Critical Evaluation

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Much of Seventeen’s charm for many readers will be found in the novel’s quality as a period piece. It provides a solid sense of setting, character, and values as they were in the American Midwest in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Although the novel’s setting is not explicitly identified, Booth Tarkington’s midwestern readers of 1916, and particularly his Indiana readers, would assume from the first sentence’s reference to Washington Street and Central Avenue that the novel’s action takes place in Indianapolis, Tarkington’s hometown. The author’s detailed descriptions of costume and customs of white middle-class Americans and his rendering of speech patterns and vocabulary not only are a source of his deliberate humor but also serve to ground the novel in a tangible realism.

Seventeen is, above all, a romantic comedy, a story that focuses mostly on lives that are divorced from any grim concerns of making a living, dealing with illness, or worrying about what evils may lurk in the city or in the hearts of its inhabitants. Seventeen’s midwestern setting is a place where there is no crime and little poverty, at least among the white middle-class characters who are the center of the author’s attention.

As for the African Americans who appear in the novel, however, they are, socially and historically, only one step removed from slavery. Genesis, for example, is a servant and a worker of odd jobs, thoroughly accustomed to taking orders from his white employers and recognizing his secondary place in this society. Nevertheless, Genesis has his own ambitions, as the reader sees, when he enthusiastically works part-time as a waiter for catered affairs, a job he considers a definite step upward on the social ladder. Then, too, as an heir to the literary type of the kindly African American father figure, Genesis often looks with amusement and bemusement on the activities of white people, particularly the youngsters. In one notable scene, Genesis embarrasses William at a party, comically suggesting, as a relative of William might, that the boy surreptitiously dressed up in his father’s evening clothes.

While Tarkington gives no evidence at all of social consciousness, it is also clear that his depictions of African Americans, like his characterizations of white people, are without deliberate malice. There is a naïve innocence in Tarkington’s frequent exploitation of African American characters, customs, and speech mannerisms. In his narrator’s poking fun at African American tastes in clothing and colors and his accounts of their attitudes toward white people, Tarkington is undoubtedly recalling his own midwestern milieu as he saw it.

Since Seventeen’s publication, generations of readers have considered the novel’s characters to be familiar or easily imaginable. The Baxter and Parcher families represent a classic American ideal, one of those concepts that has been endorsed by literature and perhaps imitated in reality. William’s family, for example, includes a breadwinner father and a mother whose life is defined by motherhood, by rearing her two children—boy and girl—and by maintaining the Baxter household. Both Mr. Baxter and Mr. Parcher are often strict and impatient with their youngsters, while their wives serve as intermediaries between the fathers and the children, softening paternal anger and edicts. In other words, Seventeen’s families are those that American popular literature, film, and television have perpetuated as “typical.”

Critics, even in Tarkington’s day, objected to the nature of William’s obsession with Lola Pratt, the summer visitor in town who attracts the attention of several young men. William’s pursuit of Miss Pratt is essentially that of dreamer after his dream, a pursuit uncomplicated by sexual passion. Indeed, Tarkington’s descriptions of...

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Miss Pratt’s physical attributes have nothing to do with carnality, and William’s behavior never indicates that his admiration of her is anything more than aesthetic.

In any case, it is Miss Pratt, the object of William’s affections, who becomes the novel’s chief comic interest. She is a caricature of femininity, evidently a young woman who has been convinced that the best way to get what she wants from male admirers is to emphasize vulnerability and childlike fragility.

Much of Seventeen’s success as comedy derives from Tarkington’s third-person narrative style, whereby description and advancement of plot are usually expressed in very formal language, even though the events, characters, or motives described are amusing or even trivial. While dialogue is consistently colloquial, the narrator’s authoritative, sometimes stilted tone provides a comic contrast that is always amusing. The novel’s final, abbreviated, fairy-tale-like vision, in which it turns out that William is destined to marry Jane’s new little friend and not Miss Pratt, is a logical development in a story that largely deals with dreams rather than with reality.