A realist in the mode of his mentor, writer William Dean Howells, Booth Tarkington excelled at characterization and the integration of moral dilemma with character and plot. In his most successful novels, Tarkington focused on regular people facing complex situations. The people he selected for his subjects were most often Hoosiers, and the setting was nearly always Indiana. Typically, the dilemmas faced by his characters highlight flaws marring otherwise sympathetic individuals. Always charming, Tarkington’s characters are never entirely lost souls; there exists always the possibility of ethical growth and development.
The Gentleman from Indiana
Tarkington’s first success, The Gentleman from Indiana, won for him a national readership and propelled him to a place of prominence in American letters. This novel contains the themes and characters typical of Tarkington’s later works, but with far less attention to psychological insight and a greater reliance on romance. The protagonist, John Harkless, is drawn in rather stereotypical fashion as a crusading newspaperman fighting racism and mob violence. The novel is compelling, but it lacks the kind of substantive, complex development of character typical of Tarkington’s more mature work. The heroes and villains are clearly drawn, and readers view the action rather than participate in it. In later works, such as Alice Adams, Tarkington replicates the dilemmas of his characters within the minds of his readers. Still, the rudiments of Tarkington’s concern for characterization and moral dilemma are fleshed out in The Gentleman from Indiana.
The first volume of a trilogy, Penrod was followed by Penrod and Sam and Penrod Jashber. The title character and protagonist is a young boy who bears a striking resemblance to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Like Tom, Penrod tells lies, often with hilarious results. Caught daydreaming in class, Penrod tells his teacher he has been distracted by his uncle’s alcoholism. The yarn spins out beyond the boy’s ability to control it, and trouble ensues. Similarly, when cast as an unwilling Launcelot in an amateur theatrical, Penrod is mortified that the tights he has to wear are made from his father’s long underwear. At the last minute, he dons the janitor’s capacious overalls, ruining the serious tone the director had attempted to instill. Although Penrod is often compared to Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), it bears greater similarity to the earlier The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Tarkington’s book is related from an omniscient point of view, like Twain’s earlier work, and Penrod occupies a position within society, as does Tom. The point of view is particularly appropriate and fits the nostalgic air pervading the novel.
Penrod was wildly popular during Tarkington’s life, and it marks an important development of his artistry. With Penrod, Tarkington perfected his notable ability to connect plot and character; Tarkington himself observed that “Tom and Huck are realistic only in character. He [Twain] gave ’em what boys don’t get when it came to ’plot.’” Tarkington’s protagonist is no more “real” than Twain’s Tom or Huck, but the incidents Penrod participates in are arguably more typical than what Twain relates. As Tarkington approached his more mature work, he still insisted on the accurate depiction of character and plot.
The Magnificent Ambersons
Tarkington had achieved commercial success with his earlier work, but it was with The Magnificent Ambersons that he achieved true critical success. It was for this novel that Tarkington received his first Pulitzer. Critics recognized that the story of the Amberson family was at once a story about one midwestern...
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