July 29, 2014

Birth of Tarkington: content with their own

Although he was given the name "Newton" (after an uncle, who was governor of California) when he was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on July 29, 1869, he became better known by his middle name as Booth Tarkington. By the end of his life, Tarkington was a prolific novelist, short story writer, playwright, and even an illustrator, with two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction under his belt as well as a handful of honorary degrees.

An early biography of Tarkington noted that his early years and young adulthood were unlike many other writers: He was not born into poverty, nor did he struggle to make a living before being forced to use his pen to earn his bread. His father was a judge and, as a boy, young "Tark" was sent to a boarding school in New Hampshire. After two years at Purdue University, he graduated from Princeton University. A few years later, in 1899, Tarkington published his first book, A Gentleman from Indiana. It was printed as a serial in McClure's Magazine. It proved successful and was soon staged as a play.

This success was despite Willa Cather's opinion of it as "so amateurish that it will scarcely be seriously considered among literary people — outside of Indiana — and his view of life is so shallow and puerile and sophomorically sugary that grown-ups will have little patience with it." In defense of Tarkington, the book was serialized at a time when local color writing was extremely popular. Further, the founder of McClure's Magazine was Samuel S. McClure, who had been raised partly in Indiana. Tarkington's description of a slow-paced Midwestern town was likely part of the appeal. The book opens:

There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagrarian Eastern travellers, glancing from car-windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without. The landscape lies interminably level: bleak in winter, a desolate plain of mud and snow; hot and dusty in summer, in its flat lonesomeness, miles on miles with not one cool hill slope away from the sun. The persistent tourist who seeks for signs of man in this sad expanse perceives a reckless amount of rail fence; at intervals a large barn; and, here and there, man himself, incurious, patient, slow, looking up from the fields apathetically as the Limited flies by. Widely separated from each other are small frame railway stations—sometimes with no other building in sight, which indicates that somewhere behind the adjacent woods a few shanties and thin cottages are grouped about a couple of brick stores...

Only one street attained to the dignity of a name—Main Street, which formed the north side of the Square... In winter, Main Street was a series of frozen gorges and hummocks; in fall and spring, a river of mud; in summer, a continuing dust heap; it was the best street in Plattville.

The people lived happily; and, while the world whirled on outside, they were content with their own.


  1. Clearly the Pulitzer committee disagreed with Ms. Cather. Twice.

  2. Well, Cather was reviewing a specific book -- his freshman work, in fact -- and it didn't earn him the Pulitzer (he got those from "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Alice Adams" years later).


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