory critical biography by one of Lardner's longtime admirers and critics.
Lardner, Ring, Jr. The Lardners: My Family Remembered. Ne w York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1976, 371 p.
Family biography written by one of Lardner's four sons that lends intimate insight into the author's life and work.
Yardley, Jonathan. Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner. Ne w York: Rando m House, 1977, 415 p.
Considered the definitive biography of Lardner. Yardley remarks that Lardner viewed humanity "with compassion rather than contempt, dismay rather than distaste."
DeMuth, James. Small Town Chicago: The Comic Perspective of Finley Peter Dunne, George Ade,...
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