THE MAGNIFICENT TARKINGTONnby Thomas FlemingnThe Midwest is a lucky place for an American novelist tonbe from. Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, andnTheodore Dreiser all made good money by holding up theirnnative region to international ridicule, while Hemingwaynand Fitzgerald did even better by simply escaping to thenEast and eventually to Europe. Both, it is true, set some ofntheir best short stories in the Midwest of their childhood,nbut neither employed a Midwestern location for a majornnovel.nIn retrospect, the Midwest is a kiss of death to literarynfame. Sinclair Lewis might have thought he had secured hisnreputation by lampooning Main Street or satirizing thenBabbittry of Duluth, but it was not enough: Once thensensation wore off, the fact remained that he had writtenn, J . ^ . ..,• v-^?£–»^n•’ ••% /”-Oi– ”J^^ ^•- -~4>fn•y.’.lX-Ki:^-^–‘rir:!Z^< *••’-, ‘^f’li-n~^”‘ – • ‘ ‘- ” • ‘ Vn.,,tf. . . , . . . – , ^ . : : ••••• •n• ill’- – ^••n1 L -c*nhSH •-• .- •-‘n• r^,ei •n’WkCrn• • wnoJi.n, – ; / • ‘ • ; : ‘ -n’ • / ; • : / ‘ •nrn14 / CHRONICLESn’/n^Ln-«3.-?”nabout Minnesota; and who in New York (where they decidenthese things) can possibly be interested in Minnesota?nGarrison Keillor, please take note. Sinclair Lewis would benThomas Fleming is editor of Chronicles.nnnappalled to discover that he is now set down as a provincial,na regionalist: He turned down a Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmithnprecisely because it was given for the depiction of “thenwholesome atmosphere of American life.” On the othernhand. Booth Tarkington, the most thoroughly neglected ofnAmerica’s important novelists, accepted two of the first fournPulitzer fiction awards given: for The Magnificent Ambersonsn(1920) and Alice Adams (1923). In fact, there is littiendoubt that in the first third of the 20th century, Tarkingtonnwas the most celebrated American novelist. He was praisednby those whose praise meant something: Hamlin Garland,nafter reading the manuscript of his first published work. ThenGentleman From Indiana, wrote him to say, “You are annovelist”; William Dean Howells admired his mature work;neven Theodore Dreiser had to admire his style; and after hisndeath, novelist John P. Marquand observed that “in all ofnhis rather stupendous career he has never faltered,” andnadded that, most remarkably, Tarkington had never becomendated. Even more than his fellow writers, the reading publicnadored him. Surveys conducted in the 1920’s consistentiynput him at the top of the field as “the greatest livingnAmerican author” and New York Times readers voted himnone of 10 great living Americans—the only writer whonmade the list.nIn the introduction to the recent Arbor House edition ofnThe Magnificent Ambersons, Stanley Kauffmann observes,n”Tarkington, like many prolific and popular authors, sufferednquick posthumous obscurity. In most such cases, itndoesn’t matter.” Kauffmann generously concedes that ThenMagnificent Ambersons is worth rescuing, even apart fromnthe Orson Welles film of 1942. What happened, then, tontopple Booth Tarkington from the pantheon of literaryncelebrities? Tastes have changed, of course, and althoughnTarkington was never “dated” as Marquand observed, henrefused to join the pack of literary celebrities who boostednsales by putting dirt into their books. While he thought ofnhimself as a realist in matters of sex, the novelist fromnIndiana always stopped short of the bedroom door. No, notnchanging taste or even the inevitable eclipse of a deadnwriter’s reputation are responsible for the decline: It is thencharacter of Tarkington himself—the unabashed Hoosier,nthe hardheaded defender (and critic) of businessmen, thenpatriotic American—it is for his virtues that Booth Tarkingtonnhas been ignored by critics and literary historians.nOf his most solid and characteristic accomplishments, ansympathetic reader would point to the appreciation of thenentrepreneurial spirit Tarkington displayed in novels likenThe Plutocrat; his masterpieces of juvenile fiction, Penrodnand Seventeen; his studies in the feminine character,nespecially Alice Adams; but above all his one unquestionablenmasterpiece, the three novels that comprise the trilogynhe titled Growth: The Turmoil, The Magnificent Ambersons,nand The Midlander. In these three books, Tarkingtonncharts—more successfully than any historian or any othernnovelist including Faulkner—the great transformation ofn