When Ring Lardner died in 1933, Scott Fitzgerald wrote an interesting and somewhat despairing tribute to him. “The point of these paragraphs is that, whatever Ring’s achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude toward his work.” Fitzgerald thought Lardner had developed the habit of silence about important things and that he fell back in his writing on the formulas he always had ready at hand. It is easy to imagine how this might have appeared true thirty years ago when the memory of the great short story writer working away at his daily comic strip text was still painfully near to those who cared about him. Lardner was a perplexing man, often careless about his own talents. How to account for the element of self-destroying indifference in the joshing preface to How to Write Short Stories, a volume that contained “My Roomy,” “Champion,” “Some Like Them Cold,” and “The Golden Honeymoon.” Edmund Wilson’s review of this volume in The Dial spoke warmly about the stories and mentioned the disturbing unsuitability of the preface, which he found so far below Lardner’s usual level that “one suspects him of a guilty conscience at attempting to disguise his talent for social observation and satire.” If Lardner knew of this criticism, he was unmoved by it and introduced The Love Nest in a similar manner. (That volume contained, among others, “Haircut” and “Zone of Quiet.”) The palpable incongruity of the jocular prefaces as an introduction to the superlatively bitter stories serves as a mirror to the strangeness of Lardner’s personality and work.
Reading Lardner again now is almost a new experience. Somewhat unexpectedly one finds that he has a dismal cogency to a booming America: his subjects are dishonesty, social climbing, boastfulness, and waste. For that reason, Maxwell Geismar’s new collection is valuable as a way of bringing Lardner once more to public notice. This new volume, because of larger print, is easier to read than the Viking Portable Ring Lardner, but it is not otherwise an improvement. Indeed the Viking Portable has the advantage of the complete text of “You Know Me, Al” and “The Big Town.” Geismar’s preface does not supply more than the usual demand, nevertheless his selection will not fail anyone who wants the unsettling experience of discovering Ring Lardner or of rediscovering him.
Out of a daily struggle to make a living by literary work of various kinds, Lardner produced many short stories and some longer works of great originality. These stories were also immensely popular and nothing touches us more than this rare happening. In a country like ours where there will necessarily be so much journalism, so much support of the popular, the successful, we are naturally unusually grateful when we find the genuine among the acceptable. And with Lardner there is something more: he made literature out of baseball, the bridge game, and the wisecrack. Of course he was terribly funny, but even in his funniest stories there is a special desolation, a sense of national emptiness filled by stupidity and vanity.
Now, in the 1960s, the distance from the 1920s reduces some of the journalistic aspects of Lardner’s writing. We are struck most of all by his difference from popular writing today. His is a miserable world made tolerable only by a maniacal flow of wisecracks. “That’s Marie Antoinette’s bed,” the four-flusher says as he shows a couple around his Riverside Drive apartment. The wisecracker asks, “What time does she usually get in it?” When the wife says, “Guess who called me today?” the husband answers, “Josephus Daniels or Henry Ford. Or maybe it was the guy with the scar on his lip that you thought was smiling at you the other day.” Out of the plain, unabashed gag, and the cruel dialogue of domestic life, Lardner created his odd stories, with their curious speed, rush of situation, explosion of insult and embarrassment.
Lardner’s characters have every mean fault, but they lack the patience to do much with their meanness. The busher is boastful and stingy, and yet utterly unable, for all his surface shrewdness, to discover his real place in the scheme of things. He is always being dropped by the women he had boasted about and all his stinginess cannot help to manage his affairs. Lardner’s stories are filled with greedy, grasping people who nevertheless go bankrupt. You cannot say they are cheated, since they are themselves such awful cheats. The Gullibles have the fantastic idea of going to Palm Beach to get into “society.” Mrs. Gullible does at last meet Mrs. Potter Palmer in the corridor of the hotel and Mrs. Palmer asks her to put more towels in her suite. The squandering of an inheritance by the characters in “The Big Town” shows a complete lack of elementary common sense. The husbands usually have some idea of the cost of things and of the absurdity of their wives’ ambitions. But they cannot act upon their knowledge. It comes out only in the constant static of their wisecracks. Wildly joking, they go along with their wives into debt and humiliation. It is hard to feel much sympathy and yet occasionally one does so: the sympathy comes, when it does, from the fact that the jokes played upon these dreadful people are after all thoroughly real and mean. Even the language they speak with such immense, dismaying humor is a kind of joke on real language, funnier and more cutting than we can bear.
Vanity, greed, and cruel humor are the themes of Lardner’s stories. The lack of self-knowledge is made up for by a dizzy readiness with cheap alibis. No group or class seems better than another; there is a democracy of cheapness and shallowness. Lies are at the core of nearly every character he produces for us. The only fear is being caught out, exposed to the truth. Love cannot exist because the moment it runs into trouble the people lie about their former feelings. Because of the habit of lying, it is a world without common sense. The tortured characters are not always victims. They may be ruined and made fun of, but they have the last word. They bite the leg that kicks them.
“Haircut” is one of the cruelest pieces of American fiction. Even Lardner seems to have felt some need for relief from the relentless evil of the small-town joker and so he has him killed in the end. This cruel story is just about the only one that has the contrast of decent people preyed upon by a maniac. “Champion” is brutal and “The Golden Honeymoon” is a masterpiece of grim realism. Alfred Kazin speaks of the “harsh, glazed coldness” of Lardner’s work. He wrapped his dreadful events in comic language, as you would put an insecticide in a bright can.
Lardner’s personality is very difficult to take hold of. In spite of poor health that came, so far as I can discover, from his devastating drinking, he had the continuing productivity of the professional journalist. He went to work every morning. Why he drank, why his views were so bitter are a mystery. He came from a charming, talented family and married a woman he loved. He was kind, reserved, hard-working; his fictional world is loud, cruel, filled with desperate marriages, hideous old age, suburban wretchedness, fraud, drunkenness. Even the sports world is degraded and athletes are likely to be sadists, crooks, or dumbbells. The vision is thoroughly desperate. All the literature of the 1930s and 1940s does not contain such pure subversion, snatched on the run from the common man and his old jokes.
February 1, 1963