The question that almost inevitably arises in any discussion of Ring Lardner’s (March 5, 1885 – September 25, 1933) stories is: What is Lardner’s attitude toward his characters and by extension toward the culture out of which they come? Is Lardner, in other words, a misanthrope who hated not only his own characters but also himself, or is he, rather, a disappointed idealist who found in the world of his immediate experience constant instances of cruelty, vulgarity, and insensitivity? Those who point to Lardner’s sheltered upbringing and the apparently happy family life both of his early years and of his later married life favor the latter view, while those who wish to find in his fiction some affirmation of the goodness of human beings prefer the former. Obviously, no final answer to the question is possible.
If one reads an early story such as “Champion,” one sees a heavyhanded author stacking the cards against his brutal hero, Midge Kelly. Midge beats his disabled brother to steal his half dollar and, when their mother objects, beats her, too. Thereafter Midge’s life is a succession of victories and brutalities: He becomes a prizefighter who wins fight after fight and, at the same time, does in those who have befriended him. Although his disabled brother is sick and unable to get out of bed and longs to have a letter from his famous brother, Midge refuses to write. When his wife and son are ill and destitute, he tears up a letter from his wife begging for help. He fires the manager who has helped make him a champion fighter and heaps money on a woman who is obviously using him, although he later casts her off, too, and then takes for himself the wife of his new manager. Through the obvious card stacking one sees Lardner’s intention. He hates brutality and he hates the way brutality is not only ignored but also rewarded in our society. Midge Kelly is not a believable character; he is a symbol on which Lardner heaps all of the abuse he can muster. If it were not for the brutality, “Champion” would be a maudlin tearjerker.
The truth seems to be that, underneath the pose of the realist, observer, and reporter of American crudities, Ring Lardner was a sensitive, even a sentimental man. The monologue form exactly suited his need to keep the sentimentality out of sight while letting his crude, vulgar, insensitive types condemn themselves out of their own mouths, but it was also a way of allowing the victims of the bullies to engage the reader’s sympathies without having to make them stereotyped victims: people with disabilities who are beaten, mothers knocked down by their sons, abandoned wives and babies. Lardner’s best stories present the reader with a story in which the real author has all but disappeared while his narrator tells his ironically revealing, selfcondemning tale.
One of the best of Lardner’s stories, “Haircut,” is told by a barber who is giving a haircut to an unnamed stranger in a small Midwestern town. The hero of the barber’s tale is Jim Kendall, a practical joker, whom the barber describes as “all right at heart” but whom the reader quickly sees as a man who enjoys inflicting pain on other human beings under the guise of being funny. To pay his wife back for getting his paycheck (he gives her no money to run the household), Kendall tells her to meet him with their children outside the tent of a visiting circus. Instead of joining her there with the tickets as he promised, he hides out in a saloon to savor the joke he is playing on his family. Meanwhile, a new doctor in the town, “Doc” Stair, appears on the scene, and feeling sorry for the mother with the crying children, buys the tickets for them. When Kendall hears how Doc Stair spoiled his fun, he gets furious and vows revenge. He tricks a young woman, Julie Gregg, who is “sweet on” Doc Stair, into coming into the doctor’s office late at night. No one is there but Kendall and his friends hiding in the dark. When Julie calls out the doctor’s first name, “Oh, Ralph,” Kendall and his crowd leap out and mimic her. When she retreats, they chase her home. Another frequent victim of Kendall’s jokes, a “cuckoo” named Paul who is fond of Julie and the doctor and who hears the doctor say that a man like Kendall ought not to be allowed to live, invites himself to go duck hunting with Kendall. Kendall gives Paul his gun to hold, the gun goes off, and Kendall is killed. Doc Stair, the coroner, rules the shooting accidental. Although in this story the chief villain is given his comeuppance, a subtler cruelty is revealed by the barber who says of Kendall that in letting a man like Paul hold his gun, he probably got what he deserved.
Another of Lardner’s best stories, “Golden Honeymoon,” is a gentler satire; indeed, critics have disagreed about whether this is the portrait of a happy marriage or a vicious attack on marriage in general. Doubtless the truth lies somewhere in between, for the old man who tells the story of his and his wife’s trip to Florida on their golden honeymoon is a boring windbag. He is impressed with himself and his son, who is “high up in rotary”; with the commonplace, vulgar details of their trips to cafeterias, church socials, card games, and movies; and with their encounter with his wife’s old beau. The main action of the story concerns the conflict that arises between the couple over the reappearance fifty years later of the suitor, who is married to a woman the narrator describes as a rotten cardplayer. Although he is not as brutal or despicable as other Lardner narrators, he has many of the same faults: insensitivity, vanity, pettiness, and even a little cruelty. When he wins a game of checkers, he gloats; when he loses at horseshoes, he pouts. When his wife hurts her back on the croquet court, he laughs at her, and when he is beaten at horseshoes, he quarrels with his wife and she quits speaking to him. The story ends “happily”—that is, the two make up and get “kind of spoony”—but the essential portrait remains that of a boring, vain, pompous old man.
Some Like Them Cold
“Some Like Them Cold” is a story told through the exchange of letters between a young woman named Mabelle Gillespie who allows herself to be picked up by a young man in the La Salle Street Station in Chicago. Chas. F. Lewis (as he signs his letters) is on his way to New York to break into the songwriting business. He is a typical Lardner monologuist—vain, crude, and cruel—and Mabelle is the familiar Lardner victim—sensitive, trusting, and foolish. Her letters to Lewis play up her virtues as a “home body”; his become increasingly short, emphasizing how well he is getting on in the Big Town and offering accounts of women who chase him. After he announces his marriage to a woman whom he had earlier described as cold and indifferent to home life, he advises Mabelle not to speak to “strange men who you don’t know nothing about as they may get you wrong and think you are trying to make them.” “Some Like Them Cold” was later converted by Lardner into the successful musical comedy June Moon.
A story technically subtler is “Ex Parte,” told in the first person by a man attempting to justify his part in the breakup of his marriage. As he tells it, he and his wife were happy on their honeymoon but as soon as they moved into the house he had bought as a surprise for her (he had promised they would choose a house together), their marriage began to go bad. The trouble is that the house and furniture (picked out by a decorator) are too shiny and new-looking to suit his wife; she hates the house and admires the converted barn and early American furniture of her school friend. Even the nicks and burns on her friend’s dining room table seem beautiful to her. So the narrator, after consuming a large quantity of “early American Rye,” goes home and mutilates their table with a blow torch. His wife leaves him, and he is now trying to get his friends to take his side in the quarrel.
What is unusual about this story is that, instead of the typical opposition of bully and victim, there is rather a battle between two people equally insensitive and shallow: the husband who likes bright, shiny new things and the wife who likes antiques. For both, marriage is simply a matter of having the right things.
To call Ring Lardner either a misanthrope or a humorist, or even a realist who observed American manners, is to miss the point. Lardner was a moralist, like his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, although at times he could be merely funny or sentimental or tiresome, his best stories are homilies, camouflaged by humor, on meanness, cruelty, and vanity. Lardner had a remarkable ear for a certain kind of native American speech, and he used that talent for giving his stories the ring of truth and passing on to succeeding generations a small but enduring collection of excellent short stories.
Play: June Moon, pr. 1929 (with George S. Kaufman).
Novels: You Know Me Al, 1915; The Big Town, 1921.
Nonfiction: My Four Weeks in France, 1918; Regular Fellows I Have Met, 1919; “The Young Immigrunts,” 1920; “Symptoms of Being Thirty-Five,” 1921; “Say It with Oil,” 1923; What of It?, 1925; The Story of a Wonder Man, 1927; Letters from Ring, 1979 (Clifford M. Caruthers, editor; revised as Letters of Ring Lardner, 1995).
Blythe, Hal, and Charlie Sweet. “Lardner’s ‘Haircut.’” The Explicator 55 (Summer, 1997): 219-221.
Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Richard Layman. Ring Lardner: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976.
Cowlishaw, Brian T. “The Reader’s Role in Ring Lardner’s Rhetoric.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Spring, 1994): 207-216.
Friedrich, Otto. Ring Lardner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.
Geismar, Maxwell. Ring Lardner and the Portrait of Folly. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972.
Lardner, James. “Ring Lardner at 100—Facing a Legacy.” The New York Times Book Review 90 (March 31, 1985): 3.
Lardner, Ring. Letters of Ring Lardner. Edited by Clifford M. Caruthers. Washington, D.C.: Orchises, 1995.
Lardner, Ring, Jr. The Lardners: My Family Remembered. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Robinson, Douglas. Ring Lardner and the Other. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Yardley, Jonathan. Ring. New York: Random House, 1977.