The beautiful name on the spine always seemed more suited to a pirate than to a writer, let alone one who came from the flat, cornstalked world of James Whitcomb Riley and Theodore Dreiser. But Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) was a Book-of-the-Month Club unto himself: five million copies sold in a pre-paperback era; three dozen volumes of fiction, a score of plays. After he won his second Pulitzer, in 1922, the Literary Digest pronounced him America's greatest living writer, by means of a poll that now seems as accurate as the magazine's prediction, fourteen years later, that Alf Landon would be President.
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Entirely absent from most current histories of American writing, Tarkington was generally scorned by those published just before or after his death. Vernon L. Parrington summed him up as "a purveyor of comfortable literature to middle-class America," and F. O. Matthiessen praised the more serious Dreiser by saying that "he could not have been a Tarkington if he had tried." One finds no mention of Tarkington in The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes, let alone in the diaries and letters of his fellow Princetonian Edmund Wilson. Another alumnus, F. Scott Fitzgerald, had Tarkington in mind when he expressed his fear of lapsing into a condition that would render him uninterested in anything but "colored people, children, and dogs." Among two generations of later American novelists, only John O'Hara, ever as mindful of sales as of status, seemed willing to acknowledge Tarkington as an influence.
Like O'Hara, Tarkington quit drinking in his forties, thereby assuring a long, steady output. But in spite of a systematized man-of-letters routine, he remained a wildly uneven writer. "Uneven" may be the last refuge of the literary apologist, but in Tarkington the quality is so sharply up and down as to seem the result of a blood-sugar problem, or some seasonal affective disorder. The vast body of his mediocre work has so suffocated the fine (The Magnificent Ambersons) and the small bit of great (Alice Adams) that one decides to go back to Tarkington out of a curiosity both literary and sociological: how does such a ubiquitous and, for a time, honored figure disappear so quickly and completely?
To be caught with Tarkington in one's hands is to be suspected of nostalgia, a willingness to endure the second-rate for the sake of some moonlight on the Wabash, which must still be flowing somewhere through the heartland. But if that's what one is looking for, disappointment will soon set in with the realization that Tarkington was himself in the throes of nostalgia, setting most of his work two or three decades before he wrote it. He was, in fact, a kind of historical novelist, whose books can now be read only through a double glazing of time. The mood in his work is almost always regretful; Tarkington called his 1928 memoir The World Does Move, adopting the perspective of a man whom life is literally passing by. Gone, he noted, were the lamplighter, the fin de siècle editorial against speeding bicyclists, the sight of Benjamin Harrison boarding a streetcar in Indianapolis. There is no point in going to Tarkington for what he called the "cheerful placidity in American life [back] then." He was looking for it too.
Will he at least, perhaps, satisfy a nostalgia for youth itself? There are, after all, those novels about the very young, which one read, or was asked to read, when very young oneself. So let's get started (as he might have put it in one of his chummy prefaces) with them.
Penrod, published in 1914 but set a bit earlier, in the precisely defined period "when the stable was empty but not yet rebuilt into a garage," has, one discovers right away, a peculiar, obligatory feel. Like the adventures of Falstaff in love, those of Penrod Schofield at the age of eleven were composed on request, from "a lady connected by marriage with the writer." In fact, "at the time of her consent to become thus related she made virtually the condition that he should write something about a boy." Maybe these happy marital origins bear responsibility for the tameness of the production, which is proffered even to the reader like a box of candy.
Whether he's putting a girl's braid into an inkwell, playing drugstore, or tormenting the dog (in some ways the novel's most fully realized character), Penrod remains a nice young woman's idea of a boy. Even most of the food he gorges himself sick on, at a dog-and-pony show, seems awfully wholesome: cider, sardines, watermelon. His whole young life is too much of a good thing, and the bulk of it is derived from literature. Penrod is so referential as to be almost a work of postmodernism—assuming Tarkington could have imagined such a thing with modernism itself just beginning to steamroll over him. In the course of this first book about Penrod (has anyone ever read the sequels?), the boy writes an adventure story, acts in a pageant, reads a crime novel, and takes some prankish inspiration from a three-reel movie. The influence of vaudeville, too, seems everywhere apparent in the episodic volume.
None of these faults would kill the book; it is left to Penrod's charmlessness to do that. Bossy, imitative, and concerned with appearances, he tries our patience mostly by the paltriness of his mischief. The narrator declares "one of the hardest conditions of boyhood" to be "the almost continuous strain put upon the powers of invention by the constant and harassing necessity for explanations of every natural act." A reader feels Tarkington operating under a different but similar burden: the author is too well behaved, not a good enough liar, to imagine this boy.
Seventeen—the best-selling American title of 1916—is even worse. Its hero, William Sylvanus Baxter, is a few years older than Penrod and more insipid; he'd be Tom Sawyer to Penrod's Huck if only this boy who will "pant for his first evening clothes as the hart panteth after the water-brook" weren't already a closer match to Tom's goody-goody half-brother Sid. As often happens in Tarkington, the action of Seventeen gets going with the arrival of an attractive female from another town, in this case Miss Lola Pratt, whose pink parasol and baby talk somehow ignite a tumultuous summertime rivalry in Willie's youthful male circle. Accompanied by her dog Flopit, the burbling Miss Pratt ("Um's own mumsy make ums all right, um's p'eshus Flopit!") is no longer awful just in the spoiled and nauseating way that Tarkington intended as amusing. Almost ninety years on it is impossible not to perceive her as hideously sexualized—an older JonBenet Ramsey, or the Baby Jane waiting to happen. Tarkington unwittingly created a kind of freeze-dried pornography, ready to expand when dipped into the moist knowingness of an age he could hardly envision. But even by the standards of unlost innocence Miss Pratt is bad enough, a sure example of the mimetic fallacy, by which an author succeeds too well in replicating something unpleasant. (Her real-life basis, according to Tarkington's only full-scale biographer, James Woodress, was an illustrator named Rose O'Neill, a "huge pink-and-white, two-hundred-pound blonde," who created the Kewpie doll.)