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Booth Tarkington and Penrod

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted June 14, 2004

One of the inspirations for this column comes from the Washington Post book critic, Jonathan Yardley's "Occasional Series" called "Second Reading," which "…reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past." The other came from an article in The Atlantic, May '04 issue, titled, "Hoosiers, (The Lost World of Booth Tarkington)" written by the novelist, Thomas Mallon. I was raised on Penrod, by Booth Tarkington, and now is a good time to reconsider this largely forgotten author.

Most people probably know the film, "The Magnificent Ambersons," as an excellent 1942 movie directed by Orson Wells. How many know it was written by Tarkington, and was one of two Tarkington books to win the Pulitzer Prize? The other was Alice Adams.

Thomas Mallon rightly points out that the great body of Tarkington's work is mediocre. He gives credit to only the two books that won the Pulitzer. I agree that these books deserve some reconsideration, especially Alice Adams. It is a painful story full of realistic bitterness, anger, and humiliation. It does, however, have a happy ending, not in the sense that Alice Adams finally gets what she longed for throughout the book, but the fact that she realizes she can't get what she always wanted. The maturation of Alice Adams before our eyes sets up a truly beautiful ending (Mr. Tarkington, as we shall see, was good at endings).

I do not agree, however, that these two are the only good books Tarkington wrote. I would nominate two more: Penrod, and the practically unknown Rumbin Galleries.

Reading Tarkington today, there is a problem of political incorrectness. In Rumbin Galleries, written in 1936, a man wouldn't consider asking a girl on even a date unless his salary is at least equal to hers. Tarkington, who has a huge knowledge of the art world, creates a hilarious story of an ambitious art-dealer named Rumbin who has an accent that I defy anyone to identify. Rumbin hires a Howard Cattlet (solely on his "aristocratic dumb face") to be his assistant. Rumbin introduces him to his secretary: "I intaduce you to Georchie; but don't you call her Georchie – her name's my sec'tary Miss Georchina Horne." A romance develops, but it is not pursued until the end of the book when Cattlet gets a raise that equals his salary with Georgina's. The ending here is not beautiful like Alice Adams, but I can't imagine a sweeter one (except maybe Penrod's). After Howard (who is not dumb) talks to Georgina about his raise, and determines that she isn't sorry hers was raised at the same time, he says, "Georgina – Georgina, I've waited a long time to – to ask you if you think you ever could – ever could –" "Yes, I ever could," she said. Every man's dream response: "Yes, I ever could!"

PenrodIn Penrod, (written in 1913) we have bigger PC problems. The "n" word is occasionally used (and it's not Negro) to describe some of Penrod's darker friends. It turns out there is a bowdlerized edition of Penrod, and Paul Fussell, the literary and social critic, addresses this in his book, The Boy Scout Handbook. Apparently, Fussell's daughter brought home a Penrod that was so edited that entire meanings were changed. A chapter titled "Coloured Troops in Action," (Changed to "Troops in Action") a chapter about Penrod and his black friends, is full of pc corrections. In writing about the chapter, Fussell compares Tarkington to Mark Twain: "Tarkington's point, here and elsewhere, is Twain's: dogs, Negroes, and white boys occupy essentially the same universe, one happily distant from that peopled by adult Whites like policemen, dancing and music masters, school teachers, parents, barbers, the clergy, and other Establishment personnel. This point is effectively blunted by the expurgator…"

Like history, fiction cannot be judged by today's standards. If the "n" word so disturbs you, don't read Penrod, or Mark Twain, or Joseph Conrad, or watch "Kind Hearts and Coronets." To read and enjoy "Penrod," one must transport oneself 100 years and recognize the cultural differences. Apparently, Thomas Mallon is unable to transport himself. He not only can't accept Fussell's premise (at least in whole), he can't recognize the lifestyle differences: "It is left to Penrod's charmlessness [to]…kill the book.… [Penrod] tries our patience mostly by the paltriness of his mischief…the author is too well behaved, not a good enough liar, to imagine this boy." The only way one could call Penrod's mischief, "paltry," is to compare it to today's world of video and computer games, TV, and special effect movies.

One hundred years ago, children had to use their imagination to amuse themselves. With videos and computers, kids don't have to make up stuff, but when they do, they, like children of all ages, can be funny to the extreme. My 8 year-old granddaughter, Rachel, found a cane I had used after an injury. She started hobbling around, stating, after making an O with her mouth, covering her teeth, "I'm 101 years old and I don't have any teeth. Have you seen Rachel you whippersnapper?" she said poking me with the end of the cane. "By the way, by the time you plant that maple you were talking about and it starts growing, you're gonna be dead!" "Penrod" is full of these universal funny things kids do and say that any parent or grandparent immediately recognizes and appreciates.

Penrod has another great ending. A new girl (Fanchon) comes to town, and at a dance party, she teaches Penrod how to do the "Slingo Sligo Slide." Penrod secretly adores a girl named Marjorie, who ignores Penrod throughout the book. But when she sees him "assume the double embrace" with Fanchon, she "…made a scene. She…stamped her foot. ‘Penrod Schofield,' she shouted. ‘You BEHAVE yourself!' The remarkable girl took Penrod by the ear." She continued berating him, and when he finally protests, Marjorie says, "'you be quiet!' she cried, tears filling her eyes. ‘Keep still! You ugly boy. Shut up!' She slapped him." Here, I am reminded of a scene in the movie "The Piano" where Holly Hunter slaps Harvey Keitel. A very moving scene, indeed, as it's the only way she knows how to say, "I love you." Well, Tarkington used that same technique 100 years ago. After getting slapped, Tarkington says of Penrod, "He should have understood from this how much she cared for him." The unsophisticated Penrod didn't understand until Marjorie tosses a note over his fence. "In the grass…there lay a white note, folded in the shape of a cocked hat, and the sun sent forth a final amazing glory as Penrod opened it and read: "you're my bow."

Thomas Mallon, speaking of Penrod, asks rhetorically, "Has anyone read the sequels?" Well, I have, and so has Jonathan Yardley. Mr. Yardley gave me permission to tell my (millions of) readers that sometime in July or August, his "Second Reading" column will be about Penrod's sequel, Penrod and Sam. We Penrod lovers can't wait! 

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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