Commentary Magazine


The Case of Ring Lardner

It is a disconcerting feature of much American literary art that either it’s so closely bound up with the world of popular entertainment that the boundaries between are not easy to fix, or else—as of poetry, say (Ogden Nash allowed as an exception)—it has no relation to that world at all. In France, England, other countries, there is both less reciprocity and more. A man like Noel Coward seeks his level quicker, after initial hesitation (in a play like The Vortex), and though an artist like Cocteau may operate also as an entertainer, no doubt is raised, by him or by anyone else, about his being an artist. The arts are less glumly separated from the life of the more or less educated citizenry, and at the same time their status is clearer. Here, matters are more ambiguous. A thing like Norman Corwin’s On a Note of Triumph is not only praised by Walter Winohell and sells at least fifty thousand copies; it is also hailed, with happy illiteracy, in the New York Times Book Review (“Even if he had written this one, five or ten years after V-E Day its values would be the same. His writing has some of the quality of universal truth.”) and woofed up by Carl Sandburg, an actual poet, as “vast . . . terrific . . . certainly one of the great all-time American poems.” We might be in Palmer Stadium. Pictures fly around of Mr. Corwin portentous, brooding like Beethoven, and—God’s truth—his thoughtless concoction was declared to be “the Eroica of this historic year.”

Now these windy views do not fail to occur, though they are less frequent, in London, Paris, and Rome; but they are not taken seriously there, except by the author and his cronies. Here almost everybody takes them seriously, until some fresher fantasy has supervened. Some of our artists take them seriously; Hemingway and Faulkner, two of the most ambitious writers living, describe themselves as hunters and farmers. Moreover, we impose our view on the world; Pearl Buck wins the Nobel Prize. Oscar Hammerstein 12th makes a bulkier literary figure than J. F. Powers. The situation is not new either. It goes back nearly a century. Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville were men of letters, and we have had others. But for a long time we have also, in figure after figure, faced this double anomaly of the artist who pretends not to be one and the entertainer who pretends to the status of an artist (or has it pretended for him).

With a man of letters, criticism has only to address itself to the perplexing questions of whether he is any good, and where, and how good, and in what ways. Plainly, if you are obliged to decide, in the first place, whether your subject is an artist at all, criticism will be more difficult. The extreme uncertainty of our criticism of our own literature, which is to be attributed partly to senses of inferiority and dependence, vanity, and remorse therefor, must be due as well to a sneaking down-with-him attitude toward the self-confessed deliberate artist and a sneaking admiration for the guy who entertains us without undemocratic pretensions—this admiration then translating itself naturally into the hope that after all he may prove also to be the real literary thing.

I offer these desultory remarks as prelude to some consideration of a borderline character named Ring Lardner. Nobody over thirty-five will have to be told who he was, but I don’t find that younger people read him any more, except in short-story courses, where they run into “Haircut” or “Champion,” and in any case they will know nothing of his extra-literary personality, which was so engaging to the rest of us during the 20’s and early 30’s. An extra-literary personality is so important to an entertainer, though unimportant to art, that we might begin with it, assisted by Donald Elder’s biography.1 This is comparatively artless, and too long—Mr. Elder’s reluctance to cut a letter, no matter how trivial, is positively Byzantine; but it is full, shrewd, and surprisingly candid for a work produced so soon after its subject’s death, and under the continuous assistance of his surviving family. I shall be quarrying shamelessly for a bit.

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The outline of the life is very much what one expected. Niles, Michigan, 1885, to years of baseball reporting in Chicago, to New York and general celebrity and then literary recognition; a wife and four sons; loads of dough, monumental boozing; fading reputation, broken health, the protracted decline that his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald imaged in the musician Abe North of Tender Is the Night; death in 1933 at forty-eight, not old, not young, apparently unfulfilled. An American pattern, in short. Nor will it surprise anyone to learn that this famous clown was a very gloomy guy indeed, suspicious as W. C. Fields, silent as a Pharaoh. But the filling-in of the outline takes us into what one would not have expected.

Was it in the cards that this man who elected to spend most of his life with athletes and show people and assorted idiots, who presented himself weekly to millions, in dialect, as a “wise boob,” should have been the precocious, petted ninth of nine children born into a cultured family of long-established wealth? Each child had its own nursemaid, and the house had its own tennis-court and baseball diamond. One foot was deformed from birth, corrected by a surgeon, and he wore a brace until he was eleven; Mr. Elder connects with this his irrational admiration for athletes. But he would not have gone to school anyway: his mother, whose rather wild, deeply religious personality appears to have been eight feet high (with his father Lardner was never close at all), taught the three youngest children, until a tutor did. He entered what we amusingly call high school at twelve, played football, was graduated at sixteen.

At this point the family fortune collapsed. He spent part of a year at the Armour Institute in Chicago, headed toward engineering. Then for four years he did practically nothing, in Niles: amateur theatricals, the gas company. By a fluke, a job on the South Bend Times, two years; when he was lifted to Chicago. Here he worked on the Inter-Ocean, Examiner, and Tribune, accompanied the White Sox, became expert, took over an established column, began to publish in the Saturday Evening Post, perfected his mask, made one of his two abortive trips to Europe (a place non-existent for Lardner, who had no historic sense whatever, no interest in politics or society, no interest in ideas), and succeeded in forming no relation with the enthusiastic remodeling of both verse and prose then supposedly taking place in Chicago—being himself intensely conservative and provincial, as he was to the end, with no visible quarrel of any kind with Niles.

This was one trouble. It let ‘him be courteous, generous, modest, fastidious, romantic, scrupulous, chivalrous, and proud; but it left him worrying, deadpan, restless, suffocated—and bored. He was one of the most heavily armored men, and one of the most exposed, that even this country can ever have produced. That is, Lardner was wise; he never let anybody get close. So if somebody ripped his heart out, it was not a friend. All the lies told about him were by acquaintances and strangers. On the other hand, among the things he never recovered from were the Black Sox scandal of 1919 and his disappointment later in Jack Dempsey. When he moved East in the fall of 1919 it was not to write about sports but to do a syndicated weekly column about anything, by the “wise boob.”

Nearly all of his best writing was still to come; not that it is bulky. But I should say that he went to pieces with great rapidity—at a pace dissolved into Mr. Elder’s narrative—for already during 1922-24, when he and Fitzgerald were neighbors in Great Neck (they never saw each other much after), it was the younger man’s sense that Lardner was “getting off”—doing his work conscientiously but not enjoying it Fitzgerald badgered him to collect his stories, supplied the title How to Write Short Stories, badgered Scribner’s to bring them out (with the incongruous aid of Sir James Barrie, this came about); some of his uninteresting earlier books were re-issued; and all this probably cheered Lardner more than Mr. Elder (who is rather chary about Fitzgerald altogether) is eager to allow. Fitzgerald wanted Lardner to organize himself and undertake a large work; so did Edmund Wilson; these notations belong later in this article, but have to be mentioned because Lardner must have recognized in himself an entire incapacity for anything of the kind, and in his silent way suffered. He was doing a comic strip, an exasperated fake-autobiography, all sorts of things. The Love Nest came out in 1926. Mr. Elder sees him this year at his height, making some $30,000, his column in 157 papers. The consumption of bourbon is not recorded. He found he had tuberculosis.

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Now comes a phase unpredictable or gruesome. He gave most of this up, and attacked Broadway. The ruling passion of Lardner’s life was music. He had perfect pitch, and taught himself six instruments. The music that interested him was not what we call classical music or “serious” music, and was not jazz—as Mr. Elder says, he was somewhat behind the times; he was interested in popular music: popular songs and, for he was also stage-struck, musical shows. It is a peculiarity that all his life he often wrote intimate letters in a sort of parody verse, precisely the kind of thing he appears to mock in “The Maysville Minstrel”; he was strongly interested in what he thought of as poetry, though it goes without saying that he disliked all real poetry. Music, drama, and poetry came together for him, and for years he contributed lyrics to Ziegfeld’s shows. He did Elmer the Great for George M. Cohan in 1928, and Cohan redid it. There were various unproduced scripts, and the “nonsense” playlets that I’ll say something about later. At last in 1929, with George S. Kaufman, he had a hit in June Moon. He wrote a film script for $7500 in four days. He only published some dozen songs, however, and in general all this aspect of his career was a failure. He was in and out of hospitals all the final years—Florida, Arizona, California, New York—not only with dipsomania but recurrent attacks of tuberculosis, a heart ailment, digestive disorders, probably pernicious anemia. Round-up, collecting thirty-five stories, came out in 1929. There is no interesting fiction after 1926, but his humorous stuff remained sometimes astonishing, as “Large Coffee” (you can find this one in the Whites’ Subtreasury of American Humor) and the parodies of “Night and Day” which I remember in the New Yorker and am glad to see that Mr. Elder quotes:

Night and day under the fleece of me
There’s an Oh, such a flaming furneth burneth the grease of me.
Night and day under the hark of me
There’s an Oh, such a mob of microbes making a park of me.

Anybody who can still hear the daffy croon of Tony Wons reciting will be glad to know the cheer that Lardner made up for him:

Tony Wons! Tony Twice!
Holy, jumping . . .

These last things appeared in the midst of an intensely bitter and earnest crusade that Lardner carried on against the stupidity and especially the pornography of the lyrics of popular songs; he was so pathologically squeamish—as he was throughout his life about dirty stories (though it’s true that he hated funny stories of any kind, and never told them) and indeed about anything sexual—that he even had doubts about “Tea for Two.” He was extremely pedantic, in this as in other things, and was only less stern against ill grammar than against innuendo. His final work was about a drunkard, sympathetically portrayed, in the toils of family constriction. It is not likely that it would have been any good; he always lost all his irony when he wrote for the stage, and his energy anyway by now was so low that it had taken him six months to write a twenty-page story.

It is impossible to read the account of Lardner’s life without admiration for his courage and dignity, and sympathy for his misery. The question is whether in it—never mind his work yet—one can perceive the sense of purposefulness that is obvious and strong in the lives say of Dreiser and Fitzgerald (drunkards too and popular and acquaintances of Lardner), or the drive toward expression visible in them.

Purposefulness, I think, is just what one does not see; except for the desire to escape (from familial protection and suffocation, intolerable frustration, boredom), which took the forms of alcohol and silence. He was a boozer from way back; began as a kid, and improved. Some of the legends seem to be true, such as that of his sixty-hour vigil in one chair at the Friars’ Club. Apparently, seldom quarrelsome, seldom tiresome, he held liquor very well. That was unfortunate; and it must be remembered medically that he was drinking during the most devoted years Prohibition liquor. He went on the wagon again and again, like the man who found it so easy to stop smoking that he had done it fifty times; he telephoned friends and explained what a heel he was; he tried a psychiatrist. But on the whole he was very deliberate and unashamed, and so stubborn while drinking that he once, taken to hospital, refused to have an injury treated there but repaired to a club before he let a doctor come. Monumental remorse, often referred to, darkens the last years—for talent drunk up. Self-punishment, self-loathing. It is grievous to read that during the final months, at home, in East Hampton, “Sometimes he was observed alone, with his face in his hands, sobbing.” And he had no recourse whatever: no satisfaction in his achievement; no discernible belief or even religious sense, an overmastering hatred of humanity in general, and all its works; no freedom. “He awoke a certain feeling,” Sherwood Anderson wrote of him as he was at his most successful and happiest. “You wanted him not to be hurt, perhaps to have some freedom he did not have.”

I said no freedom, but actually he had the freedom (and pride and grief) of silence: a profound reticence, a refusal to be known or speak out. Thomas Hardy’s poem “He Resolves to Say No More,” written at the very end of his long, expressive life, gives wonderful voice to this genuine impulse of artists. But as a lifelong characteristic, which is what it was in Lardner, nothing could promise less for the production of interesting work. He suffered from a lifelong drive toward inexpression. It is under this reservation that we have to look at what he got done.

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II

There are varying accounts of Lardner’s characters, the world they inhabit, what he thinks of them, and so on; Constance Rourke has several good pages on his method; critics have argued at length about whether his work is by really a humorist or realist or satirist or whatever. But let us be inductive, and examine the kind of story in which his characters occur. He is certainly best known now for his stories—the eleven given by Gilbert Seldes in The Portable Ring Lardner and a few others; so that we are bound to try to decide whether or not we agree with E. B. White that he was “not essentially a writer of fiction.” I take “The Love Nest” more or less at random, as one of his most familiar, one written during the half-dozen years (1921-26) when he was most effective in story-writing, and one he liked enough himself to make the title story of a collection.

“The Love Nest” goes like this. A writer named Bartlettt is doing a piece on Lou Gregg, president of Modern Pictures, and the great man takes him in a Rolls out to his mansion for overnight, “to see us just as we are”: his wife Celia, a former actress, and their three little girls. Gregg offers Bartlett a drink and is surprised when the butler tells him a barely opened bottle of bourbon is only half-full; it’s happened before; he blames the servants (but the reader doesn’t). Celia entrances. Much “sweetheart”-ing between the loving couple, Celia refuses a drink (“Lou objects to me drinking whisky, and I don’t like it much anyway”), Gregg remembers that he has to go out for the evening, two of the girls are brought down and exhibited, Gregg takes them upstairs. Celia is to show Bartlett around what she calls “our love nest,” but asks if he minds her having a drink instead, and has two. After dinner Gregg leaves. She has various drinks, wants to dance, explains that she is drunk half the time, married Gregg only out of ambition, would now “change places with the scum of the earth just to be free instead of a chattel, a thing.” She goes to bed, Gregg returns, and the men go to bed. In the morning Celia sleeps late but calls downstairs “Good-by, sweetheart!”

What can we say about this story except that it is undeveloped and manages to be both trite and implausible? About Bartlett we learn nothing except that he is single and does not dance, and the mystery is why we learn even these things; as a writer he is not convincing—a man after a story would not so readily give up being shown round the place; he has no tone, never comments. Gregg is even more primitively presented and less convincing—he is boastful, and that is all; according to Celia he is cruel, but we are given no evidence of it. Celia is managed worst of all: she has got through half a bottle either the night before or today and yet shows no signs of it; and yet two drinks and perhaps a sneaked one or two and a cocktail make her absent-minded and red-faced at dinner (almost the only physical image in the story, put as follows: “Her face was red”). Her husband does not know she drinks, or he does (in fact he would). But he doesn’t, or he wouldn’t ask in front of Bartlett about the bottle (compare “no matter what he had on me, he’d never let the world know it”). But he must, from the dinner exhibition and “She’s had a lot of headaches lately”—or his stupidity ought to be more impressively conveyed. The author desires to have his cake and eat it too; he simply doesn’t care about an impression of life. Lardner’s friends, and Mr. Elder, make much of his conscientiousness. That must be as a journalist, chiefly, for what this story displays is gross carelessness, indifference.

Now for the medium. The story is written in dialogue, which has either no tone at all or is too strident to be convincing or has this tone: “I mean nobody would ever thought Celia Sayles would turn out to be a sit-by-the-fire. I mean she still likes a good time, but her home and kiddies come first. I mean her home and kiddies come first.” Two paragraphs are exceptions to this law. One tells us about the red face. Here is the other:

While the drinks were being prepared, he observed his hostess more closely and thought how much more charming she would be if she had used finesse in improving on nature. Her cheeks, her mouth, her eyes, and lashes had been, he guessed, far above the average in beauty before she had begun experimenting with them. And her experiments had been clumsy. She was handsome in spite of her efforts to be handsomer.

As I say, this is the only writing, so to speak, in the story, and it must be clear that the paragraph is equally feeble and pretentious, the sort of thing you’d strike out of an apprentice’s story, besides having nothing characteristic about it and nothing resembling it elsewhere in the story. It is just a little Jamesian attempt (compare “My dear, you’re looking very well for him—within the marked limits of your range”) that failed.

Why was this story written, apart from a check from Cosmopolitan? It cannot have sprung from a wish to create or even to report, life. For instance, if Celia is so afraid of her husband as she says she is, she would never dare confide in Bartlett, especially Bartlett, a writer; or, unprincipled, with a life with her husband obviously so unsatisfactory, she would head for Bartlett—the nervous taking up, only to put it aside, of her sex life (men’s pawing her) is about as close as Lardner ever came—not close enough—to this subject. The story is a fake, pretending to deliver more both in narrative and in character than it can deliver, except insofar as it produces a journalistic effect of exposure. You think big producers have happy marriages’?—Don’t give me that. Lardner’s stories convey a perpetual effect of going behind an appearance—perpetual, and cheap, because the appearance is not one that could have taken in an experienced man for five minutes: the revelation is to boobs. How shall we describe then the strength of the emotional impulse behind the story? I should say that it had roughly the force of what we used to call in the Third Form a gripe.

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To compare such a writer to Swift (as people have done, and I will come back to this), even to take him seriously, may seem ridiculous. But we are dealing with a very considerable reputation, established now in the literary histories; and “The Love Nest” has nothing funny about it—we are thinking of him now just as a story-writer; and, though perfectly characteristic, it is not one of his five best stories. It has the advantage for us, however, that it is not a baseball story. The notion of Lardner’s having any permanent interest as a baseball writer has got to be abandoned. Fitzgerald wrote: “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. A boy’s game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure. . . . A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.” Surely there is something wrong with this view.

In the first place I do not believe it philosophically, any more than I believe Yeats’s pronouncement is true, that “A man’s mind at twenty-one contains all the truths that he will ever find.” Neither allows for the self-transformations that many men active emotionally and intellectually achieve during their thirties. In the second place Fitzgerald’s view is nonsense both in the light of the facts and of what Lardner did. Yogi Berra is a boy? Lardner wrote about big leaguers largely: not boys, men, in danger every second of demotion to the minors, or focuses of national attention. They were nowhere, and they will be nowhere. Here they are, in continuous crisis, dramatized in the key plays Lardner describes so well. Now take a man who had always a dim view of life, and trusted nothing: this pre-cariousness makes a good subject. It is the subject in fact of his only really fine baseball story, “Harmony,” one of his few affecting and well constructed stories, the kind of dramatic depthwork he only two or three times attempted. His two best stories are not about baseball, “The Golden Honeymoon,” a beautifully modulated thing about the persistence of rivalry and pettiness into an area where everything ought to be solved, and “Haircut,” which deserves its fame as the simple-minded and incredible “Champion” does not. His two other good stories, “Some Like Them Cold” and “I Can’t Breathe,” are not about baseball either.

Much of the semi-novel The Big Town is still readable, though unimportant; and the ends of certain stories—“Anniversary,” “Ex Parte,” “Now and Then”—are good, corroborating Lardner’s not altogether joking account of his method of composition (“I write three thousand words about nothing; that is a terrible struggle. Then I come to, and say to myself, ‘I must get a punch in this.’ I stop and figure out the punch, and then sail through to the finish”). But the five stories are really what matter. It will be noticed that four of them are first-person, and the fifth a series of letters, and I think we must agree that White is right: Lardner was only in appearance a fiction-writer. His gift was for mimicry, burlesque, parody. He had no invention, little imagination, a very limited sense of style, and almost no sense of structure. His best work is accidents of talent. He was a humorist of course; but only two of the five stories are at all funny, and he is not likely to keep on being known as a humorist. Humorists—except one very special kind I want to say something about in a moment—do not interest posterity as humorists unless they have also all sorts of more important gifts as well, such as Mark Twain had. Humor dies fast. Lardner was a realist, too, and interesting to his contemporaries as that, but this value has vanished already; after just thirty-odd years it is hard to imagine the initial effectiveness of You Know Me Al. As a satirist he is unimportant. There was not enough power of mind, and no imagination of a different past or future condition for the object satirized. A comparison with Swift make one’s critical sense reel.

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But two things remain to be said. He was as bitter as Swift. There is no doubt about it. But so are countless denizens of Skid Row, and what does it matter to anyone except a social worker, a relative, a friend? But Lardner had some power of expression, and it matters. He was fitted by disposition—God knows why—for investigations of Hell, like Andreyev’s; and he couldn’t make it. Besides the desire for silence, one must certainly suspect here also a failure of courage, selflessness, ambition. That’s one thing.

The other is that he had a special gift for what looks like nonsense. You see this most clearly in his little plays, of which my own favorite has always been Clemo Uti—“The Water Lilies.” Its cast is:

Padre, a Priest

Sethso } both twins.
Gethso

Wayshatten, a shepherd’s boy.
Two Capitalists. (Note: The two Capitalists don’t appear in this show.)
Wama Tammisoh, her daughter.
Klema, a janitor’s third daughter.
Kevela, their mother, afterwards there aunt.
Scene for Act I: The Outskirts of a Parchesi Board. People are wondering what has become of the discs. They quilt wondering and sit up and sing the following song:
What has become of the discs?
What has become of the discs?
We took them at our own risks,
But what has become of the discs?

Wama enters from an exclusive waffle parlor. She exits as if she had had waffles.
Acts II and III are thrown out “because nothing seemed to happen.”
IV takes place in a silo. Two rats have got in there by mistake. One of them seems diseased. The other looks at him. They go out. Both Rats come in again and wait for a laugh. They don’t get it, and go out. Wama enters from an off-stage barn. She is made up to represent the Homecoming of Casanova. She has a fainting spell. She goes out.
Kevela: Where was you born?
Padre: In Adrian, Michigan.
Kevela: Yes, but I thought I was confessing to you.
Act V winds up: Two queels enter, overcome with water lilies. They both make fools of themselves. They don’t seem to have any self-control. They quiver. They want to play the show over again, but it looks useless. Shades.

Now there is genius here—“genius limited and yearning” as B. H. Haggin once said of Gershwin, but genius—which ought to have taken Lardner into even better and firmer and more confident studies of irrelation, which might have brought him into the small, fascinating company of the great fantasists Lear and Carroll, who were, in fact, he once confessed, his favorite humorists. Mr. Elder canvasses various critics’ views of these playlets and plumps for Gilbert Seldes’s that they are an “attack of sheer lunacy” and “had no purpose at all.” But surely what they are about is the failure of communication in the modern world, and specially in the modern American world, which is all Lardner cared about. They remind one of Peter Fleming’s remark, that in Europe conversation is like tennis—you hit the ball to the other man and he hits it back—whereas in America everybody goes on hitting his own ball. They are the work of a man who found it only too easy to communicate at a superficial level and who refused to communicate at any deeper level. Besides irrelation, you need relation. The trouble is that to mock the intellect successfully you have to be right in there yourself. But Lardner’s scorn and hatred for everything “highbrow” is one of his chief marks. Unfortunately everything good in the end is highbrow. All the artists who have ever survived were intellectuals—sometimes intellectuals also, but intellectuals. The popular boys cannot understand this. When Shakespeare mocked Chapman and Raleigh and their school of intellectual art, he did it with a higher brow than theirs. Hemingway studied Turgenev and everyone else he thought useful. Lardner never studied anybody. One of the weirdest sentences in Mr. Elder’s book is about “Dryden, who probably had a greater influence on his earlier career than any other writer.” Of course this is Charlie Dryden, a sportswriter.

The differences between entertainment and art have less to do with the audience and the writer’s immediate intention than with his whole fundamental attitude toward doing what he does at all. Inverting the common notion, art for the artist we might oddly regard as a means, entertainment for the entertainer an end. Mr. Elder, who quotes approvingly from a piece by T. S. Matthews called “Lardner, Shakespeare and Chekhov,” seems to have no idea of this, and I doubt if Lardner had: the notion of art as “a self-discipline rather than a self-expression,” as Auden has put it. Of this crucial sense there is no trace, I believe, in Lardner’s work. He was not interested, he found it hard enough to hang on, he wanted just to be let alone, and he got what he wanted. The few fine stories come like reluctant fugitives from a room almost perfectly soundproofed. His art did nothing for Lardner.

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Footnotes

1Ring Lardner. Doubleday, 409 pp., $4.75.

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