Comb it wet or dry?

If you recognize the subject line above as a quotation, you’re probably showing your age. The line happens to be the final paragraph of a short story, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” which once seemed important.

It probably isn’t important any more, but the reasons it was once taken seriously are still easy to understand. Lardner had a phonographically accurate ear for American speech, and the dialect of “Haircut” is an American demotic with a profound etymology in the language of dramatic irony, the “little does he know” effect. In “Haircut,” the irony is communicated by a talkative small-town barber who tells his customer a long, affectionate story about the wittiest man in town, a man recently killed in a hunting accident. As the barber prattles obliviously on and the page count steadily rises, it dawns on us readers — that is, on everybody in the world except the barber — that (1) the wittiest man in town was nothing but a sadist, (2) his death wasn’t an accident, it was a murder, and (3) oh boy did he have it coming. It probably matters as well that “Haircut” was first published in 1925, the same year that H. L. Mencken filed his mocking dispatches from the Monkey Trial and Harold Ross founded The New Yorker. That was exactly the right moment for delivery of a document like “Haircut.” The American idiom of the Roaring Twenties was a language excitedly teaching itself new antonyms to the lexicon of the pure, unironic sincerity of rural life.

You can still read “Haircut” here, canonized in the sarcophagus of the Library of America.

But I can’t visualize many people today reading it to the end. In the aftermath of the New Yorker era, Lardner’s irony seems unsophisticated, and at that I suppose I’d rather be stuck between trains in a small town ninety years ago than stuck between planes in an airport today. The evil in “Haircut” seems to have diminished in the perspective of time. It isn’t as comic as it used to be because it has lost some of its menace. Sadists these days have ascended in the world. In the “Haircut” era they were small-towners hanging out at the barber shop, but now they’re cosmopolitans in Gulfstreams.

The focused inquisitiveness of small-town small-mindedness has acquired a new geography since Lardner’s time, too. Earlier this year, after I used GMail to send a boarding pass to my wife, GMail’s party-line cousin Google dropped into my mailbox a dossier including my wife’s itinerary, complete with weather report and baggage claim information, and an archive of our email exchange. And just the other day, after I sent a link to somebody in Idaho, Google asked her whether she’d prefer to read it in English or Basque.

Hey, just askin. Yknow they got lotsa them Basques in Idaho, heh heh heh. And about that wart you were googling last year, I gotta insurance policy you might be interested in. . . .

Little did they know then. Too much do they know now. I’m standing by accordingly for the sequel to “Haircut.” Mind if I put your Google Glass over here while I get to work on your head?

Photohistory: Frank O’Hara during World War II

In City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (Knopf, 1993), Brad Gooch publishes two photographs of the poet taken on board USS Nicholas, the destroyer on which he served during World War II. I don’t know whether the third photograph below has also made it into the literary record, but in any case I’ve photoshopped it to make it a little clearer.

It comes from the ship’s wartime cruise book, a publication formatted exactly like a high school yearbook, including padded covers and a list of home addresses.

This yearbook, however, includes images of the Nicholas under attack and of Japanese and Allied generals on board during the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay. And on page 23 there’s this.

O'Hara in cruise bookSources: Destroyer History Foundation,



The image in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection at (click to enlarge) is gray.

Explaining to us what we’re supposed to be seeing, an appended afterthought of a noun phrase is crabbed and black.


But to add a verb is to add color.

And then light shines through a cloth-clad wing, a wave takes the light in and mates it with black, and a clause comes into being and teaches us to soar with M. Van den Born. Soaring, we enter a seabird’s bodily understanding of the word “above.”


Dainty personality: a history of the nineteenth century in verse and prose



Click images to enlarge. Source of the Texas & Pacific stereograph: Library of Congress, Requires an anaglyphic (red and blue) stereo viewer.