The Plutocrat: A Novel

A Novel, by Booth Tarkington. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1927. 12mo. vi+543 pp. $2.50.
THE Plutocrat, whose name is Earl Tinker, is a millionaire from the Middle West, who, having made his money in paper, is now spending some of it in foreign travel. He is represented as blatant but childlike. He sings ‘Old Aunt Mariar’ and ‘She’s My Baby’ in the public lounge of an ocean liner, introduces himself cheerfully to everybody and is innocently immune to snubs, wins enormous sums at poker and placates his peevish wife by giving them to her. When he leaves a hotel, it is in the manner of a potentate distributing largess, and when he returns from the desert, whither he has gone souvenir hunting, he rides, draped in a scarlet burnous, on a white camel at the head of a caravan laden with the spoils of the Sahara. Foreign ladies look upon him as a new kind of barbarian, ridiculous but lovable, egregious but superb. And yet he is so afraid of his wife that he resorts to all sorts of fibs, dodges, and infantile deceptions to escape her shrewish tongue.
It will be perceived that Tinker is of the race of Babbitt, but he is a super-Babbitt, Babbitt apotheosized, of elemental force, magnificently unself-conscious, simple as a baby and as unsophisticated as girls are supposed to be. The refined Ogle and the over-refined Macklyn and Jones — playwright, poet, and painter from New York — cannot endure him; but the cosmopolitan Mme. Momoro sees in him, not merely a victim, but an imposing phenomenon, fresh and new, like a modern incarnation of a Gothic conqueror or of a Carthaginian of the age of Hamilcar. He fascinates her even more than she does him, perhaps because they stand a whole civilization apart. In the end Ogle is inclined to classify him as a Roman of the great period, because he has the Roman’s love of the ‘ home town,’ his realism, his megalomania. And we are left with the impression that Tinker embodies the essence of America.
It requires some courage to challenge Mr. Tarkington’s assumption that Tinker is the essence of America, because in doing so one seems to be siding with Ogle, Macklyn, and Jones, and they are singularly inept young men. Upon analysis Tinker seems to be compounded of three elements: innocence, good nature, and force or power; and his power, as evinced in the story at least, is mainly the power of money. One is oddly reminded of another Titan, the Frank Cowperwood of Mr. Dreiser, who has power, too, but is not especially distinguished for innocence or good nature; and perhaps one picture is as romantic as the other, one being drawn in the spirit of Dickens and the other in the spirit of Zola. Probably the best way to take Tinker, when all is said, is the way one takes Mr. Dombey or Mr. Boffin — as a recognizable and amusing type of which the average specimens in real life are not amusing.
The plot of The Plutocrat is natural and free-moving, almost devoid of the somewhat trite theatrical mechanisms that mar many of the earlier novels. In one respect, at least, the story is superior to any of the others, and that is in the painting-in of the Algerian background. Mr. Tarkington is a hardy optimist and romantic who, unlike most of the romantics and optimists of our time, knows how to write. His prime quality is not subtlety, but gusto, and this is a great and rare quality. If one reads the novel, not as a counter-blast to Messrs. Mencken and Lewis, but as an entertaining story, one can hardly fail to enjoy it.