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?