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Structured reading: American satire

I just realized that I never recapped my latest "structured reading" effort, which this time focused on three top American satirists of the early 20th Century - Finley Peter Dunne, Ring Lardner and George Ade. Here are my belated thoughts...

Dunne's Mr. Dooley Remembers is an unusual memoir - he was suspicious of autobiography, so instead of writing about himself directly, he wrote about leading figures of his day whom he knew, primarily Teddy Roosevelt, Warren Harding and Mark Twain. But in writing about others, he reveals more about himself than he may have intended. His son Philip Dunne, who prodded his father into writing the memoir during his final years and ultimately edited the collection, intersperses his own recollections of his father's life in alternating chapters. Then at the end of the book, Philip Dunne presents his favorite "Mr. Dooley" columns (which made Finley Dunne world-renowned in his day), which the son "translated" from their original Irish-brogue vernacular into more modern English. This definitely makes the Dooley pieces (whose century-old subject matter already challenges the modern reader) much easier to comprehend. Certainly an innovative treatment.

Lardner's The Portable Ring Lardner is simply wonderful, highlighted by the novellas You Know Me Al (Lardner's most famous work) and The Big Town (similar in tone to Al, and nearly as good), a dozen-something great short stories and the hilarious fake travelogue "The Young Immigrunts." Lardner's journalistic pieces, by contrast, have not aged well and are likely of interest only to political or history junkies. But these shortcomings are totally overcome by the greatness of the fiction, and makes this an indispensible collection.

In Babel: Stories of Chicago is a collection of Ade's newspaper columns. Terrifically written and much more serious than I expected (though his irrepressible humor came out more toward the end), the book still frustrated me. Time and again I found myself really getting into a piece, only to have it end abruptly after four pages or so - since these were originally published in newspapers, Ade was working against length constraints. I wish he had been able to expand many of these sketches into full-blown stories or even longer works. Still, a pretty terrific collection, one which I'm sure I'll be revisiting in the future.

This latest structured reading was again a very rewarding experience. My next round, sometime later this year, will involve three old-school Jewish writers - Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shalom Aleichem and Chaim Potok.

January 16, 2011 in Books | Permalink


Great post, Pete Lit - you enjoy reading. I am also starting on some of the classics (and never realized they have historically accounted for 18 percent of publishing consistently). I don't know why... I guess I was too into action and mystery with the Nancy Drew series. After reading them through 3rd and 5th grade, Rudyard Kipling seemed boring, and I guess I identified all "classics" as such.

Now with some of the children's lit (which I should have been reading), I am whetting my appetite for the meatier classics. I believe one is never too old to learn to read the good works, whether they be old-school Jewish or satirist.

Posted by: Junie at Jan 18, 2011 10:17:21 AM