What About Booth?
During a recent lecture, the eminent and usually trustworthy literary critic Joseph Epstein befuddled at least one audience member (me) by referring to Theodore Dreiser as the “greatest American author of the twentieth century.” Huh? Dreiser was not even the greatest twentieth-century author from Indiana. In fact, in Beer’s Genuinely Objective Rankings of Indiana Authors, Twentieth Century Division, Dreiser ranks third, just a smidgen ahead of Ross Lockridge Jr. (who wrote Raintree County and nothing else) and considerably behind runner-up Kurt Vonnegut.
The champion, several lengths ahead of the field, is Newton Booth Tarkington. In fact, Tarkington stands, if not among the first rank of American writers, squarely and securely among the second. His obscurity is unjustified and unjustifiable.
This might seem a difficult case to make, for there is a good deal of evidence to the contrary. In a land in which about 200,000 new books are published each year, no biography of Tarkington has been published since 1955. The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) remains rather well known—but not so much the book as the 1942 Orson Welles film. Tarkington is almost never anthologized or read in the schools, unlike his contemporaries Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, even Upton Sinclair. He is not remembered as the progenitor or exemplar of an influential genre or school, nor as the literary conscience of an important social movement. No Tarkington panels are organized at academic conferences. No journal is dedicated to Tarkingtoniana. No Tarkington revival is on the horizon.
But consider: The Magnificent Ambersons made many lists of the top 100 novels of the twentieth century and has remained continuously in print since it was first released. Both it and Alice Adams (1921) won Pulitzer Prizes (in 1919 and 1922, respectively), and Tarkington is the only writer to have two novels win Pulitzers. In a 1921 Publisher’s Weekly poll of booksellers, Tarkington was named the most “significant” contemporary author (Wharton came in 2nd, Dreiser 14th). In 1922, Literary Digest named him the greatest living American author, and in the same year he was the only native writer to appear on the New York Times’s list of the ten greatest living Americans. In 1933, he became just the third person to receive a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Twelve years later he received from the American Academy of Arts and Letters the William Dean Howells award, given just once every five years. On top of all that, he moved product. From 1902 to 1932, nine Tarkington titles appeared in the top ten of Publisher’s Weekly’s year-end bestseller lists.
Dreiser never won a Pulitzer and never had a bestseller. Tarkington’s books—still rewarding and enjoyable—have aged as gracefully as Sophia Loren; Dreiser’s—clunky, verbose, and often ridiculous—more like Bea Arthur. Yet so capricious is fame, so random is earthly reward, that between the two scribblers Dreiser has received for 50-plus years all the critical attention. In the major biographies competition, it’s 3–1 Dreiser (the most recent was published in 2005). Number of entries under “criticism and interpretation” in the Library of Congress catalog? 37–1, Dreiser. Number of books with a separate entry in that catalog? 4–0, Dreiser. Dreiser has two Library of America volumes. Tarkington, amazingly, has none. A journal called Dreiser Studies was published from 1970 to 2006. Dreiser is recognized as a leading exponent of American “naturalism.” Critically, it’s no contest.
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From both a chronological and geographical perspective, the comparison is apt. The lives of Tarkington and Dreiser overlapped almost precisely; Tarkington was born in 1869 and died in 1946. Dreiser entered this world two years later than Tarkington and exited one year earlier. Tarkington was born to a comfortably situated professional family in Indianapolis and was named after his grandfather Newton Booth, governor of California from 1871 to 1875. Dreiser was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Sullivan, Indiana, to a fractious and peripatetic household. Warsaw, the northern Indiana town where he spent his formative teenage years, was once quite embarrassed by the fact of the Dreisers’ residence—the family was considered white trash—and now seems to be completely unaware of it. Dreiser is so completely without honor in his homeland that he naturally has been regarded as a prophet everywhere else.
In truth, Dreiser was consistently wrongheaded in just the right ways to endear him to the critical and opinion-shaping communities. He challenged “Victorian” morals—Sister Carrie (1900) had the good luck effectively to be banned for seven years after its initial publication—and thereby obtained the imprimatur of H. L. Mencken, among many others. He was concerned with social justice, yet refused to offer any grounds for hope to his socially marginalized characters, for whom he simultaneously had both pity and contempt. He held politically advanced views: Indeed, he was a fellow traveler who with stout intrepidity joined the Communist Party—in 1945! He reduced men and women to little more than beasts and presented the universe as intrinsically meaningless. Free will, human dignity, and transcendence were shams. Power relations were all that mattered. And he left Indiana, for good, as soon as possible; Dreiser’s report of his automobile tour back to his home state is recorded with the eye of a bemused and caustic anthropologist, not a loving son, in A Hoosier Holiday (1916).
In other words, the appeal to modern critics is obvious.
Tarkington, however, seems too sensible, too down-to-earth, to be a great literary figure, a Writer. He was genially aristocratic, not a prima donna. And he loved his region without minimizing its foibles, crudeness, and ridiculous bombast. He never decamped permanently from Indiana but lived there for at least six months a year virtually his entire life. Worse, he was a Republican, a man of moderately conservative political opinions, which he did not try to conceal, and a surprisingly profound yet good-humored cultural reactionary.
To get a sense of the perspective he brought to bear as one of America’s great “realist” novelists, the Tarkington tyro ought to begin with the “Growth” trilogy—which consists of The Turmoil (1915), The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Midlander (1924)—before moving on to his autobiographical work of nonfiction, The World Does Move (1928). (Like nearly all of Tarkington’s ouevre, all of these except Ambersons are out of print, but they are easily obtainable online.) Along with Alice Adams, these four works provide a moving, fully realized portrayal of the price of a frenetic commercial-industrial society, of the rise of mass culture (including mass immigration), and of the ideology of American Progress. Tarkington arguably performs this task better than any other American novelist.
Just four pages in length, the special introduction Tarkington wrote to the Growth trilogy in 1928 provides a concentrated dose of his acid assessment of industrial modernity—a term he does not use, but which applies with precision. Titled “The God,” it begins by recalling Indianapolis before it became “a dirty . . . city nesting dingily in the fog of its own smoke.” Just a generation earlier, “No one was very rich; few were very poor; the air was clean, and there was time to live.” But an obsession with size, growth, “Bigness”—“the god of all good American hearts”—had transformed the city without mercy. Its civic leaders corrupted by greed, it now sprawled unpredictably and uncontrollably, belching factories befouled the air, and immigrants poured in by the thousands. Indianapolis had become hurried, hard, unsafe, inhuman. It was the spirit of Bigness, its worship, and its works that Tarkington successfully chronicled in the Growth books.
John Lukacs’s judgment that there was more profound social and technological change in the period between the Civil War and World War I than there has been since is amply attested to by Tarkington in The World Does Move, the dominant theme of which is the radical alteration in society’s mores since the fin de siècle. Thanks to Tarkington’s innate modesty, the book is more social history than it is memoir. It is engrossing, and often prophetic. Take Tarkington’s reportage on the changes wrought by the arrival of the “horseless carriage.” Recalling a dinner in Paris in 1903, he puts into the mouth of an unidentified companion a remarkable prophecy. The automobile, said this “elderly American,”
will obliterate the accepted distances that are part of our daily lives. It will alter our daily relations to time, and that is to say it will alter our lives. Perhaps everybody doesn’t comprehend how profoundly we are affected by such a change; but what alters our lives alters our thoughts; what alters our thoughts alters our characters; what alters our characters alters our ideals; and what alters our ideals alters our morals. . . . We are just entering the period when most of what we have regarded as permanently crystalline will become shockingly fluid—that is to say, we are already in the transition period between two epochs. . . . Restfulness will have entirely disappeared from your lives; the quiet of the world is ending forever.
Strange that Russell Kirk, to my knowledge, never wrote about this writer whose views on the “metal demon” and so much else he must have found congenial.
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Joseph Epstein is an intelligent man. Theodore Dreiser’s adulation of power, modish leftism, and crackpot theories surely must not impress him. So why the admiration? In his talk, he mentioned that Dreiser wrote as the “ultimate outsider,” which gave him a comparative advantage in illuminating the American scene. Maybe. But I’m inclined to think that Epstein’s judgment is colored by the fact that Dreiser both began his career and set his best work, Sister Carrie (1900), in Epstein’s native Chicago. This must be a case of rank hometown prejudice. As such, I honor and respect it. But Tarkington was by far the wiser man. And as any reader may judge for himself—having read, say, The World Does Move and A Hoosier Holiday back to back, or Ambersons followed by An American Tragedy (1925)—Tarkington was a vastly better writer and keener social observer. Being an insider also has its advantages.
As we head once again into a new American epoch, perhaps we’re finally ready to appreciate Tarkington’s portraits of the cultural costs of progressive modernity. This time, if we’re lucky, it’s the foolish Dreiserian notions about man that will get tossed into history’s dustbin.
Jeremy Beer is vice president for publications at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and editor in chief at ISI Books.
Posted: November 29, 2008 in Essays.