Dead Guys and Dolls

Damon-runyon-179x217
Guys and Dolls
is back on Broadway, which means Damon Runyon is back, sort of. The play was something of an anachronism when it debuted in 1950, and so was its titular author. Nevertheless, Guys and Dolls has remained in the standard American repertory, while Runyon is still in print but nowhere near the popular figure he was in the 1930s. Musicals never seem to die, but what happens to writers of popular fiction? Why do they fall out of favor and rarely, if ever, return?

Yesterday I temporarily put aside Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 for reasons I’ll get to in a future post, and, to cheer myself up, I started rereading Dickens’s Bleak House. (Yes, it was that kind of day.) Dickens and Shakespeare are the prototypical populists with enduring literary reputations. Reading the incredibly sensuous opening pages of Bleak House (“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river . . . . fog down the river . . .  fog on the Essex marshes”), it’s easy to see why Dickens was so popular at the time, and why he’s still highly regarded.

Compare Dickens’ description of fog to this line, which Adam Gopnik picks out as the reason we read Runyon: “If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition to the Atlantic and the Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business.” This is vivid, to be sure, but I don’t think this is such a great sentence. There’s tough guy New York slang just under the surface, but the sentence is at least one clause too long to be witty.

The referent for this sentence is an entire way of speaking, one that flourished in New York between the wars, then disappeared. Gopnik does an excellent job of explaining how Runyon’s mock wise guy language works. Gopnik points out that highly slangy, urban speech is actually more complex, even convoluted, than standard American English. Runyon had a great ear for gangsters trying to sound classy because his own reporter’s prose aspired to the standards of genteel period of American literature. Runyon occupies a place exactly midway between Martin Scorsese and William Dean Howells.

Unfortunately for Runyon’s reputation, three developments occurred after World War II. Mobsters put away their two-tone shoes and turned into grunting ethnics, middle Americans found a new—and more standardized—voice in the chipper tones of 1950s television, and the crime genre evolved into something darker and more interior. After Runyon’s death in 1946 it was no longer possible to build a plausible fictional world simply by hanging out all day at Lindy’s restaurant, listening in on mobsters’ conversations, as Runyon did.

Language was pretty much all Runyon had going for him as a fiction writer. As Gopnik reminds us, his plots were creaky and his characters flat. A way of speaking died when broadcast media took over American popular culture, and Runyon’s world evaporated. It’s fitting, then, that Runyon endures now only in a play first staged four years after his death, a play known as the last musical comedy—the last of its kind. 

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4 Comments

  1. Dear Richard, a thousand thanks! Your posts always educate, and at the same time do more than just that. So, deceived into feeling a touch more learned after my day’s ration of thinking – into which your pieces have a habit of jolting this reader – I feel I must be self-indulgent and confess to being saddened by the thoughts that were provoked by this particular post (which, by the way, makes me wonder what sort of a day it must have been for you!) I cannot very well defend Shakespeare and Dickens, and feel there should be no need for a non-native speaker of the language to attempt to do so. But please allow me to say this much: Even with someone like O.Wilde who was witty in a very concise manner, one can pick out clevernesses that are by now irrelevant, not quite part of the language, and more the stuff of brilliant performing on the stage. But there’s something – and it’s precisely to do with the style – that one suspects may not even have been there to begin with, something added, that immediately passed into the language (and the common culture) through the writings of Dickens and Shakespeare. They foresaw speech that couldn’t be picked up in a bar. This is my guess, of course, but I’m going to stick by it. Long-winded, mock-passionate and prejudiced is this comment, I know. Do forgive!

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  2. A congratulatory comment on the latest ‘wall paper’: I cannot imagine who could have thought it up, but whoever it was has got it perfectly right. I’m going to christen it “Thousands of years of solitude”.

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  3. Hi Mano: Why have Shakespeare and Dickens endured while other writers beloved in their times do not? A gift from the gods. That, and Shakespeare and Dickens have a lot more in their artistic arsenals than Runyon and other half-forgotten writers. Oscar Wilde is another case in point. Like Dickens, his biography is nearly as important as his work itself. I was corresponding with an old colleague on Facebook yesterday about Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote 10 novels, including the best selling American novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one reads any of her other work, and UTC is almost unreadable now. The structure of feeling that made people respond to her work is now gone.

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  4. I suspect I may have got it all wrong in the first place, since your ‘reply’ above, being an incomparably eloquent expression of the same notion as I was vaguely trying to digest, seems suddenly to wrap up the argument initially put forward in your post! And there I was trying to set the records straight on a few points to do with Shakespeare, etc.! Thanks!

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