Book Review: The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner
Edited by Ron Rapoport
University of Nebraska Press, 2017
Its sensationalistic title notwithstanding (a collection of somebody’s “lost” journalism would be a pretty little blank book perfect for jotting down your thoughts about the fleetingness of fame), The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner, a thick, beautifully-designed new book from the University of Nebraska Press, is a godsend, a hugely enjoyable rejoinder to the implicit challenge posed by the book’s epigraph, a quote from Matthew Bruccoli and Richard Layman: “A considerable body of first-rate Lardner is entombed in back-number magazines and disintegrating newspapers.” Editor Ron Rapoport has combed through those back-number magazines and disintegrating newspapers, and he’s produced a treasure-trove of Lardner pieces spanning from his earliest work at the South Bend Times to his glory days at the Chicago Tribune, a volume fit to takes its place alongside 1934’s First and Last and 1925’s What of It? – which, readers are reminded, are long since out of print (no mention is made of the Library of America’s fairly generous Ring Lardner volume).
This volume is the working Lardner, the hack Lardner, the newsman Lardner who kept churning out first-rate readable prose day after day, week after week, even after he’d achieved literary fame with works like You Know Me Al. The sheer volume of this typewriter work (a great deal of which was banged out in Boston, where Lardner did some yeoman drinking in between stints at the miserable old Boston American) is, as Rapoport’s book points out, mind-boggling:
In assessing the sheer volume of this output, one question arises: where did he find the time? Lardner was not a recluse working undisturbed in a lonely garrett. He had a wide circle of friend, was an avid golfer and bridge player, a regular theater-goer, a frequent traveler, a prolific letter-writer, an occasional visitor to the Algonquin Round Table, a loving husband, and a devoted father of four sons. For a number of years he was the bemused lord of a manor house in Great Neck, Long Island, where titans of business and show-business celebrities lived in close proximity and where the party scene was so relentless that his neighbor and drinking companion F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to France in order to get some work done.
The columns collected here cover a pleasingly wide spectrum of topics, from the First World War to stage plays to Coolidge-era politics, and most of them show the smart, playful, stingingly memorable prose that would go on to make this writer famous. But as any Lardner fan will expect, the main attraction this or any other collection of the man’s journalism holds is his sports writing. It was in that very specific genre that Lardner found his true calling, and it regularly brought even his most shopworn rhetorical gimmicks to life, just as theater criticism somehow transmuted Walter Kerr’s bland dyspepsia into written genius, and just like the ineffable mysteries of professional dance could be counted upon to bring out the best in otherwise diffuse Clive Barnes. In his writing, Lardner somehow manages to approach sports as both the consummate insider and as a visiting space alien, and the results are jolting even now, a century later, when all of the sporting events he covers and most of the sporting figures he profiles have vanished from the cultural memory of all but die-hard aficionados.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Lardner’s best sport, boxing. The inherent pathos of no other sport comes closer to shattering the “youse guys over dere” linguistic game-playing that was Lardner’s signature stock-in-trade and revealing the true believer under the ironic-alcoholic’s carapace. Lardner believed in boxing, the reader senses, in ways he could never quite bring himself to believe even in his beloved baseball, and the sharp adolescent edges of that belief often threaten to overpower the playful wise-guy diction in, for example, his account of the epic 1923 heavyweight championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Argentinian fighter Luis Angel Firpo, dubbed “the Wild Bull of the Pampas.” Firpo’s moment of glory during the fight has been immortalized in a painting by George Bellows, and Lardner does a plum job on it as well:
Between the first and second round, Messrs. Kearns and Benjamin in champion’s corner asked him as a personal favor to not leave himself quite so exposed and, in the second round, it was noticeable that he was making a much tougher target to hit. He kept his head low and covered up, but still flayed away with both hands and never lost sight of the main idear that he must get this guy and get him quick. He didn’t get him none too quick and if the fight had went a round longer, they would have been wholesale deaths from heart disease with maybe some of the victims in Dempsey’s corner. All in all, you wont hear no squawk to the effect that those who paid to get in didn’t get their money’s worth, even if they paid a hundred smacks for a seat. It was a FIGHT …
The appearance of a volume like this can’t help but provoke a melancholy little sigh at the thought of how much work by how many first-rate writers still lies entombed in back-number magazines and disintegrating newspapers – writers whose prose was equally peppy, writers who were, maybe, equally inspired by whatever thing inspired them, but who never had the lucky break of a You Know Me Al to prompt a search of the archives for “lost” journalism. Ring Lardner worked with a good many such writers and unironically called some of them his superiors at the craft. But better some of those writers are rescued from the file bins than none of them, and better more Ring Lardner than less.