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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,150

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This is the grave of Booth Tarkington.

Born in 1869 in Indianapolis, Tarkington grew up in the economic and political elite of Indiana and beyond. In fact, his uncle Booth, who he was named after, was presently governor of California. So he went to all the best schools Indianapolis had to offer and then was off to Phillips Exeter. Somewhat surprisingly, he did not stay in New England to attend Yale or Harvard. Instead, he went to Purdue, back in Indiana. He stayed there for two years and then transferred to Princeton. There, he became active in elite circles, the silly dinner clubs, etc. He also was already interested in writing and acting and was in plays at Princeton. He actually never got around to graduating, being one course short, but he later would get two honorary degrees from the school. He was a popular guy–a big eater and drinker and partier. He would be a popular guy his whole life, even after he stopped drinking in the 1910s.

It would have been likely I suppose to expect Tarkington to turn his writing hand to the east coast elite circles in which he lived. After all, this was the era of Henry James and Edith Wharton and all. But he did not. For him, the subject of his work would be those wealthier classes of Indiana that he grew up with. This didn’t make him a writer of the working class or anything like, but it did set his elite apart from the east coast Ivy League elite, where they maybe didn’t quite fit. Thus, Tarkington became known as a “regionalist,” which is a loaded term pushed on the world by the people who take that famous New Yorker cover showing the nation west of the Hudson River seriously. No New York City or Boston writer was ever called a “regionalist.” He made it pretty big pretty fast. Hamlin Garland got hold of one of his early manuscripts and reached out to the young man, telling him to publish.

Tarkington did once take time out for politics. He won a term in the Indiana legislature in 1902 as a Republican. This was part of his elite world–the idea of public service–regardless of whatever policies he might support that were probably not very good given the Republican Party of 1902. He was always an old-school right-wing Midwestern Protestant without regret. He would grow later to loathe Franklin Delano Roosevelt as so many who grew up in the Gilded Age did. He was always a huge Prohibition supporter. However, he was a stark internationalist and publicly supported Lend-Lease. His big contribution to the political world was introducing a bill to legalize Sunday baseball.

But that conservative Midwestern world was also something he had the ability to place on the page. It’s interesting in that Tarkington was a hugely successful author in his day and had his books adapted into major films, but he doesn’t seem to be much read at all today, even as Wharton and James do remain read. In any case, his first novel was The Gentleman from Indiana in 1899 and from that point forward, he was remarkably productive, averaging about a novel a year for decades. His series of Penrod novels were a Huck Finn-type of kids series of adventures that were seen as the equal to Twain at the time, even if they told the stories from Tarkington’s own upper class perspective. He published extensively as well on the changes in the class system he witnessed in his own life, with the decline of old pre-Civil War money and the rise of the new money Gilded Age elite. One of these novels was The Magnificent Ambersons, largely considered his classic, along with Alice Adams. He won the Pulitzer for both of these works, one of only three writers who have won the Pulitzer for Fiction twice, along with Updike and Faulkner. And yet, Tarkington is largely forgotten today. I wonder how much of what we do remember about him today that Orson Welles adapted it, only partially successfully due to studio interference, to the screen in his famous 1942 film. A lot, I reckon.

Tarkington was pretty interested in dramatizing his own work and he did so several times. In fact, he really wanted to be a playwright and tried quite hard at it. He produced a few of his own plays, co-wrote some others, and such. But he never quite had the same success with the theater as he did with novels and stories. He also worked to serialize his own works into movies and The Adventures and Emotions of Edgar Pomeroy became a pretty popular serial in 1921.

Late life got a bit harder for Tarkington. He became to lose his sight in the early 20s. This was a pretty long process but as much as he tried to reverse it, he did not for a decade. By 1931, he did have some restored eyesight, but all the surgeries took a lot of energy out of him and his heath faltered generally. Still, he stayed pretty active. He bought a place in Kennebunkport, Maine and split time between there and Indianapolis, working with friends to get material out, though none of it was at the level of his earlier work.

In 2019, The New Yorker ran an article on Tarkington’s now cratered reputation. This came as a result of the Library of America issuing a volume of Tarkington’s most famous works, including The Magnificent Ambersons and Amber Adams, so maybe there will be something of a renaissance in his reputation. But Robert Gottlieb really went after Tarkington, calling him a reactionary hack, if a talented writer, whose nostalgia destroyed his own work. Some of this is racial; he has some works with the worst kind of white person writing dialect for Black characters that is completely unreadable, even though Tarkington was generally seen as relatively not-racist by the standards of the time. Some of it is that Tarkington hated everything about modernism at a time when modernism was taking control of the art world. In any case, he’s not the author he could have been. But he was still a major figure for a long time.

Tarkington died in 1946, at the age of 76.

Booth Tarkington is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana.

If you would like this series to visit other Library of America authors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Tarkington is Volume 319 in the series. Cornelius Ryan, the World War II author who has Volume 318, is in Ridgefield, Connecticut and Francis Hodgson Burnett, who has Volume 323, is in Roslyn, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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