The Booth Tarkington Appreciation Society

Hillsdale, MI. I propose the creation of TBTAS, “The Booth Tarkington Appreciation Society.”  If we take the liberties some have with the Tetragrammaton (Y*H*W*H) and pronounce it “yahway,” we could say TBTAS as “tibitas,” which sounds classical but sure isn’t much of an acronym no matter how you say it.  I’ve been involved in organizing a couple of other societies.  One is the Hillsdale College CCA, “Center for Constructive Alternatives,” which became the mother of Imprimis, the publication side of the most effective fundraising operation in the history of American small colleges.  The CCA was originally scheduled to be named “Center for Rational Alternative Programs” until somebody realized the acronym would be “CRAP.”  The other is “Cocktails Against Communism,” which has no acronym, no structure, no officers, no dues, no meetings, and no membership requirements except the obvious.  When the commies came apart, we decided, like the March of Dimes, to keep it together anyway.  Jeremy Beer and Bill Kauffman support TBTAS, but joining is a dangerous thing.  As Robert Frost said, “Don’t join too many gangs.”

Like the other two, TBTAS is quite serious.  Newton Booth Tarkington (b. 1869, the same year as my Grandfather Willson) was a significant American writer, in some ways the American Anthony Trollope.  Trollope was wildly popular during his lifetime and made a lot of money writing (he was unapologetic about writing for money), but his reputation went south amongst the “critics” for almost seven decades because of a supposed lack of ideas and artistic integrity (another way of saying that he wrote for money).  Booth Tarkington was wildly popular during his lifetime and made a lot of money writing, but his reputation went south after his death in 1946.  Just as Trollope made a comeback in the late 1940s, Tarkington is due for his comeback about now.

Tarkington thrived in the era of mass circulation magazines.  Once he figured out what he wanted to write novels about (midwestern families in an age of industrial change) and how he wanted to write them (character development and dialogue as opposed to his over-plotted early works) he found that serialization in The Saturday Evening Post was the perfect vehicle to reach the vast audience of middle class women who had always been the primary readers of novels.  Norman Rockwell on the outside, Booth Tarkington on the inside; it was an irresistible combination. One of the reasons to join this particular gang is to stand up for The Saturday Evening Post. If you’re an Atlantic Monthly kind of guy you might not like TBTAS.

In fact, five years ago Atlantic Monthly published a very long and very snotty piece by the novelist Thomas Mallon (“Hoosiers”; www.theatlantic.com/200405/mallon), the message being that Tarkington was once esteemed and is now forgotten, with good reason.  Mr. Mallon rounds up the usual suspects, lefties and progressives and modernists (Vernon Parrington, F.O. Matthiessen, Edmund Wilson, Harvey Swados, et. al.) to picture a Tarkington who disappeared into a mist of nostalgia, an “idyllic townscape that’s always on its way to despoilment,” “prose more purple than any mountain’s majesty” (!);  an author who almost always “loses his nerve,” who plays “to the cheap seats,” and in whose writing  “the quality is so sharply up and down as to seem the result of a blood-sugar problem, or some seasonal affective disorder.”  He further condemns Tarkington for being admired by John O’Hara, “ever as mindful as sales as of status.”  One assumes that Mr. Mallon would refuse their royalties, even while accusing Tarkington of being, of all things, a “snob.”

Mallonistas generally like only two of Tarkington’s novels: The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. That both won Pulitzers probably recommends them even to modernist critics, since modernist critics have controlled the Pulitzers almost from the beginning.  Mr. Mallon’s praise is conditional even for these “twin peaks” (did he really write that?) of a mediocre career.    “For once,” Mallon says, “Tarkington keeps his nerve.”  When all is said and done, the best he can say is “how typically limited was his reach.”

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