Given a name like Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, he was destined to be funny. However, as eventually happens to all who write for laughs, Ring Lardner got taken seriously. A collection of his work has just been issued as part of the ongoing and definitive Library of America series, and if you are a fan of the sardonic and the idiosyncratic, a copy belongs in your library as well.
A vigilant reader will have found book reviews in this space for two issues now, and it’s mostly because current events have been too woeful to merit comment here. For example, I watched Ted Cruz’s Senate infomercial in progress a couple of weeks ago, and found it more pathetic than funny (Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s matchless commentary notwithstanding). The Republican Party hitching its future to this fey poltroon is just weird, as is staking its claim to running the government on its ability to shut government down.
Little wonder, perhaps, that a good book might provide respite from idiocy, and Ring Lardner, like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce before him, was no stranger to idiocy. Born in 1885, the same year Huckleberry Finn was published in America, Lardner was raised in comfortable circumstances in Niles, Michigan. He was, according to his excellent New York Times obituary, “duly educated at the local high school and then sent, for an attempt at the lore of the engineer, to the Armour Institute in Chicago,” despite having, in Lardner’s own words, “no more ambition to be an engineer than a sheep-herder.”
Chicago, though. There, Lardner was on to something. Obsessed by baseball since his childhood, he talked his way into a sportswriting job in South Bend in 1905, then two years later moved from the minors to the majors with a byline at a paper called the Chicago Inter-Ocean. That meant he got to go on the road with the White Sox, and that meant the world, almost literally, for Ring Lardner, whose sportswriting style, as insightful as it was entertaining, became an undeniable influence on later luminaries such as Hunter S. Thompson and Frank Deford.
Note that about a century ago, both sports and sportswriting were different critters than what we peruse today. The big sport then was baseball, followed in no particular order by horse racing, boxing and everything else. Writing about sports was a far more literary matter than is practiced today, and long-forgotten scribes such as George Ade, Henry Chadwick and Hughie Fullerton set a high bar for describing the athletic contests of their era to their readers.
Sportswriters and athletes seemed to pal around more then than now, which, though it may have affected journalistic objectivity, did not affect their love of good times on the road. It was in idle moments on the road spent conversing with ball players that Lardner started paying close attention to the syntax of his subjects. Usually undereducated, many athletes spoke a mangled version of proper English, and around 1914, Lardner started writing columns with fictitious characters speaking in the manner he was overhearing. The Saturday Evening Post began publishing his so-called “Busher” short stories (baseball slang for those who toiled in small-town “bush” leagues, where the outfields were marked by shrubbery instead of fences). The Busher was a fictional character named Jack Keefe and a 1916 collection of his letters, You Know Me, Al , became a national best-seller.
Rife with malapropisms and verb disagreements, Jack’s letters were a treat for the imagination, and if we are unfamiliar with that world of a hundred years ago, there is no mistaking the timeless egoism of the protagonist, borne into our consciousness today by the likes of Ralph Kramden, Archie Bunker or Kenny Powers.
When he jumped to New York City and became a syndicated columnist with a bigger paycheck, Lardner broadened his literary scope as well, making all of American society, not just its sportsmen, target for his satiric bent. “Serious” writers such as Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Wolff spotted the craft in Lardner’s “humorous” writing, and H.L. Mencken cited his dialogue as choice American slang in his landmark reference work on colloquial speech, The American Language.
His fond wish was to write a Broadway hit, and he did so, collaborating with George S. Kaufman in 1929 on June Moon. However, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died in 1933, only 48 years old. Lardner did not live to see two of his stories, “Elmer the Great” and “Alibi Ike,” turned into hit movies.
Ian Frazier, a modern humor writer for The New Yorker and the editor of this Library of America collection, acknowledges that some of the subject matter might be dated, but that the author’s approach is timeless. “He had a genius’s ear for living speech and he went beyond the range of ordinary orthography to capture it in writing,” he said. “His typewriter was like a John Cage prepared piano — it made sounds and produced corresponding narratives that were all its own.”
If you don’t get that trenchant allusion, then just settle back with the volume and read from “The Young Immigrunts,” Lardner’s hilarious account of a family’s relocation from Indiana to Connecticut, told from the point of view of a 4-year-old child, albeit a precocious one. An excerpt:
The Lease said about my and my fathers trip from the Bureau of Manhattan to our new home the soonest mended. In some way ether I or he got balled up on the grand concorpse and next thing you know we was thretning to swoop down on Pittsfield.
Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.
Shut up he explained.
There’s more where that came from in Ring Lardner: Stories and Writings, and you ought not live without it. In this tepid age of emulation and imitation, it is bracing to spend some time with an American original.