Ring Lardner was one of the most successful writers of the 1920s, enjoying the rare combination of critical and popular approval of his work. From his beginnings as a sports journalist to his later work as a humorist, recorder of the slang vernacular, and satirist, Lardner distinguished himself as one of the best writers in these genres, earning himself a permanent place in the history of American letters.
Lardner began his writing career as a sports journalist and columnist for various Chicago newspapers, and it is in this role that he first rose to a level of national prominence. In the early years of his career, he gained a reputation as one of the most insightful, entertaining, and innovative sports reporters in the country. His columns and articles about baseball endeared him to editors, readers, and players. There were many dull games, but rarely a dull article by Lardner about them. He filled his reports with comedy and insights into the personal lives of the players. At the Chicago Tribune, and later for the Bell Syndicate, he created an engaging style that still influences columnists today. His nationally syndicated column, which humorously commented on national sporting events and other personal and public items of interest, appeared in more than 115 newspapers. Throughout his lifetime, Lardner wrote more than 4500 articles and columns for newspapers and has been called the originator of the modern American newspaper column.
One of the most recognizable traits of much of Ring Lardner’s writing, both in his columns and in his fiction, is the use of the American slang vernacular. Lardner took what was in the early 1900s a popular comic device and brought it to new heights of accuracy and style. Whereas earlier writers used this style of writing to make fun of the speakers, Lardner used it to produce an authentic American voice, to show not only how people sounded but how they thought. His practice of “listening hard” to those around him enabled him to portray the language of uneducated baseball players, aspiring musicians, and Jazz Age flirts, which fill the pages of his writing, in a realistic manner. Hemingway was influenced in his early career by Lardner’s realistic dialogue and Mencken used Lardner’s idiom as an example of American slang in The American Language.
As the years progressed, Lardner wrote less for newspapers, concentrating his efforts on short stories and theatrical pieces. The tone and subject matter of Lardner’s fiction moved away from the essentially humorous first-person baseball tales written in the slang vernacular to satirical looks at all aspects of American life. After the publication of How to Write Short Stories in 1924, Lardner’s fiction began to receive critical attention. Many of his stories were regarded by the critics as being exceptionally well crafted and more satirical than simply humorous. He was compared favorably with writers such as Sinclair Lewis, and was placed with Twain in the tradition of American satirists. Among those critics and writers that held Lardner in high regard were Edmund Wilson, H. L. Mencken, Sir James Barrie, and Virginia Woolf. Even though critical attention and popularity of his work have waned in the years following his death, a few short stories remain standards in anthologies (“Haircut,” “Some Like Them Cold,” and “Golden Honeymoon”) and new collections of his work continue to be published.