Booth Tarkington

The other day I was reading about Booth Tarkington. If you haven’t heard of him–as I hadn’t until just recently–he was a novelist in the early 20th-century. Apparently, he was quite famous in his day, but has since been largely forgotten. Wikipedia informs us:

By the later twentieth century, however, he was ignored in academia: no congresses, no society, no journal of Tarkington Studies. In 1985 he was cited as an example of the great discrepancy possible between an author’s fame when alive and oblivion later. According to this view, if an author succeeds at pleasing his or her contemporaries — and Tarkington’s works have not a whiff of social criticism — he or she is not going to please later readers of inevitably different values and concerns.

Think about that second sentence a while. Chew on it. Do you think this is true? (By the way, although Wikipedia doesn’t say so directly, I’m assuming this is a close paraphrase of the cited text.)

I have recently been part of a discussion, started by Mark Paxson, about whether writing needs to have a point. The overwhelming consensus I’ve heard is, “No, it doesn’t. It just needs to tell a good story.” Anyone who subscribes to the theory Wikipedia describes above is implicitly saying that it does need to have a point.

Who would say this? I’ll tell you who: a critic. Critics are always looking for the point in any work of fiction. I should know, being one myself and constantly trying to tease out the hidden deeper meaning in things.

Critics, according to this theory, are who keep books relevant. The thinking goes, in order to preserve an author’s works as significant, there must be something in it for the critics to evaluate and discuss. Naturally, critics are big proponents of this idea. (I like to imagine all the important literary critics gathering to celebrate their control of authors’ legacies, ideally singing a song similar to this Simpsons classic.)

But the problem is that this theory is blatantly wrong. From what little I’ve read of Tarkington, his writing reminds me of Wodehouse. Wodehouse, whose works contain barely any social criticism and unabashedly take place in some sort of eternal “Edwardian never-never land,” is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the English language, exactly because his books transport readers to another world.

I suppose one could write a critical academic analysis of Wodehouse, but I think it would just come across as ridiculous. Such was Wodehouse’s mastery of comedy that you cannot even begin to consider his works in a normal, “serious” fashion. Something in their comic spirit defies it.

If you try hard enough, I suppose you can impose intertextual and social commentary on anything. Again, if I haven’t demonstrated this repeatedly on this blog, I don’t know what more I can do. But is that necessary to ensuring an author’s works live on? Somehow I don’t think it is.

Still, there must be some reason I never heard of the guy until now, despite living in the American Midwest, with which his work is (or was) as closely identified as Twain’s is with the Mississippi or Steinbeck’s with California. I wonder what the reason is.


  1. Back in 2013, I started a little project that I didn’t get very far on. Somebody had published a list of the 100 #1 selling novels for each of the previous 100 years. Another blogger set out to read and review each of those books. I thought that would be an interesting idea, so I gave it a try. I started at the beginning and didn’t get too far:

    As soon as I saw the name Booth Tarkington, I thought I recognized his name. He wrote the #1 book for both 1915 and 1916. It was his 1915 bestseller, The Turmoil, that was the end of my effort to read all 100 books. I’m pretty certain it is sitting on my Kindle somewhere. I need to go back and refresh my memory as to whether i actually read the whole thing.

    1. And???? Sorry, but…what did you think of it? I assume you can’t have enjoyed it very much if you didn’t finish it, but just generally?

      1. It’s a challenge to read books written back then. A different style and approach. But I do need to go back to that Tarkington book and refresh my memory as to whether I read it.

        1. Yes, I know what you mean. I’ve been trying to get through a book I remember LOVINIG a few? decades ago [The Earth Abides]. Now, I’m finding it hard going, and it isn’t even that old. If you have read it, would be interested in knowing what your think of it. lol If you can remember.

  2. There are a lot of variables to sustainability. If it’s a good story it doesn’t need to have a moral. Think Much Ado About Nothing. Writing styles do enter into this equation. Most 19th and early 20th century writers wouldn’t get much readership today do to their writing styles, phrasing, excessive descriptions. Maybe they get forgotten. I think that’s what happened to Tarkington.

  3. Did you read any of Tarkington’s work, Berthold?

    I’m asking because I grew up believing that a work of fiction had to contain some universal ‘something’ if it was to survive from generation to generation. Shakespeare is the obvious example. His spelling has been modernised, but other than that, it’s his /characters/ that provide the magic, universal ingredient. Ditto Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky and other ‘greats’.

    For my part, I know I look for that something ‘more’ which elevates a story from mere entertainment to universal. Sadly, I’ve noticed that what I think is wonderful tends to go unnoticed by the fans on Amazon. Just discovered a new scifi voice – E M Swift-Hook – and the first book [brilliant] of the 9 book series only has 57 reviews. I contrast that to some others I’ve tried, with hundreds if not thousands of 5 star reviews and…I consider them to be, at best, lightweight fluff. At worst? Badly written, formulaic, derivative junk. And this is scifi!

    Hugh Howey is one of the obvious exceptions, but it’s become so bad, I don’t even read the Look Inside of super popular novels any more.

    I guess this is my roundabout way of suggesting a reason for Tarkington’s work sinking into oblivion. If it was nothing more than highly popular entertainment, even its fans would have forgotten it five minutes after reading ‘the end’.

    As for critics [and teachers] keeping more literary works alive, there’s probably something in that. I never read reviews, at all, until I started reading Indie fiction and needed to get word-of-mouth recommendations from other readers. But…I was forced to read Macbeth and Hamlet at school. I fell in love with both, but would I have given them a try without a teacher forcing me to do so? Probably not.

    Thanks for a very thought provoking post.

    1. I’ve only just started reading Tarkington’s collection of stories titled “Penrod.” So far, it’s well-written and amusing, but I can’t discern any great theme or anything like that.

      I believed something similar, that a work must have some extra something to be universally accessible. But then I think of P.G. Wodehouse–his books are, at first glance, just light fluff. And yet, 50 years after his death and more than a century after his earliest books were published, he still has many devoted fans. Perhaps there is something “more” to his works, but I’m not sure what it is–they are like an endlessly-accessible fairy story.

      You may be right about critics/teachers, although there is a flip side of that coin. I’ve also heard many stories about kids who were put off from reading Shakespeare and the like because they were forced to read it in school, and automatically disliked it.

      Thanks for the comment. Glad you liked the post. 🙂

      1. lol – I know I was probably an exception. As a teacher myself, I’ve long thought that kids should be allowed, nay encouraged, to read anything that appeals to them, just so they learn a love of reading rather than a love of any one writer or style or whatever.
        That said, I also believe kids could be encouraged to fall in love with Shakespeare by acting out his plays rather than simply reading them in silence. The Bard was quite a baudy chap, but teachers /never/ mention that.

        Maybe the problem with literature in school is that it’s taught by those who lack true passion for the works being studied. -shrug-

        1. I think you’re right. My friend Pat Prescott was also a teacher, and he firmly believes that the way to teach kids Shakespeare was through performance, since that’s how they were intended to be understood.

          1. Yes! There are so many ways we could teach better, and yet somehow there’s never the time or the support to do so. Instead, we simply alienate the very minds we’d like to capture.

  4. You’re just too young, Berthold. If you were a bit older, you’d know Boot Tarkington from the two Doris Day musicals – On Moonlight Bay, and By the Light of the Silvery Moon based on his Penrod Stories. I have only three of his books on my shelf, Seventeen, Penrod, and Penrod and Sam, and may have read a few more. But then, I’m a sucker for old time-y books. I’m a bigger fan of Joseph Lincoln’s Cape Cod books from the first two decades of the last century. He’s forgotten too. (Well, almost – someone made two little movies based on his books in the early 00’s.) But then, so are most writers. Just look at the old best seller lists or Pulitzer prize winners from the past, which include Tarkington. Fame is fleeting.

    It works the same way in art. The popular artist of the age are forgotten – they’re your old man and mom’s painters. (I tried to get my kids to watch the great old black & white movies – it was a non-starter.) The impressionist were largely ignored in their time, at least until they were very old men. Van Gogh sold one painting in his life. They stood out from their contemplates, so when critics and historians, of a different period looked back, they saw in their differences something special, something worth noting.

    So yes, it is the critics and historians who decide what is worth remembering, keeping them in text books, schools, museums, and on concert stages. But heck, someone has to do it, or everything would be lost to time and changing tastes. Though, perhaps, there is some sort of magic in some writer’s words and stories that gives their writing an ageless appeal.

    1. Great points. I see what you mean about black & white movies–when I was a kid, I couldn’t take any black & white film seriously. They just looked so old it was hard for me to relate to them. (Fortunately, I have since managed to mature a bit and acquired the ability to appreciate them.)

      Also, I think I better check out both of those musicals, and Joseph Lincoln’s books. Thank you!

      1. I should add that I think that most of the books Tarkington wrote were a lot more serious than his Penrod stories. They may well have serious themes. But they were also stories of a certain time and location that once they were not modern anymore lost a lot of their meanings.

        The Joe Lincoln books are pretty light stories, often with themes of resilience in the face of hardships, and friends pitching in to help. Being stories of a certain time and location, they didn’t fare any better than Tarkington’s stories, but, being lighter, they have an appealing element of nostalgia about them that makes them easier reads today than I suspect most of Tarkington’s books.

        And since many of these old books can be found on Gutenberg, they’re not really forgotten. Someone had to think enough of them to digitalize them.

  5. This reminds me of a writing/plotting book that said you HAD to start with a theme and that theme HAD to be stated clearly within the first few pages or your story would be a rambling pile of poo (not an exact quote, mind you). I never felt so crippled trying to do an outline as I did when trying to work from that book.

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