After 319 volumes over 40 years the Library of America (LOA) has finally collected three books by Newton Booth Tarkington. That the only author to win two Pulitzer Prizes for his novels had to wait until the timeless works of James Weldon Johnson, Charles Brockden Brown, David Goodis, and May Swenson had been issued says a good deal about literary politics—but at least the wrong has been righted. As 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Tarkington’s birth—and the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Magnificent Ambersons, his best-known novel—the timing is apt.
Tarkington was born in 1869 to an upper middle-class (but not wealthy) family in Indianapolis. Then a city of some 50,000, Tarkington would see his hometown grow ten-fold before his death in 1946. Indianapolis was Tarkington’s primary home and literary inspiration, where he observed a new commercial order, with new families at its vanguard, take root. There he watched a remarkable social revolution unfold as new, democratic manners replaced older, aristocratic ones, and new technologies, especially the automobile, transformed the way people related, physically and imaginatively, to time and space. By the mid-teens he felt called to be this revolution’s literary chronicler.
Critical success soon followed. The Magnificent Ambersons won Tarkington a Pulitzer in 1919. Three years later, so did Alice Adams. In 1921, Publisher’s Weekly named him the country’s most significant author. The following year, Literary Digest called him America’s greatest living author, and the New York Times selected him as one of the ten greatest living Americans, period. By 1933, when Tarkington received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal—previously given only to his hero William Dean Howells and contemporary Edith Wharton—nine of his works had made the top ten in Publisher’s Weekly’s year-end bestseller lists.
Yet by the 1920s Tarkington was falling out of literary favor. Once modernism began to take hold, Tarkington’s realism seemed just too readable (not to mention saleable) to be truly literary. Worse, his work was not rooted in the oppositional, revolt-against-the-village mentality championed by younger writers such as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson. Tarkington was happy to identify—and celebrate—the old order’s virtues. In response, influential critics like Carl Van Doren and F.O. Matthiessen accused him of nostalgia, sentimentality, a lack of “reality” (not enough sex and violence in his novels), and a general ignorance of just how reactionary and repressive the American Midwest and middle class really were.
With some exceptions—Kurt Vonnegut was an outspoken fan—their judgment has dominated Tarkington studies for the past several decades. Novelist Thomas Mallon, editor of the present LOA volume (and, like Tarkington, a moderate Republican) is one of the few contemporary writers in good standing to have even tepidly come to Tarkington’s defense. In a 2004 Atlantic retrospective in which he mostly heaps additional soil on Tarkington’s already neck-deep literary grave, Mallon nevertheless praised Tarkington’s collection of political short stories, In the Arena (1905), for its “vivid characters” and “sophisticated realism,” and he judged Alice Adams to be one of the top 50 American novels of the 20th century. Those two works, along with The Magnificent Ambersons, are included in LOA’s Tarkington volume.
All three books cast doubt on Mallon’s verdict that Tarkington, in the “throes of nostalgia,” produced works “trapped in amber.” In truth, besides reminding us of what a splendid writer Tarkington was, they show that few American novelists have had a better intuitive grasp of human motivation and group dynamics. Tarkington was especially attuned to how human action and interaction were shaped, distorted, and poisoned by egotism, willfulness, and self-centeredness.
In the Arena, inspired by Tarkington’s experience as a representative in the Indiana legislature in 1903, comprises stories about the idealistic, weak, prideful, and naïve being steamrolled by the great dirty game of politics. Compared to much else in his early output, the stories are surprisingly, if not quite unflinchingly, realistic. Tarkington upholds democracy’s petty corruptions and impurities as inevitable. Utopian reformers he deals with pitilessly; old-time bosses and ward heelers, leniently.
Political frustrations didn’t dampen Tarkington’s belief in the need for active citizenship. He was as personally engaged as any writer in the great matters of his time. He humored President Theodore Roosevelt, who worried the stories might discourage good people from running for office, by appending a pro-participatory politics preface to In the Arena. He also penned numerous plays, novellas, stories, and articles in support of the Allied efforts in both world wars. He even patrolled the Maine coast in his personal watercraft during World War II. Tarkington strongly opposed socialism and communism and consistently championed limited government and political liberty.
Indeed, he felt too strongly on such matters for the good of his art. His plays and novels suffer when such concerns enter the foreground (late in life several of his pieces were even rejected by the usually pliant Saturday Evening Post). He was at his best when hewing to his core theme: the tension between self and society. That required dramatizing the development and baleful consequences of the inflated, self-justifying ego, on the one hand, and the benefits of individual liberation from conventional social constraints, on the other.
In the Arena portrays the self-righteous pride of zealous reformers, satirizes the pompous inanities of T.R.–style preachers of muscular Americanism, and sketches the naïve self-deception of rustics. The stories are moving and memorable. Tarkington knew that people reasoned to justify their desires, feelings, and interests—and that to reflect critically on such post hoc reasoning to arrive at the truth required a sustained, even heroic, effort to transcend egocentrism. It was not an effort, he thought, of which most people were capable.
Learning to regard others not simply as adjuncts or tools of one’s desire was a great achievement of genuine, civilized adults, Tarkington believed. Another was to liberate oneself from merely conventional thinking. Growing up outside Indianapolis’s old-guard aristocratic culture frees Ambersons hero Eugene Morgan to succeed as an innovator. Morgan’s ability to make a fortune in the automobile industry is grounded in his belief that “[t]here aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!”
Tarkington never has anyone directly rebut Morgan on this point, reflecting his view that society needs such people if it’s to remain vital and creative. But he indirectly answers Morgan throughout his entire oeuvre, by never failing to note the dirt (literally, the soot and smoke and dust), consumerism, and relativism that the industrial order brought with it. Even Morgan confesses that the “spiritual alteration” wrought in citizens’ minds and hearts by the invention of the automobile might end up being “bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine.”
Morgan’s ambivalence mirrored his creator’s. Tarkington had mulled over the psychological and sociological consequences of the automobile age since at least 1903, when an acquaintance in Paris predicted that the car would “obliterate the accepted distances of our daily lives.” This unnamed prophet, whom Tarkington tells us about in a quasi-memoir called The World Does Move (1928), further predicted that when
the horseless craze becomes universal it is not too much to say that the world will be inhabited by a new kind of people[:]…fast, materialistic, and yet incredibly prompt and efficient; therefore they will be richer than we are. Everything will be changed, because when a man accepts a new idea that revolutionizes his daily life, his mind becomes hospitable to every other new revolutionary idea. We are just entering the period when most of what we have regarded as permanently crystalline will become shockingly fluid.
Tarkington knew many Midwestern captains of industry personally. Despite the ugliness, the social and cognitive dislocations, the faith-trimmings to suit commercial practices (God was “considered to be impractical in business” by industrialism’s boosters, he wrote in Ambersons), Tarkington was inclined to admire the industrialists’ energy, manliness, and patriotism. Despite their downsides, these characteristics were more attractive than the sneering smugness of allegedly sophisticated cosmopolitan critics.
It wasn’t just the critics’ smugness that irritated him; their ideological nonsense and philosophical claptrap were even worse. Perhaps no Tarkington work has aged better, from an intellectual point of view, than the essay collection Looking Forward and Others (1926). There, in dialogic form, he intelligently punctures philosophical nihilism, materialism, and determinism, further distancing himself from the avant-garde literary establishment. As one of Looking Forward’s characters concludes, the free wise man, having worked out his reasons for not believing himself an evolutionarily determined automaton, “can look down with serenity upon the mastered demons in his own soul.” Freedom requires considerable self-discipline and self-restraint, thought Tarkington. But it was possible.
Booth Tarkington was animated by a quiet, gentle, tolerant, realistic humanism—a humanism that looks a shade more attractive today than, say, the murderous Communism embraced by Theodore Dreiser or the bleak nihilism of Sherwood Anderson, not to mention the ideological fascinations of their literary descendants. If that is nostalgia and sentimentalism, let’s have more of it.