Scandalous Penrod

At Yesterday’s Papers, John Adcock laments the missing chapter in some editions of Penrod, an epsiode entitled “The Quiet Afternoon.”  (As Adcock notes, the chapter title as it appeared in Cosmopolitan and other serializations was “The Fall of Georgie Bassett.”) It features, among other characters, Penrod’s black neighbor kids Herman and Verman… who, if you are at all familiar with the Penrod books, are, like all of the children in the novels, caricatures that in many ways ring true.  They are also stereotypes. But does that automatically make them bigoted?

It’s a mystery why this particular episode has struck some publishers as offensive, given that the kind of prayer meeting that Herman describes has become pretty much mainstream.  Also considering that Tarkington’s grandfather was a Methodist circuit rider, I’m sure he must have also been well aware that such antics were not unknown on the Great White frontier.  This was not, and is not, a race issue.  Let’s take a peek at Adcock’s excerpt and comments:

“‘Leggo my coat tails, ole devil! Goin’ to hell agin, sinnuhs; goin’ straight to hell, my lawd!’ An’ he clim’ an’ he slide an’ he clim’ an’ all time holler, ‘Now ’m a goin’ to heavum; now ’m a goin’ to hell! Goin’ to heavum, heavum, heavum, my lawd!’ Las’ he slide all a way down, jes’ a squallin’ an’ a kickin’ an’ a rarin’ up an’ a squealin’ ‘Gone to hell! Gone to hell! Ol’ Satum got my soul! Gone to hell!’”

Herman possessed that extraordinary facility for vivid acting which is the great native gift of his race, and he enchanted his listeners.

“Herman, tell that again!” said Penrod, breathlessly.

My sentiments exactly, tell it again, Herman! The rest of the chapter concerns Georgie Bassett, urged on by his companions, re-enacting the pole-climbing scene just described by Herman, outside the window of Georgie’s house wherein Georgie’s mother is entertaining a bachelor clergyman. It seems this scene was considered so injurious to a boy reader’s morals that it was ‘expurgated’ from future editions.

Any charge that the Penrod books were actually racist would have to take into account the entire body of Tarkington’s work… and would also have to answer for Rupe Collins and Roderick Bitts, white boys in Penrod’s world who were equally stereotyped.

In The Atlantic, Thomas Mallon generally writes dismissively of Tarkington, and does so in a way that conveys the impression, to the layman, that he has thoroughly analyzed Tarkington’s body of work.  Of this type of sequence in Penrod, he says:

On matters of race one can locate [Tarkington] somewhere between the normal, automatic bigotries of his era and a positively oafish delight in the way things were. Paul Fussell, in an otherwise level-headed defense of Penrod against PC expurgation, sees in that novel only “affectionate condescension toward Negroes.” In fact, two African-American boys, Herman and Verman, mumbling in dialect, are presented like sideshow exhibits even before Penrod and his buddy Sam actually display them as such during a show they put on in a hayloft. And in The Gentleman From Indiana, Tarkington—having grown up the son of a southern-mannered father in a Copperhead state—writes with a condescension that’s less affectionate than outright romantic, giving us glimpses of “happy negroes” out of Thomas Nelson Page.

Mallon sees no irony, apparently, in Tarkington having Penrod and Sam literally treating their friends as sideshow freaks, nor any authorial commentary in the failure of the venture and the boys’ subsequent (if mild) shame.  It’s exploitation presented pointedly, satirically, and explicitly as exploitation, particularly given that Penrod is genuinely fascinated by his friends, precisely because they are outside his realm of experience.

Moreover, Mallon fails to include Rupe Collins in his analysis; and in his reference to Gentleman, he glosses on the fact that the whole campaign of the plot is against KKK-styled “White Caps” who clearly represent the kind of oafish bigotry that Mallon seeks to hang around Tarkington’s neck.

Mallon also unmasks himself as a psuedo-Tarkington scholar in his claim that The World Does Move demonstrates in Tarkington “the perspective of a man whom life is literally passing by.”  Nonsense.  The work instead offers a thoughtful and ultimately optimistic reflection on the ways in which progress is both illusory and constructive.

Worst is this closing screed, which is patently false:

The American Writer and the Great Depression (1966), edited by Harvey Swados, is another book one won’t find Tarkington in. He had nothing much to say about an economic calamity that was undoing only a smoky prosperity he hadn’t liked to begin with. Everything significant he’d had to utter was already sealed inside those small, boxy, wide-ruled books of the teens and the twenties—even as he lived and kept writing through World War II.

In the Growth trilogy and The Plutocrat Tarkington documents bootsterism, its champions, and its effects in a way that eerily anticipates market speculation in the 1990s and 2000s; in The Heritage of Hatcher Ide, The Image of Josephine, Three Short Novels, and Kate Fennigate, he documents how once-properous families became also-rans in the American dream, also anticipating the recent real estate bubble burst and the way in which it has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots.  The one concession Mallon makes to contemporary relevance is where Tarkington crosses paths with green sympathies: “Only general ignorance of his work has kept him from being pressed into contemporary service as a literary environmentalist—not just a ‘conservationist,’ in the [Teddy Roosevelt] mode, but an emerald-Green decrier of internal combustion.”

To be sure, Tarkington did not document the plight of the blue-collar man in his body of work.  Instead, he largely documented the downward-mobility of the liberated woman in the automobile age, and wrote novels that connected with her and those who knew her.  And for this rather consummate and worthy object of artistry, Tarkington earns this damning description from Mallon: “more intent on offering his readers a pleasant Sunday drive—along with the sociological reassurance that they weren’t really the Babbitts and boobs that Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken kept taking them for.”

Mallon and the censors find in Tarkington what they wish to… not because it’s not there, which it is, but because they’re not trying hard enough to find what else is there.

If you’re interested, I recommend finding Tarkington’s books on rather than buying eBooks or the rare contemporary editions that are in print.  First editions and early reprints are to be had for only two or three dollars, much cheaper reader’s copies than the facscimile editions you might find at Amazon, and you’ll avoid the critical and editorial filters of the 21st Century.  Please, discover Tarkington for yourself.

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