MY GRANDMOTHER used to read Ring Lardner's short stories aloud at the dinner table to my mother and her brother when they were little. She received, I am told, the kind of response most children give their parents when they try to share something they think is funny at the dinner table--mostly a polite laugh or two, but my grandmother loved Lardner, and somehow the dinner table readings remain implanted fondly in her daughter's memory.
When I asked an editor at the New York Daily News this summer what he knew or remembered about Ring Lardner, his eyebrows went up in an arch, and looking off into the distance, he said, "Lardner, now there was a fine journalist."
Lardner is best remembered for the great number of baseball stories, news columns and short stories which captured the essence of American life at the turn of the century. Reading Lardner's work is almost more of a lesson in American history than pure pleasure reading, and it follows that Jonathan Yardley's biography of the legendary journalist, Ring, is almost more of a history book than a biography. But it is a book of the sort that true lovers of baseball and a "progressive" minded American society can relish, perhaps with an added touch of jealousy for the way things "used to be."
It is difficult to imagine a more complete collection of a man's work and life than the quantity of material Yardley, a 1968-69 Nieman Fellow, compiled in Ring. He begins the book with the essence of Lardner's world, Frank Chance's baseball diamond, and traces his writing career to its sad, unfulfilled end. Baseball, to Lardner, was an American institution. He loved the players, and revered them as heroes the way most of America did--but Lardner's coverage of the White Sox for the Chicago Tribune was much more than sports-writing. The spectators held just as much fascination for him, and it was from covering baseball that Ring, we are told, discovered the archetypal American: "fast-talking, egocentric, semiliterate, innocent, gullible and ill-informed, a character later known as the 'wisecracker' or the 'wise boob.'" Lardner, however, did not imply scorn or look condescendingly on the people he wrote about and in one of his first clips, with which Yardley begins the book, we can see how much Lardner loved the game:
Sixteen innings 0-0. That was the way the last game of the series between the Sox and Athletics wound up. People who left the park at the finish, four minutes before 7 o'clock, did not regret the loss of supper half as much as they would have regretted missing that ball game.
Lardner covered major league baseball from 1908 to 1913, and later wrote about it frequently in his columns. Yardley's fascination for the game, as well as Lardner's, is evident throughout the first half of the biography. Lardner's falling out with big-league baseball after the infamous "Black Sox" World Series of 1919 appears to be as much of a dissapointment to his biographer as it was for Lardner. Yardley writes extensively of the disillusionment the scandalous affair caused throughout the country, and of the effect the fixed Series had on Lardner's good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yardley speculates that the 1919 Series, which gamblers paid the favored White Sox to throw, was a topic that the two literary figures must have discussed together. Even more, he says, Ring's feelings must have inspired Fitzgerald to use that series "As yet another symbol of corruption in a novel filled with such symbols," in The Great Gatsby.
ALTHOUGH baseball influenced much of Lardner's earlier work, he stopped writing about the game after 1919 and took on practically every available topic on American life, including politics. He became most famous, though, for his short nonsense pieces and a weekly letter written for his nationally syndicated newspaper column. Lardner had a national following which today can only be compared to Jimmy Breslin, although the styles of the two differ tremendously--Breslin writing about busing riots and massive looting in a New York City blackout, while Lardner chose a much lighter subject matter, depicting the lives of boxers and family scenes, purely for the purpose of entertainment.
The reason people loved Lardner, says Yardley, was because he managed to capture a scene perfectly and the response of his readers was "Yes, that's exactly how it is." Yardley is especially fond of Lardner's ability to "distinguish the subtleties of the way people talked and thought and then to turn them into effective fiction." Because Lardner's books were never best-sellers, the assumption is that he achieved his popularity in the media--for instance, his stories which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and New Yorker were more successful than such books as "You Know Me Al."
Much of the humor in a news column seems to be lost when the news event passes. E.B. White wrote in an introduction to a collection of American humor that "what is considered a real howl of a story--as far as newspaper humor stories goes, often winds up being very unfunny years later when you go back to look at it--because when the news goes out of it, the heart goes out of it,." Some of Lardner's work, however, is timeless. One such piece was originally written for the Saturday Evening Post in 1920, entitles "The Young Immigrunts." It's written in the voice of a nine-year-old boy, perhaps Ring's son. As Ring as his son head for their home in Connecticut, Yardley quotes what he considers to be one of Lardner's greatest lines:
The least said about me 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."
In Ring, Yardley has attempted to portray Lardner largely through his work. He offers comments which are essential to providing an understanding of the era. Also included, however, is a section on Lardner's courtship with his future wife, Ellis. Because Lardner was traveling with the White Sox throughout his courtship, he and Ellis rarely saw one another. They wrote each other constantly, however, and the letters reveal Ring's charm and innocence. At a later point in their relationship, Ring has been looking for an apartment for the soon to be married couple. He writes Ellis, describing a place he has found, asking her if she would like her bedroom "off the front room or farther back." Yardley says "the reference to 'your bedroom' seems to have been a bow to propriety and shyness that both Ring and Ellis felt about discussing such matters as sleeping arrangements."
THE LETTERS are the only original source materials Yardley has access to, besides the conversations with Ring's friends which Donald Elder provided in the only other Lardner biography in existence. Ring, if it misses anything, is lacking in any real insights into Lardner's personality. Yet Yardley can hardly be faulted for this, because all of Ring's friends are long gone. One is left wondering, for instance, why Lardner projected such a severe image, as revealed by many of the pictures Yardley has gathered of him. Lardner never looks happy, and Yardley mentions one factor which may have contributed to his chronic heavy drinking. He died in 1933, we are told, feeling as though he had not reached his full potential: "When he saw what he had created, he felt cheated; his talent was too limited and so was what it produced," Yardley says. Lardner, despite the encouragement of Fitzgerald and Max Perkins, an editor at Scribner's, never wrote a full-length novel. When he died of tuberculosis at the age of 48, his work had petered out and he was writing purely to make enough money to support his family.
"Ring" has a sad ending, but still we are left remembering him as a man who succeeded in entertaining millions of Americans, and even more, as a man who loved his work. Despite his feelings of failure, we feel he must have had a true appreciation for America in a patriotic sense, because it would otherwise have been impossible to produce the great quantity of humor and parodies in such a short lifetime.
Lardner, in short, was a newspaper man with all the mythical implications the term implies--he smoked heavily, drank constantly and loved sitting in the press box at baseball games. And it seems appropriate that Yardley should end Ring with Fitzgerald's epitaph:
A great and good American is dead, let us not obscure him by the flowers, but walk up and look at that fine medallion, all torn by sorrow that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies, because he was kind, and to millions he gave release and delight."