July 15, 2017


The Savvy Rube : Does Ring Lardner's shtick stand the test of time? (ANDREW FERGUSON, 7/24/17, Weekly Standard)

Writing up baseball games, he was of course surrounded by professional ballplayers, most of them country boys fresh off the farm. He began using their voice in his own columns. One of these efforts was a series of semiliterate letters from a fictitious hurler named Jack Keefe, sent to his friend Al back home in southern Indiana. Editors at the Tribune rejected it for reasons long ago lost to the ages, and unimaginable now. Lardner mailed the piece to the country's most popular magazine, the Saturday Evening Post. It was immediately accepted, and it made a sensation. The editor asked for more. Lardner, now married with children, was eager to provide. Outside the "Wake of the News," the letters were his first stab at writing fiction for publication. Two years later they appeared as You Know Me Al.

He started writing for the magazines regularly and lucratively, and in 1919, he quit the Trib to become a freelance in New York. Jonathan Yardley, in his classic biography Ring (1976), quotes a letter in which Lardner explains his motive for heading east -- the same one that has goosed every freelance writer who ever lived. "It's dough and the prospect of it that would tempt me to tackle the New York game," Lardner wrote a friend. "I think a gent in this business would be foolish not to go to New York if he had a good chance. From all I can learn, that's where the real money is."

The Lardners moved to an estate in Great Neck, on Long Island, just in time for the descent of Prohibition and the rise of the Roaring Twenties. He traveled in heady company. Among his neighbors were show business stars (Groucho Marx, Bert Lahr, and George S. Kaufman), journalists (Herbert Bayard Swope, Franklin P. Adams, and Grantland Rice), and book writers (Joseph Conrad, P. G. Wodehouse, and Fitzgerald, who used his own sojourn on Long Island to gather material for what became The Great Gatsby). Lardner was a devoted father and husband, but also an insomniac and a binge drinker. Long and productive periods on the wagon alternated with superhuman benders during which he would disappear for days at a time. He drank to cure his insomnia, and insomnia usually followed the binges. With a bender coming he escaped to the city, away from his wife and kids. Yardley tells the story of Lardner appearing at the Friars Club one evening for a drink and then another, and then one more, until he had remained in the lobby, quietly drinking, for 60 hours straight.

When he was sober and hard at work earning money, it turned out that Lardner's most pressing professional ambition wasn't to write short stories or journalism but to write Broadway musicals, and he spent a great deal of energy grinding them out with one collaborator after another. Sometimes they made it to the stage. He had a single hit, a comedy written with Kaufman called June Moon, and a long trail of flops.

It takes a lot of money to support a Broadway habit, and Lardner was indiscriminate in accepting the many freelance offers dangled in front of him. He even wrote a daily comic strip. By now his fame was such that magazine editors were paying him the highest compliment a humorist can receive: They asked him to cover events usually reserved for the Big Boys of the news desk -- international conferences, political conventions, presidential inaugurals. Those reported pieces make up a good chunk of this new collection. Here he is at Warren Harding's inaugural:

If they have a inaugural ball I will loom up in a shirt of Chinese white over white B.V.D's, a 15½ collar of the same hue, flowered white silk brassiere, and soup and fish of Sam Langford black with shoes and sox of some dark tint. I won't wear no ornaments except a place on my knee that somebody mistook for a ash tray New Yrs. eve and . . . the old nose will carry a shower bouquet of violet talcum powder. 

In 1921, a newspaper syndicate sent him to a disarmament conference in Washington. The conference was the first step in a diplomatic grind that eight years later produced the notorious Kellogg-Briand Pact -- the treaty that declared war illegal. It was signed by most of the civilized nations of the world but -- no need for spoiler alerts-- it didn't work. Lardner suspected as much: "The object of this meeting is to get all the different nations to quit building warships and making ammunitions, etc., and it looks now like they would all agree to the proposition provided they's an understanding that it don't include they themselfs."

The voice of Lardner's rube-journalist wears better than you might expect, because the rube is sharper and wittier than you might expect, as rubes often are. I worry, though, that as 21st-century readers leaf through The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner -- it's a book for dipping in and out of, not for reading straight through -- they will sooner or later arrive at the point of diminishing returns, when the humor no longer compensates for the strangeness and artificiality of the bumpkin dialect. Lardner's mastery of all the modes of American speech is essential to his fictional sketches of Broadway main-chancers, lovestruck teens, gabby Babbitts, and certified hicks like Jack Keefe. But in journalism, in accounts of real people and real events, readers like to know the stuff isn't made up. The dialect looks like a dodge.

It's not clear how comfortable Lardner was in letting the mask slip. The critic Edmund Wilson, who like most of his contemporaries revered Lardner's short stories, once wrote about an evening he spent with him at the Fitzgeralds' house on Long Island. Everyone was drunk, no surprise, but Lardner was happy to sit with Wilson before a roaring fire and talk about his work. Lardner said that his chief trouble as a writer was that he, Lardner, couldn't write "straight English." When Wilson asked him what he meant, Lardner said, "I can't write a sentence like 'We were sitting in the Fitzgeralds' house, and the fire was burning brightly.' "

Posted by at July 15, 2017 8:44 AM