Nineteen eighty-five is still young, but it is already rich in American literary centenaries. Last month gave us a pair of 100th anniversaries: Those of the birth of Sinclair Lewis and of the first American publication of "Huckleberry Finn." Now, in March, we have before us the centennial of Ring Lardner, which was quietly celebrated last week in his native state of Michigan.
Like the Lewis centenary, the Lardner occasion passed with little notice beyond the immediate festivities. These were held on the campus of Albion College, a singularly pleasant private institution in south-central Michigan. Albion may have seemed a somewhat unlikely spot for the celebration -- it is a two-hour drive from Niles, where Lardner was born -- but it proved to be a happy one. The men and women who organized it did Lardner up proud, with a full schedule for those of us who participated of speeches, panels and performances that managed, in sum, to demonstrate the considerable range of his interests and accomplishments.
They are, unfortunately, interests and accomplishments of which the American reading public is now underwhelmingly aware. Lardner was one of the most popular journalists and short-story writers of the Teens and '20s, and until a couple of decades ago his most admired stories were regularly found in anthologies and textbooks, but he no longer has any general audience to speak of. A small circle of devotees still reads him with enthusiasm and affection, but there is no getting around it: That circle is small.
This is a pity, because Lardner was a good writer in his own right and one who had a disproportionately large influence on the writing of others. His work is more substantial in bulk than in distinction, but the best of it is still worth reading. Lardner has a lot to tell us about the manners of '20s society, both medium-high and medium-low, and his satirical portrait of certain American archetypes has retained its freshness. As for his writing about baseball, some of it now seems stilted and/or anachronistic, but overall it remains the most interesting and imaginative that we have, and the well from which all contemporary baseball writing springs.
Perhaps the chief reason Lardner is so little read these days is that he never wrote a novel. His classic collection of epistolary stories, "You Know Me Al," does have the shape of an accidental novel, but otherwise he never wrote anything longer than the standard 5,000-word story that the popular magazines of his day demanded. He wrote strictly for money, and in the '20s the money was in the story, which supplied mass entertainment then much as television situation comedies do now.
He earned his money -- a great deal of it, in fact -- but the cost of it has been exacted on his reputation. American readers, and American critics as well, expect novels. From Hawthorne to Faulkner, the most important American writers may have written stories, but their reputations rest on their longer works. This may strike us as unfair -- it certainly strikes me that way -- but it is a fact of literary life that is unlikely to be changed. So poor Lardner, through no fault of his own save an indifference to literary fashion, gets left by the wayside; he may have seemed a giant in his own day, but he now is in danger of slipping off into that limbo occupied by the likes of James Branch Cabell, Thomas Boyd and Christopher Morley -- famous once, forgotten now.
Yet there are things for which he deserves to be remembered. Among these, though not in my judgment foremost among them, are the short stories on which his literary reputation rests. Ten of these have recently been issued in a Vintage paperback, "Haircut and Other Stories" (Vintage has also released, separately, a new edition of "You Know Me Al"), which provides a satisfactory sample of Lardner at his best, as in "I Can't Breathe," "The Golden Honeymoon" and "Some Like Them Cold." Lardner knew how to cut right to the essentials of a situation, and how to get his characters to reveal themselves with devastating inadvertence, as these stories show.
Lardner also wrote a number of little nonsense plays that are almost impossible to stage -- it can be a bit of a problem when directions require that a character exit down the drain of a bathtub -- but wonderful to read. His method in them is non sequitur carried to the nth degree, and their humor defies rational analysis. They have wonderful titles -- "The Tridget of Greva," "Cora, or Fun at a Spa," "Clemo Uti -- 'The Water Lilies' " -- and contain many divinely inspired lines. It is possible to see their influence in the work of many modern humorists, from Woody Allen to Mel Brooks to, above all, the late Ernie Kovacs.
Where Lardner succeeded most and had his most durable influence, though, was as a baseball writer. During the first two decades of the century he worked for a number of newspapers, chiefly the Chicago Tribune, covering the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs. This was baseball in the years before the coming of Babe Ruth and the rabbit ball, a game that was played with guile, resourcefulness and enterprise. Lardner loved it deeply, admired the men who played it, and gradually evolved a style for writing about it that managed to convey its humor, gaiety and grit. He changed baseball writing from the ponderous recitation of inning-by-inning developments to lively and irreverent commentary not merely on the game itself but on its people and settings.
Gradually, in fact, the people and settings began to interest him more than the game. He left the baseball beat and took on a sports column for the Tribune, "In the Wake of the News," which after a year or two was hardly a sports column at all. He filled it with doggerel, asides, family news and notes, wry commentary on national and international affairs -- anything that happened to wander into his ever-receptive mind. He wrote the column for about six years, and in the history of American journalism there's hardly been one as good, in the sports pages or anywhere else.
Lardner never really quit writing about baseball, but after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 his feelings about it were radically altered. This betrayal of the game by men who had been his friends seems to have been a severely disillusioning experience and to have played a large role in shaping the cynicism about ordinary people that characterizes the fiction he was then beginning to write. Although Lardner's view of America is neither as bleak nor as bitter as some critics have portrayed it, as a satirist he was every bit as mordant as Sinclair Lewis -- and a great deal funnier. He had a considerable influence on writers who went on to make names far bigger than his own, among them Ernest Hemingway, John O'Hara, James Thurber and S.J. Perelman. He deserves a great deal more than the neglect with which, outside the small campus of Albion, his centenary was greeted.