The Literary Legacy

With friends like these, who needs enemies?  The vast majority of Booth Tarkington’s papers now reside within the walls of Princeton University’s manuscripts library, and yet the official website for Tarkington’s beneficiary and would-be alma mater says of the author, “Tarkington wrote a series of cheerful, realistic novels about life in the Middle West.” It’s an assessment that’s both accurate and horribly misleading.

Of course, that assessment is somewhat understandable.  In 1918, when Princeton conferred an honorary doctorate upon its most public-shy and famous dropout, Princeton’s Dean West remarked that Tarkington had “rediscovered the American boy and wrote the idyll of his life.” And at that point, that was mostly true, and Tarkington’s real claim to fame.  Tarkington had certainly made a huge splash with his romanticized 1899 debut, The Gentleman from Indiana, but had gained most of his notoriety and success from a string of novels about juveniles that started in 1913 and concluded in 1916: The Flirt, Penrod, and Seventeen.  Without a doubt, the characters of Hedrick Madison, Penrod Schofield, and Willie Baxter were far more memorable than John Harkless; and the female antagonists of those tales, Cora Madison, Marjorie Jones, and Lola Pratt, while not exactly prefiguring Tarkington’s later three-dimensional heroines, are no less so.

But much more was on the horizon.  With the publication of The Turmoil in 1914, Tarkington signaled that a major change in the tenor of his work was in the offing. Said William Dean Howells, publicly: “So fine and strong a talent as Mr. Booth Tarkington’s has its sins of romanticism in its past to answer for; but whoever reads his very powerful fiction lately current in these pages must own that he is atoning for far worse transgressions than can be laid at his charge… Here we have a master indeed.”  Privately, Howells confided to Tarkington, “I tremble a little for you. Now you must go on and be of the greatest.”

The next decade would prove Tarkington up to the challenge, in spite of great personal loss.  During this period critic Hamilton Basso could rightly assess Tarkington in these terms: “In his books as nowhere else, we get an understanding of how that earlier, more stable world of clipped lawns, gabled houses, and long summer holidays seemed from the inside of those who, like Tarkington himself, looked upon it as the best of all possible environments in a none too perfect world.” In the wake of the Pulitzer prize-winning novels The Magnificent Ambersons (1919) and Alice Adams (1922), among others, Tarkington was named by Publisher’s Weekly as the “Most Significant Contemporary American Author,” “The Greatest Living American Author” by Literary Digest, and was listed in 1922 by the New York Times as the only writer in its list of the “10 Greatest Contemporary Americans.”

“Yes, I got in at last on the Times list,” Tarkington responded. “What darned silliness! You can demonstrate who are the 10 fattest people in a country and who are the 27 tallest… But you can’t say who are the 10 greatest with any more certainty than who are the 13 damndest fools.”

But Tarkington’s star was not dimming any time soon, even if he bristled at such praise.  When Sinclair Lewis accepted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1930, he remarked, “The American Academy of Arts and Letters does contain, along with several excellent painters and architects and statesmen, such a really distinguished university president as Nicholas Murray Butler, so admirable and courageous a scholar as Wilbur Cross, and several first-rate writers: the poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, the free-minded publicist James Truslow Adams, and the novelists Edith Wharton, Hamlin Garland, Owen Wister, Brand Whitlock, and Booth Tarkington.”

But as Tarkington’s sight dimmed and even went out all together, and as America, along with the rest of the world, found itself in the throes of the Great Depression, Tarkington’s attention turned away from the more external symptoms of industrialization and the Automotive Age (such natural topics for an Indianapolis native) and toward the more internal struggles of average Americans (and women in particular) as the pressures of social fragmentation and suburbanization mounted.  During this period of purely dictated novelization, Tarkington did some of his best work, such as Little Orvie, The Lorenzo Bunch, and Kate Fennigate; and yet the critical backlash had begun.  He was no longer railing as an anti-establishment cynic.  He was empathizing as a man of great insight.  Today, Biography merely notes that “his work now seems dated and insubstantial.”

Booth Tarkington was a documentarian of both of a passing age and one careering forward, neither blindly celebrating the new nor longing achingly for a vanished past; neither dreading the future nor mocking what we once were; but seeing clearly the pathos and tension of living within that moment of passing.

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