Tarkington, Booth (1869-1946)

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Tarkington, Booth (1869-1946)

A prolific and versatile writer of mainstream fiction, (Newton) Booth Tarkington is remembered for his portrayals of middle-class life in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Indiana. His best known works, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and Alice Adams (1921), were awarded the first and the fourth Pulitzer Prizes for literature. The former was adapted for the screen by Orson Welles in 1942, and the latter is considered by critics to be Tarkington's finest accomplishment. A novelist, playwright, essayist, and briefly a politician, Tarkington produced a total of 171 short stories, 21 novels, 9 novellas, and 19 plays along with a number of movie scripts, radio dramas, and even illustrations over the course of a career that lasted from 1899 until his death in 1946. Having achieved a wide audience but not the lasting respect of critics, most agree that his finest work was done around the time of World War I.

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, to the sort of comfortably well-established family that he later popularized in his fiction, Tarkington dictated his first short story to his sister at the age of six, and by the age of 16 had written a 14-act work on Jesse James. After graduation from Princeton, Tarkington moved to New York and labored futilely for five years to get his work published before turning to his own background for inspiration. Said Tarkington, "I had no real success until I struck Indiana subjects." He later described his first book, The Gentleman from Indiana, as "an emotional tribute to the land of my birth." A commercial success, it received only lukewarm comment from critics, many of whom labeled it an unrealistic romance. Thus was a general pattern set for Tarkington's career. A 1991 Dictionary of Literary Biography entry on Tarkington suggested that "Although he had more talent than most of his contemporaries, his work never quite achieved major significance, and he had to be content with a large rather than a discriminating audience."

In 1902, Tarkington married Laurel Louisa Fletcher and was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives as a Republican, though he was forced to vacate his seat a year later due to an illness. The couple spent most of the next decade traveling through Europe, but Booth's happiness, as well as his writing, were disrupted by bouts of excessive drinking and finally by divorce in 1911. One year later he married Susanah Keifer and took up his literary career again full-time. In 1914 he began work on his "Penrod" stories, which recaptured boyhood life in the late nineteenth century. In the postwar years, Tarkington's career reached its zenith with two Pulitzer Prizes. His prolific output during this time was not accidental; by all accounts he was a literary workhorse sometimes putting in 18-hour days of solid writing with little or no diversion until the task of the moment was complete. The popularity of this work made him financially comfortable, and beginning in the 1920s Tarkington settled in to what he called "the milk run"—summers at Kennebunkport, Maine, and winters in Indianapolis. Cataracts gradually diminished his sight, and in 1930 he went completely blind. Surgeries successfully returned a part of his vision a year later, but his vitality was diminished. He turned primarily to children's stories in the final phase of his career, while also becoming a significant collector of art. He died in 1946 after an illness.

The volumes that Tarkington completed over the course of the first half of the twentieth century form a documentary testament of industrialization, urbanization, and social flux in urban middle America. Biographer James Woodress characterized his body of work as "a paradigm of growth in the Midwest." In his fiction, Tarkington clearly expressed his distaste for the bustle and grime of urban life. The Magnificent Ambersons documented the incursion of the dirty streets, unkempt masses, and smoke-filled air of the industrializing metropolis into an idyllic nineteenth-century world. Part of the tragedy of the book is aesthetic as the beautiful estate of the great family is vanquished by bland, utilitarian architecture and uncultured people. Yet, ironically, Tarkington chose to spend much of his adult life in the city whose fall he lamented in his fiction. Addressing this paradox, Tarkington said, "I belong here, I am part of it, and it is part of me. I understand it and it understands me. I would be out of touch with what I know best if I did not spend at least part of each year in Indianapolis."

In describing his style, an anonymous reviewer in the North American Review commented, "Mr. Tarkington is neither a realist, nor a romanticist, nor a localist, nor an impressionist, nor any special kind of literary artist, but simply a complete novelist." Tarkington himself fought the impetus to pigeonhole his work, vehemently rejecting the label of "romanticist" that some reviewers tried to force upon him. His literary heroes were Mark Twain and especially William Dean Howells. Dickinson quoted Tarkington on his wholesome, all-American tastes: "[He] admires all those things which every decent, ordinary, simple-hearted person admires," and "hates precisely those things hated by all honest, healthy, 'American,' people." Yet, Tarkington was nonetheless criticized by some conservative contemporaries for his critique of the American fascination with wealth, superficiality, and what he often referred to as "bigness" as ends in themselves, an overriding selfishness that he saw leading society toward mental and spiritual degeneration.

Tarkington lives on through his two Pulitzer-winning novels, the "Penrod" stories, and Orson Welles' 1942 film adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons. These are remembered for their sentimental and socially conscious renderings of boyhood and middle-class life in the American Midwest around the turn of the century. Tarkington is not considered a literary genius, despite the Pulitzers. Instead, his legacy is as one of the most popular writers of the first half of the twentieth century—a period in which he sold more than five million volumes.

—Steve Burnett

Further Reading:

Dickinson, Asa Don. Booth Tarkington: A Sketch. New York, Doubleday, 1928.

Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 9. American Novelists, 1910-1945. Detroit, Gale Research, 1981.

Fennimore, Keith J. Booth Tarkington. Boston, Twayne, 1974.

Mayberry, Susanah. My Amicable Uncle: Recollections about Booth Tarkington. West Lafayette, Purdue University Press, 1983.

Tarkington, Booth. The World Does Move. New York, Doubleday, 1928.

Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. 3rd ed. Detroit, St. James Press, 1989, 947-949.

Woodress, James. Booth Tarkington: Gentleman from Indiana. Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1955.