Booth Tarkington

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Booth Tarkington Biography

Booth Tarkington’s career was more than magnificent. Though he is best remembered for his 1918 book The Magnificent Ambersons, he produced over twenty novels and was one of the most popular authors of the early twentieth century. The Magnificent Ambersons was actually the second book of a trilogy. Dubbed “The Growth Trilogy,” these three novels (The Turmoil, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Midlander) took on the daunting task of portraying the changing social landscape of America between the Civil War and World War I. The aristocrats who inhabited his novels were not foreign to Tarkington, whose well-heeled upbringing no doubt inspired his works and the trilogy in particular. For its rich depiction of changing times and changing classes, The Magnificent Ambersons continues to appear on lists of the best novels of the twentieth century.

Facts and Trivia

  • Tarkington studied at well-regarded universities such as Purdue and Princeton, but the majority of his degrees (including his master’s and doctorate) were honorary.
  • Tarkington has the distinction of having won two Pulitzer Prizes nearly back to back for The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. Only Edith Wharton’s win for The Age of Innocence separates them.
  • Tarkington’s novel Monsieur Beaucaire has been adapted into a play, an operetta, and two films.
  • The third novel of Tarkington’s “Growth” trilogy, The Midlander, was later retitled National Avenue.
  • The Magnificent Ambersons was made into a film by Orson Welles as his follow-up to Citizen Kane. Unhappy with it, the studio cut a significant amount of footage, which was later destroyed. An original cut, reportedly sent to Welles, has never been found.

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Newton Booth Tarkington was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 29, 1869, lived most of his life there, and passed away in his hometown on May 19, 1946. He took for his material the characters and concerns of his home city and home state, using the region to highlight the eternal concerns of humanity. He was raised in an upper-middle-class family and received a superior education, particularly at Phillips Exeter Academy. A year spent at Purdue in 1890-1891 brought him into contact with another Hoosier writer, George Ade, and with the illustrator John T. McCutcheon. Tarkington spent the years of 1891-1893 at Princeton University, although he did not take a degree. Although his education did not follow the usual pattern, it did energize him and afford him the opportunity to explore his literary talents.

After leaving Princeton, Tarkington played the part of the struggling writer for five years; however, with the publication of The Gentleman from Indiana in 1899, Tarkington was recognized as a major new writer. The novel became a best seller, and Tarkington, a prolific writer throughout his career, followed it with short stories, novels, and plays. Established as a major young writer, Tarkington married Louisa Fletcher in 1902. That same year, he was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives. He served in that capacity for only two sessions before resigning due to ill health—he had contracted typhoid in a southern Indiana resort. His bout with typhoid initiated what was to become a lifelong practice of spending the summers in Kennebunkport, Maine. Tarkington’s only child, Laurel, was born in 1906. The Tarkingtons divorced in 1911. The couple’s rift was due in part to Tarkington’s heavy drinking; he eventually realized he was an alcoholic.

Tarkington soon recovered from depression and divorce, gave up alcohol, and married Susanah Robinson in 1912. The next decade witnessed the burst of creativity that produced his masterworks Penrod, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Alice Adams. The last two works won Pulitzer Prizes, and Tarkington found himself occupying the very pinnacle of American letters. Following this great success, however, was yet another dark period. Tarkington’s father, with whom the writer had enjoyed a close relationship, died in January, 1923. This bereavement was followed by the harder blow that came in April: the death of his daughter, Laurel.

With the Great Depression, Tarkington’s preoccupation with social concerns increased, but his popularity and success rested mainly on his earlier achievements. He became more socially active and lobbied for the adoption of the United Nations charter. He died on May 19, 1946.

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