September 25: On this day in 1933 Ring Lardner died at the age of forty-eight, from a heart attack, tuberculosis, and the cumulative effects of alcoholism. Although he kept producing occasional pieces and columns, Lardner’s last years were clouded by a general decline in health, popularity, income, and output. Even the success of June Moon, his Broadway collaboration with George S. Kaufman, contributed to his collapse. Lardner wrote friend and former neighbor F. Scott Fitzgerald that “when the New York opening was over, I went on a bat [bender] that lasted nearly three months and haven’t been able to work since.” This layoff-relapse “was mostly spent in the lovely atmosphere of hospitals.”
Lardner’s obituary notices ignored his alcoholism and lauded his unique achievement, a writing style reflecting the way people actually talk. In The American Language, published a decade before Lardner’s death, H. L. Mencken had lauded his “grotesque tales of baseball players” as “a mine of authentic Americana.” Forty years later, V. S. Pritchett gave Lardner this ominous praise: “Now, mainly under the double influence of [James] Joyce and Lardner’s American successors—the stream of consciousness being married to a stream of garrulity—we begin to have a talking prose and are likely to have more of it.” In his 2001 biography of Lardner, Jonathan Yardley quotes Pritchett to support his view that Lardner was “the chief instrument in a revolution in American fiction.”
Lardner’s first two baseball books, You Know Me Al : A Busher’s Letters (1916) and Gullible’s Travels (1917), were based on his years as a sports reporter in Chicago. In the excerpt below, the busher talks to Al, his friend back home, about his pitching record at the midpoint of his second season in the big leagues:
This should ought to of gave me a record of 16 wins and 0 defeats because the only games I lost was throwed away behind me but instead of that my record is 10 games win and 6 defeats and that don’t include the games I finished up and helped the other boys win which is about 6 more altogether but what do I care about my record Al? because I am not the kind of man that is always thinking about there record and playing for there record while I am satisfied if I give the club the best I got and if I win all O.K. And if I lose who’s fault is it. Not mine Al.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.