Ring & I
The answer to the age old question:
Written in the late 1990s by me, Scott Topping
Why Ring Lardner?
I hear that question, that shorthand question, often. It can be prompted by a number of circumstances, but usually the immediate cause is a Lardner quote, anecdote, or reference that I have wedged into a conversation. If its the first time the person has suffered through this conversational oddity, it is usually let slide without comment. The cumulative effect, however, makes it difficult to resist for long. After a number of these Lardner droppings on my part, one finally gets to the person, and they ask the question. Perhaps they feel they must. I dont blame them, really; I do mention Lardner more than most mention the weather. I cant help myself. Though it is sometimes characterized by others as a disease or an obsession, what I have is a passion, a passion for Ring Lardner. It might be useful for me to give some examples of what Im talking about.
Example One: The names J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Terry McMillan, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and George Will (and hundreds of others, really) cannot be mentioned near me without making me consider, and usually explain, their connection to Lardner. A friend of mine who is a JFK assassination expert noticed my single name-dropping (Lardner dropping) behavior when I pointed out to him that George Lardner, Jr., a major foe of conspiracy theorists, is the grand nephew of Ring Lardner.
Example Two: While on the subject of Pulitzer Prize winner George Lardner, Jr., I received an e-mail from his daughter, Helen Lardner, asking me if I could help her. She and many family members have discovered the WEB page and have been nice enough to write. In this case, Helen said she had a silver baby mug that she got when her grandfathers brother Fred died. It was inscribed "Ellen Wilmer Lardner," but she didnt know who that was. It was flattering to have a family member write me (so far five have--I wont write them first because I worry what they might think), and to actually ask me a question about her family. Troubling and exhilarating though, is that I could help her--without leaving the computer desk. Exhilarating for obvious reasons, and troubling because I wondered if I knew "too much." I knew Ellen as Rings niece, a Niles High School graduate. I reached up to a stack of books I had on the shelf above the computer and pulled down a copy of the 1916 Tattler, the Niles yearbook. There I found her picture: Ellen Lardner, Junior Farce, President of the Literary Society, Basket Ball, Tennis, editor of the Tattler. I scanned a copy and sent it back to Helen. I was tempted to explain the significance of "Wilmer," Ellens middle name that she had in common with Ring, but I was convinced that would seem pretentious.
Example Three: Feeling old after my last birthday and not enjoying the changes in hair, metabolism, and general attractiveness that have occurred, I turned to Lardners Symptoms of Being 35, and felt slightly better, knowing he had experienced the same things and could joke about them.
Example Four: While writing this essay, I am simultaneously scanning in and editing an e-text edition of Lardners 1919 book Own Your Own Home for this WEB site. I am always simultaneously working on something Lardner related. Every time I go to the library to research a non-Lardner topic, I end up pursuing something Lardner related "as a break." The problem is the breaks last much longer than the work.
Example Five: I drive a horrible car with one functioning window, a broken door, bald tires, whining wheel bearings, and no shocks; but I can spend hundreds of dollars on the cardboard box for Lardner's Bib Ballads with no regrets.
These are, of course, only some of the dozens of examples that come to mind. I am a collector, a reader, a critic, a scholar, and a fan. But these are superficial titles, and, to a degree, these are superficial examples. They give evidence of the symptoms, but do little to shed light on the cause (I refuse to write disease). The question still remains: Why Ring Lardner?
As I said, I hear the question often, although its meaning varies. Usually, the tone and conversational context lead me to interpret it as a statement, and not often a positive one. When students "ask," it can mean that they think I waste too much of my time doing something that doesnt get me drunk, sexually aroused, or paid. In other words, theyre telling me to "get a life." When fellow instructors "ask" the same question, I sometimes hear, "you should spend your time on someone important rather than on Lardner." I suppose the first translation can be applied to some of their inquiries as well. When I give talks on Lardner, audience members really "ask" the question. They want my conversion story. How did I come to find Lardner? What was it about his writing that drew me to his work, especially to the degree that I am drawn to it?
I too have asked myself this question in a number of ways, including the negative non-questioning ways, and though Im not certain I have found "the answer" or that one exists, I do have a pretty good idea of what keeps me interested. It isnt simply that I find his work amusing. Most of what I find funny I experience briefly and then leave alone. It isnt just because he is a local writer. That means a great deal to me, but there are other local writers that I dont read or study or promote at the level I do those things for Lardner. It isnt that I have fallen prey to some sort of cult of the author, as some of my friends tell me. I am interested in the historical, biographical Lardner, but that really is an interest secondary to my connection to his work. Connection is the key word. I feel closely linked to the voice and sensibility in much of Lardners work. I learn about myself and about my area through Lardners words. Though I can maintain (or come very close to maintaining) whatever distance is necessary when writing about him or his work in a scholarly or critical way, the motivation for writing about him or it is deeply personal. Over a long period of time, Lardners words have become a part of me. They affect how I think, react to situations, perceive people, conduct myself. In an odd way, Lardner is a father figure to me.
I remember in the haze of dimly lit used bookstore memories first encountering Ring Lardner. I was 19, unemployed, not looking for work really, a thousand miles from home, giving blood, living in a canning closet of some friends basement apartment on the hill in Boulder, Colorado. In the afternoons, I would often go to the Aion bookstore down the street to browse and read and smell the books. I would rarely buy--doing so would mean going without a meal--but often Id hide books for imagined future purchases. Alices Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by Ralph Steadman, one of my heroes at the time, is probably still waiting for me in back of a stack of Spanish-American war books. On one life-changing day (in retrospect, of course) I saw the words Ring Lardner on the spine of an old green cloth volume. A friend in eighth grade had transferred from Ring Lardner Junior High in Niles to my school in Dowagiac, and the name had stuck in my mind. I hadnt equated it with a writer or even a person for that matter. A writer born fourteen miles away from my school had somehow escaped my attention--and that of my teachers. So I was surprised to see those words on the spine of a book in Boulder, Colorado. I took it off the shelf out of curiosity, out of tribute to my friend, to re-connect with my home. I didnt expect to like it. But I began reading in the corner of the dusty store and went without supper (maybe) to finish reading it at home.
From the first story I read, "The Maysville Minstrel," Lardners workings on me began to take hold. I thought I could have written what he had written, but I wasnt jealous of him for having written it. Lardner understood me and the people I grew up with, though he had written that story forty years before I was born. He had a sense of humor and a way of looking at the world that I could relate to. The more I read the stronger that impression became.
In "The Maysville Minstrel," Stephen Gale, a naive small-town bookkeeper and odd job man at the gas company, is convinced by a salesman from New York that his poems will sell for big money. The salesman in this story is a classic Lardnerian practical joker, who seems to enjoy manipulating this small-town easy prey. Gale is the salesmans source of amusement while he is in town. Before the salesman came to town, Gale wrote poems for himself and his appreciative wife, but he never considered himself talented enough to sell
them. The reader finds out quickly that Gales initial self-evaluation, rather than the salesmans evaluation, is the correct one. He writes about the railroad ("The Lackawanna Railroad where does it go? / It goes from Jersey City to Buffalo" (84)) or the gas business ("The Maysville Gas Co. has eight hundred meters / The biggest consumer in town is Mrs. Arnold Peters" (85)). The man from New York seems knowledgeable though, so Gale gives him the poems to sell and eventually, convinced of his future success, quits his job at the gas company. In the end, he finds out that it is just a "joke" being played on him by the salesman. He gets his job back, but fails at an attempt to get revenge on the salesman. His product had already been purchased by the gas company, and Gale "realized there was nothing he could do about it" (88).
I laughed at the poems and at Gales naiveté, but it wasnt a comfortable laugh. It was a laugh that, in part, implicated me, that forced me to identify with the mean-spirited salesman that I naturally wanted to hate. That practical joker, or at least the illusion of superiority that led to his practical joke, was in me, and I didnt like it. I had been wonderfully set up by Lardner to experience and to question what I thought I could merely enjoy. The quality of the poems was funny, but the sincerity of the poet was not.
Laughter made sense to me as a communication tool. I had used humor in many ways throughout my life, but had never given much thought to its implications or its causes. I was aware that some people thought I, and people like me, used jokes and sarcastic remarks as a protective mask; but that seemed too reductive and limiting. It was my way of my way of distancing myself from others and myself, not getting too deep, but it was also my way of cheering others, my way of feeling and creating connection, my way of gaining control over circumstances, my way of communicating ideas in a non-threatening way, my way of kindly tearing down and revealing pretension, my way, simply, of enjoying language. I didnt realize all these things at the time. Through the years, though, recognizing these uses of humor in Lardner has helped me recognize them in myself and those around me. I try to use humor in positive ways and avoid anything that might be destructive like the practical joke in the "Maysville Minstrel." I have adopted a sort of Lardnerian ethics of humor.
That was put to the test when I met my own "Maysville Minstrel" a few years ago. It was a Friday afternoon, and I heard my name mentioned in the hallway outside my office. As I rolled my chair through the door and peered out I saw my department chair with a short, round, man about my age wearing a baseball cap and Notre Dame sweats. I didnt recognize him. "Scott is the one who might be able to help you with that project," I heard the chair say. I considered turning my light off quickly and hiding behind the graduation gown I never take home. I had nothing against the person I saw; I had never met him. What I was responding to was the "let the new guy do it" inflection I thought I heard in the chairs voice.
I resisted the urge to hide, listened to his idea, and for the next year suffered from my inability to say no, but learning a great deal about myself along the way. "Kerry" was a nice person, and he seemed sincere. He wanted to write a book--maybe a movie. His life, he assured me was like nothing Id heard before. "I write letters to famous people," he said. "I have thirteen letters from Lou Holtz in a safety deposit box." He was convinced the celebrities read what he said and that he had, at times, a great impact on their lives. He had Sophia Lorens phone number, but she was never home. One of the girls on "The Price is Right" wore red because he told her he liked her in red. Tanya Tucker was recently photographed in her living room near a Bible he had sent her; she was considering life changes because of his advice. "Look at this," he said holding up an article in a country western newspaper. "Shes using the exact words I used in my last letter." Every time I wanted to dismiss him as delusional, something he said was verified. He did have Notre Dame players at his house for bar-b-que; he did pray with Johnny Cash (he had pictures). But the distance between fantasy and reality was generally much greater, and, as a result, his words transmitted a different message than what one would imagine their intention was.
He would be saying something to impress me and it would depress me instead. Once, for example, he told me about his conversations with the stars of the movie Rudy. He was an extra in the bus scene. Hope filled his eyes as he told me about their encouraging words to him when he asked them if he, Kerry, could make it in Hollywood. I sensed he wanted me to be impressed by his story, and that he wanted me to say something to further support his Hollywood aspirations. All I could do, though, was nod and try to smile. Behind his story I heard the words of polite and hurried actors, not the sincere encouragement he had heard. I saw Kerry, unable or unwilling to distinguish between the two. I saw the inevitable pain that would come to him when he truly realized the level of his talent and influence. And it depressed me.
There was a humor in the situation, but his human qualities made it impossible to laugh at him without tremendous guilt. I was listening to a Ring Lardner narrator. I was hearing the story of the "Maysville Minstrel." When I finally saw some of the letters he was sending, I was reading a Ring Lardner letter writer, complete with misspellings, alternative grammar, invented punctuation, and absolutely no concept of margins or even space between words.
Others advised me to stop "wasting my time" with Kerry. They made fun of him and related their own Kerry stories. When I told my stories, guilt would set in if the person listening started to laugh. I would quickly tell them that I liked him and thought he was a good, sincere person. I would tell them about his bar-b-que. I didnt want to be the New York salesman taking advantage of someones naiveté. But was I doing that simply by working with him? Had my interest in his project raised his hopes to an unrealistic level? I hope not. I re-wrote chapters for him, gave him no guarantees, told him I enjoyed many of the stories (true), but wasnt sure if they would sell. In short, I tried to do what the character who never appears in Lardner but is present in attitude between the lines would do. I tried to be kind. I tried to respect him as a human being.
Lardner is often accused of being cruel, of making fun of the poor, simple, illiterate. He has as often been miscast and discarded as a misanthrope as he has for being superficial. I dont consider him to be either. His characters often are, but he exposes them through humor. His victims may think, as Stephen Gale does, that there is nothing they can do, but that attitude expressed by the character provokes a different response in the reader, at least in me. The unspoken voice in Lardner, the sometimes nearly invisible tracing of Lardner himself, his implied author, is a moral, respectful, kind voice. It whispers to be heard when his characters shout; it gives concise guidance while his characters blather. It teaches one to smile through troubles--not to ignore them, but to handle them better. It is the voice that has put me in direct conspiracy with people and ideas I despise so that I could recognize them in myself and adjust my behavior. It is the voice that started working its magic on me sixteen years ago, has left me for times, but always has come back with a vengeance. It speaks to me about practical matters, the dailiness of life: What do we do about the people that irritate us? The situations we abhor? How can one live in a material culture without becoming corrupted? Is there a way to laugh at ignorance without laughing at the ignorant?
Why Ring Lardner?
There are other individual works I like better than any individual Lardner work, that have propelled me deeper in thought about more "serious" issues of life, death, and the meaning of it all; but Lardner communicates to me in a way I can take to heart, through humor--sometimes biting, sometimes corny, sometimes cruel, sometimes absurd, but always humor. Though the passion it has sparked occupies too much of my time, my energy, and my money, I dont really think it is a bad investment. His is an intelligent, subtly moral humor, and it guides me well; it guides me deeply.