Penrod: Wishful Thinking?

“Youth can’t know everything by being intelligent,” wrote Tarkington in Alice Adams, “and by the time you could understand the answer you’re asking for you’d know it, and wouldn’t need to ask.”

The quote is a propos a column recently published online, close to 100 years after Tarkington penned those words. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been quietly stewing over a Nathaniel Rich piece at The Daily Beast which used Penrod—“a book suffused in nostalgia for a time that never existed”—as a whipping post for “trifles” from which, yes, the Great War “saved” the art of American fiction.

Thank God for wars, eh?

His primary complaint against Penrod is that “the novel is, itself, an exercise in nostalgia”—meaning, I take it, that even as he was writing, Tarkington was writing not about kids in 1914 but kids in, say, 1883, “a land that only exists in the memories of those who haven’t been children for a long time.” Presumably, Rich would have preferred that Penrod be pondering the fate of the Titanic, Serbian diplomacy, or the price of rice in China; instead, he “dips a schoolmate’s braids in ink, paints his dog blue, and splashes his friends with tar.” Silly, shallow, prosperous American boy who never existed.

Silly Tarkington. What a waste of literary energy.

It shocks me that Rich would fail to mention that Penrod is in fact a bildungsroman in which the ennui and wistfulness is, while expressed through Tarkington’s omniscient narration, Penrod’s own—not Tarkington’s, expressed through an alter ego. Penrod is on the verge of becoming a teen, and knows it. It will be not long before he embraces cotillions (and everything associated with girls)—and the thought appalls him.

Also missing from Rich’s analysis are the biographical facts of Tarkington’s own upbringing (which included some hard-luck years in a neighborhood not unlike Penrod Schofield’s) and the antics of his real-life nephews, who were not much older than Penrod and Sam and their pals (and enemies). Nearly every incident in the book is drawn from actual incidents in the actual lives of actual boys Penrod’s age.

Never mind also the well-known fact that Tarkington wrote the Penrod books on a dare from his wife, to prove that it really was possible to write a book about a “real” boy. Whether or not Tarkington succeeded is, of course, a legitimate topic of debate. But to claim that Tarkington was aiming for nostalgia is simply counter-factual.

Besides, how does Rich know that life wasn’t “this simple, or this easy” for a boy of 11 in Indianapolis in 1914? Does Rich know how many 11-year-olds were chatting about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand rather than fabricating tales of Mexican road agents? Which really seems more likely?

Rich seems to want to have his cake and eat it, too: America was, he says, quoting historian Mark Sullivan, “sleeping the sleep of the well-fed, the care-free, the confident”; but Penrod Schofield couldn’t possibly have been living such a simple, easy, thoughtless life. No. That would be both unrealistic, and artistically facile. Not to mention inconvenient to the thesis.

Well, how about going even one tiny step further into Tarkington’s oeuvre by trying on The Turmoil, also published by Booth Tarkington in 1914, for size? Critics wanting to put pre-war Tarkington into a Penrod-sized box haven’t done their homework. While Tarkington’s best work certainly antedated the War to End all Wars, it would be very hard to argue that all of Tarkington’s hard edges were the result of a post-idyll crash to reality.

Rich also seems to forget that the Roaring ’20s were, if anything, even more “a golden age of peace and prosperity,” to use his own words. Gosh, I guess Lewis, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner must all have been a product of their time, too. According to Rich’s logic, such a period of prosperity and ease could not possibly have generated a literature of any value.

“Did Penrod’s contemporary readers sense that the world as they knew it was about to change?” asks Rich to conclude his essay. “Did readers turn to Tarkington’s rosy portrait of boyhood for consolation?”

Penrod himself certainly sensed that his world was changing. And he didn’t like it much at all. Whether or not Tarkington’s readers grasped the geo-political forces shaping the world in 1914, they certainly saw themselves in Penrod’s shoes at a particular time of life. And if Rich himself can never recall summer idylls or idles as innocent as Penrod’s, well, more’s the pity. But he ought to get out more, and, say, attend a 4-H County Fair in someplace like St. Marie’s Idaho. There are some parts of America that haven’t changed much in 100 years.

And he really ought to stop writing things like, “The Great War was good for at least one thing: it saved American literature.” Thank you, but I’ll side with Edwin Starr: “War, huh yeah. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

If it takes bloodshed like WW I to redeem a country’s literature, that’s a body of literature we don’t need. “Lord knows there’s got to be a better way.”

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