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...
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