The Seven Lively Arts
by Gilbert Seldes

 

Mr. Dooley, Meet Mr. Lardner

(pages 109-126)
 
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ONE of the most illuminating things Van Wyck Brooks ever said, about himself, was that Mr Dooley is already forgotten. It was particularly illuminating because Mr Brooks was in England when he made that statement, and it was some time before 1914 -- and i t happens that it was in England, in 1917 that I was made to understand how living Mr Dooley is, how relevant to affairs and situations of the moment, and how much English men and women consider him as one of the better items in the heritage of Americans. The writer of The Ordeal of Mark Twain is an invaluable critic for America; yet one wishes that he, too, could see Mr Dooley's place in our literature; one still hopes that he will begin to enjoy Ring Lardner. 

The juxtaposition of these two names would be reasonable even if both of them did not write in slang, for one is the greatest of our retired satirists and the other has every chance (if not every intention) of becoming the greatest of our active ones. I s hould like to say at once that I am not addressing an open letter to Dear Mr Lardner, bidding him, while there is yet time, to think on higher things. I do not want him to forswear for a moment his hold on the popular imagination, nor to write for a more judicious clientHe. I am satisfied to have Mr Lardner amuse me; if the strain of satire in him is an accident and he prefers to go on with his slang humour -- I can always read Mr Dooley or Dean Swift. But if 

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the growing vein of satire in all of Lardner's work is what I think it is, he has much to learn from Mr Dooley. I shall presently come to Mr Dooley and indicate what it is Lardner can learn in those beautiful pages; the main thing is that he is probably t he only man in America with the capacity of learning the lesson of the master, and happily he can learn it without ceasing for a moment to live in his own world. I do not wish to force upon him the ordeal of being worried about. 

There may have been a time when Mr Lardner gave cause for worry. Perhaps when You Know Me, Al had run as long as it needed to run, one might have feared that Mr Lardner, having discovered the American language as his medium, simply didn't know what to do with it. If his humour was going to depend for ever on "1-sided" and "4-taste" and odd misspellings, it might cease to be funny. It was necessary, in short, that Mr Lardner should have something personal to say. He has answered the question of his future by showing the beginnings of a first-rate satirist, continuing the tradition of Mark Twain and Mr Dooley. And having these tentatives in mind we can begin to look back and wonder whether he wasn't always something of a satirist, unconsciously. 

The dates may confound my argument, so I will omit them; substantially Lardner began writing the letters of a busher just when the more serious magazine 

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were exploiting the intellectual idea of "inside baseball." Those were the days -- and they must have been funny, we feel circa 1923 when the bought and sold world's series and the letters of the fishing pitcher and suchlike scandal are in our memories, c arefully tucked away because the honour of the national game is safe in the hands of a dictatorthose were the days when the manager of a baseball team was regarded as a combination of a captain of finance (later events rather justified that assumption) a Freud, and an unborn Einstein. A fine body of college graduates, clean-living, sport-loving, well-read boys were the players; and a sport-loving, game-for-the-game's sake body of men the enthusiasts. Hughie Fullerton and Paul Elmer More might be seen any day in the same column, and John J. McGraw, who allowed himself to be called Muggsy to show what a good democrat he was, lunched daily at the President's table. Into this pretentious parade Mr Lardner injected the busher-and baseball has never recovered. The busher was simply a roughneck and a fool, a braggart and a liar; he was on occasions a good ball player, and he seemed to be inflated with the hot air which had been written about him. He pricked the bubble, and I do not wonder that Heywood Broun, des pairing of making interesting his accounts of a recent world's series, publicly prayed to God to change places with him for duration. Nothing short of divine power could save them. 

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It is a long time since the days of the busher and when Lardner returned to baseball it was clear that the subject interested him in no degree, and that he had changed much as a writer. It is not necessary to belittle the earlier work; only to note that i n 1922 the Lardner touch was much more deft, that the language was both richer and more accurate, and that he was continually writing parodies, sometimes of a phrase, often of a whole style. Three or four of the reports he wrote for the New York Americ an were jewels -- and, although they had little to do with baseball, they must have been written in the few hours which intervene between the end of a game and the moment of going to press. The whole series of articles ought to be reprinted; I am limi ted to snatches from two of them. The first set the theme: that Lardner had promised his wife a fur coat from his winningshe had bet on the Yankees. The headline was 

Rings' Mrs. 
Outa Luck, 
On Fur Coat
and then followed: 
Well friends you can imagine my surprise and horror when I found out to-night that the impression had got around some way another that as soon as this serious was over I was planning to buy a expensive fur coat for my Mrs. and put a lot of money into same and buy a coat that would probably run up into hundreds and hundreds of dollars. 

Well I did not mean to give no such kind of a impression

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and I certainly hope that my little article was not read that way by everybody a specially around mv little home because in the first place I am not a sucker enough to invest hundreds and hundreds of dollars in a garment which the chances are that the Mrs . will not wear it more than a couple times all winter, as the way it looks now we are libel to have the most openest winter in history, and if women folks should walk along the st. in expensive fur coats in the kind of weather which it looks like we are going to have, why, they would only be laughed at and any way I believe a couple can have a whole lot better time in winter staying home and reading a good book or maybe have a few friends in to play bridge. 

Further and more, I met a man at supper last night that has been in the fur business all his life and ain't did nothing you might say only deal in furs and this man says that they are a great many furs in this world which is reasonable priced that has got as much warmth in them as high price furs and looks a great deal better. 

For inst. he says that a man is a sucker to invest thousands and thousands of dollars in expensive furs like Erminie, muleskin, squirrel skin and Kerensky when for a hundred dollars, or not even that much, why a man can buy a owl skin or horse skin or wea sel skin garment that looks like big dough and practically prostrates people with the heat when they wear them. So I hope my readers will put a quietus on the silly rumour that I am planning to plunge in the fur market. I will see that my Mrs. is dressed in as warm a style as she has been accustomed to but neither her or I is the kind that likes to make a big show and go up and down Fifth ave. sweltering in a $700 hog-skin garment in order so as people will turn around and gap at us. Live and let live is my slocum.

If this were not funny its secondary qualities would not be worth noting. The single sentence 
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which makes up the second paragraph is a miracle of condensation, for it contains the whole mind and character of the individual created behind it (it is not Ring Lardner, obviously) and at the same time it is a miracle of the ear, for the rhythm and into nation of the American spoken language is perfectly caught and held in it. What is the use of Babbitt in five hundred pages if we have Lardner in five hundred words? The fur episode was continued two days later, the Yankees continuing to lose and t hree kittens -- "three members of what is sometimes referred to as the feline tribe" -- out at Mr Lardner's "heavily mortgaged home in Great Neck . . . is practically doomed you might say . . . " because Mr Lardner has met a man "who has did nothing all h is life but sell and wear fur coats" and who assured him that catskin garments no bigger than a guest towel were all the rage and had been seen on "some of the best-dressed women in New York strolling up and down Tenth avenue. . . ." 

"These 3 little members of the feline tribe'is the cutest and best behaved kitties in all catdom, their conduct having always been above reproaches outside of a tendency on the part of Ringer to bite strangers' knuckles. Nowhere on Long Island is there a more loveable trio of grimalkins, and how it pierces my old heart to think that some day next week these 3 little fellows must be shot dow'n like a dog so as their fur can be fashioned into a warm winter coat for she 

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who their antics has so often caused to screech with laughter." 

The annihilation of the whole Black BeautyBeautiful Joe style of writing in the last sentence is complete, and is accomplished with the retention of Lardner's own peculiarities. It may shock Mr Lardner to know that he has done in little what Mr Joyce has done on the grand scale in Ulysses. 

Indeed I feel that there must be hidden parody in the earlier writings of Mr Lardner, too, because he is so clean in handling it now. Satire in detail he hadthere is a dictionary of it in his one word "hell." Elsewhere, in a series later than You Know Me, Al he has described a half-fatuous, half-hardheaded roughneck dragging his silly and scheming wife and sister-in-law through the hotels and apartments of the backwash of society, and the story grew more and more sardonic, more and more entertainin g; little of the aimless, sickly, trivial life of the merely prosperous escaped him. Unlike Mr Dooley, his chief concerns were private ones; it is only recently that he has touched upon public affairs. For a long time his only "universal" was baseball -- a form of entertainment which now bores him exceedingly. He is also bored, I gather from an interview in the New York Globe, with the sort of fiction he has been writing, and amuses himself with writing plays. But as a satirist he is turning slowly towards matters of pith, and the question of his ultimate rank depends on this: 

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Can he, as he broadens out, retain the swift, destructive, and tremendously funny turn of phrase, the hard and resistant mind, the gaiety of spirit which have made him a humorisO Can he, in short, learn from Mr Dooley and remain Mr Lardner? For many reaso ns I think he can. 

Between the busher and these newspaper reports Mr Lardner has written much; among his ephemera, even, there are many pages not to be lost. I shall return to them after drawing a long course with Mr Dooley as my centre, for it is one of the significant thi ngs about Mr Dooley that you must always keep him in your eye when you are scanning the horizon for an American satirist. 

Mr Dooley was a satirist of the highest order and an excellent humorist. The combination is interesting. Psycho-analysts may determine at a later date that the reason he wrote in dialect was that he was afraid to attack the American people directly; I pre fer to believe that the good sense of his creator (Finley Peter Dunne, to be sure; but one always thinks of Martin Dooley in his independent existence) saw that a benevolent humour was the correct medium for a satire adequate to America. And that is Ameri ca's good fortune. Read the criticism of American warfare and politics as developed in the satire of Mr Dooley and compare it with the satire of French politics and warfare as expressed in the irony of Anatole France; without measuring the 

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quality of the one by the other, think only that each is adequate to the subject. Less than the bitterness of Penguin Island and the Histoire contemporaine would not have served for France; more than the laughter of Dooley would have been disproportionate and unmanly for us. 

Satire is like parody in admitting the integrity of the subject; it Is a pruning knife applied for the good of the tree; and irony is a dagger with corrosive poison at the tip. Satire is proper to America because essentially the satirist believes that lif e is all right, and that only the extravagances and frailties of American life, at the moment of writing, need correction or are subject to mockery. The Frenchman, in a highly organized society, which he takes to be not only the best expression of life, b ut life itself, turns to irony as his natural mode when he is confronted with the ineluctable vision of its evil. 

The danger is, to be sure, that our satirists remain superficial. When the thing is done roughly, without much humour, with no rich sense of the vastness and variety of the comic carnival, we get little more than the eternal "wise crack"; and the wise cra ck is no more entertaining in misspelled English than it is in capital letters, no more in pidgin than in Yiddish. I do not mean that George Ade and Wallace Irwin and Bill Nye and Montague Glass haven't each a special quality which makes for amusement; I do mean that they lack the great general qualities of 

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knowing and understanding which create humour. An illustration will do more than any defining to make the difference clear. The Japanese Schoolboy used to begin his letters, "To Hon. Editor" and Ring Lardner is, I suppose, the only man in America who can begin, "Well, friends . . . ." 

Ambrose Bierce is generally supposed to have had this quality; certainly he had intelligence and wrote respectable English with a cold pen. His Dictionary does not impress me as the work of a spirit naturally ironical. Ade wrote satirically a long time ago; once in a while something occurs in the Fables to justify the acclaim of which F. P. A. is the curator. There is much more in Artemas Ward, whose glory is kept alive, worthily, by the sardonic leader-writer of The Freeman, Mr Alber t Jay Nock. As language neither Ade nor Ward approaches in interest the studies of Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi, nor those of Dooley and Lardner. The difference between Bill Nye and Ward on one side and Montague Glass and Lardner on the ot her, is that the former did not use an actually viable language or dialect, but used distortions of English for a specific effect. (I am far from suggesting that Ward did not use American notably, nor that his language is the better part of his work; he w as a real satirist.) It is my guess that in the beginning the misspelled words signified that the speaker was the hard sensible common man with none of "your" refinements. Juvenal and Johnson may 

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have been superior to the thing attacked; it pleased the democratic American to pretend to be beneath it. The literary success of the dialects is another matter, which anyone who believes that ours is still an AngloSaxon country will do well to consider. Montague Glass is particularly interesting in this respect. He impresses me as being neither a wise nor a foolish man, but a smart one. What gave him his vogue was his conformity with the norm of business acuteness and his use of a highly complex private racial idiom, which expresses a highly complex integrated almost secret racial life; he transferred, almost transliterated it into recognizable, at least understandable English, with such a climax as "I wish I were dead, God forbid!" which was recognized by the populace as a part of American 'life ten years before Mr Henry Ford bought the Protocols. The racial dialect is also exploited, but not with so reliable an ear, by Hugh Wiley in his negro stories; it is possible that the stories of Octavus Roy Cohe n are more accurate (they are not so entertaining) ; but the life they represent is, in any case, too near to America to be surprising to us. 

I am convinced that nearly all of Mr Dooley and nearly all of the later Lardner would stand without dialect. It is not an odd-looking word that impresses most in Mr Dooley's masterpieces about the Dreyfus case. "The witnese will confine himself to forgeri es" is English as Swift would have written it, and is 

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neither better nor worse than, "How th' divvle can they perjure thimsilves If they ain't sworn?" or 

" 'Let us proceed,' says th' impartial an' fair-minded judge, 'to th' thrile iv th' haynious monsther Cap Dhry-fuss' he says. Up jumps Zola, an' says he in Frinch: 'Jackuse,' he says, which is a hell of a mane thing to say to anny man. An' they thrun him out. 'Judge' says th' attorney f'r th' difinse, 'an' gintlemen lv' th' jury' he says. 'Ye're a liar,' says th' judge. 'Cap, ye're guilty, an' ye know it,' he says. . . . 'Let us pro-ceed to hearin' th' tisti-mony,' he says . . . Be this time Zola has come back; an' he jumps up, an', says he, 'Jackuse,' he says. An' they thrun him out." 

It is no wonder that this passage was reprinted by the New York Evening Post after the expulsion of the Socialists from Albany. Nearly everything serious in Dooley has the same relevance, and one reads about war experts and "disqualifying the enemy " (in relation to the Spanish-American and Boer Wars) with a slightly dizzying sensation that this man has said everything that needed to be said twenty years in advance of his time. We needed him badly during the war, but a comic song about him had someh ow withdrawn his name from the rank of great literature and we had to do with sad secondbests. There isn't a chance in the world that he will be forgotten, because he is recognized in England and we shall some day reimport his reputation. For he 

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has the great advantage of being at the same time a humorist and a social historian, an every-day philosopher and the homme moyen sensuel

His qualities are so immediate that analyzing them appears superfluous. He gets his effects by distortion, not by exaggeration. When he told Mr Roosevelt to call the next edition of his book Alone in Cubia he extracted an essence from it, rather th an inflated it. His adversatives are surprising and devastating. He conceives a Blood-is-thicker-than-Water speech in these terms (from the English to the American) : "Foolish and frivolous people, cheap but thruehearted and insincere cousins. . . . Ye ar -re savage but inthrestin'." Sometimes he leaves out the "but": "They was followed be th' gin'rals iv th' Fr-rinch ar-rmy, stalwa rt, fearless men, with coarse, disagreeable faces." His unexpectedness goes farther; he once said that left alone General Sha fter could have taken "Sandago" without losing an ounce. 

I do not wish to write a literary essay about Mr Dooley, and having mentioned Swift I have little to say. I must admit that the Irish of Mr Dooley is stage-Irish; what makes it acceptable is that it is entirely Dooley-Irish, and whatever the spelling, wha tever the oddities of words, the intonation is always right. For of course it is possible to write a dialect without imitation of*sound, and to do it effectively and honestly. Sherwood Anderson has done it in I Want to Know Why and in I'm a Fool ; Lardner has 

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done it in The Golden Honeymoon; and the amiable efforts of Mr John V. A. Weaver are ineffective because in nine out of ten cases he is setting slang words, well observed and accurately recorded, to the rhythm of literary English. Mr Dooley's rhyth m is always that of the estimable, easy-going barkeeper who is speaking. 

One looks back with a certain envy to the time when a barkeeper could talk about the world. Our present social situation is disjected, and the perioa before the war seems incredibly calm and halcyon. It seems to us that then America was settling into the character it had made for itself in the Civil War, a time of consolidation and certainty. A minor passion for social justice seems to have been the only great force hostile to that sense of security and self-satisfaction without which no civilization can become sophisticated and refined. It was pre-eminently the time when a satirist could exist. Mr Dooley is the proof that he did. He understood his America, as in his time, and without bitterness he makes it live again. 

Ten years from now, if we settle down, Mr Lardner may have another such opportunity. For the moment he is driven to the surface; he has no point d'appai for his attack; in a bewildering and unsure civilization, he is himself unsure. It is possible that he will become so accustomed to shallow waters that he will never venture into deep; I should be sorry, because he has qualities too precious to be wasted. 

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He is developing a strain of wild imagination, of something approaching fantasy. And his occasional pieces of fiction are far beyond the average of stories written in America. The Golden Honeymoon (which Mr Edward J. O'Brien had the acumen to put i n his collection of the best stories of 1922) is almost a masterpiece; it has a sort of artistic wisdom, is without tricks, and is beautifully written. He has also written a burlesque which failed drearily with the 49-ers and a sketch, The Bull Pen , in which the busher reappeared, which was a moderate success in the Ziegfeld Follies. This piece and The Golden Honeymoon show a fresh tendency on Lardner's part to understate; they are actually quiet, as if he were tired of noisiness. I do not t hink he is tired of anything. In an interview recently he said, "Some philosopher once said that if you want a thing badly when you're young you're likely to get too much of it before you're old; I hope to God he knew what he was talking about." He is afraid of nothing; one fancies he doesn't care for too many things. 

He grew weary, a little while ago, of the literary diaries published from week to week by the highbrows, these records "of who they seen and talked to and what they done since the last time we heard from them" and so he wrote his own for the New York Sund ay American. Among the items chronicled were: "When I got home Sousa was there and we played some Brahms and Grieg with me at the piano and 

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him at one end of a cornet. 'How well you play, Lardy,' was Sousa's remark. Brahms called up in the evening and him and his wife come over and played rummy. (This is grotesque, but he knows his subject.) "Had breakfast with Mayor Hylan and Senator Lodge. . . . Went home and played some Rubinstein on the black keys. . . . President Harding called up long distants to say hello. The Mrs talked to him as I was playing with the cat. . . . Took a ride on the Long Island R.R. to study human nature. . . . " And so on. It is a little better than verbal parody, is it not, Lardy! 

Mr Lardner pretends still to feel some of the heman's contempt for letters, suggesting at the same time the fat-headed pride of a real-estate broker who has had a patriotic poem printed in the local paper. He is, as Sherwood Anderson says, "sticking to th e gang." But he is wise and witty and he has few compunctions about being vulgar. It is his most precious asset. For in America the fear of vulgarity is the beginning of deadness. Abase! (if I may quote Mr Dooley). 

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