Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Booth Tarkington lived to see his work hailed as brilliant and then discarded as second-rate. The apex of his career occurred in the years after the end of World War I; in 1918, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Magnificent Ambersons. He won the honor again in 1921 for Alice Adams. The publication of Alice Adams thus marked the height of Tarkington’s prestige and popularity. Indeed, the novel in some sense resuscitated a waning career, though Tarkington would never again attain either the critical or the popular success of Alice Adams.

Tarkington is viewed today as a minor writer of realistic fiction, as a lesser Sinclair Lewis, to whom he is often compared. If Tarkington’s writing was occasionally held in overly high esteem during his lifetime—there were critics who ranked him above F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway—his reputation today is artificially low. Unlike his contemporaries Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and William Faulkner, Tarkington plowed no new ground and employed no new formal literary devices. However, his achievement has often been overlooked; he perfected the forms established by the early realists William Dean Howells and Henry James, and the gemlike structure of his novels, in which all aspects of plot and characterization work together toward a common end, often appears simple on the surface. Yet like gems held to the light, Tarkington’s novels repay close study, where they flash brilliantly the larger themes he conveys through character, in the perfect blend of ethics and aesthetics.