Autobiographical “As I Seem to Me” Released in Book Form
America Moved: Booth Tarkington’s Memoirs of Time and Place, 1869-1928
In his preface to America Moved, Front Porch Republic co-founder and editor Jeremy Beer rightly laments two things: first, that the works of his fellow Indianan Booth Tarkington have not only fallen into neglect, but critical disfavor; and second, that Tarkington has consequently been the subject of only one biography (James Woodress’ Gentleman from Indiana, 1955) and precious few scholarly studies.
A truly remarkable byproduct of the latter cultural misfortune is that one of the two major sources of Tarkington autobiographical matter—a lengthy manuscript entitled “As I Seem to Me”—has, until now, never appeared in book form. I obtained my own copy of the manuscript via a visit to the Seattle Public Library, reprinting page after page after microfilmed page from the serialized version of that manuscript, which appeared in seven parts from July 5 through August 23, 1941 in The Saturday Evening Post.
As a Tarkington enthusiast, like Beers, I have assembled a complete collection of Tarkington first editions—and have until now treasured that stack of tattered photocopies. But with the publication of America Moved, which includes not only the text of “As I Seem to Me” but Tarkington’s earlier The World Does Move (1929), I can gladly consign those photocopies to deep storage.
“As I Seem to Me,” oddly, covers the early years of Tarkington’s life—though it was published much later than The World Does Move. And, just as oddly, the former abruptly ends, chronologically, just about the point at which the latter picks up the narrative. It’s a quirk of fits-and-starts autobiographical efforts and the vagaries of the publishing industry.
Nonetheless, “As I Seem to Me” should be sheer delight for anyone who has enjoyed Tarkington’s early works—particularly his “juvenile” fiction (such as Penrod, Seventeen, or The Flirt), but also his early novels and novellas like The Gentleman from Indiana, Monsieur Beaucaire, or The Turmoil (all in the public domain). I was so taken with the piece, in fact, that (like Beers) I contacted both the Tarkington Estate and surviving family members to get their blessings in putting the work back in print. They were more than happy to have interest shown, and readily agreed. Sadly, I dragged my heels on the project too long… and Beers has saved me the trouble and expense of doing it myself. It’s a race I’m only too glad to have lost. Beers has done a fine job of overseeing the project.
“As I Seem to Me” provides brilliant insight into the formative influences of Tarkington’s literary career—and those touchstones are not what one would necessarily think. He was not a good student, as evidenced by vast gaps in his primary education and his failure to finish his degree at Princeton. He was never “most likely to succeed” material, and to all outward indicators was probably, as a young man, perceived by his elders to be indolent, idle, and “good for nothing” while to his peers he was convivial and entertaining. The words that Tarkington devotes to his encounters with his longsuffering father, for instance—careful, calculated words appropriately doled out a propos with great economy—make abundantly clear that Tarkington, while doted upon egregiously by his mother and sister, was in his dependent years a great disappointment, overly-dependent, and a tragic spendthrift drain on the family’s limited resources.
In these details one begins to see that Tarkington’s literary creations—often dismissed as romanticized hokum of an America that never existed—actually do smack of a reality gone by precisely because they were rooted in Tarkington’s own experience.
Is Beasley’s Christmas Party, for instance, fantastical? Yes. But in “As I Seem to Me” we find that the literary David Beasley is no more fantastic than Tarkington’s namesake, his uncle Newton Booth, Governor of California—and young Hamilton Swift’s antics are not a great deal harder to believe than those of the young Booth Tarkington. Newton Booth’s credulity of his nephew’s invisible friends in fact forms the basis of the 1909 novella.
Likewise, Little Orvie (1940) does not represent rose-tinted longing for a dream-like childhood; many of the uproarious episodes from Little Orvie can be found directly in the text of “As I Seem to Me.” Similarly with Seventeen or the Penrod books: the fictional Rupe Collins, for instance, is the real life “Brick-top” while Penrod’s buddy Sam is based on Tarkington’s cousin Fenton. And so on. Tarkington lived these stories.
One thing that “As I Seem to Me” long ago settled in my mind, however—something that seems to have escaped Tarkington’s biographers and latter day scholars—is that Tarkington was not just familiar with privilege. He was also familiar with penury.
From a post-Depression perspective, it’s hard for contemporary Americans to understand the boom-bust-boom-bust cycle that characterized the global economy up until World War II. Yet that cycle was one which touched nearly every family at some point. Financial security, as we now know it, was not a seminal American value prior to 1932. And there was, of course, no government-sponsored safety net.
So it’s easy to gloss over Tarkington’s description of the “Panic of ‘73” and lightly (if smugly) think to oneself, “Yes, but Uncle Booth rode in on his fine white horse to save the family’s fortunes, didn’t he?” And yet the pages of “As I Seem to Me” are rife with explicit and implied reminders that Tarkington’s father, a lawyer, suffered the same fate as most others in 1873—and again in 1893. Tarkington’s family was not homeless—but like most of their neighbors, they lost their savings and their homes, and were left without those proverbial dimes to rub together. These financial collapses were every bit as severe as that of 1929 and after, but newsreels were not on hand to capture it all so that we can replay it on YouTube.
History may often be written by the winners, but make no mistake—it’s always lived by the losers, too, and for a good deal of Tarkington’s younger years his immediate family lived more like losers than winners.
But that’s the benefit of being a writer, isn’t it? You get to win in the end by rewriting your life in a fashion that suits you better. Especially when others buy your books by the tens of thousands. And for Tarkington, that meant telling the truth as he lived it, if with sly humor and happy endings. Hence, “As I Seem to Me” rather than “As I Actually Am.”
Beer is to be commended, however, for not just reprinting “As I Seem to Me,” but for pairing it with the text of The World Does Move. Only recently back in print thanks to POD publishing, the 1929 autobiographical work has nonetheless long been available in library archives and via used book stores. (I picked up a first edition years ago for less than five dollars.) But including these two manuscripts under one (annotated) cover does the literary world a great service.
World is written, however, in an odd abstract fashion, intermixing Tarkington’s first-hand recollections with thinly-veiled “third person” conversations which allow the author all sorts of room for editorializing and theorizing… and, to be honest, rambling raconteurism.
The central theme is the rapidity of social change in America after the “fin de siècle” and the moral implications of the same—and is well worth the read.
One of Beer’s readers at Front Porch Republic—a reader we might characterize as a “troll” were it not for his noted similarity to the critics of Tarkington’s own day—has dismissed some of Tarkington’s pithy observations as those of—surprise, surprise—a myopic romantic. But isn’t that an easy perspective to take from the distance of a hundred years or more? Do we really suppose that we understand the social upheaval of the early 20th century better than an incredibly astute observer who actually lived through it all?
Tarkington had his eyes and mind open, and if we keep our own eyes and mind open we might find that his perspective was not only perceptive but prescient.
Anybody who is interested either in American history, American literature, or American culture would benefit greatly from (and probably be entertained in no small way) by a tour through America Moved.
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