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 culture, and sense of proportion would prevent the appearance of yet one more in a series of glib psychobiographies.
It is instructive to look at Yardley’s handling of some of the possible sources of insight that I have—perhaps all too obviously—cited. He has a justifiable reluctance to indulge in what he at one point refers to as “dime-store psychologizing,” but he carries his distaste so far as to leave crucial factors in Ring’s life unexplored. Take the matter of Lardner’s parents. Henry Lardner was forty-six when Ring, the youngest of six children, was born. How did the middle-aged Henry regard his infant son, who was born with a deformed foot? Did he ever play with his little boy? Punish him? Take part in his education? Yardley merely repeats—abbreviated to a single sentence—Elder’s paragraph to the effect that Henry was kindly and quiet and remained in the background of a household dominated by Mrs. Lardner.
Surely this information is significant—Ring’s stories are full of henpecked or passive husbands trailing along behind their wives (cf. “The Big City”). Why does Yardley fail to amplify Elder’s information or draw certain conclusions from it? He says nothing about the failure of Henry’s health or his stoic response to the loss of his considerable fortune—information again to be gleaned from Elder. He does not even tell us when Henry Lardner died or how his son reacted to what Freud has called the most poignant event in a man’s life.
Similarly with the mother, an apparently far more important figure in Ring’s life. Yardley’s portrait of Lena Lardner is fuller than that of Henry but again far less complete and psychologically suggestive than Elder’s. She must have been a fairly eccentric mother, for she kept her younger children isolated from the town of Niles, not allowing Ring to leave the family compound without the coachman or another servant until he was eight and having him educated at home until he was twelve. She provided a plethora of nursemaids—one for each of the three youngest children—was fond of books, musically talented, indulgent, charitable, deeply religious, and full of fun. It seems clear enough that she was overprotective; was she also overwhelming?
Yardley quotes but makes no comment on a letter in which Ellis Abbot, later Ring’s wife, describes Mrs. Lardner as “enormous and queer but very bright & a great talker.” Was the little boy with the bad leg (Ring’s foot was corrected surgically but he had to wear a brace until he was eleven) excessively coddled (and bossed around) by his middle-aged mother? Surely one important element in Ring’s drinking was rebelliousness—childish, ineffective, and self-destructive—against such a figure.
Again Ring’s fiction offers a clue in the tendency of the male characters, frustrated and exasperated beyond endurance by ostensibly benevolent women, to “tie one on”; in “Liberty Hall,” Ben, a composer of musical comedies, was, in the story’s last sentence, “credited at the Lamb’s Club with that month’s most interesting bender” after enduring a dreadful weekend at the hands of a domineering and intrusive hostess. Lardner, like many alcoholics, seems to have regarded his own benders as interludes in which he was entitled to be “bad” after prolonged periods of enforced “goodness.” To judge from the persistently deprecatory tone that he took toward his writing, another element in Ring’s alcoholism must have been an overactive and perfectionist inner critic (possibly the incorporation of a demanding parental figure) that could be silenced temporarily by drink.
Yardley not only neglects to explore such connections but allows the interesting Mrs. Lardner to drop out of the picture completely after Ring’s departure for Chicago at the age of twenty-two. No mention is made of any subsequent visits to his mother. Nor does Yardley pass on the significant information provided by Ring, Jr.: that his grandmother, in her last widowed and penniless years, developed “a degree of dependence” on whiskey but was forced to make a single bottle (supplied without charge by a local saloon keeper) last an entire week. As is the case with Henry Lardner, we have to turn to Elder to find out when Lena died (in 1918, after many years of poor health) and to learn that Ring was deeply affected by her death; and it is Elder who assesses, persuasively enough, the effect of the two parents upon their youngest son.
By all accounts Ring’s wife Ellis was an exceptionally attractive woman—pretty, high-spirited, and intelligent, with a sense of style and a large capacity for enjoyment. The extensive quotations from the correspondence between Ellis and Ring during their four-year courtship provide perhaps the most appealing material in both Ring, Jr.’s and Yardley’s books—and its fullness can be credited to Yardley’s discovery of Ellis’s side of the correspondence in a box in the Newberry Library. In relation to her husband’s drinking, Ellis must also have been one of the great Good Sports of all time. Her tactics during the bad periods seem to have been those of withdrawal into a separate existence (she had moved into her own bedroom after less than a decade of marriage), a preoccupation with the decoration of her various houses, and a refusal to accompany her husband into New York when a bout was impending. In the good times she was a merry companion, and in the last sad years of Ring’s life she was a devoted nurse and a competent business manager. According to Ring, Jr., there were no scenes over the drinking—at least none that the children knew about. Her son speculates about the probable psychic damage of such reticence and discloses that she lived with “a great mass of stored anger whose existence she never even admitted to herself until she sought some psychiatric aid in the last years of her life.” It will by this time come as no surprise that Yardley hardly goes into the matter at all. Were there really no scenes? Did he question survivors who had known the Lardners about Ellis’s reactions to the drinking? Did she ever drink to excess herself? Were the children really so well shielded from their father’s binges?
There are many other questions one would like to put to Yardley. Was the leg brace really so insignificant physically and psychologically as everyone asserts? Is there no evidence that it might have played a part in the formation of Ring’s perception of his own body or in his passionate—and perhaps compensatory—interest in sports? Is it merely prurient curiosity on the reader’s part to want to know the clinical details of Ring’s tuberculosis—its symptoms, its stages? Do the medical records exist and does a biographer have access to them? But enough picking. If Ring does not succeed in providing a coherent and penetrating account of Lardner’s personality, what does it offer?
A lot about baseball for one thing. Before taking up Ring’s background and birth, Yardley devotes the first section of his book—a tenth of its total length—to the state of the game in the early years of this century. Much of this is well done. Baseball’s “age of innocence” is colorfully evoked, as is the tradition of sports-writing into which Ring was initiated and which he partially transformed. In this section and in later chapters Yardley has probably established all that can be usefully known of the matrix from which You Know Me Al and “My Roomy” emerged. But too much is given. Yardley’s unremitting enthusiasm for every column and jingle that Lardner wrote—and some of them are clever enough—fails to convince this reviewer that sports-writing from the past can ever be much more than the cold corned-beef hash of journalism.
In view of Ring’s notorious prudery (he would leave the room if anyone told a dirty joke and at the end of his life wrote columns in The New Yorker denouncing “smutty” lyrics of popular songs—among them “As You Desire Me”), I found myself wondering how he endured the language and moral attitudes to which he must have been exposed in the locker rooms and Pullman washrooms during his years of traveling with the ball clubs. Was everything really so much purer in those days or was Hemingway right in complaining that Lardner falsified the language of ballplayers, converting it into a comic illiteracy that left out all the raunchiness and tragedy of their lives? Yardley describes Hemingway’s comments as cruel and inaccurate.
In addition to the baseball material, Yardley has been able to profit by the labors of the academic Lardner industry, which has traced every scrap of ephemera and has established the canon of Ring’s work as thoroughly as if he were Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Some of this information was necessarily unavailable to Elder twenty years ago; consequently, Yardley’s biography is probably “definitive” with regard to the externals of Lardner’s life and career—though inferior to Elder’s in other, more important respects. Always stronger on milieu and period than character, Yardley successfully re-creates the Great Neck years, when Ring, at the height of his fame and prosperity, drank all night with the Scott Fitzgeralds, traveled with the Grantland Rices, played goft with President Harding.
Writing in a brisk, quasi-journalistic style, Yardley marshals his factual material interestingly enough. Though he attempts a judicious, piece-by-piece assessment of Ring’s output, I think he badly overestimates the comic vitality of the trivia—especially the nonsense plays, which he finds hilarious—and in general tries too hard to make a stronger case for Lardner’s major status in American letters than the five or six really successful stories will sustain. But both the strengths and the minor weaknesses of Yardley’s book pale before the central omission of any real attempt to fathom the sources of Ring Lardner’s achievement and torment—an omission that ultimately makes Ring an unnecessary biography.
September 15, 1977