Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"The Runyonesque Archetype" (a response to Ringo37's "Talking the Talk") - Beyond the Pale‏

A few words of response and clarification may be in order re. Ringo37's recent post here on the great sportswriting tradition of which the work of Damon Runyon (1880-1946) still stands as both prototype and principal representative.

First, Ringo37 credits Runyon with capturing "the familiar spirit of the Polo Fields and Madison Square Gardens".

To be a bit of a fact-stickler, actually that was not Polo Fields but Polo Grounds--at 157th Street, beneath Coogan's Bluff, in New York City, where assembled the cream of New York's sporting society in the baseball season of 1911, when Damon Runyon, the hottest young spark in the Hearst journalistic empire, freshly imported from Denver (where for the Denver Post he'd reported on the activities of Bat Masterson, ex-sheriff of Dodge City and prominent promoter of sporting and gambling activities in Denver) took up the baseball beat, covering the New York Giants of manager John McGraw for Hearst's American. Not polo but baseball--and business--took place at the Polo Grounds.

And among the kinds of business that took place there--like those which took place beginning in the late Twenties at Tex Rickard's Madison Square Garden, a singular garden in fact largely of gambling, blood and dirty money--were shady-side activities that Runyon knew intimately and wrote of with the authority of an insider.

Ringo37 and commentators on his piece have introduced several parallels among Runyon's contemporaries and successors. The first of these, and the best comparison, is Ring Lardner. Lardner began not at the Saturday Evening Post but as a junior writer at the American (when one of his pieces happened to appear above one of Runyon's, there was hell to pay, and it never happened again). But in their time it was well known that the differences between Runyon and Lardner were greater than the similarities. Both came from America's heartlands and wrote brilliantly in an invented and stylized version of the vernacular, but the likeness ended there.

Runyon was a tough, laconic teetotaler--a reformed drunk in fact--who lived and worked and traveled among the seamier precincts of Broadway. Lardner cultivated a slightly more genteel demeanor, drank heavily, was a Long Island neighbor of F.Scott Fitzgerald, and was socially conversant with a "literary" crowd (Scott and Zelda, Dorothy Parker, Edmund Wilson) who stood off from Runyon as the polite always stand off from those regarded as associates of the truly dangerous: Runyon's own associates included the dapper playboy Mayor Jimmy Walker, picturesque hoods like Abba Dabba Berman and terrifying gangster lords like Al Capone (who would one day be Runyon's neighbor in Florida).

In a fascinating review of what remains a useful book on the subject of what Ringo37 calls "the Runyonesque Archetype"--Tom Clark's The World of Damon Runyon--Lardner's son Ring, Jr. (himself no slouch as a writer, his credits including the M*A*S*H screenplay) underlines the basic opposition of character and temperament between his father and Runyon.

"Half a century ago in the Georgica section of East Hampton, where my father and Grantland Rice had bought land together and built adjoining houses on the ocean, there was a slight taint attached to the name of Damon Runyon...I got the impression in my teens that there was something vaguely shady about Damon Runyon. As Tom Clark points out, the disapproval was all on one side. Runyon couldn't understand why his colleagues would want to spend time a hundred miles from Broadway finding their favorite diversion in a game he disparaged 'because golf doesn't require any courage, except the pants'... He shared none of my father's fondness for Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker...or Granny Rice's for some leading figures of the social and business worlds. And they, moral and fastidious men both, couldn't understand what they regarded as a moral deficiency in him. It wasn't only gangsters and con men and ordinary denizens of the underworld whom Runyon chose as friends and drew on for fictional characters. He had quite a close relationship going with Al Capone, just as his friend Walter Winchell did with Lucky Luciano. And they felt there was something not quite right about a sportswriter getting involved in the actual promotion of athletic events, especially of prizefights with prearranged results."

Over the years Runyon covered the baseball Giants, a frequent guest in the Polo Grounds owners' box of the club was Arnold Rothstein, a New York gambling king. Rothstein would be made legendary by Runyon in short stories where he appears thinly-disguised as an imposing character called "The Brain", and also, somewhat more thickly veiled, would figure as the shadowy-grotesque "Meyer Wolfsheim" in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Among other questionable activities, he bankrolled the bucket shops and rum-running operations of one of the boxholding club owners Horace Stoneham; backed the Havana racetrack enterprise of Stoneham and manager McGraw; and even invested in a pool hall run by McGraw (Rothstein, as Runyon knew from first-hand observation, hung out there shooting nine-ball at $100 a game). When three policemen were shot in Rothstein's gambling parlor, the Partridge Club, another of the Giants owners, Judge Francis McQuade--as Runyon would report with typical close-mouthed cynicism--obligingly dismissed charges against twenty of twenty-one persons arrested. Rothstein had indeed personally brokered the McQuade-Stoneham-McGraw purchase of the Giants; it was not until a few years after it became apparent not only to Runyon and Fitzgerald but practically everybody else that Rothstein had also masterminded the infamous "fixing" of the 1919 World Series, that he was finally discouraged from appearing any more in the owners' box.

The difference between the Runyon "insider" strain of Golden Era sportswriting and the less-involved, more distanced Lardner "literary" strain is worth going into because it brings out an underlying class difference--which in turn sheds some interesting light on the latter-day parallels offered by Ringo37 and his Pseuds commentators.

For my money the only parallel cited by Ringo37 and his commentators that bears much weight is that brought up by Guitou: i.e. Jim Murray, the late, legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist who consciously and openly patterned his writing approach after Runyon's, and to a great degree managed to live up to that high standard in his work over many decades.

As to others cited: Ringo37 mentions Hornby, Plimpton and Mailer. But Hornby's work is a bit too clever, selfconscious and distanced to really bear much relation to the tradition under discussion, and the more literary he gets the further away he moves from the prize ring/poolhall ambiance that is Runyon's home ground; "cute" is certainly one term not applicable to anything Runyon ever wrote. Plimpton and Mailer, even more, were "literary" writers whose other-side-of-the-tracks assignments on sporting beats always felt very much to this writer like high-class slumming. (Plimpton, for whom I once worked, was a prince of a fellow in many ways, but a tough guy he definitely was not; in fact he didn't have to be; it's a little-known fact, speaking of class as we were, that among the possessions of G.P.'s New England WASP family was the original manuscript of one of The Canterbury Tales.)

MouthoftheMersey introduces The New Yorker's Roger Angell and Anthony Lane into the discussion. The New Yorker and everything it represents, in terms of U.S. sociology, are diametric opposites of "the Runyonesque". Angell is a nice, polite, sensitive baseball writer who would have been entirely out of his depth on any Runyon assignment--say, interviewing Jack Dempsey about his days "riding the rails", or covering the murder trial of Ruth Snyder, who eliminated her spouse with one hefty swing of a sash weight. MacMillings hits the target here when he deftly dismisses Angell from the discussion as a "chin-stroking" type. And as for Anthony Lane, the movie critic, with this suggestion we have moved all the way across the board from the fight-ring to the fey (and I don't mean Tina).

One final note: Ringo37 laments that "England doesn't really have a sportswriting tradition". Is he being a strict purist and eliminating writers of Irish origin from consideration, or can it be he's really never heard of the wonderful historian of the London prize ring of several centuries ago, the immortal Pierce Egan? To put it as Egan's great fan Damon Runyon might once have, Pierce Egan's furbishment of fistic fact has never been surpassed. And that, fellow Pseuds, is saying something.


ringo37 said...

Wow. Great piece, BtP. You clearly know your stuff a lot more thoroughly than I do - apologies, all, for my errors.

A couple of things. I was pretty explicit in excluding Hornby from the class of sportswriters I was talking about; I didn't mean to suggest that Mailer and Plimpton were really typical, either.

It was a piece principally about language - specifically about slang, as I hoped the opening and closing quotes would indicate (maybe this got a bit lost in the process of trying to edit it down to within BB limits...).

I wasn't really trying to argue that Runyon, Lardner and the rest were all much of a muchness; the main idea was that these writers contributed to the development of a punchy, spontaneous and vivid sportswriter lingo - you could say, I suppose, that Mencken, in my opening quote, said in one paragraph what I laboured to say in 700 words...

But thanks, BtP, for filling in a lot of gaps. Great stuff.

beyond the pale said...

And thanks to you, Ringo, for getting this useful discussion going. I think we aspiring scribes still have plenty to learn from some of those ancient geezers whose names you have so helpfully unearthed. And I'd agree that Hornby probably doesn't rate being included in the discussion (not that anything we say or don't say will affect his sales figures one iota).

guitou said...

very impressive,
Thanks for aknowledging Jim Muray as a great.
For 37 splendid years on the sports pages of the Times or on his front page column, he was the favorite of people who laughed or cried over his punch lines such:
for the Indianapolis 500.
“Gentlemen, start your coffins.”
or about the Lakers Star
“Elgin Baylor is as unstoppable as a woman’s tears.”
Or Murray’s line about Rickey Henderson.
“Has a strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart.”
being selected national sportswriter of the year 14 times out of 16 years is such a performance than
Muhammad Ali hailed him as "best sportswriter of all times"
"i find people hate to be informed,Murray said, people need to be amused, to be shocked"
Jim himself was probably shocked in his grave over the fall out of the Newspaper where he was hired 40 years ago from Sports Illustrated-

zeph said...

Really good article, BTP. I only know Runyon's fiction, where of course his fascination with low-lifes is his most famous subject-matter. Fascinating to learn more.

zeph said...

oops. sorry about the two fascinatings, bit gushy eh? wasn't concentrating.

beyond the pale said...

Gui--The ghost of the great Jim Murray as well as Pseuds everywhere are grateful to you for recalling those typically splendid Murrayisms.
Zeph--Honored as always by your generous encouragement; about the several fascinatings, Beyond has always felt that, like a mother's prayers, the purrs of a feline friend, or anti-oxidants, one can never receive too many of them.

mac millings said...

Terrific article, BtP, thank you. I think the most important lesson we have all learned here is that I am deft.

Mouth of the Mersey said...

BtP - Very generous of you to share such a vast wealth of experience of these writers.

I haven't read any of those of whom you write, merely of them at second-hand, but I'm tempted now to seek them out.

Of course I'm aware that the New Yorker (and no-one is more entwined with that magazine than Roger Angell) is the Manhattan cocktail bar rather than the sparring ring, but it's my main experience of American journalism. Having said that, editor David Remnick's biog of Ali was very good indeed.

MotM said...

Meant to add that Geoffrey Beattie's Guardian stuff from the 80s set among the Sheffield boxing gyms were very good indeed. I think he published a book on it, but I couldn't find any of the actual pieces when last I looked.

I'd also like to throw in this in from an obit of Hunter S Thompson, "The piece that resulted, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, was a runaway success, though he had neither described the race nor mentioned the winner. And he was astonished: it was like “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.”

zeph said...

Deft Mac Millings, yep, definitely a Damon Runyon character...probably a friend of Nicely Nicely Johnson.

beyond the pale said...

And too, as Nicely Nicely used to say, Deft will beat Daft any day of most weeks (except in leap year).

offsideinthemirror said...

Writing about sports is sportswriting, fine. Writing about sportswriting is something we probably need a new name for. But commenting about writing on sportswriting is a kind of writing that leaves me entirely baffled as to what it should be called. Where's Professor Greengrass when you need him? I've heard he'd been encased in a frozen vat of vodka til spring, but I've long stopped believing every rumour on the net.

Ebren said...

Dog above Offy - let's hope no one replies to your comment. The consequences don't bare thinking about

offside said...

Dunno, sounds like a perfectly valid avenue of discussion to me. I wish I had more ressources at the Pakalolo Institute so that it could properly investigated. *sigh*

dr.drouhin said...

So I'm now commenting on a comment about an article about an article about writing about sport. No problem there, surely, Professor Offside, as long as you keep your articles well separated and your comments in order? Though I understand the Pakalolo Institute does favour a more free approach.

Dr Zephirine Drouhin
Centifolia Project for Blog Studies

behind the 8-ball said...

Dr. Drouhin--The Institute is consternated to learn that the governing board of this site may even now be mulling the potential ramifications of posting a report summarizing recent research into commenting on commenting about sportswriting about sportswriting, with contributions by experts in this field ranging from the distinguished Prof. OffsideinaMirror (Emeritus) to Dr. Ludwig Wittgenstein in a Grass Skirt.

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