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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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SOURCE: Ring Lardner, University of Minnesota Press, 1965, pp. 1-48.
[In the following excerpt, Friedrich discusses Lardner's sports stories and notes how Lardner's prose changed the style and candor of sports journalism.]
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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