Monday, August 18, 2008

Booth Tarkington doesn't deserve to be forgotten

David Frum has an excellent analysis of why it is that one of our great American authors, Booth Tarkington, has fallen into obscurity. I'll put my own plug in for Tarkington, one of the great American authors. Tarkington was most famous for his novels Alice Adams and the Magnificent Ambersons, both of which were made into successful movies:

Tarkington dominated American letters in the first third of the 20th century. His novels headed the newly invented bestseller lists. He won the Pulitzer Prize for literature twice in four years, 1919 and 1922. His books were brought to Broadway and made into movies.

And now? Now Tarkington is forgotten, dismissed, dusted. Even his biography seems out of print.

Frum makes much of Alice Adams and the Magnificent Ambersons, but among my top 25 books of all time is Penrod, the story of a boy growing up in a small Midwestern town in the early 20th century. It is not only the funniest, but among the most insightful books on the human condition ever written. It is one part rumination on boyhood and one part philosophy of life. The book once held a prominent place on young adult readings lists, but has since, like all his other books, been buried by the sands of time.

Frum's explanation for Tarkington's fall from literary grace seems very much on target, citing five reasons for his current disfavor, and he adds:
But here is one explanation that will not wash: Booth Tarkington has not been forgotten because his (best) work lacks merit. Almost a century after it was published, Alice Adams will still touch, delight, and comfort any young women (and open the eyes of any young man!) who plucks it off the dusty shelf. I very much doubt that the same will be said 80 years hence for very many of the commercially successfully writers of our day.
Amen to that. Tarkington deserves a renaissance. Penrod, and its sequels Penrod and Sam and Penrod Jashber, are among those few books that my family reads over and over again. I hope Frum keeps beating the drums so that others can experience the sheer delight in these books offer.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr. Cothran. I'm forty-three and have never read Tarkington although I've seen the Orson Wells version of The Magnificent Ambersons as well as a more recent (TV?) version of it. I really enjoyed the story, but never bothered to read the book. I've also seen the movie Alice Adams. You've made me want to read these as well as the other books you mentioned. Thank you again. said...

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