Booth Tarkington wrote like a gentle Balzac: in other words, like a writer totally aware of the venality and hypocrisy of the “human comedy,” but somehow disinclined to form harshly realistic or cynical judgments. This may be simply another way of saying that he was a commercial novelist, a writer trained to provide the kind of fiction suitable for serialization in women’s magazines; as a matter of fact, a portion of KATE FENNIGATE was printed in THE LADIES HOME JOURNAL under the title “The Hardest Wife to Be.”
Nevertheless, Tarkington was more than merely a commercial hack. His fiction ranges from such a memorable children’s book as PENROD to the Realism of the novel in question. He had the talent and intelligence to see American manners and the American mind very objectively (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS provided the basis for one of Orson Welles’s greatest films), but he lacked the anger of a Sinclair Lewis or the tragic vision of a William Faulkner. He was, finally, an entertainer, and anyone reading his fiction seriously is always slightly amazed and disappointed by Tarkington’s reluctance to deal with the social and philosophical problems which his Realism raises. For example, in KATE FENNIGATE the closing pages present Kate and Ames in a sobering moment of confrontation. They are about to express the “truth” concerning their feelings, to probe the actuality of their relationship. The scene has all the dramatic promise of an illuminating final confrontation in a novel by Henry James. Instead, it settles for a vague pathos. Yes, Kate will tolerate more truth, but later. Readers sense that Kate has been brought to the point where she must finally face the deep-seated psychological reasons for her managerial personality, but Tarkington only hints darkly at the consequences. He is content to draw the portrait of a good but manipulative woman, as if that paradox would serve.
Twenty years intervene between the publication of ALICE ADAMS and KATE FENNIGATE. By comparing the two, one observes the great improvement of the latter over the former. A single protagonist is offered to the reader in each novel; but the technique of KATE FENNIGATE is vastly superior to that of ALICE ADAMS. In KATE FENNIGATE, the chief characters have more of a third dimension; the background seems more realistic, and, as a whole, the novel is a more unified work.