A Glimpse of Something Lost
Just prior to this book’s arrival, I had acceded to a friend’s impassioned, insistent advocacy of East of Eden—a novel by an author whom I’d known solely by reputation. Upon receipt of America Moved, to my surprise, I set it aside, having found myself engrossed in Steinbeck’s magnum opus—breathing the air of the Salinas Valley; mourning the deaths of patriarchal Sam Hamilton, his restless son Tom, and even the malformed Cathy Ames. I found myself cogitating upon similarities between this West Coast New-Dealer and Tarkington, my fellow Hoosier (1869-1946), a blue-blooded Republican who embraced noblesse oblige (manifested through a term in our House), opposed FDR, and, alas, supported Prohibition (not entirely unreasonably).
Their being politically apart notwithstanding, a conservative vein flows through the works of both—aversion to the deleterious effects of the “creative destruction” of capitalism; recognition of the destructive potential of the automobile; and, perhaps most important, rootedness in place: East of Eden could not have been outside of “Steinbeck Country.” Tarkington’s finest works, however, take place not in England, Rome, or Algeria, but in Indiana, a state, as one commenter noted, is “not quite mid-western, not quite Yankee, and not quite south, [but] simply Indiana and so very damned American [in the manner of Bill Kauffman, not Clinton].”
Tarkington, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner whose The Magnificent Ambersons was adapted for the screen by Orson Welles, came from an old-money Indianapolis family of New Englander and Southern origin. Though he never earned his undergraduate degree, both universities that he attended, Purdue and Princeton, conferred honorary degrees on him. He authored more than fifty works, many of which spent time on best-seller lists.
Part One of America Moved, “As I Seem to Me,” covers the first thirty years of our protagonist’s life, up to publication of the delightful, if schmaltzy, The Gentleman from Indiana (1899), through boom and bust in the 1870s, an incidence of drunkenness at the ripe age of three in California (a footnote to which is the only mention of Tarkington’s future alcoholism and forswearing of the drink, although he does later remark upon alcohol as being, inter alia, “virulent and emetic in orange juice”), and the nine weeks of truancy that would have landed me in the hoosegow, but which bought Tarkington a ticket to Phillips Exeter Academy. Anyone familiar with the tales of Penrod Schofield, scapegrace extraordinaire, quickly recognizes the parallels between Tarkington’s generally well-off childhood and this fictional boyhood.
What is most salient throughout the first section, whether the author takes us to Steinbeck’s land (where Tarkington’s namesake uncle, Newton Booth, served as governor in the 1870s), New Hampshire, New Orleans, or back home, is encapsulated by a 1986 remark from Kurt Vonnegut: “All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” However much he travelled stateside and abroad, Tarkington was a consummate Midlander, shaped immeasurably by his place, and “As I Seem to Me” makes this clear.
As The Gentleman from Indiana made its serialized way to Indiana, we learn, Tarkington was still in New York with his publisher. Returning to the Hoosier State, he was dismayed to meet not celebrity, but vexation and sensitivity. His “emotional tribute to the land of [his] birth,” wherein he sought to show that “in the matter of human character [country folk] were as estimable as any others anywhere,” was perceived as an attack on “backwoods” Indiana, playing into East-Coast images of rusticity and simplicity. Even as the disdain mellowed with the completion of serialization, the hurt that Tarkington felt is palpable; he was, first and foremost, a Hoosier. This becomes ever clearer in the second set of memoirs, “The World Does Move,” spanning the next three decades of Tark’s life.
Early in part two, our narrator coolly remarks, “No one could have dreamed that our town was to be utterly destroyed.” He proceeds to provide vivid imagery (something, I note, that Steinbeck had mastered) describing the species of trees arcading over the streets of old Indianapolis; reporting on the quaint “old ways” of moonlit serenades and unofficial chaperonage of the young in those days. Throughout the following 140-some pages, bit by bit, we see the changes in Indianapolis, the nation, the world, and in mankind, all victims of too-heartily embraced technologies and of new ideas (like the socialism to which he shows some sympathy, or at least understanding) sprung from the loins of social upheaval and World War I.
A particular recognition of Tarkington’s about Progress’s effect on place resonates deeply with me, part of the third generation to have grown up in a town of 1,700 that drew the attention of countless English and Scots-Irish natives of Kentucky during the Great Depression and Second World War, folks who found work in the fields and the munitions plant and remained after the war had ended, the farms mechanized: “In the din of all the tearing down and building up, most of the old family names were not heard … many of the old families [who had built the town] were vanishing.”
Defying the wisdom of his own time and ours, Tarkington extends his opprobrious observations of industrial capitalism to the environmental consequences of unrestrained growth:
The idealists constantly shout that their city shall be a better city … [meaning] ‘bigger and more prosperous.’ … As the city grows and grows, it grows dirtier and dirtier. The idealists are putting up business buildings that are repulsively begrimed before they are finished; but the idealists cannot see the dirt for the size, and boast grandly. They boast of their monuments and rain soot on them.
Not content with merely challenging growth, throughout the work Tarkington takes jabs as the automobile—even as, from time to time, he expresses his occasional joys in commandeering and riding in one. In The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), Tarkington offers this observation:
“I’m not sure he’s wrong about automobiles,” [auto maker Eugene Morgan] said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization—that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls.”
Walking the streets of the Circle City, echoing Morgan, Tarkington laments,
[A pleasant house] was torn down … and replaced by a huge oblong shell of concrete and glass, rearing a great flat façade where a well-remembered picket fence and gate had been. Some kindly old big trees, well remembered, too, had perished here to make room for this incredible “automobile sales building.”
Return for a moment with me to Steinbeck:
“[Automobiles will] change the face of the countryside. They get their clatter into everything,” the postmaster went on. “We even feel it here. Man used to come for his mail once a week. Now he comes every day, sometimes twice a day. He just can’t wait for his damn catalogue. Running around. Always running around.”
Steinbeck’s California civil servant perhaps expresses Tarkington’s deepest concern more ably than his own Morgan. For Tarkington, preserving nature mattered, but of seemingly greater import was the psychological impact: he regrets the demolition not just of the ways of late-night lawn singing, but of the known and lived-by relationships between time and distance and the way of life created thereby. A teetotaler, he nonetheless remarks positively even upon the human scale as experienced by smelling the odors of intoxicating elixirs wafting out the saloon door to the sidewalk. No more perambulation, nor even bicycling, but running around. Always running around—free from the “small change” interactions of Jane Jacobs, isolated from our fellow humans by our horseless carriages. All of existence changed, at least as much for the worse as for the better.
America Moved reminds us of the simple joys of life in a world not yet gone mad with “giantism” and the quest for wealth for the sake thereof; of neighborliness and the threat, seemingly contradictory, that having too many neighbors, in too-dense cities, poses to this undervalued phenomenon; of the importance of roots and taking pride in the places whence we have come. Perhaps most relevant to us in an era when the self-driving car is no longer a matter of science fiction, Tarkington’s chronicles of his life and the times in which he abided should caution us about the ramifications of technological advances, particularly those promising an easier or safer way with no mention of, nor regard for, unintended consequences.
Tarkington may not lay out a workable alternative to the industrialization, automobilization, and general degradations of Progress—not even, at the least, a vision for a more humane march forward—but to focus on this deficit, if we may even so call it, is to miss the point. Not only was this not his aim, it distracts us from what this work does offer. In his memoirs, Tarkington provides a glimpse of something that may be lost, a simulacrum of which is yet both desirable and attainable, though not without sacrifice. Similar themes reverberate in the works of scores of conservative philosophers and thinkers (did not Russell Kirk remark that veneration withers upon the pavements?), but it is through the imaginations of novelists, playwrights, and poets that the values of our progenitors that we should seek to salvage are best transmitted. On the gravity of this matter, I give the last word to our venerable subject, from the final page of “The World Does Move”: “For every new age has at its disposal everything that was fine in all past ages, and its greatness depends upon how well it recognizes and preserves and brings to the aid of its own Enlightenment whatever worthy and true things the dead have left on earth behind them.”
There is no better person to have drawn this oft-neglected scribe out of the gloaming than Jeremy Beer. An expat of the lakelands of north-central Indiana, Beer cofounded Front Porch Republic, and, of no small importance, introduced this once-neglected Hoosier as the greatest voice that the land of Dreiser and Vonnegut ever nurtured. We are indebted to him not only for inserting Oxford commas into Tarkington’s writing, but for resuscitating these volumes. We should do well to explore the fictionalized version of Booth Tarkington’s world (starting with his magnificent “Growth Trilogy”)—after these memoirs, of course; we can only hope that this Hoosier prognosticator against Progress may not continue to be a voice in the wilderness, but would be heard, and listened to, by those who care to see a future worth seeing, and who can, not by grand schemes, but by very small and very real steps, build humane alternatives.
Nathan P. Origer, a local-government bureaucrat, resides on his family’s farm in rural northwestern Indiana.
Posted: August 2, 2015