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.