The Lardners: My Family Remembered
The Story of a Wonder Man
In The Lardners we look—to use a phrase of John Ford’s—not upon the ruins of a man but upon the ruins of those ruins. Ring Lardner’s third and only living son has written a book which means to be sweet but in fact is maddeningly without any flavor at all. It may wish to seem restrained, but it is merely unstated. There is a family here, but it has neither cohesion nor the lack of it. Subjects are raised as if in a spirit of candor, but nothing is ever said, connected, explored, settled. Much seems to happen, but only seldom does anything happen to anyone. Though Lardner, Jr. seems innocent of the possibility, his family reminiscence is eloquent testimony to the way his father struck him dumb.
For instance, the crucial fact about the Lardners as we see them here is Ring Lardner’s alcoholism. It played a major role in shaping his career, in defining the terms of his marriage, in shortening his life; one presumes it had a strong effect on his sons as well. Yet we never once look upon the ruin it caused, only on the ruins of those ruins as the subject is “discussed” with dispassionateness and kindness and then evaded, so its consequences lie all around without ever being recognized. Throughout the parts of the book that concern Lardner’s career as a sports-writer and his courtship of Ellis Abbott we have hints that Lardner drank a good deal as early as his early twenties. But when, how, or why it all began is never mentioned, and it is only much later that Lardner, Jr. will go so far as to say, “He was the kind of drinker for whom the drug was a problem almost from the start.”
The son seems to have picked up the habit, not of drinking but of evasive mentioning, from his father. In a late sketch, recently reprinted in Some Champions, Lardner, writes about getting hired in Chicago in 1907: ” ‘Have you figured out how you’re going to live in Chicago on eighteen-fifty?’ asked Duke. ‘I can get on the wagon.’ ” So drinking had become an expensive habit while Lardner was working in South Bend before he was twenty-two. In another sketch Lardner describes going off on a toot in which he ran up a cab fare of over $130 after he had messed up the layout of three stories of a prize fight that came in over the wire. But we can go back over Lardner, Jr.’s pages about his father’s early life, to say nothing of the pages on the same years in Lardner’s own autobiographical The Story of a Wonder Man, without ever getting a clue to what happened, or why. All the son wants to say is that after a certain point his father did not drink because he was morbid or depressed but was morbid or depressed because he drank. Which is to tell a general truth about alcoholics, but little about this particular one. Lardner, Jr. doesn’t even go so far as to say he has inquired into the matter and been unable to find answers.
Much stranger than this, however, is the way The Lardners is constructed. We never are told anything of the effect of his father’s alcoholism on the author or his brothers, either as children or grown men. Indeed we never learn at any point what it was like for any of them to have been sons of their father, though we get ghastly hints aplenty. The pages on the boys’ childhood concentrate on their nurse, Miss Feldman. They alternate with pages on Lardner’s friendship with Scott Fitzgerald, on their houses in Great Neck and Easthampton, on Lardner’s puritanism and hatred of dirty jokes, on Grantland Rice, on George S. Kaufman and June Moon, and whatever relation any of these has with any other just falls, unobserved, between the cracks.
As with any ruin the results can be horribly fascinating. The nurse, for instance, had the boys sleep year round on a screened porch as “part of a comprehensive code of health and diet regulations,” yet the book abounds with pictures of all four boys growing up more than comfortably fat. Or Lardner, Jr. will say of his brother Jim, as though he were doing no more than describing the color of his hair and eyes:
He never lost his outward serenity; I was the closest person to him till the last two years of his life and I never saw him, as a boy or as a man, display anger or more than the mildest sort of enthusiasm toward anyone or anything.
Or he will note of himself that he was born left-handed and was forced to learn to eat and write with his right hand, which produced not just a scrawly handwriting but a stutter, “until I deliberately went in for public speaking at boarding school and worked it down to a mere speech hesitation.” And the consequences? Jim, who never displayed the mildest sort of enthusiasm toward anyone or anything, was killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Ring Jr. married, and we learn about his impending separation from his wife without learning anything about her or their falling in love. He married again, the widow of his younger brother David, and of such a bizarre and presumably satisfying fact we are told only “an understanding gradually developed that we might find enough in common after a suitable interval to put our futures together.” Dickens does not write more eerily about Mr. and Mrs. Albert Lammle.
Lardner, Jr. became a communist, was persecuted and sent to prison as one of the Hollywood Ten, yet he never says any more about why he became a communist than he does about his father’s becoming an alcoholic. His father’s The Story of a Wonder Man is a silly book, but its attempts to be funny at least explain why it is so worthless as autobiography; The Lardners offers no such excuse, so one is practically forced to invent one.
Reading the sketches and stories in Some Champions, and then rereading all the famous Lardner stories, I am strongly inclined to say that Ring Lardner himself is not worth the investigation that the evasiveness and elusiveness of his son’s book incited me to undertake. In this Lardner, Jr. has anticipated me: “Literary critics and literary historians,” he says, “whose lethal occupation is the dissection of living prose, had trouble with Ring from the start.” This critic certainly did; I am pretty sure that You Know Me Al is the first book I never finished simply because the pretty good joke on which it is based becomes tiresome when endlessly repeated. There are a couple of pieces by The Busher, Jack Keefe, in Some Champions, and here is what passes for their “living prose”:
Well I suppose the old towns all excited about Uncle Sam declairing war on Germany. Personaly I am glad we are in it but between you and I Al I figure we ought to of been in it a long time ago right after the Louisiana was sank.
But anyway I was glad to get home and see Florrie and little Al and honest Al he is cuter than ever and when he seen me he says “Who are you?” Hows that for a 3 year old?
It is the essential feature of this, and almost all Lardner’s writing, that he finds targets he can treat with anything from impolite amusement to full contempt. Not just Jack Keefe, but Midge in “Champion,” the dizzy girl narrator in “I Can’t Breathe,” the whole cast in “Haircut,” Alibi Ike, the forlorn amnesia victim in “Mamma,” all are laundered carefully for shortcomings and hung out to dry. Worse, The Lardners innocently offers examples of how Lardner could treat his children in similar fashion:
But the 2nd boy is different and a week before his birthday we asked him what he would like and he says he would like something to clean the rust off his bicycle. That is the way he has always been and will always be the same way not wanting nothing and nothing will probably be what he will always get.
In the lost boyhood of Jim Lardner is the man who died in Spain; in the lost boyhood of Ring Lardner, Jr., surely, the refusals, the lacunae, the falls between the numerous cracks, of The Lardners, were made.
Ring Lardner seems a man terrified of feeling, using the lonely perches of his prose to escape the humanity he longs to join, driven thereby to drink and to writing piece after piece that pokes nasty fun. His targets were people whose major similarity with Lardner himself was a refusal to imagine another human being and whose inferiority to him was nothing more, or more interesting, than their inability to speak or write correct English. His is the snobbery of a northern genteel family gone broke, the snobbery that never forgives whoever can be located on a lower rung of some implicit ladder; his drinking, finally, has to seem his guilt for finding no other life as a writer than with the attitudes of a redneck. Heywood Broun said, when Lardner died, “If Ring had written only what he wanted to write, he would have lived fifteen years longer.” But he had no restraints on him after his first successes other than the desire to live well and an inability ever to conceive that cleverness is not the major ingredient of a serious writer.
Because he was clever, Lardner’s stories continue to be reprinted and taught in classrooms that “need” something that can fill the gap in apparent sophistication and difficulty between “Marjorie Daw” on the one hand and “Araby” on the other. But he remains relatively popular for another reason, more evident and insidious. Lardner was only, one of a group of writers who, during America’s coming of age in the years during and after World War I, could be acclaimed as an American writer. This was the preoccupation of a great many writers of fiction, most notably Hemingway, but it mostly affected reviewers and critics who did their best to create an atmosphere in which not only Hemingway but Lardner and Hammett and Anderson and Lewis and O’Hara could be credited with achievements far in excess of their actual worth. Matthew J. Bruccoli, who has “edited” This Side of Paradise, written an absurd “biography” of O’Hara, and republished trivia like the material in Some Champions, only compounds this lamentable and needless nonsense. Perhaps the greatest distortion achieved by this effort to celebrate the authentically American has been the misreading and vast underestimating of Robert Frost, the great American writer of his lifetime, who was able at a glance to be more deeply corrosive than all of Ring Lardner’s work put together could be, and who was many more things besides.
But this is not all that need be said on the occasion of The Lardners, or of the persistent reprintings of various minor works of Ring Lardner’s. There is one Lardner writer who, while suffering from many of the same reticences and shortcomings as his father and brother, achieved a distinctive body of excellent small-scale work. John Lardner, the eldest of the four sons, grew up apparently assuming he would be “a writer.” In one of those familiar “either because of or in spite of” situations, he interpreted that to mean what it had meant for his father, and so he never aspired to more than articles in the Herald Tribune, Newsweek, and The New Yorker, magazine work in which, alas, care with language is all too often equated with good writing. John Lardner could write pieces that poked fun at the language used in American media, easy targets easily hit, just like Ring Lardner. The kind of writing he chose encouraged rather than challenged his natural reticence. But the impression one gets of John Lardner is of quiet, withdrawn ease, not embattled repression. He could be genuinely interested in other people, as his father was apparently unable to be.
John Lardner, knowingly or not, must have been haunted by what happened to his father. For some of his best work he went back to a generation earlier—to the Stanley Ketchel who had fought in Milwaukee the night Ring Lardner had botched up the stories coming over the wire; to the legendary Titanic Thompson, who was Ring’s contemporary; to Drinking in America, his one attempt at a full-length book. To have really written that book might have forced John Lardner to understand his father better than Ring Jr. could do, but he ran out of time before he died, and perhaps ran out of ability too, since his reticence ran very deep and only the intrepid might sidestep the feeling that the dead might be better left buried. But what he did finish of Drinking in America—it is printed in Roger Kahn’s collection, The World of John Lardner—and what he achieved in the essays on Ketchel and Thompson and Battling Siki and Jack Johnson, is almost perfect work of its kind, wry, amused, amusing, never contemptuous. Here he is on Siki, whom someone once called “the black Candide”:
Siki resembled Voltaire’s hero in that he had a sheltered boyhood, was thrown suddenly into the thick of the best of all possible worlds, and found society both violent and larcenous. At seventeen, he was involved in a civilized world war. At twenty-five, he was permitted to box a champion on the condition that he lose the match. Having ignored the condition and won the championship, he insured his loss of that title, in all innocence, by fighting an Irishman in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day. He entered American life in the heyday of the Volstead act. He could not master the strong waters or the social customs of the West Side of New York City. He was killed by gun-fire, after surviving a stabbing earlier in the same year. It may seem, offhand, that Hell’s Kitchen was a curious place for the curtain to fall on a twenty-eight-year-old Mohammedan born in St. Louise de Senegal on the fringe of the Sahara Desert, but Voltaire has shown that when civilization gets its hands on one of these natural men, it pushes him about at random from curious place to curious place. Candide was lucky to wind up safely cultivating his garden. He came close to meeting his end in an auto-da-fé in Portugal and, another time, on a roasting spit in Paraguay. Siki’s story is perhaps more realistic. He failed to last out the course.
Writing like that, as I say, is too close to flawless to be great writing, but it is awfully good, better than anything of Ring Lardner’s, less concerned with style, more concerned with getting something said right including not just Siki but John Lardner’s quiet acceptance of life.
On the occasion of the reprinting of Some Champions and The Story of a Wonder Man, let me urge the Bruccoli reprinting factory to look at White Hopes and Other Tigers and The World of John Lardner. They’ll never get a large audience, but the readers they do get will be delighted.