Saturday, January 18, 2003

I love the Internet Public Library. I've been reading some stuff by Booth Tarkington, who was an American popular novelist about a hundred years ago. I had read Penrod when I was a kid; it's a collection of short stories about a twelve-year-old in about 1910 and his struggles with authority. All Tarkington's novels are comedies of manners, social class, and snobbery; the basic plot is that some people who get to thinking they're something special get their comeuppances. Penrod fights against what he sees as a feminizing tyranny that makes him go to dancing classes and learn to be "refined" by making asses of snobbish adults all around him; in Seventeen, a snobbish, stuck-up teenager named William gets what's coming to him, and in The Magnificent Ambersons (the book the Orson Welles movie was based on) a snobbish, stuck-up young adult named George who gets what he's got coming.

Tarkington was born in 1838 and wrote most of his more-read books late in life; he is thus a contemporary of Mark Twain, whose works Tarkington's rather resemble, though Tarkington never became bitter like Twain did. I would compare Tarkington directly to F. Scott Fitzgerald, as they write about exactly the same themes. In fact, Tarkington does a better job of satirizing upwardly mobile social climbers than Fitzgerald did, and this is probably because Fitzgerald was a social climber himself who had all the common sense of the beer-drinking pig they have at Aquarena Springs near San Marcos, Texas. Tarkington only briefly antedates Fitzgerald, since the former died the year he published The Magnificent Ambersons, 1918, while Fitzgerald's big splash came in 1919 and his notoriety lasted through the Twenties. I cannot help but think that Fitzgerald had thoroughly absorbed his Tarkington, which he must have read during his adolescence.

Tarkington also reminds me of John O´Hara, who also wrote novels of social class in small-town America, though where O´Hara sees only darkness, corruption, and filth behind carefully maintained apperarances, Tarkington sees silly but harmless fools who pay far too much attention to what they imagine the opinion of others to be. O'Hara started in the Thirties and he, too, must have read Tarkington as a teenager; everybody else of his generation did. Sinclair Lewis is a Nobel Prize winner who also owes a debt to Tarkington; one similarity is that both authors' characters are types, representative of various attitudes toward life and of course the resemblance of their themes, social life in a Midwestern town. Lewis, again, is darker than Tarkington.

One problem with Tarkington, and one reason why he may not be much read any more, is that he was an out and out racist; in Penrod he calls Penrod and Sam "of a slightly higher stage of evolution" than their black childhood friends. It's not that Tarkington accidentally let one slip through; writers from George Orwell to Dorothy Sayers have let occasional, accidental-seeming racist or anti-Semitic comments slip through. Tarkington goes out of his way to portray blacks, always the same way, as either lazy old gentlemen who spend all day fishing, hired hands who are not too smart but kind and loyal, or bad-tempered domestic servant women. Each of his novels has at least one of these three black characters. Now, Tarkington's racism is not hateful, he doesn't want to lynch blacks or burn their churches or hunt them down in the streets, he just thinks that black people are not as smart as white people. Morally, Tarkington's blacks often behave better than his white characters. Mentally, they're obviously inferior. That was quite a respectable, decent attitude to hold if you were born in 1838, very "White Man's Burden-esque". Blacks are good people but not very intelligent, and it's the duty of decent white people to help them. Thinking this way was positively liberal a hundred years ago. It's not too acceptable now.

Paul Fussell, one of my favorite essayists, has a piece on Penrod, which he calls (after Orwell) a "good bad book". Fussell is angry because his child has been given in school a bowdlerized version of the Penrod stories with offending comments excised as much as possible. I rather agree with Fussell; Tarkington's offhand racism is a very important aspect of his time. A hundred years ago people in America were just plain racist, just like Tarkington. We don't much like to be reminded of that, I think, and this is one reason why few American books from before the First World War are read today. Tarkington's world is very Edwardian, nay, Victorian, and his writing is pre-War in style. His attitudes seem naive to us today and his language seems old-fashioned. Also, we today are very different people from what we were a hundred years ago. Tarkington's characters are actually concerned with what people they don't know might think about their shoes. Modern readers just can't identify with that; the First World War was a dividing point for literature and painting and the arts in general, and we're distinctly still on the post-War rebound, a hundred years later. Of course, if your grandfather had gone barefoot, like Tarkington's characters' grandfathers probably had, you might be pretty concerned with making sure everyone knew that you, yourself, had never done so.

Hope that made sense.

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