The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner: An Interview with Ron Rapoport

Ring Lardner Cover.jpgFans of Ring Lardner's writings are feeling "all swelled up," to quote Jack Keefe, the Busher himself, one of Lardner's greatest creations.

Just four years ago the Library of America published Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings, a 961-page anthology that includes the full texts of You Know Me Al and The Big Town, as well as "Alibi Ike" and "Haircut."

Now comes The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner (University of Nebraska Press), edited by Los Angeles-based author-columnist Ron Rapoport, which collects a wide-ranging selection of columns, poems, parodies and dispatches from Lardner's prolific newspaper career. It's the first time that his daily journalism has been collected in book form, and it serves as a most welcome addition to the many previous collections (like the Library of America's) that have focused almost exclusively on his baseball tales and short stories.

As Rapoport points out in the introduction, Lardner was a tireless observer who covered, well, anything and everything: presidential politics, World War I, boxing, college football, the America's Cup, family life, and journalism itself. His journalism career began at the South Bend Times before he moved on to the Chicago Inter-Ocean, the Chicago Examiner, the Chicago Tribune, The Sporting News, the Boston American, back to the Trib, and eventually to the Bell Syndicate.

Lardner died in 1933 at age 48. All four of his sons were writers. Two of them (David and James) died quite young; screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. (Woman of the Year, M*A*S*H) and sportswriter John Lardner (It Beats Working, White Hopes and Other Tigers) were major literary figures. (The University of Nebraska Press also published The John Lardner Reader, edited by John Schulian, in 2010.)

LA Observed emailed questions about Lost Journalism, Lardner's use of the vernacular, and Lardner himself to Rapoport. (Full disclosure: my last book was published by the Univ. of Nebraska Press.)

LA Observed: Esquire's Alex Belth called this "a welcome doorstop of a book," weighing in at 560 pages (even without an index!). Did you have to persuade the University of Nebraska Press to make room for all your selections?

Ron Rapoport: Well, when the doorstop reached my editor's doorstep, he was a bit surprised and asked if I'd consider cutting it. But when I explained why I thought the book needed to be of this length, he came around.

I had two reasons for wanting a book of this size. The first was Lardner wrote for so many publications and on so many topics, and I wanted to give a good sampling of his work. He started out covering baseball, of course, but even as a young reporter you could see him beginning to stretch himself with poems, parodies, and other forms you just didn't see on the sports page. He also wrote a great deal of college football, which is fun to read. Then, when he moved to Long Island and began writing the most popular newspaper column in the country for the Bell Syndicate--it appeared in 150 newspapers and had eight million readers--he wrote about everything under the sun--politics, Prohibition, World War I, his family, life on Long Island, poems, parodies, his travels, the craft of journalism and just about anything else that came into his mind. Again, I thought it was important to have a generous representation of all of his work and I'm grateful to the publisher for going along with it.

My second reason for wanting the book to be so big is that I thought this might be the last chance to get Lardner's journalism out of the archives where it has been buried for so long. Some of it has gone unread for 100 years now and who knows when we'll get another chance to see it? So I decided to present as good a look at it as I could.

LAO: How long did it take you to research his newspaper work and how long did it take for you to make your selections for the book?

RR: It took me two years to find the material and another year to choose what to use. Lardner was incredibly prolific--I'd say the book contains less than five percent of his journalism--so there was a lot to look at.

LAO: Where did you find most of his work: was it via microfilm in certain libraries and archives?

RR: Luckily, his work for the Tribune was available on line and I caught a real break when Dan O'Brien, a writer and archivist in Indiana, sent me a disc containing all of the very important work Lardner did for The Sporting News and many of the Bell Syndicate columns. I found most of the rest of his Bell columns in, of all places, a genealogy web site. It led me straight to columns that ran in papers like the Omaha World, the Idaho Statesman, the Indianapolis Star, the Joplin Globe and others. I found microfilm of his work for the Chicago Inter-Ocean and the Chicago Examiner in the Harold Washington Library in Chicago and microfilm of his work for the Boston American in the Boston Public Library. The St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend, Indiana, sent me some of Lardner's work for his first employer, the South Bend Times, and I was able to find his magazine work at the New York Public Library, the Los Angeles Public Library and the Santa Monica Public Library, which has an excellent magazine collection.

LAO: Why haven't there been collections of Lardner's journalism in the past?

RR: Beats me. I think it might have to do with the fact that Lardner is remembered today for his short stories, which were considered groundbreaking in their day for their use of the vernacular and remain popular today. Many journalists "graduate" to fiction and leave their newspaper days behind. The fact that Lardner didn't, that he kept writing journalism even as his fiction entered the American literary canon, confuses people, I think. Occasionally, you'll see a few examples of his journalism in collections of his fiction, but always as an afterthought.

LAO: How did he manage to write so many newspaper columns? What do you think drove him to be so prolific?

RR: I puzzled over this for a long time. Lardner was a busy guy. He had his short stories, of course, but he was also an avid golfer and bridge player, a regular at the theater--he wrote plays and musicals on the side--and a frequent traveler. He had a wide circle of friends, a wife he loved, four rambunctious young sons and a home in Great Neck Long Island, where the party scene was so relentless that his neighbor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, moved to France where he could get some work done. Lardner was also a self-confessed "two-bottle man," Prohibition be damned.

But then it came to me. Lardner stayed with journalism all his life for no better reason than he loved it. He loved newspapers, he loved the men and women who worked for them--he was always putting his friends in his columns--and he saw no reason to give it up. As long as people wanted to read what he wrote, he was perfectly happy to keep on writing it. This drove some of his detractors mad--both Fitzgerald and the great critic Edmond Wilson chastised him for not writing a novel--but Lardner didn't care. He wrote what he liked--short stories, theater pieces, and journalism.

LAO: He had a delightful habit of misspelling words and breaking punctuation and grammar rules. What was his motive for doing this? Did you find it hard to adapt to his stylings?

RR: From Lardner's earliest working days hanging around ballplayers, he was fascinated by the way they talked and was determined to capture it in print. You can trace it directly from his early columns for the Chicago Tribune into his fiction and back again. No less an authority on American language than H.L. Mencken said nobody else wrote "the speech of the streets as adeptly and amusingly as he wrote it." And, no, I don't think it's hard to adapt to Lardner's style. You might have to slow down a little bit to pick up on the nuance of his locutions, but that's one of the things that makes him so much fun, I think.

LAO: Why was Lardner so drawn to baseball: was the attraction the ballplayers or the scene?

RR: Lardner played the game as a boy and was lucky to start covering it in Chicago when the Cubs were not only the best team in baseball but also had some of its greatest characters. Frank Schulte, Jim Schekard, Mordecai Brown, Ping Bodie, Peaches Graham, Johnny Kling, Rollie Zeider--you can't make these names up--were all great talkers, practical jokers, poker players and all-around good companions. One of the wonderful things about their relationship with Lardner is that when he started writing about them they were in on the joke. They knew he was making fun of them and they loved it and teased him back. That wouldn't go over so well between sportswriters and athletes today, of course.

LAO: What most surprised you about Lardner and his writing after reading through so much of his newspaper work?

Ring-Lardner-320.jpgRR: I'd say it was his sheer tenacity. Between 1913 and 1919, his "In the Wake of the News" column appeared almost every single day in the Chicago Tribune. His editors felt his name sold papers so they begged him for at least a short poem on what would have been his day off. At the same time, he was also writing some of his most enduring fiction--You Know Me Al, Alibi Ike, Champion and more. It makes me tired just to think about it.

LAO: How would Lardner the journalist have fared if he were working in contemporary times?

RR: He'd have been fine. He'd have had to adapt, of course--I'm imagining his tweets--but his sardonic approach, his nose for frauds, phonies and snobs and his work ethic would have made him today what he was almost 100 years ago--one of the very best who ever sat in a press box or met a deadline.

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