Sunday, May 01, 2011

Ring Lardner Tonight: We venture into the "busher letters" with Part 1 of "You Know Me Al"


"[T]here is only one person in the world who writes letters of that length. She is a sister-in-law of mine living in Indianapolis, and when she sits down to write a letter, she holds nothing back. But she is a Phi Beta and incapable of the mistakes in spelling and grammar that unfortunately have crept into this volume. . . .

"An introduction to this book was written by Will Rogers, but the Scribner boys threw it out on the ground that it was better than the book. However, there was one remark of Mr. Rogers, which I think should be preserved. Referring to me, he wrote: 'He is undoubtedly the biggest -- ' The rest of the sentence is so blurred as to be indecipherable."

-- from Ring Lardner's Preface to You Know Me Al

by Ken

On Thursday I teased tonight's installment with the promise of a "special guest commentary" for the series that begins tonight, but I refrained from identifying the special commentator. I was hoping to maintain a bit of mystery, and if I had identified him as John Lardner, readers might have guessed that the author of the material being commentated on is his father, Ring Lardner.

It is, of course. Tonight we have the first of five installments that will take us through Chapter I, "A Busher's Letters Home," of You Know Me Al, the collection of Ring's "busher letters," which he began writing in 1914 for the Saturday Evening Post beginning in 1914, first published in book form in 1925. Unfortunately we don't have any trace of that introduction for the 1925 edition which Ring tells us in his Preface suffered an ignominious fate: "[T]he Scribner boys threw it out on the ground that it was better than the book." However, for a new 1959 edition, the Scribner boys commissioned a new introduction from John Lardner, by then well established as one of the country's leading sportswriters. (The Lardner family tree is filthy with sportswriters, including Ring, of course.)

We've already touched on the sadly shortened life and career of John Lardner (1912-1958), the oldest of Ring's four sons, who must have died not long after writing this introduction. At that he was "luckier" (for want of a better word) than his brothers James (1914-1938) and David (1919-1944), who died while covering the Spanish Civil War and World War II, respectively. Of the four brothers, only the second, Ring Jr. (1915-2000, known as "Bill"), the screenwriter best known for (1) being one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten and (b) writing the screenplay for Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, lived to a ripe old age.

Eventually we're going to have the 1959 introduction in full, but I thought it would be more fun to plunge into the busher letters themselves -- with maybe a couple of prompts from John L. First:
The busher letters were not written with artistic prestige in mind. They were written because there was an urgent need around the home of the two hundred dollars that each of the first installments brought from The Saturday Evening Post. (Later, according to Donald Elder's biography, Ring Lardner, which has more reliable information about those times than I have, Jack Keefe letters fetched up to twelve hundred and fifty dollars per installment. The cheaper installments -- the ones that were incorporated in the book You Know Me Al -- were the best.) Almost as soon as the Post began to publish them, the letters made their author as famous as the President of the United States. (They were to keep him famous in the same degree throughout the next two or three administrations.) This turn of events startled my father, but it totally failed to cause him to think of what he had written as literature.

As John notes, Virginia Woolf's enormous enthusiasm for You Know Me Al (we'll get to that eventually) proves you don't have to know or care anything about baseball to adore this material. One last note from John, which I already quoted Thursday, but which I think bears repetition:
There is one more salient point about You Know Me Al. It is funny. The fact has gone unmentioned, or been taken for granted, by Mrs. Woolf, Mencken, Fitzgerald, and others as they studied the literary or scientific aspects of the book. But Al knocked the country head over heels in the first place because people laughed at it, so intensely that the echoes have been accepted at face value ever since.



John Lardner's Introduction (1958), Part 1 and Part 2

Chapter I: A Busher's Letters Home

Part 1: Ring's Preface, and Jack's letters of September 6 and December 14 and 16
Part 2: The busher reaches the bigs -- March 2, 7, 9, and 16
Part 3: Countdown to Opening Day -- March 26 and April 1, 4, 7, and 10
Part 4: Jack makes his big-league debut -- April 11 and 15
Part 5: A major development for Jack -- April 19, 25, and 29


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