Shut Up: Ring Lardner Explained

From the first time I read a Ring Lardner short story (“Haircut,” I believe, like a billion other American high schoolers), I’ve been a huge fan of his work. So much so that back in the ’70s and ’80s I set out to collect original editions of all his books, haunting used bookstores from New York to California and multiple stops in between.

(That was, of course, pre-Amazon, pre-eBay, pre-Internet. So it took awhile. Like 15 years, at which time I got the last one for my collection, Own Your Own Home. I could buy it now in 15 seconds.)

As I’ve mentioned before, every October I re-read “A World’s Serious,” one of my favorites (available in The Portable Ring Lardner). Another favorite is The Young Immigrunts, which gave us this immortal exchange between one of Lardner’s sons and the old man.

Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.

Shut up he explained.

So I’m a bug for Lardner, as he might put it. Consequently, I read with interest Andrew Ferguson’s piece, “The Savvy Rube,” a review of the new book The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner in the current issue of The Weekly Standard.

It started out a bit ominously.

“All readers know the disappointment of returning years later to some fondly remembered piece of writing and finding it withered with age.”

Been there, felt that, eh?

But then, this:

Every tendril of 20th-century American literature and entertainment shows [Lardner’s] influence. You find him in art high and low. The grotesques of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty’s sly Southern hicks, the laconic heroes of Hemingway’s first stories, Liebling’s boxers, the rummies of Joseph Mitchell​—​they are unimaginable without Lardner’s having gone before. We can say the same about James Thurber and Dave Barry, Li’l Abner and Pogo, even the great Warner Bros. cartoons, on up to the surreal comedy of Donald Barthelme and George Saunders. Lardner the short-story writer looms at the top of the family tree.

But what about Lardner as a journalist, writing at times a thousand words a day, six days a week? Ferguson renders this judgment.

He was a slap-hitter, going for singles and doubles, rather than a long-ball slugger, swinging the heavy lumber and aiming for the fences. He considered himself a tradesman, a journalist through and through, from his spats to his boater. It seems accidental that he produced imperishable art.

And yet, “here and there some of the journalism rises to the sublime level of the short stories, and in it you can hear Lardner’s most enduring voice. It’s the strange mix that gave his fiction its power​—​the mind of a journalist married to the heart of an artist, making a creature as rare and improbable as the jackalope and heffalump.”

If you love good writing, you should read Ferguson’s piece.

If you love Ring Lardner, so much the better.

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3 Responses to Shut Up: Ring Lardner Explained

  1. telegonus says:

    Thanks for mentioning the now nearly forgotten, except among literary folk, Ring Lardner. He was a giant in his day. Scott Fitzgerald thought highly of him. I haven’t read Lardner in a dog’s age but yes, maybe I’ll revisit him in the near future.

    An even more neglected writer, W.R. Burnett, deserves rediscovery. Many of his novels were adapted by Hollywood and made into major films, among them Little Caesar, Dark Hazard, High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle. His “boxing noel” The Iron Man, twice made into films (not to be confused with the recent film of the same title) is outstanding.

    • Campaign Outsider says:

      Thanks, Telegonus. Fitzgerald was a master of the backhanded compliment, as in this about Lardner: “However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.” A bit harsh, given the range of Lardner’s fiction, no?

      • telegonus says:

        Yes, though I have to wonder when Fitzgerald wrote that. Early on I believe he was a great admirer of Lardner. My sense is that American writers of that period, when fiction was a common feature in many top magazines of the Collier’s-Scribner’s sort, plus the Saturday Evening Post; and when people were more inclined to read serious fiction, that writers could get quite competitive with one another even when they were friends. There’s a famous “midget story” that happened in a well known New York “watering hole” for writers, as in a saloon, and I know that Johns Steinbeck and O’Hara were involved; and one set a midget on the other, who was a bit tipsy, and got punched out by the little fellow. This isn’t the sort of thing a self-styled tough guy wants to get around.

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