Saturday, March 7, 2020

Quick Returns

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

“‘Listen!’ I said. ‘What did them two girdles cost?’” Illustration by American artist May Wilson Preston (1873–1949), drawn for “Quick Returns” when it appeared in March 27, 1920, issue of The Saturday Evening Post and reproduced the following year as a plate in the collection The Big Town. Preston illustrated most of Lardner’s stories in the Post.
In the mid-1920s Ring Lardner, at the urging of his neighbor F. Scott Fitzgerald, changed his publisher from Bobbs-Merrill to Scribner’s, and Maxwell Perkins became his editor. Scribner’s purchased the plates for all of Lardner’s previous books and made plans to issue them in a five-volume collector’s set. Instead of asking other writers to write forewords, Perkins wrote to his new author and asked him to provide prefaces for the edition. Perkins insisted that Lardner, perhaps America’s most famous columnist at the time, was simply too famous to ask anyone else to do the job. “The theory of an introduction is that the author needs someone who is of higher standing than himself, and you are not in a position where from this point of view anyone is available.”

Lardner was happy to oblige, and the short piece he sent Perkins to introduce his 1921 collection The Big Town begins:
This book deals with the adventures of a man and his wife and his sister-in-law who move to New York from a small Middle Western city. Because the writer and she who jokingly married him moved to New York from the Middle West, and because the writer has almost as many sister-in-laws as Solomon, several Nordic blondes have inquired whether the hero and heroines of the book are not actually us. Fortunately, most of the inquirers made the inquiry of me, the possessor of a notoriously sweet disposition. Two of them, however, asked the madam herself and were both shot down.

In the first place, the ladies of the book are supposed to have enough money to make them and the gent more or less independent. Nothing like that in our family.

In the second place, the sister-in-law of the book has a hard time getting a man. The sisters-in-law in real life acquired permanent men while still in their nonage, you might say, and didn't have to move out of the Middle West to do it. . . .
Behind a veil of humor, Lardner slightly underplays the similarities between himself and his narrator. Both the real and fictional families have roots in Niles, Michigan (where Lardner was born), both husbands launched their careers in South Bend, Indiana, and readers can easily find other surface resemblances between Lardner’s biography and the fiction of The Big Town. Furthermore, Lardner intentionally blurred the boundaries between life and literature in his nationally syndicated columns, writing in character as “Ring Lardner,” a comical and somewhat fictionalized version of himself—the “wise boob,” as he later called the type of character he was famous for creating. Part of Lardner’s popularity depended on his whimsical disregard for the lines between truth and fiction, sincerity and satire, reporting and exaggeration—not to mention the reader’s uncertainty over whether any given piece was by Ring Lardner or “Ring Lardner” or some entirely new creation.

Unlike his alter ego in The Big Town, however, Lardner was not dragged reluctantly to a new life in New York. For at least five years Lardner had toyed with the possibility of moving there. In 1914 he received a fan letter of sorts from Franklin P. Adams, a columnist who had moved from Chicago to New York and who would later become an influential promoter of up-and-coming writers. Adams wondered whether Lardner had ever considered moving to Manhattan, and Lardner responded, “It’s dough and the prospect of it that would tempt me to tackle the New York game. I think a gent in this business would be foolish not to go to New York if he had a good chance.”

In 1919 that chance arrived. Lardner was in New York, still working for the Chicago Tribune, when he met up with John Neville Wheeler in a bar. Three years earlier Wheeler had launched the Bell Syndicate, which distributed columns, fiction, comics, and the like to newspapers across the nation. As Wheeler later recounted, Lardner agreed to a deal after several rounds of drinks. A few weeks later, however, the newspaperman became nervous about whether Lardner believed they had really come to an arrangement, and he sent a follow-up note suggesting they draw up a written agreement. Lardner responded by telegram: “If you knew anything about contracts you would realize we made one in the Waldorf bar before five witnesses, three of whom were sober.” The “contract” lasted eight years.

Eventually, more than 150 local newspapers signed up for the new column, guaranteeing Lardner an annual income of at least $30,000. Excited by the addition of Lardner’s name to their pages, many editors ginned up enthusiasm among their readers weeks before the first column appeared. In mid-October, for example, an article on the front page of the El Paso Herald, under the day’s lead story (“AUSTRIANS RATIFY TREATY OF PEACE”), announced that Lardner would soon be publishing his column in the paper—and readers might well have thought the man was on his way to Texas. “It’s a name to conjure with, isn’t it?” the editors bragged. “Ring Lardner has a wider circle of readers than any humorist today. . . . Now Lardner is to join the staff.” The paper continued to promote Lardner’s arrival as a coming attraction nearly every day, often on the front page. Finally, on November 1, 1919, the first column appeared in El Paso (and in newspapers all across the country) under the title “Moving to the East.” In it, Ring Lardner explains to his readers that he has just arrived in New York to try his hand at writing a Broadway play and from there he will submit a weekly column: “I have excepted the kindly editor’s genial offer and wile I do not claim merits as a literary man the editor says that does not matter and if I will just write in my own breezy style (the way I talk as he expressed it) he and his readers will be more than satisfied.”

The move “to the East” also provided Lardner with the inspiration for two books: The Young Immigrunts (a previous Story of the Week selection) and the five stories published as The Big Town: How I and the Mrs. Go to New York to See Life and Get Katie a Husband. According to biographer Donald Elder, when Lardner began writing “Quick Returns,” the first of the Big Town stories, “he probably did not have the last episode in mind.” The stories reflect in myriad ways Lardner’s own adventures (and misadventures) as a greenhorn in New York. For instance, after he wrote the first two stories, he moved to Great Neck with his wife and sons and likewise changed the setting for the next story to Long Island. (The third story also contains a single mention each of the protagonist’s first and last names, Tom Finch. Neither name appears again.)

Although its components were written and published separately in The Saturday Evening Post over a period of eighteen months, The Big Town is perhaps the closest Lardner came to writing a novel. “No other book of Ring’s, You Know Me Al included, has the coherence and structure that The Big Town has,” notes Jonathan Yardley in his biography of Lardner. “The city has changed and so has the country, but the clash between the one and the other still goes on; the story Ring tells here of how one couple conducts its own little struggle is an enduring delight.”

Notes: Lardner scatters throughout the story a few references to various celebrities and other cultural touchpoints from the era. John Pierpont Morgan Jr. took over the family’s banking and financial empire when his father died in 1913. Oliver Lodge was a British physicist known for his interest in psychic phenomena and the afterlife. The Oliver Hotel, which opened in 1899, was South Bend’s most luxurious inn; it was demolished in 1967. Composed in 1863 by Joseph Barnby and popular for more than a century, “Sweet and Low” is a musical setting of a poem by Alfred Tennyson. George M. Cohan was a preeminent musical comedy performer, playwright, and composer; his more than three hundred songs included “Over There” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.” Frederick “Doc” Cook was an American explorer mostly remembered for falsely claiming to have reached the North Pole in 1908.

Lardner alludes a couple of times to Jack Dempsey, Jess Willard, and the boxing match in Toledo in 1919, when Dempsey won the heavyweight title by defeating Willard, who was the much larger fighter. Other athletes mentioned include Harvard fullback and placekicker Charles Brickley, University of Chicago quarterback Walter Eckersall (a good friend of Lardner’s), Purdue quarterback Edward C. Robertson, Boston Beaneaters second baseman Bobby Lowe, and Philadelphia Phillies left fielder Ed Delahanty.

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This is just a clipping from one of the New York papers; a little kidding piece that they had in about me two years ago. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.