Characteristic Themes

I imagine it’s a little puzzling to hear someone speak of “characteristic themes” in an author’s first novel; but The Final Word takes the big-picture view of Tarkington’s body of work, and there are indeed themes that are very characteristic of his work. A good many of them (though not all them), naturally, make their first appearance in Gentleman; and several more of them find their way into his early novels only to settle to the bottom of the barrel (or dissipate completely) by the time Tarkington’s craft fully matures.

Of the recurring themes that are to be found in Gentleman, I list them below in order of significance to the body of Tarkington’s work.

The Square. “On the station platforms there are always two or three wooden packing-boxes marked for travel… They serve to enthrone a few station loafers, who look out from under their hat-brims at the faces in the car-windows with languid scorn a permanent fixture always has for a transient, and the pity an American feels for a fellow-being who does not live in his town.” [1f]. The idea of a gathering place that serves both as a point of entry into a community and a means for that community to regulate and comment on itself plays heavily into almost every Tarkington novel. It’s a theme that’s part of what makes Tarkington the Dean of American Values. Whether it’s the train stations of Gentleman, the stylized Greek chorus of The Conquest of Canaan, the apartment-house gathering places of The Lorenzo Bunch, or the actual town square of Mirthful Haven or Plattville itself, Tarkington finds in every community the locus of its heart. “The social and business energy of Plattville,” our narrator tells us, “concentrates on the Square” [2].

Provincialism. Hand in hand with the conservative values of the Square, as the above quote indicates, goes Tarkington’s acknowledgment that what holds a town together and makes it unique may also serve as mechanism to cut it off from a larger, vibrant world. Gentleman comments on that in two ways. Most significantly, the negativity of Six-Cross-Roads’ closed and inbred community serves the plot as means of illustrating provincialism at its worst. But Tarkington doesn’t let Plattville off the hook either, reminding us with gentle prodding of that town’s more routine small-mindedness. “The people lived happily,” we are told; “and, while the world whirled on outside, they were content with their own” [3]. The people of Plattville are reluctant to travel far and regret it when they do [4], even though “people did not come to Plattville to live, except through the inadvertency of being born there” [6]. They are aware of their reputation as rubes, such as when Helen relates that she has heard people say, “The further West I travel, the more convinced I am the Wise Men came from the East.” And Harkless, who well knows what the East has to offer, can rejoin, “‘From’ is the important word in that” [106].

Education. Though he was kicked out of his local high school for truancy and never actually earned enough credits to graduate from college, Tarkington never underestimated or downplayed the value of education. In almost all of his novels, characters are either coming home from college (as Harkless and Helen are, here, after a fashion), learning the value of education (like Alice Adams), suffering through classes (like Penrod), or experiencing education through the school or hard knocks (like the titular plutocrat or the long-suffering father of Mary’s Neck). It’s always plain, too, that the kind of education Tarkington has in mind is not some provincial indoctrination or modernist experiment, but a classical education that produced a mind such as his own.

Women. This is a major theme for Tarkington, who idolized women in one fashion or another. As a youth, as he records in The World Does Move, he found them unapproachable hourglass-shaped princesses. By the time he wrote his final novels, heroines like Kate Fennigate were every bit a man’s equal, often doing a man’s work better than he could himself. No petticoats, fans, and dancecards, thanks. Gentleman, though still far ahead of its time, is still in the gray areas between. Harkless is able to think of his ideal woman as “a suggestion of the far-away divinity” [68]. But Helen knows the score. “You know you would never let us do things for ourselves, no matter what legal equality might be declared,” she tells Harkless. “I hate being waited on. I’d rather do things for myself” [140]. And do things she does, and proves quite capable of being mistaken for a man… even if it’s only a temporary position!

Art. Not a huge theme in Gentleman, but nonetheless an ongoing passion for various Tarkington characters through the writer’s career. “The dead painters design the sky for us each day and night, I think,” says Helen to Harkless. “They’ve given a good man his turn tonight,” he replies, “some quiet colorist, a poetic, friendly soul, no Turner—though I think I’ve seen a Turner sunset or two in Plattville” [135]. Did I mention Education?

Progress. This is one theme upon which Tarkington seems almost ambivalent, and one where progressives and conservatives alike are frustrated. As with the themes of the Square and Provincialism, Tarkington finds both value and danger in Progress. Later novels, like the Growth series, will explore the dangers. Here, he’s a booster: “Carlow shall have representative to bear the banner of this district and the flaming torch of Progress sweeping on to Washington and triumph like a speedy galleon of old” [358].

Humanism. Though Tarkington certainly believed in a God, attended church, and was very much invested in the abstract notion of an afterlife, his novels more often reflect pure, optimistic humanism. “There was ignorance in man, but no unkindness,” the narrator tells us of Harkless’ thoughts in Gentleman. “Were man utterly wise he were utterly kind. The Cross-Roaders had not known better; that was all” [351]. And this not from any sort of spiritual enlightenment, but purely from good old-fashioned education. “Ordinarily a man needs to fall sick by the wayside or to be set upon by thieves,” says Harkless, “in order to realize that nine-tenths of the world is Samaritan, and the other tenth only too busy or ignorant to be” [369].

Classism. This is a subtle but pervasive theme in Tarkington. Unlike, say, Updike or Steinbeck, Tarkington is not a rabble-rouser; and he more often aligns himself with the middle class than the lower classes. But the body of his work does reflect at least an awareness of class distinctions. In Gentleman more so than in most of his other novels (The Conquest of Canaan and the Penrod books being notable exceptions, along with Mirthful Haven), Tarkington does directly address the plight of the lower classes. “There are fat women who rock and rock on piazzas by the sea,” remarks Helen, “and they speak of country people as the ‘lower classes.’ How happy this big family is in not knowing it is the lower classes!” [106]. It’s a sentiment expressed by my own father and uncle about growing up in a similarly small Oregon town following the Depression.

Character. As Tarkington matures as a writer, he seems to learn that character is something best demonstrated, and talked about only when necessary. So it’s always a priority with Tarkington; but here it’s on the front burner. “A man that people know is steady and strong and level-headed can get whatever he wants, because a public man can get anything, if people know he’s safe and honest and they can rely on him for sense,” says Helen of Harkless [368]. And he explicitly concurs: “To represent you is to stand for realities—fearlessness, honor, kindness” [369].

Pacifism. It’s a notable plot point that Harkless avoids physical altercation as a point of principle. He turns the other cheek, and even excuses the physical abuse ladled out upon him as a mere symptom of ignorance. Never in Tarkington’s novels is physical violence advocated by anyone but the villainous. Even when war is considered, as in The Turmoil or The Image of Josephine, armed conflict is weighed very soberly. Tarkington talks at length in The World Does Move about his metaphysical reasons behind his reluctance to slay others.

The Midlands. Naturally, as Tarkington became more cosmopolitan, and in particular as the locales of his novels shifted toward his “other residence” in Kennebunkport, Indiana became far less important to Tarkington’s tales. But this is where it all started. “There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagrarian Eastern travelers, glancing from car-windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without” [1]. “It takes a long time for the full beauty of the flat lands to reach a man’s soul; once there, nor hills, nor sea, nor growing fan leaves of palm shall suffice him” [348].

Transportation. Starting with The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), Tarkington launched an all-out assault on the effects of a motorized society, an obsession that would stretch through several novels; but even this early, Tarkington is keenly aware of the ways in which modes of transportation affect community and inform society. Here, trains and rail right-of-ways factor heavily in the plot; carriages and buckboards, and even walking play important roles in intermediate novels.

The Small-Town Idyll. Beyond mere provincialism and praising the Midlands in particular, Tarkington did wax nostalgic at times about the loss of quaintness. “What a family it is!” laughs Helen. “Just one big, jolly family. I didn’t know people could be like this until I came to Plattville” [105]. There’s an unreality to that assessment even in Gentleman, given the hellish Six-Cross-Roads, which is even more “quaint” than Plattville. But there’s a reality, too, one that even David Lynch discovered when he moved to a similar community nearly a century later.

Politics. Ever keenly aware of politics and a staunch defender of the two-party system, and even a state representative himself for one term, Tarkington allowed himself political lectures through his fiction all the way through his Growth series, finally abandoning the theme in the Depression years. Here, he tells us that “Politics is the one subject that goes to the vitals of every rural American; and a Hoosier will talk politics after he is dead” [8f]. And the book’s title and plot, of course, like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, is all about politics though it masquerades as a Romance. “The only criticism any one has any business making against Congress is that it’s too good for some of the men we send there. Congress is our great virtue, understand” [326].

Religion. The early works of Tarkington are refreshing in their matter-of-factness about the role of religion in society. In our politically-correct age, while we may appreciate this theme, we would be unwise to read too much into it. Tarkington very much appreciated religion, and practiced his own rather personal form; but he was no Christian crusader or fan of evangelism. Still, you won’t find a word of harshness about men of faith, either, from this grandson of a Methodist circuit rider. In Gentleman, heaven is taken as a reality, not just a symbol [135f], the people of Plattville acknowledge that “God is good” [261], and scriptural principles inform action: “the sun was not to go down upon his wrath” [373].

Race. There is no mistaking that Tarkington uses terminology which today we consider racially offensive. Black people are called “darkies” [87, 175] and their music is described in none-too-complimentary terms: “the movement and spirit of a tinshop falling down a flight of stairs” [324]. He also writes approvingly of the Plattville town band marching to the tune of “A New Coon in Town” [365]. Still, Tarkington’s Xenophon in Gentleman is written of affectionately [91], in the mode of what is known today as The Magical Negro: “Xenophon spoke as one having authority” [181], a very clear reference to the Christ of the Gospels.

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