The Midwest is a lucky place for an American novelist to be from. Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Theodore Dreiser all made good money by holding up their native region to international ridicule, while Hemingway and Fitzgerald did even better by simply escaping to the East and eventually to Europe. Both, it is true, set some of their best short stories in the Midwest of their childhood, but neither employed a Midwestern location for a major novel.
In retrospect, the Midwest is a kiss of death to literary fame. Sinclair Lewis might have thought he had secured his reputation by lampooning Main Street or satirizing the Babbittry of Duluth, but it was not enough: Once the sensation wore off, the fact remained that he had written , about Minnesota; and who in New York (where they decide these things) can possibly be interested in Minnesota? Garrison Keillor, please take note. Sinclair Lewis would be appalled to discover that he is now set down as a provincial, a regionalist: He turned down a Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith precisely because it was given for the depiction of “the wholesome atmosphere of American life.” On the other hand. Booth Tarkington, the most thoroughly neglected of America’s important novelists, accepted two of the first four Pulitzer fiction awards given: for The Magnificent Ambersons (1920) and Alice Adams (1923). In fact, there is little doubt that in the first third of the 20th century, Tarkington was the most celebrated American novelist. He was praised by those whose praise meant something: Hamlin Garland, after reading the manuscript of his first published work, The Gentleman From Indiana, wrote him to say, “You are a novelist”; William Dean Howells admired his mature work; even Theodore Dreiser had to admire his style; and after his death, novelist John P. Marquand observed that “in all of his rather stupendous career he has never faltered,” and added that, most remarkably, Tarkington had never become dated. Even more than his fellow writers, the reading public adored him. Surveys conducted in the 1920’s consistently put him at the top of the field as “the greatest living American author” and New York Times readers voted him one of 10 great living Americans—the only writer who made the list.
In the introduction to the recent Arbor House edition of The Magnificent Ambersons, Stanley Kauffmann observes, “Tarkington, like many prolific and popular authors, suffered quick posthumous obscurity. In most such cases, it doesn’t matter.” Kauffmann generously concedes that The Magnificent Ambersons is worth rescuing, even apart from the Orson Welles film of 1942. What happened, then, to topple Booth Tarkington from the pantheon of literary celebrities? Tastes have changed, of course, and although Tarkington was never “dated” as Marquand observed, he refused to join the pack of literary celebrities who boosted sales by putting dirt into their books. While he thought of himself as a realist in matters of sex, the novelist from Indiana always stopped short of the bedroom door. No, not changing taste or even the inevitable eclipse of a dead writer’s reputation are responsible for the decline: It is the character of Tarkington himself—the unabashed Hoosier, the hardheaded defender (and critic) of businessmen, the patriotic American—it is for his virtues that Booth Tarkington has been ignored by critics and literary historians.
Of his most solid and characteristic accomplishments, a sympathetic reader would point to the appreciation of the entrepreneurial spirit Tarkington displayed in novels like The Plutocrat; his masterpieces of juvenile fiction, Penrod and Seventeen; his studies in the feminine character, especially Alice Adams; but above all his one unquestionable masterpiece, the three novels that comprise the trilogy he titled Growth: The Turmoil, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Midlander. In these three books, Tarkington charts—more successfully than any historian or any other novelist including Faulkner—the great transformation of America from an agrarian to an industrial society.
I do not intend to provide any Cliff’s Notes substitute for reading Tarkington or offer a book-by-book discussion of Growth. A few words on the themes and plots of the three novels are, however, in order. In The Turmoil, a sickly aspiring poet, Dibbs Sheridan, learns to accept his fate as the eventual heir to an industrial fortune in a city choking itself to death on the smoke of its own prosperity. Despised and ignored by his nouveau riche family, Dibbs becomes their last hope upon the death of one brother and the failure of another. The Magnificent Ambersons takes us back to an earlier period of Midwestern gentility in the years just before its dissolution. Georgie Amberson Minafer, a handsome but repellant snob, assists in the ruin of his old family until he is saved by the wisdom that comes through suffering and by marriage to an industrialist’s daughter. Finally, in The Midlander, the hale fellow Dan Oliphant struggles to build his dream: a bourgeois suburban community for families whose livelihood depends upon the smokeinfested city.
Little outwardly connects the three books, apart from location. There are no chance meetings between Dibbs, George, or Dan. Apart from the smoke, there appears to be little effort to interrelate the tales symbolically. The three heroes are temperamentally unalike in every imaginable way. What ties them together is each one’s confrontation with the spectacle of the economic growth and social change that enriched the Sheridans, destroyed the Ambersons, and posed a critical challenge to the Oliphants.
Whatever else he was, Tarkington was no booster. Unlike Sinclair Lewis, who only hated the way things were, Tarkington grew up in a gentler, more humane world than the 20th century. In his simpler fiction—like Penrod or The Conquest of Canaan—the well-born Hoosier permitted himself a certain nostalgia for the graceful old times of cotillions and carriages. That was the world of the Ambersons, a family whose fortune may have been founded on real estate speculation but whose members justified their existence by attending to business, doing public service (Uncle George Amberson sat in Congress), or simply by living lives which can only be described as beautiful. But Tarkington was no snob. He was, if anything, even more enthusiastic about the simpler folk who inhabit the village he celebrated in The Gentleman From Indiana.
It was a trip back to the Midwest which shocked the young novelist out of his genteel reveries. All that had been so quietly beautiful was being transformed into smoke, noise, and soot. Tarkington was far more outraged by the changes than any muckraker, and there are pages of The Turmoil that constitute a harsher indictment against the greed, stupidity, and dishonesty of American capitalism than anything in Upton Sinclair. Lovely old neighborhoods are swallowed up, old families are ruined, and young wives lose heart in all the soot. The most tragic consequence is the human cost. As Dibbs Sheridan turns into a shrewd (albeit highly scrupulous) businessman, he learns secrets of the heart which might be better left concealed—enough material for more than one scandalous novel, he reflects. Dibbs’s open and honest face acquires a different look—his mother calls it a “set expression.” In the end, Dibbs becomes powerful and successful; he even is about to marry the girl of his dreams, and yet something has been lost. In awakening from his dreams of poetry and refined sensibility, the American has become hard and not a little cynical.
Dan Oliphant in The Midlander undergoes a similar transformation from the well-beloved all-American boy into a booster. Unlike Dibbs, he never gives up on his dream, but in his effort to realize a suburban utopia, Dan ages quickly. The girl next door, who had always idolized him, is astonished to realize that the noble youth has turned into an overweight Rotarian:
What was more to her, nowhere in this almost middle-aged man of business, now beginning to be successful, could she discover signs of the spirit that once would have brought him instantly to welcome home an old friend. . . .
In a sense, Dibbs and Dan are alter egos. The one is the refined son of a crude industrialist; the other is a born gentleman turned booster. To complicate the refractions, each has a brother (in Dibbs’s case, two) that runs truer to the family form but fails to meet the challenge of growth. Neither of the two older Sheridan brothers live up to their father’s standard of energy and dedication, while Dan Oliphant’s brother, Harlan, turns into a snobbish esthete and a reactionary.
The most famous of Tarkington’s characters is little Georgie Minafer. As a boy, he runs people down in the street, tells the Methodist minister to go to hell, and generally inspires the town with the desire to see him get his comeuppance. He does. For all his flaws, George is made of good stuff: High-spirited, impulsive, with a touch of nobility, he breaks with the girl he loves because she expects him to have a career beyond that of yachtsman. As his family of Magnificent Ambersons dwindles into insignificance, George refuses even to consider the pursuit of wealth as something good in itself. His response to changing times and new faces is summed up in his favorite expression, “riffraff.” At his grandfather’s death, the family realizes that it is, in fact, bankrupt, and George walks through a city he can no longer recognize:
Great numbers of the faces were even of a kind he did not remember ever to have seen; they were partly like the old type that his boyhood knew, and partly like types he knew abroad. He saw German eyes with American wrinkles at their corners; he saw Irish eyes and Neapolitan eyes, Roman eyes, Tuscan eyes, eyes of Lambardy, of Savoy, Hungarian eyes, Balkan eyes, Scandinavian eyes—all with a queer American look in them.
George is humiliated not so much by the change in fortunes as by the realization that he has stood in the way of his widowed mother’s happiness by forbidding her to marry an old sweetheart, Eugene Morgan, father of his own former almost-fiancee and a wealthy automobile manufacturer. To do penance and support a foolish bridge-playing aunt whom he has tormented all his life, George gives up the prospects of a legal career and takes a job handling explosives. The book, however, ends happily with a reconciliation between George and Morgan’s daughter, after the young man is run down by an automobile.
In the rise and fall of families and neighborhoods, much beauty is destroyed, but the ugliness is not permanent. Eugene Morgan builds his own mansion five miles beyond the ruins of the Amberson mansion. At the end of The Midlander, Dan Oliphant’s aristocratic mother reflects on the neighborhood her son has created, pronounces the town even more pleasant than in the days of her youth: “I don’t suppose my mother could have believed how beautiful it would come to be.” Her ever-skeptical son, Harlan, in refutation points upward to “where an opening through the foliage of tall beech trees left a vista of the sky; and there, against the evening blue, the thinning end of a plume of smoke, miles long, was visible.” When he asks his wife if even the smoke has beauty, she tells him that his brother thought so and must have “felt something in it that neither you nor I can understand.” This is not naive optimism but a faith in the American character. For all our restlessness and mutability, we will attempt to create something fine out of the ugliness that greed has made.
Like any novelist, Tarkington has his share of flaws, chiefly an easy sentimentality that comes perilously close to superficiality. In his universe there is hardly any real evil but incivility or coldness, no virtues but kindness and candor. In the tragic sense of growth, there are no villains—only flawed heroes. Apart from The Magnificent Ambersons and, perhaps, Alice Adams, there is little awareness of the tragic dimensions of human life. Set beside Faulkner or Fitzgerald at their best, Tarkington might seem a lightweight. To set against these vices, we have only to mention his extraordinary gifts as a storyteller and as a portrayer of character—especially women’s. Because he did not disdain popularity, even his worst books can be read with pleasure, which is more than can be said of some of Faulkner’s best.
More important than all of this, in my estimation, is Tarkington’s success in tackling the great American story of the 20th century. In Gatsby, Fitzgerald fashioned a little corner of that story into a gem, and in his Snopes Chronicles, Faulkner approached more epic proportions, but neither of them comes even close to the grandeur of conception achieved in Tarkington’s Growth, and neither was able to sum up the American story so succinctly in a character as convincing as George Amberson Minafer.
The key to Tarkington’s peculiar triumph (as well as to his decline and fall) lies as much in the accident of birth as in his literary gifts. As a Midwestern gentleman growing up after the Civil War, Booth Tarkington actually lived the changes he described and lived them in what was then the most American part of America—the Midwest—and the most Midwestern state of that region—Indiana. The neglect and obscurity into which he has fallen is an indication, all too clear, of America’s decline as a nation assured of its identity and its place in the world. Things are at such a low ebb that the publishers of the most recent reissue of The Magnificent Ambersons signed up Stanley Kauffmann to write an introduction full of schoolboy hermeneutics like an “Oedipal theme as the psyche’s revenge on George for his claustral family pride” and pompous references to “Welles’s genius.” I will believe that America is on the road to moral recovery only when Growth is taught as a classic and people like Stanley Kauffmann are forbidden, on pain of imprisonment, to open their mouths on such subjects.