- Midwesterners Swallow the WorldLardner, Shirer, Terkel, and American Journalism
For middle-class Victorians the parlor mediated between the public and private. It was the space in which the woman of the family received guests and where visitors were entertained. It connoted family togetherness but was also where the hurly-burly of the male commercial sphere would meet the female domain of culture and taste on peaceful terms. Today, open-plan living spaces have displaced the parlor, and mass media and the internet have irretrievably intertwined commerce and culture, public and private. As early as 1921 Ring Lardner could already remark nostalgically that a Long Island farm house reminded him of “some of the places we used to go calling Sunday afternoons when I was a kid, where the parlor was always kept ready for the sabath [sic]” (290). The three books under review—Lardner’s unpublished journalism and biographical studies of William L. Shirer and Studs Terkel—are about journalism and the media but, on a deeper level, illustrate how three midwesterners helped create a culture that destroyed the Victorian parlor and its social functions and left in its place a world in which the distinction between the private and the communal grew ever [End Page 193] more indistinct and individuals shouldered the responsibility of crafting new identities to manage the disjunctions between the two.
Henry F. May observed that in the early twentieth century the Midwest saw itself as a “rival of the East in culture, and superior in morality and progress” (May, The End of American Innocence: A Study of the First Years of Our Own Time, 1912–1917 , 91). At the center of midwestern culture was Chicago. Progressivism and bohemianism bloomed in Washington Square Park, or Bughouse Square, where radicals of all persuasions mounted soap-boxes, and in the rebellious literary culture created by newspapermen like Burton Rascoe, Theodore Dreiser, and Ben Hecht (“Chicago’s minor Mencken”) (256). May considered the humorist and journalist Ring Lardner (1885–1933), who spent much of the period between 1907 and 1919 in Chicago, as a harbinger of the literary and artistic bohemianism that re-shaped American letters before the Great War. The University of Nebraska Press has now published a handsome edition of Lardner’s journalistic pieces (columns, articles, poems, and ephemeral pieces covering sports, politics, and entertainment) heroically edited by the veteran sports journalist Ron Rapoport. The academic apparatus is light, but Rapoport provides useful notes at the end of the volume and organizes the pieces in thirteen thematic sections.
Rapaport’s heroism lies not only in tracking down pieces not previously reprinted but also in establishing accurate texts among the various and differing versions that appeared in newspapers across the country. In an effort to re-create the American vernacular Lardner fashioned a highly idiosyncratic prose style. “I am only trying to be natural which is where a man is at their best after all,” he declared (394). He disregarded grammar, spelled eccentrically, punctuated haphazardly, and indulged a predilection for odd abbreviations. Readers may think, Lardner warned, that he was not “a A. No. 1 speller [sic],” but “nothing could be further from the truth. They may be a good many wds. which I don’t spell them in the same way like they are spelled in the dictionary but that is no sign that my way ain’t just as good and maybe a little better and I always say that if people can understand easy what a man means, why that means he is a good speller” (465–66). Rapaport had to decide on the authoritative texts from amongst the many extant versions, some of which were edited by presumably highly agitated newspaper copyeditors. The reader admires him for the achievement.
Reading upwards of five hundred pages of sometimes ungrammatical...