Booth Tarkington

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Newton Booth Tarkington

The prolific writings of American author Newton Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) include the novels "Penrod" and "Seventeen" and many successful Broadway plays.

Booth Tarkington was born on July 29, 1869, the second child of lawyer John S. Tarkington and Elizabeth Booth Tarkington, in Indianapolis, Ind., a city which was always his home. His childhood was as happy and secure as his doting, well-educated, church-going, and prosperous parents could make it. He showed an early interest in writing and, like his fictional Penrod, produced his plays in the family hayloft. After mediocre achievement in high school he was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy.

The family suffered financial difficulties, so Tarkington entered first a local business college and then Purdue University to study art. When family fortunes revived, his mother insisted on sending him to Princeton, from which he could not receive a degree because he lacked the requisite classics background, but where he acquired a broad education and formed many associations which served him well during his life. He left Princeton in 1893 and spent the next 5 years writing, without much success in publishing his work. After McClure's Magazine serialized The Gentleman from Indiana in 1899, his novels and short stories appeared regularly in it and other magazines. In 1902 he married Louisa Fletcher and served one term in the Indiana Legislature as a conservative Republican. In 1903 he made his first trip to Europe, to which he returned regularly. A daughter was born in 1906.

From 1907 to 1910 Tarkington spent his time writing plays, mostly comedies such as Your Humble Servant and Springtime (both 1909), many in collaboration with Harry Wilson and Julian Street. Between 1914 and 1924 he wrote some plays and a trilogy of novels chronicling the rise and fall of family fortunes in midwestern industrial society. One of these, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919. His best novel, Alice Adams (1920), also received the Pulitzer Prize. During these years he produced his famous characters modeled on his own boyhood, the title character of Penrod (1914) and Penrod and Sam (1916) and Willie Baxter of Seventeen (1916). During both world wars he devoted much effort to writing Allied propaganda.

In 1911 his first wife divorced him, and in 1912 he married Susanah Robinson. They had no children; his daughter, Laurel, died in 1923. Tarkington began losing his eyesight in the late 1920s, and he was blind in his later years. He learned to dictate and continued to write. On May 19, 1946, he died in Indianapolis.

Further Reading

The first full-length critical biography of Tarkington is James Woodress, Booth Tarkington: Gentleman from Indiana (1955). Tarkington's novels are treated in Carl Van Doren, The American Novel, 1789-1939 (1940), and Edward Wagenknecht, Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952).

Additional Sources

Mayberry, Susanah, My amiable uncle: recollections about Booth Tarkington, West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1983.

Tarkington, Booth, The world does move, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976. □

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Booth Tarkington (Newton Booth Tarkington), 1869–1946, American author, b. Indianapolis. His most characteristic and popular works were his genial novels of life in small Middle Western towns, including The Gentleman from Indiana (1899), The Conquest of Canaan (1905), and the trilogy Growth (1927), made up of Turmoil (1915), The Magnificent Ambersons (1918; Pulitzer Prize), and The Midlander (1923). Alice Adams (1921; Pulitzer Prize), considered by some his best novel, tells of the frustrated ambitions of a romantic lower-middle-class girl. He wrote several amusing novels of boyhood and adolescence, the most notable being Penrod (1914) and Seventeen (1916). His plays include a dramatization of his own historical romance Monsieur Beaucaire (1901) and Clarence (1921).

See his reminiscences, The World Does Move (1928); biography by J. L. Woodress (1955, repr. 1969); study by K. J. Fennimore (1974).