RING LARDNER (1885-1933) wrote very funny stories about cruelty and small-mindedness, which blow hot and cold simultaneously, and he had the most acute ear for American speech this side of Mark Twain — his eye for American semiliteracy remains unmatched by anyone. He began as a sportswriter, specializing in baseball, at a time when it was still an ill-paid working-class enterprise. His experiences on the road led to You Know Me Al (1916), a one-sided epistolary novel in the voice of pitcher who comes up to the majors and gets sold from team to team. It is said that the 1919 Black Sox scandal dislodged something in Lardner, that he was never the same again; it is true in any case that his work got noticeably darker after that point. He was severely undervalued by his contemporaries, for whom he was a popular entertainer — a newspaper columnist who employed slang and wrote about mugs and failed to serve up a grand-sounding national metaphor the way Hemingway and Fitzgerald did. But while Lardner, as a contract employee, wrote both too much and not enough, his best stuff hits the ear like music — dirty saloon music — and stays there, reverberating.
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