Even more than Vachel Lindsay, who liked to say that the Mason-Dixon line ran straight through his heart, Booth Tarkington embodied the regional conflict that defined the Midwest. Born in Indianapolis only five years after the end of the war between the regions, Newton Booth Tarkington was descended on his father’s side from Southern Democrats (from North Carolina by way of Tennessee), but his mother, Elizabeth Booth, had impeccable Yankee credentials (her grim ancestry stretched back to the Puritan Thomas Hooker, who founded Connecticut). The melding of the two races produced a Unionist Republican family with a devotion to hard work that was tempered by the graciousness and open-mindedness of the Old South.
After leaving Princeton without graduating, Tarkington soon became a successful writer and a professional drinker. By 1911, at the age of 42, his marriage had failed, and he was on the verge of becoming a literary has-been and a more-or-less confirmed alcoholic. The hard living caught up with him, and he suffered a fairly serious heart attack at the beginning of 1912. He decided that he preferred to die sober. As he said later, he did not so much decide to quit drinking as decide that he had quit already.
The results of good health and a new marriage were impressive: the series of Penrod stories; The Turmoil, written in just 60 days in early 1914; Seventeen, serialized in early 1915; and, in 1917, his masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons—not a bad four years for an invalid, has-been, and recovering drunk. The sequence of major books is rounded out by Alice Adams (1921), The Midlander (1924), The Plutocrat (1926)—to say nothing of his short stories, other novels, and Broadway hits. By the 1920’s, Tarkington was America’s consistently best-selling author, and he topped the lists of literary polls for the most important American writer.
Part of his success lies in the simple fact that Tarkington was a very good writer who worked quickly. F. Scott Fitzgerald regarded him as perhaps the most talented American novelist, but the gentleman from Indiana was also lucky enough to observe the transformation of the Midwest from a quintessentially American region of farms and quiet towns into a maelstrom of industrial cities swarming with immigrant workers.
Tarkington, as a gentleman of the old school, affable and well mannered, was saddened by the vulgarization of the America he loved; he refused, however, to cry over spilt milk. Straddling two worlds and with a novelist’s ability to enjoy life even when it came in unfamiliar or unpleasant forms, he was uniquely able to comment on the transformation of America that took place between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War II.
The Magnificent Ambersons traces the fall from glory of Indianapolis’s finest family and of old Major Amberson’s spoiled heir, young Georgie Minafer. To Georgie, anyone outside the tiny, charmed circle of the best families is simply “riffraff”—his favorite word. He first enters the scene when, after brawling with a strange boy and bidding the Methodist minister to go to hell, he justifies his conduct by telling his mother,
Grandpa wouldn’t wipe his shoe on that ole story-teller . . . I mean none of the Ambersons wouldn’t have anything to do with him . . . I bet if he wanted to see any of ’em, he’d haf to go around to the side door . . . He’s just riffraff.
The Amberson’s world is teetering on the edge of the precipice, though no one knows it except Eugene Morgan. Morgan had failed to win the hand of Georgie’s mother, and he has come back to revolutionize the city by building an automobile factory. Morgan’s respectable family antecedents cannot alter the fact that he is the economic revolutionary who is destroying the graceful old order.
Georgie, on the other hand, despite his courage and charm, is simply a waste of a human being who thinks only of his own social position. He is oblivious to the feelings of others—to their very existence. George despises the idea of useful work: “I don’t expect to go into any business or profession,” he tells Morgan’s charming daughter Lucy. “Lawyers, bankers, politicians! What do they get out of life, I’d like to know! What do they ever know about real things? Where do they ever get.” What does he want to be? asks Lucy. He replies, “A Yachtsman.”
The Ambersons’ fall is rapid and terrible. Walking through the streets after the bankruptcy sale, George confronts a changed world in which his family counts for nothing. Because he had always traveled in a closed carriage, he had never noticed the transformation—but now he sees:
The streets were thunderous; a vast energy heaved under the universal coating of dinginess. George walked through the begrimed crowds of hurrying strangers and saw no face that he remembered. Great numbers of the faces were even of a kind he did not remember ever to have seen . . . He saw German eyes with American wrinkles at their corners; he saw Irish eyes and Neapolitan eyes, Roman eyes, Tuscan eyes, eyes of Lombardy, of Savoy, Hungarian eyes, Balkan eyes, Scandinavian eyes—all with a queer American look in them . . .
He sees familiar landmarks turned into shops and cheap stores. George is a fine-looking young man and attracts the attention of not a few women. One group of nouveaux riches kids, gaudily dressed, drives by in a red sports car, and while the girls admire George, wondering who he might be, one of the boys says he knows: “He thinks he’s the Grand Duke Cuthbert.” The girls giggle, and “George unconsciously put his emotion into a muttered word: ‘Riffraff.’”
Ultimately, George hits rock bottom when, chancing upon a book listing the city’s top 500 families, there are no Ambersons on the list.
Georgie Minafer had got his comeuppance, but the people who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.
The chronicles of Indianapolis are continued in a novel that lacks some of the Ambersons’ magnificence, but makes up for it by the pathos of the story.
There is a midland city in the heart of fair, open country, a dirty and wonderful city nesting dingily in the fog of its own smoke. The stranger must feel the dirt before he feels the wonder . . . he may care for no further proof that wealth is here better loved than cleanliness.
. . . The smoke is like the bad breath of a giant panting for more and more riches. He gets them and pants the fiercer, smelling and swelling prodigiously. He has a voice, a hoarse voice, hot and rapacious trained to one tune: “Wealth! I will get wealth. I will make wealth. I will sell wealth for more wealth. My house shall be dirty, my garments shall be dirty, and I will foul my neighbor so that he cannot be clean . . . but I will get wealth.
So begins The Turmoil. The smoke that invaded Indianapolis in The Magnificent Ambersons is now almost a primary character of Tarkington’s next two novels. The cult of bigness and progress is exemplified in the person of old Sheridan, who is referred to repeatedly in Tarkington’s novels as the exemplar of the new industrialist. The “turmoil” is not merely the birth pangs of the new industrial Indianapolis; it is the social turmoil of two families—the Sheridans, who have reached the pinnacle of success without acquiring respectability or dignity, and the Vertrees, a respectable and dignified family who are facing economic ruin. In such a novel, there must be a courtship between the two families, and there is—or rather are, since Mary Vertrees first sets her sights on Jim Sheridan, Jr., a chip off the old industrialist’s engine block; in the course of the novel, however, she comes to love the frail and aesthetic youngest son Dibbs, who has spent the eight months previous to the novel’s beginning in a sanitarium, trying to recover his health, which was broken almost completely by working in the factory’s machine shop.
Mary is a practical, levelheaded girl who has never been able to fall in love with any of the young men who have pursued her. In one sense, she is a modern, liberated girl, cynical about false values and capable of thinking for herself (which distinguishes her sharply from her conventional and platitudinous parents, who think their Landseer hunting prints are the pinnacle of fine art), but as much as her mother, she is a virtuous lady. She is experienced enough to recognize both the pretensions of the nouveaux riches and the viciousness of the decaying aristocracy. After her first party at the Sheridans, Mary tells her mother that young Edith Sheridan is interested in a young aristocrat, who is after both Edith and her brother’s wife: “He’s a bad lot, that Lamhorn boy; everybody’s always known that, but the Sheridans don’t know the everybodies that know.”
Dibbs Sheridan is one of Tarkington’s best characters, defying all stereotypes. Yes, he is educated and refined beyond the understanding or appreciation of his family; nonetheless he loves his family, though they appear to care very little for him. He should be the melancholy scion of ancient aristocracy, and young Lamhorn, the cynical child of an industrialist—just as frank and virtuous Mary should be the child of decent country folk or the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. In fact, they are both natural aristocrats in a world that is alternating between vulgarity and degeneracy.
The degenerate young Lamhorn is at the center of the problem. Coming from a world that Edith Sheridan and her sister-in-law Sibyl have only glimpsed, like the child putting its nose to the window of the toy store, he has fascinated the two women. Taking advantage of Sibyl—who has all the moral restraint of a cat in heat—he really wants to get his hands on Edith and the Sheridan money. Quite apart from the moral dilemmas that the plot suggests is the question of class. The old class may have degenerated into pathetically dignified people such as Mary’s parents and the decadent Bobby Lamhorn; the new class, however (as exemplified by the Sheridans), is vulgar, coldhearted toward the ailing Dibbs, far more snobbish than the Ambersons, and completely spoiled.
In the end, of course, it is the poet Dibbs who saves the family. However, the young man is a very unpromising future captain of industry. When Dibbs is asked by his despairing father what he wants to do in life, he tells him that he wants to write poetry and essays. The old man responds with bitter contempt that that is work for girls, not men, and points to the pulsating life in the streets: “Look out of that window! Look at the life and energy down there! I should think any young man’s blood would tingle to get into it and be part of it.”
When the oldest son dies, Dibbs agrees to go back to the machine shop, where he does so well that his father wants to promote him to an executive position. Old Sheridan is particularly eager to bring his youngest son along once he realizes that his son Roscoe, unable to control his evil wife, has crawled into the bottle. Dibbs, however, is obstinate; he has made his piece with the zinc-cutter, but he does not want to be responsible for spreading the ugliness of industrialism. He relents only when it appears that he might be able to help Mary and her family. Even his father comes to realize that Dibbs will, in fact, kill himself with work if he does not have something higher than growth and profits to dedicate himself to. Mary, of course, is that ideal.
The problem with The Turmoil is the ending. It is all very well to fall in love with a beautiful and pure woman, but as the ideal end of human existence, married love falls short. Dibbs gives up poetry for business, but how will marriage become the be-all and end-all of his existence? Despite the happy ending, Dibbs is actually a human sacrifice made to the god of noise and smoke.
The Midlander rounds out Tarkington’s trilogy. Dan Oliphaunt comes from a decent old family on National Avenue, with a very rich grandmother but with a father who is too decent to know how to make money. Dan is not an especially good student, but he squeaks by. What he really loves is making things out of junk and starting little businesses. The key episode of his childhood concerns one such small business—making brackets with his friend Sammy. When Dan’s brother Harlan—something of a pantywaist—tells him to come in and send the dirty Jew home, Dan is furious, and a fistfight nearly breaks out at the dinner table. The brothers never become enemies, but they cannot be friends, either.
The boys go to an Ivy League college and, after graduation, spend too much time in New York, where Dan courts and marries a spoiled socialite who ends up destroying his life; on a trip back home, however, he conceives of the project of spending his entire inheritance on a distant farm and turning it into a subdivision—expecting the city to grow out that far. Dan is a visionary, but none of his father’s friends will help him. Jumping from near-bankruptcy to near-bankruptcy, however, he turns out to have been right. People are tired of the smoke and noise from all that growth, and they are ready to flee to the new suburb. Dan becomes a great man, with his finger in every new business, until he is caught in a squeeze and the old guard brings him down. Only his Jewish friend stands by him.
Harlan is appalled but learns, in the end, to respect the brother whom everyone else loves, even those who think that he is crazy. As National Avenue is turned into a commercial street lined with car dealers and garages, Harlan sees nothing but the destruction of his own world. When he marries Dan’s childhood sweetheart, he still cannot understand why his own mother and wife now insist on living in the restricted part of Dan’s subdivision, which is a sort of garden estate—“more beautiful,” his mother sighs, than National Avenue ever was.
Tarkington took up the theme of progress in his best work of nonfiction, The World Does Move, in which he moves back and forth between nostalgic reminiscences about the good old days and a practical insistence that, as the world changes, we must change with it. Writing in 1929 and looking back to the turn of the century, he frankly acknowledges that, “of the pleasant smallish city I lived in . . . there remains about as much as the Roman left of Punic Carthage when he drove his ploughs over its site before building his own city there.”
Unlike Theodore Dreiser or Sinclair Lewis, Booth Tarkington could live on comfortable terms in Europe without showing off or developing contempt for the folks back home. He knows Babbitt all too well—knows how cheap and vulgar he is—but he cannot despise him. In The Plutocrat, Earl Tinker—the Midwestern booster par excellence—ends up taking his place beside the Roman as one of the creators of civilization. In his more prosaic essay, Tarkington describes this new species of American businessman:
They are optimists to the point of belligerence, and on their marching banner they inscribe the words, “Boost! Don’t Knock!” They are boosters out to sell their city to the world. They believe that boosting pays and their boosting advertisements are of a new phrasing believed to be both vigorous and seductive. . . . The idealists constantly shout that their city shall be a better city and what they principally mean by better is bigger and more prosperous. They seem to have one supreme theory: that the perfect happiness and beauty of cities and of human life are to be brought about by more factories. . . . As the city grows and grows, it grows dirtier and dirtier. The idealists are putting up enormous 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. Every year they boost a great Clean-Up Week when everybody is supposed to get rid of the empty cans in his backyard . . .
The gentleman from Indiana is appalled by most of the new art and the new morals, but he is at a loss to know how to combat them, even in principle, so he convinces himself that fast young girls in short skirts swilling cocktails are simply a new fashion (and a bracing one), that women are no longer willing to be subservient. A Christian would know how to interpret these developments and how to oppose them without giving way to despair, but the Midwest had ceased to be Christian sometime between the Civil War and World War I. Midwesterners went to church and sent their kids to Sunday school, but there was none like the Midlander’s puritanical grandmother to keep them in line. Dan Oliphaunt was forced to go to Sunday school, but he cannot impose the same duty on his own son, who is spoiled to incorrigibility by his New York mother. Mary Vertrees does go to church, but mostly to hear the organ, and when she takes Dibbs with her, he says that to sit beside her is to go to church. This displacement of love of God by love of a woman is a sacrilege.
People like Isabel Amberson Minafer and Mary Vertrees have disappeared from America, replaced not by bold piratical industrialists like Sheridan, Morgan, and Earl Tinker, but by spoiled grandchildren who go to Harvard and Cornell and affect an Eastern accent without getting so much as their fingernails into American civilization: consumerists and hedonists who go through three or four divorces and watch their children grow up wearing jeans and listening to Michael Jackson and Ice Cube. This aristocracy sets the tone for the vast middle class who, as one more recent Indiana poet put it, “Work all day in some high rise / And vacation down on the Gulf of Mexico.”
The failure of American fiction and the failure of the Midwest itself is that, in the pursuit of success, we turned away not just from religion but from God. A pagan worshipping the false gods of his land could love the little spot on which he grew up. A post-Christian can only see the chance to turn the family farm into a development. It is not Christ who taught us that bigger is always better, that power and wealth, growth and profits, are the only good things worthy of a serious man’s attention. It was someone else who has whispered to us that we ought to transcend our limitations and become as gods. The result has been—in Indianapolis as in Rockford—that we are making our little worlds unfit for human life.
We cannot blame Booth Tarkington for being American or Midwestern. Even against his better judgment and settled opinion, he showed us the standards of decency and civility, of lives lived with joy as well as dignity. In teaching us to mourn the passing of the old order, he inspires us to do better with the time we have in the world that we inherited from the Morgans and Sheridans.