Booth Tarkington: now there is a name with which to terrify a young writer!
Tarkington dominated American letters in the first third of the 20th century. His novels headed the newly invented bestseller lists. He won the Pulitzer Prize for literature twice in four years, 1919 and 1922. His books were brought to Broadway and made into movies.
And now? Now Tarkington is forgotten, dismissed, dusted. Even his biography seems out of print.
None of this would be very interesting or consequential if Tarkington were some potboiling hack or purely commercial writer. But at his best, he’s really pretty good – and Alice Adams is Tarkington at his very best. Better (I’d argue) than even his other famous novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, although that novel survives longer in the memory because it was made by Orson Welles into a much better movie than was made of Alice Adams.
Alice Adams is a coming of age story about a young woman in a Midwestern town, set shortly after World War I. Over two generations, the town has boomed from prairie settlement to an industrial center of more than 600,000, but Alice’s shabby genteel parents have not profited much from the expansion. Those parents remain however acquainted and connected with those who did profit, and Alice clings to a rapidly shrinking right of access to the dances and parties of the city’s little high society.
Alice is a clever and charming girl of 22. What is harder to capture in writing than charm? But Tarkington does it – as he captures too Alice’s excruciating pretensions and sorry self-deceptions.
With its shrewd descriptions of the tortures girls can inflict on each other – and its compassionate description of its heroine’s self-enlightenment – Alice Adams is the sort of book that you’d think would appeal to intelligent young women struggling for self-understanding.
And once upon a time … it did. I listened to Alice Adams as an audiobook, but a hardcover edition stood for years on my parents’ bookshelf, a gift from my grandmother to my mother. My mother must surely have read and liked it, for it stood in an honored place. But how many women who have turned 20 since the middle years of the last century still read it?
Tarkington is no Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Fitzgerald or Dos Passos. But he’s a much better writer than … well shall we fill out the list? So why is there room for Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck in our high school reading lists, and not Tarkington?
I’ll hazard some guesses:
1) Although he was born in 1869, a quarter century after Henry James (and only two years before Theodorse Dreiser), Tarkington was almost entirely untouched by literary modernism. He belongs with the Arnold Bennetts and the Anatole Frances – those writers who updated and streamlined the naturalistic style of the 19th century novel. Unfortunately for Tarkington, Bennett, and France, the modernists overwhelmingly and unconditionally won the battle to define the canon. Those who did not adopt the new forms and purposes were brutally excised from literary respectability by the critics of the 1930s and 1940s.
2) The keepers of the canon can sometimes forgive a non-modernist style, so long as the writer adopts an alienated, critical or anyway outsider perspective on American life: Think Sinclair Lewis for example, or John Cheever. Tarkington, however, wrote as an “insider.” He even served a term in the Indiana state legislature as a Republican – a conservative Republican who ultimately came to favor Prohibition. Tarkington might mock the strictures of small-town gentility. But the “silence, exile, and cunning” recommended to writers by James Joyce’s Stephen Daedelus would have been meaningless to him. The most admirable character of The Mangificent Ambersons is a successful businessman. Alice Adams finds redemption when she decides to accept her place in life, learn bookkeeping and get a job.
3) The modern university curriculum – and that is the first step to defining the canon – cannot cope with a writer whose views on race fall any distance short of perfect enlightenment. Tarkington was no bigot, and indeed he skewers Alice for her lady-of-the-manor high-handedness toward those African-Americans who come into her ambit.
Waiting there, in a languid attitude, was a young coloured woman, with a small bundle under her arm and something malleable in her mouth. “Listen,” she said. “You folks expectin’ a coloured lady?”
“No,” said Alice. “Especially not at the front door.”
On the other hand, Tarkington is certainly willing to use racial stereotypes for comic purposes, as he does in the catastrophic dinner party scene that destroys the last of the Adams family’s illusions and deceptions.
4) Tarkington, twice married and a father, was very conversant with the facts of life. He skillfully depicts Alice’s flirtatious sex appeal – indeed, it is precisely Alice’s sexiness that provokes the other girls of the town to cut her out of their miniature high society. Tarkington makes knowing references too to the Prohibition-era goings-on in the less respectable streets of Alice’s town. But that’s as far as it goes. To the following generation, this restraint must have seemed an offensive Victorian relic – and Tarkington a perfect target for the mood that Evelyn Waugh would dub horror Victorianus.
5) Tarkington chronicled the society and culture of the towns and cities of the Midwest. Unfortunately for him, that society and culture ended the loser in the culture wars of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. The Northeast and the metropolises won, and Tarkington’s people and places were forever after deemed unworthy of artistic attention … or anyway of any kind of artistic sympathy. We first get to know and feel for Alice by watching her discomfort at a small-town debutante dance. Tarkington minutely analyzes the social workings of the dance – not because he admires debutantes or their parents, but because he regards their milieu as worthy of attention, a foreground element in the pageant of modern American life. What artist would think that way again after 1932? Maybe Louis Auchincloss – but he writes about a much grander level of society, and always in the past tense.
But here is one explanation that will not wash: Booth Tarkington has not been forgotten because his (best) work lacks merit. Almost a century after it was published, Alice Adams will still touch, delight, and comfort any young women (and open the eyes of any young man!) who plucks it off the dusty shelf. I very much doubt that the same will be said 80 years hence for very many of the commercially successfully writers of our day.