For a minor—though engaging—figure in American literature, Ring Lardner has received ample biographical attention in the last twenty years or so. Have Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce faired so well? Donald Elder’s Ring Lardner (Doubleday, 1956) still, in my opinion, remains the best single work on the subject—a well-written, knowledgeable, and extremely fair account of the life and works of the poker-faced Ring; I can find no internal evidence to support Jonathan Yardley’s statement (in “A Note on Sources” in the book under review) that Elder “had the misfortune to lose interest in his subject, and the book shows it.” If the Elder biography does not advance, very far into the subterranean complexities of Lardner’s personality, neither does it tease us with reticences as does Ring Lardner, Jr.’s family memoir, The Lardners (Harper and Row, 1976). When the latter appeared, it was generally welcomed as the gracefully written and interesting chronicle that it is but severely criticized in this journal for, among other things, the superficiality with which it treated the major pathology of Lardner’s life—his alcoholism. The latest biography, Yardley’s Ring, leaves us, I am afraid, more thoroughly on the outside of the subject than either of its predecessors.
I make the assumption that any late-twentieth-century biographer who pretends to seriousness must provide more than the extended account of a career. He must also attempt to discover and interpret (so far as these things are possible) the interplay of forces (genetic, familial, and more broadly cultural) that constitute what can be loosely called the psychodynamics of the life under examination. This is an obligation from which I would to some degree exempt the memoirist and even the autobiographer—on the perhaps unwarranted grounds that one can say what one damn well pleases about one’s family or self.
I further assume that there are certain “hot” topics or areas that a biographer must especially explore for clues to such an understanding; among these are the personalities and marital relationship of the subject’s parents, the subject’s place in the pecking order of siblings, the subject’s developing sense of sexual and social identity, the encounter with puberty, choice of love-objects, relationship with lover(s), mate(s), and offspring, response to adult crises (i.e., death of parents, sudden success or sudden failure, illness, etc.), and the response to aging and impending death. Obviously the choice of a career—along with the subject’s attitude toward it—must be added to the above. In the case of an artist, the themes—overt or hidden—of the work are relevant. So are various dirty little secrets: the biographer, like the reader, must be something of a voyeur. A good biographer should know his subject at least as well as a novelist knows his characters.
And I would add, too, the pious hope—by no means an assumption—that the biographer’s psychological acuity, powers of empathy, respect for fact, general …