Tarkington… Antisemite?

The last two weeks at Seacoastonline.com, columnist Sharon Cummins put together a very fine two-part article on Booth Tarkington’s connections and long part-time residence in Kennebunkport, Maine. She details, among other things, the building of his Seawood estate, his quaint touristy installation of the Regina on the waterfront, his creation of the local haunt “The Floats,” and his chummery with the testy author Kenneth Roberts.

She also makes this interesting observation:

For all his charm and generosity, the author was not the type to gush falsely, nor was he a saint. His public criticism of other writers was harsh. That same inclination to speak his mind sometimes allowed a little of his anti-Semitism to see the light of day in newspaper interviews. A reporter who visited the Tarkingtons at their Kennebunkport home in 1924 noted “The prettiest little black boy I have ever seen, with curling hair, an entrancing smile, and a white coat always opened the door to the Tarkington’s summer home.” But this was a different time. Bigotry was accepted and Booth had that way about him that invited forgiveness and friendship.

How much of that anti-Semitism was assumed and how much was real, or even overt? It’s hard to say, as Cummins doesn’t provide any quotes from the referenced newspaper interviews. In my own steeped reading of Tarkington’s oeuvre and associated biographies, period magazine articles, and Tarkington’s autobiographical texts, however, I can’t recall ever thinking, “Gee, I bet people thought Tarkington was an anti-Semite.” Patronizingly and mildly racist? Yes, in the way that anybody is a product of their times; but specifically anti-Semite? No, not at all.

So I decided to browse around and see what else I could dig up on Tarkington, anti-Semite. Here’s what I found:

  • In Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, Catherine M. Soussloff documents a specific exchange of letters between German Jewish expatriate Erwin Panofsky and Tarkington regarding the Republican party’s somewhat anti-Semitic presidential platform in 1944. In Soussloff’s words, Tarkington assured Panofsky that the language was mere electioneering and political pandering, not an actual agenda of anti-Jewish sentiment akin to the climate in 1933 Germany. Cummins seems to have missed Tarkington’s long friendship with Panofsky (and many other Jews), and nowhere does Soussloff hint that Tarkington was masking hatred of Jews or duping Panofsky.
  • JBooks.com, a website of the “Online Jewish Book Community,” discusses the history of the term “dirty Jew” and notes that, in “Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington’s 1923 novel, The Midlanders, two non-Jewish brothers are distinguished by the fact that, as children, one uses the term and the other won’t.” The implication is that Tarkington, far from being anti-Semitic, was being progressively politically correct in calling out “bad” behavior in one brother and “good” behavior in the other.
  • The multivolume work Anti-Semitism in America notes that, while Penrod’s Maurice Levy is specifically (and even stereotypically) identified as Jewish, such references in literature of the period were “without derogatory intent.” They are merely literary stereotypes with “no hostility, no negative judgment.” Anybody who’s read the Penrod books, in fact, can see real affection in Tarkington’s treatment of every character, even the bully Rupe Collins.
  • On page 135 of her memoir My Amiable Uncle, Tarkington’s niece Susanah specifically discusses post-war anti-Semitism, given her husband Frank’s reaction to the prevalence of the American brand upon his return from the war. She notes that, in personal conversations with her and with Frank, Tarkington lamented the extent to which many Americans were missing out on opportunities for wonderful friendships.

I could trot out more citations, but I hardly think it necessary. If hard-core analyses of anti-Semitism by actual Jews give Tarkington a pass, I think we can dispense with latter-day political correctness, at least as far as his literary legacy goes. I’d certainly be interested in those interviews that Cummins mentions… but until I see further evidence, I’m willing to give Tarkington the Man the benefit of the doubt, too.

2 Responses to “Tarkington… Antisemite?”

  1. J.T Says:

    I am related to Booth Tarkington. I am curious as to why the Tarkingtons had Hebrew names like Zebulon Tarkington, Keziah, Esther etc.

  2. Greg Wright Says:

    Booth Tarkington’s paternal grandfather was a Methodist circuit rider. In the 19th Century, it was quite common for pious, earnest Christians to look to Old Testament texts for names.

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