Friday, July 12, 2013


Ring Lardner (1885–1933)
From Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings

In the Barber Shop (1934), oil on canvas by Russian-American painter Ilya Bolotowsky, completed under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project. Transferred from the U.S. Department of Labor to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Jonathan Yardley, in his authoritative biography of Ring Lardner, mentions a newspaper column by Lardner that appeared on January 6, 1916. Titled “Fifteen Cents’ Worth,” the item “contained a monologue by a barber who, a captive audience in his chair, delivered himself of his opinions on politics, sports, automobiles, Christmas and liquor.” Nine years later, Lardner would feature the same character, “mindless chatter and all,” in his most well-known and anthologized story, “Haircut.”

It was Lardner’s first short story in nearly three years. What motivated him to resume writing may well have been the offer he received from Ray Long, the editor of Cosmopolitan, who promised him $3,000 for each of his next six stories—or $3,500 for each of his next twelve. He sent “Haircut,” however, to Liberty magazine, where his brother Rex worked as an editor. (Rex would later move to Cosmopolitan.) When Max Perkins, the famed editor, read the story in Liberty, he sent a short note:
I read “Hair Cut” on Friday and I can’t shake it out of my mind;—in fact the impression it made has deepened with time. There’s not a man alive who could have done better, that’s certain.

Everyone will tell you this, or something like it I guess, so there’s little use in my doing it.—But it is a most biting and revealing story and I’d like to say so.
Donald Elder (Lardner’s first biographer) summarizes how the character of Jim Kendall provides the satirical “bite” of the story: “Ring was exposing the witlessness of a whole vein of American comic tradition—the small-town wag who is a degenerate descendent of the frontier hell-raiser, and is generally accepted as a genuine humorist.” Although practical jokes (and jokers) often appear in Lardner’s stories, such “humor is fairly shallow at best, as Ring knew; but in ‘Haircut’ it is not funny anymore. Humor itself has become corrupt.”

Note: On page 560, there are several movie references. Gloria Swanson (1899–1983), who would most famously play Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), was a star of dozens of silent films during the late 1910s and early 1920s. Thomas Meighan (1879–1936) was Swanson’s costar in many films. The film The Wages of Virtue (1924) starred Swanson and Ben Lyon.

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I got another barber that comes over from Carterville and helps me out Saturdays, but the rest of the time I can get along all right alone. You can see for yourself that this ain’t no New York City and besides that, the most of the boys works all day and don’t have no leisure to drop in here and get themselves prettied up. . . .If you don't see this week's selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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