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.)
Seventeen plays out on the sort of idyllic townscape that's always on its way toward despoilment in the author's more serious books, and it contains the usual share of nice moments when Tarkington is writing above himself: "This haloed summer still idled on its way, yet all the while sped quickly; like some languid lady in an elevator." Even so, despite having a bit more narrative propulsion than Penrod, Seventeen is another self-conscious literary construction, with invocation of The Three Musketeers and Sydney Carton. Much of the story is conveyed in a mock-heroic bellow ("there have been collar-buttons that failed when the destinies of families hung upon them"). Curiously enough, in the letters he wrote to his young nephews, a dozen years before Seventeen, Tarkington had employed something like the reverse technique, to much more charming effect. In these compositions, instead of comically pumping up the mundane, he shrank the momentous inside a kind of Hoosier homespun ("Then we saw Lucrezia Borgia's house ... she poisoned more people than Sherman's Restaurant").
Seventeen is not what we would today call a young-adult novel. It was always intended for grown-ups, just as those letters to Tarkington's nephews were almost certainly meant for their parents. No adolescent could be long entertained by the personifications of the title ("To Seventeen such a departure is final; it is a vanishing"), or the narrator's constant superiority, however fond, toward his subjects. Tarkington took his biggest risk by letting the reader identify with the one truly believable adult in the book: poor Mr. Parcher, whose daughter is the host for Miss Pratt's endless visit. A forerunner of the sitcom-sap American father, Mr. Parcher seeks only a little respite from the posturing postpubescents who are always underfoot. He longs to be reading Plutarch—and twenty pages into Seventeen, so do we.
These two novels of youth, written when the author was in his forties, were a kind of literary second childhood, a regression from the subject matter of politics, which had preoccupied Tarkington at the turn of the century and for a time appeared to be his destiny as both a writer and a man of action. He had been named Newton Booth Tarkington for his mother's brother, Newton Booth (a Republican governor of California from 1871 to 1875), and his father's legal work had brought a lot of politicians around while he was growing up. When Benjamin Harrison boarded that Indianapolis streetcar, it may well have been taking him to the Tarkington home, at 1100 N. Pennsylvania Street.
The Gentleman From Indiana (1899), Tarkington's first published novel, sprang from his awareness that "a Hoosier will talk politics after he is dead." The state has grown Vice Presidents (five, from Schuyler Colfax to Dan Quayle) the way it grows corn, and in the book it makes perfect sense for a local dry-goods merchant to wonder whether his late wife has run across Ulysses S. Grant in the afterlife. The novelist rhapsodizes about the body politic of Plattville as "the beautiful people," a term that now looks funny on the page; but Tarkington, gazing into the democratic future, chose it for his book's exclamatory last line.
After two years at Princeton, the author had spent five back home, living with his parents, writing and being rejected. The twenty-nine-year-old gentleman from Indiana, John Harkless, is seven years out of an eastern college and has been in Plattville for five, running the town's newspaper without much distinction except for crusades against the thieving White-Caps gang. Harkless and Helen Sherwood, the action-starting new girl in town, meet dangerously cute, just as some of the editor's enemies are literally taking a shot at him. However independent and eastern-educated Helen may be ("I'd rather do things for myself"), we're assured that she is also a "born mother." But when Harkless is kidnapped and badly injured by the White-Caps, it is Helen who secretly keeps the Herald alive, and under the ambiguous name of H. Fisbee pens an editorial urging that he be drafted for Congress.
The book is full of fumbles that Tarkington would soon be too smooth to commit: mechanical crowd scenes, overstuffed descriptions, suspense drawn out past believability, dud classical allusions showing off those two years at Princeton, and prose more purple than any mountain's majesty. Still, one can feel the young novelist struggling toward something like seriousness. When a posse rides to Harkless's rescue, Zane Grey seems to take over the book; yet Tarkington won't allow Harkless's captors to tie him to the railroad tracks, because "they are not familiar with melodrama." Making a visit to Indianapolis at the time this debut novel appeared, William Dean Howells had kind words for it; and Tarkington, his escort around the city, would aspire, off and on for decades, to the sort of realism Howells recommended to American fiction. There was perhaps just enough of it in The Gentleman From Indiana to make Howells believe that the author could grow into someone formidable, but still enough staginess and folderol (Matthiessen called the book an "operetta") to make him spot the fatal eagerness to please—the impulse that time and again, between his best productions, would cause Tarkington to lose his nerve and play to the cheap seats.
What appear at first to be some of Gentleman's cornier bits—Helen's determination to be a good Hoosier; a possibly unique adverb, "Americanly" (to modify "capable")—are actually what's promising and robust in the book. Tarkington had discovered a subject, and a not unworthy one: citizenship. Judge Briscoe, Helen's host in Plattville, gives his daughter this warning against political cynicism: "The only criticism any one has any business making against Congress is that it's too good for some of the men we send there." Tarkington wrote these words of admonition shortly before serving a single term in the Indiana legislature—one of the best artistic moves he ever made. According to Woodress, his biographer, he ran not just from "a sense of civic responsibility" but because "he needed new experience to stoke the fires of his creative impulse."
Tarkington's single term yielded a volume of stories (In the Arena, 1905) that are peopled by some of the most vivid characters he would ever derive from real-life origins: Uncle Billy Rollinson, an honest simpleton who finally lets himself be bought by the railroads in order to keep his son out of jail; Frank Pixley, a cruel precinct committeeman and a piece of naturalism more in Dreiser's line (he's compared to a fungus); Mrs. Protheroe, a seductive widow and lobbyist for the legalization of Sunday baseball, who doesn't mention to a callow state senator that she owns the baseball park; and Hector J. Ransom, an orating nullity as modern as the title character in The Candidate. The collection's standout piece is "The Aliens," a blend of O. Henry and sophisticated realism depicting innocent immigrants ruined by the awful Pixley.
In these tales politics and the penitentiary are never separated by more than a trapdoor, but Tarkington remains in love with democratic potential. After reading the stories, the greatest reformer of the time, Theodore Roosevelt, commanded the author to come to lunch at the White House. TR berated him for "helping to crystallize the feeling that politics is no 'business for a gentleman,'" but he praised In the Arena in his letters and went on to swipe its title for the most memorable passage in his 1910 address "Citizenship in a Republic," which Richard Nixon alluded to on the day he left office.
In fact Tarkington was right on message when it came to Roosevelt's ethic of voter involvement. He was bent on dramatizing, not condoning, the white-gloved disdain that the twenty-sixth President feared. "As anybody knows," Tarkington has one of his machine pols declare, "the 'better element' ... act as if they looked down on politics; say it's only helping one boodler against another." For most of our modern history American literary novelists have kept this same disgusted distance from the actual strong-arm practice of small-time politics, allowing commercial writers to present a fantasy version of governance that's usually set in the Oval Office or the Situation Room.
"I am learning!" says the wised-up state senator, after realizing he's been tricked by Mrs. Protheroe. Tarkington was learning too, heading into territory that could have kept him steadily devoted to Howells's standard for realism. But a case of typhoid fever, followed by an extended recuperation in Maine and Europe, put an end to his brief legislative experience. Severed from the material that might have made him a memorable novel-writing politician, he became instead a full-time Author, whose subject matter would end up being more diffuse than broad. He took the art of compromise he'd seen in the legislature and misapplied it to his own art, indulging in the slick, automatic utterance that turned his career into a literary version of Hector J. Ransom's success at politics.
Political leanings remain discernible in the decades' worth of books that followed In the Arena. Toward the great flood tide of immigration Tarkington displayed, in contrast to the strong sympathy of "The Aliens," a sort of regretful nativism, accepting changes to the American cultural complexion with the conviction that later arrivals were more interested in money than in freedom. On matters of race one can locate him 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. Like many Roosevelt Progressives, he got off the train of reform before TR's distant cousin turned the Square Deal into something entirely New. By the late 1920s, warning against a socialist panacea, Tarkington was surprised to be describing himself as "the liberal of a former age."
A late-life admiration for the moderate Wendell Willkie—his fellow Hoosier from over in Elwood—would keep his anti-FDR feelings from slipping into mere reaction, and in one key respect Tarkington seems more forward-looking than even the most left-wing novelist from the period between the wars. Indeed, 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 TR mode, but an emerald-Green decrier of internal combustion. The automobile, whose production was centered in Indianapolis before World War I, became the snorting, belching villain that, along with soft coal, laid waste to Tarkington's Edens. His objections to the auto were aesthetic—in The Midlander (1923) automobiles sweep away the more beautifully named "phaetons" and "surreys"—but also something far beyond that. Dreiser, his exact Indiana contemporary, might look at the Model T and see wage slaves in need of unions and sit-down strikes; Tarkington saw pollution, and a filthy tampering with human nature itself. "No one could have dreamed that our town was to be utterly destroyed," he wrote in The World Does Move. His important novels are all marked by the soul-killing effects of smoke and asphalt and speed, and even in Seventeen, Willie Baxter fantasizes about winning Miss Pratt by the rescue of precious little Flopit from an automobile's rushing wheels.
Today's reader may recognize something basic here, but Tarkington's contemporaries probably regarded all this as a cranky motif, since during the years of his greatest literary stature and celebrity Tarkington himself kept paving over this one abrasive layer of his thought. He would speak his piece on the subject, but was finally 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.
In The Plutocrat (1927), despite his claim never to have read Lewis's novel, Tarkington acted the crowd-pleasing literary politician and concocted an antidote to Babbitt in the shape of Earl Tinker, a midwestern utilities baron traveling to Europe and North Africa with the little woman and their daughter. Boisterous and philistine, Tinker is chiefly interested in seeing the electrical grid and sewage system of any foreign port of call. But he is also philanthropic, shrewd, and tolerant—the commonsensical new Roman conqueror, by Tarkington's lights. The author even lets this protagonist take victorious leave of the reader by standing up in a detestable automobile, "gloriously waving his shiny hat."
James Woodress somewhat misidentified "egoism" as a major subject of Tarkington's work. More exactly it was snobbery—a narrower thematic terrain. Tarkington's hero (even Penrod) is very often a snob whose downfall comes not from social position but from social positioning, an attempt to climb the next rung or just stay perched on the current one. The author's most enduring public success, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), presents the cruelest of all his somebodies: George Amberson Minafer, whose grandfather, "the Major," made the Ambersons financially magnificent during the Panic of 1873.
Amberson Mansion, whose woodwork alone cost $60,000, is the locus for an essaylike first chapter that stands as the author's key pronouncement on destructive change in the early twentieth century: the disappearance of streetcars, serenades, and leisure itself into a farrago of new industrial smoke. The novel's superbly informative settings (Tarkington is the American laureate of residential real estate, alert to every fountain, view, and wainscot) are nearly as important as its plot, which readers are likely to remember less from the book than from Orson Welles's 1942 film. Major Amberson's daughter, Isabel, throws over her attractive suitor Eugene Morgan because of a harmless drunken scrape he gets into, and goes on to marry the colorless Wilbur Minafer, a "steady young businessman." Their son, George, who has a reprise as horrid little Henry in The Midlander, grows up as the town brat, decrying the "riffraff" and flicking a whip from his dogcart. Everyone else may wish for George's "come-upance," but his mother—and mothers are always more important than fathers in Tarkington—sees him as literally "God's gift." She seems untroubled even by her son's only ambition, to be a yachtsman—a sign of risible deracination in a midwesterner so assertive of his family's heritage and standing.
Tarkington's world is an indoor one; his climaxes and reversals come during cotillions, not whaling expeditions or raft trips down the river. If he lacks Henry James's drawing-room subtleties, there's no denying the power of the party scenes in which Eugene Morgan—come back to town, years later, with a beautiful grown daughter and the intention of manufacturing motorcars—begins to disrupt the erotic algebra of the extended Amberson family, whose finances are heading into rapid decline along with Wilbur Minafer's health. Morgan rekindles not only Isabel's long-ago desire for romance but also the suppressed ardor of her spinster sister-in-law, Fanny. Tarkington made the impressive aesthetic decision to have the otherwise sympathetic Morgan be the automobile man (he did the same thing with The Midlander's Dan Oliphant), while the unattractive George Minafer is the exponent of the author's own wistful values. When it falls to George to defend the great old Amberson lawn against a housing development, Tarkington is shuffling the reader's emotional pack and dealing out the unexpected.
Further surprises come with each sight of Aunt Fanny, a Hoosier version of Balzac's desiccated, poisonous Cousin Bette, alternately piteous and diabolical, who fills George's hot head, after the death of his father, with what she claims is town gossip about the way his mother encouraged Morgan's attentions even before the death of her husband. Fanny and George, with their weeping and nausea over the rumors, are both sexual hysterics, and when George slams the door in Eugene Morgan's face, it's the erotic undercurrent of his mother's lifelong worship that's powering his arm; when he and Isabel subsequently flee to Europe, it feels furtive and incestuous. While abroad, the two of them are spared seeing the industrial strangulation of their home town, but Isabel's health fails. Upon their return George won't let Morgan even approach her deathbed. Isabel's precious but by now impoverished son is reduced to taking a dangerous job in a chemical factory and, in yet another parody of marriage, forced to go into lodgings with Aunt Fanny. Tarkington sets the boardinghouse thermostat to a brilliant chill: "After dinner [George] would escort his aunt from the table in some state (not wholly unaccompanied by a leerish wink or two from the wags of the place) and he would leave her at the door of the communal parlours and card rooms, with a formality in his bow of farewell which afforded an amusing contrast to Fanny's always voluble protests."
The Magnificent Ambersons is certainly flawed (one never believes the attraction of Morgan's daughter, Lucy, to George), and padded enough for one to wonder if it might not have benefited from the editorial ruthlessness that befell Welles's film, cut by the studio from 132 minutes to eighty-eight after a disappointing preview. Even so, only six years ago The Magnificent Ambersons managed to get Tarkington onto the Modern Library's list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century (albeit at No. 100).
One won't argue with the inclusion, even though Tarkington could not resist a wildly sentimental conclusion presided over by Isabel's spirit, which Morgan manages to channel through a medium. The novelist once decried unhappy endings as the means by which authors "cheaply" earn a reputation for emotional power—a rationalization, actually, of his own kind of customer relations. His mentor Howells had said that Americans wanted tragedy with a happy ending, and in book after book Tarkington tended to take this witticism for a prescription.
Only once, three years after The Magnificent Ambersons, did he fully resist his own patent medicine, producing his greatest work, a book the Modern Library's judges might credibly have put into their top fifty, if they had remembered to include it at all.
Alice Adams "is my most actual & 'life-like' work ... about as humorous as tuberculosis," Tarkington wrote shortly after publishing the book, in 1921. The novel is fundamentally preoccupied with neurosis (in the form of the heroine's compulsions), but it begins with the physical ills of Alice's father: Virgil Adams lies upstairs, trying to convalesce in the usual Midland city that's now covered with fumes and smoke and the soot of soft coal. His job is being held open for him by his benevolent boss, Mr. Lamb, an old-style capitalist in the mold of Major Amberson.
But Adams's appreciation of Lamb is not shared by his termagant wife, who believes the boss undervalues her husband in the only manner that counts these days. "Now you listen to me, Virgil Adams: the way the world is now, money is family." Mrs. Adams is the worst of Tarkington's many viperish wives, pushing Virgil to start his own glue factory with a formula long ago developed on Mr. Lamb's money and time. She is as much a part of the new capitalism as the smoke and noise now choking the city, and by succumbing to her taunts Adams risks a financial disaster more grimly personal than the slow dynastic slide of the Ambersons.
And yet in this, the best plotted of his novels, Tarkington subordinates everything to the small, dank tragedy of the Adamses' daughter, Alice, a brilliantly rendered blend of her mother's pretensions and father's good heart, but animated by a nervous cleverness all her own. At twenty-two, despite good looks and vivacity, this young woman, so desperate to be noticed, has doomed herself to an entirely strategic life of gesture and imitation: aping the smile of an actress, wearing a turban with a white veil, carrying a malacca cane and passing out the calling cards that became obsolete a generation before. Caught in the middle class, Alice manages to be both George Minafer and the people he despises. In a passage that may lack Fitzgerald's lyricism but equals his social precision, Tarkington makes clear how time has already passed Alice by.
When she was sixteen "all the nice boys in town," as her mother said, crowded the Adamses' small veranda and steps, or sat near by, cross-legged on the lawn, on summer evenings; and at eighteen she had replaced the boys with "the older men." By this time most of "the other girls," her contemporaries, were away at school or college, and when they came home to stay, they "came out"—that feeble revival of an ancient custom offering the maiden to the ceremonial inspection of the tribe. Alice neither went away nor "came out" ... She had been a belle too soon.
Like one of Tarkington's Negro child-pals, Alice finds herself good enough for the games of youth, but outgrown by force of social and economic custom. She now barely gets an invitation to the fancy Mildred Palmer's dance, but manages, once there, to spend time with the good-looking Arthur Russell, who ought to be out of reach but is enough his own man to be "fascinated by her quickness" and powers of flirtation. What he does not yet realize is that her show-horse verbal style cannot be turned off. Alice will soon, in one of her few honest moments, admit to Russell, "I was wondering what I wanted to make you think of me."
Self-awareness gives Alice a poignancy that Emma Bovary, her literary forebear in pretentiousness, could never attain. But Alice is more than self-aware; she is self-destructive. She knows that she doesn't need to fake anything with the upstanding Arthur Russell—knows, indeed, that in his case it will be counterproductive to pretend that her family has had a long commercial feud with the Lambs; that they live in their flimsy colonial house out of mere eccentricity; and that her brother was shooting dice with the Negro boys in the cloakroom at Mildred Palmer's for "research" purposes ("He's rather literary"). But she does all these things and more, because she is in a dizzy double bind—unable to drop her old stratagems for finding love, and newly compelled to exercise them in pursuit of an even deeper goal: self-immolation. She predicts her own ruin ("I'm just sure something spiteful's going to happen to me") because it's what she most desires. Unlike other Tarkington characters, Alice has a subconscious; she was constructed with the kind of psychological basement the author usually skimped on. Wherever she came from, Tarkington must have been astounded to find this frantic female inversion of his own fatal desire to please an audience.
The dinner party that drives Russell away would in another of Tarkington's novels be a long, comic pratfall. Here the farce is hung with crêpe, and each piece of the agony is keenly real: the family's obvious inexperience with the caviar the Adams women insist on offering; the sweltering weather that turns the hot soup and Brussels sprouts into instruments of nausea; the supposedly regular housemaid who's actually been hired for just a few hours to serve the meal. "Why, it's finished, isn't it?" Alice asks in a trembling voice, eager for defeat, when even Russell's patience and good manners can bear no more. The evening that Tennessee Williams's Gentleman Caller would later spend with Laura Wingfield is no more affecting than what Tarkington writes here; nor is it conceivable that in creating the climax of The Glass Menagerie, Williams was unfamiliar with this expertly blocked playlet inside a novel famous during his youth.
For once Tarkington keeps his nerve. He very nearly loses it, holding out a sentimental sprig of hope that Russell will give Alice another try, but on the last pages he makes her walk through "that portal of doom, Frincke's Business College"—the fate worse than death that this would-be Rosalind has been avoiding for 400 pages. If the reader imagines Alice forty years later, it is not with Russell but struggling to master an electric typewriter just before retiring, alone, to her parents' old crackerbox colonial. She could even now, just barely, be alive, as Katharine Hepburn, who played her in the 1935 movie, was until last summer. On the page, unique among Tarkington's creations, she remains indisputably so, because, as the author wrote to his friend George C. Tyler, "the girl is drawn without any liking or disliking of her by the writer." Whether he knew the term or not, Tarkington had stumbled on the practice of what Keats called "negative capability"—the artist's gift for suspending judgment while he simply creates. It is a quality unknown in commercial filmmaking: the movie poster for Alice Adams exclaimed, "Everybody Will Adore Her!"—even Arthur Russell, who, as played by Fred MacMurray, manfully breaks through Alice's compulsive nonsense and embraces her in the final fade-out. About the worst thing one can say of the film is that Hollywood took Alice Adams—a great and by now largely forgotten book—and turned it into a Booth Tarkington novel.
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.
He retains the value of exact social detailing (this writer who can remind us of an age when widows consoled themselves with "In Memoriam" and a moment when the term "living room" seemed as coarse as "lifestyle"), but the twin peaks of Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons make us understand how typically limited was his reach. A half century has passed since Woodress tried propping him up with some female company that has enjoyed a better critical afterlife than he: "With Cather, Glasgow, Wharton, and other older novelists still active," the biographer wrote, Tarkington "went on recording honestly the life he observed from his somewhat detached vantage point." Perhaps as good a local colorist as Glasgow, Tarkington lacked the great steady artistry of Cather and the more flashy sort of Wharton—either of which might have left him a writer with much still to say to us. One senses that he knew it would be so—knew that the more adaptable aspects of his American place and time would find later, living avatars, while his books got trapped in time's amber. The implacable optimism of Dan Oliphant, his "Midlander," would be carried into our own day by someone like Ronald Reagan, of Dixon, Illinois—whereas the Manhattan General Society Library's copy of The Midlander, prior to my borrowing it for this essay, was last due back on December 21, 1925.