What Drove Booth Tarkington?
If I tell you I’m writing in praise of an Indiana native now resident in Arizona you may, crest falling, call to mind a Republican vice president famed for his hebetude, but quail not: my Hoosier Phoenician is Jeremy Beer, who has edited the newly published America Moved, a memoir of conjoined parts by the novelistic Gentleman from Indiana, Booth Tarkington (1869-1946).
The first revelation is the book’s striking cover: Booth, hidden in the shadows, face illuminated by the match with which he has lit his cigarette (and clinched an R rating in our hedonically puritan age). He looks like a film noir Midwesterner who is about to fall hard for Jane Greer or Barbara Stanwyck and regret it.
That name—Booth Tarkington—suggests complacent plumpness, but Booth was a slender son of the Indianapolis patriciate and an obnoxious golden boy, as he describes with self-deprecating charm in the enchanting first half of America Moved.
Little Boothie was a precocious vocalizer, an “Infant Prodigy,” apple of all eyes. His Uncle Newton Booth, governor of California and the family’s “living Great Man,” once gave a dinner for three-year-old Booth and his imaginary friends the Hunchbergs, complete with empty chairs for the guests, a plate for their phantasmal dog Simpledoria, and cigars for Mr. Hunchberg. No wonder the spoiled boy grew into a novelist!
Booth’s youth did not discourage intercourse with his older sister Hautie’s many suitors: “I corrected mistakes they sometimes made if they spoke of history, proffered a connoisseur’s suggestions in all matters, and often took the lead in conversation, no matter how microscopic the encouragement.” James Whitcomb Riley was among the Mid-American legion who courted Hautie, and the Hoosier Poet gravely consulted the little know-it-all on questions poetic, trying out his rhymes on the starstruck boy, a kindness never forgotten. (“Let’s see, the frost is on the… cabbage? Turnips?”)
Tarkington achieved success as a playwright and a novelist at an early age, and though he apprenticed in New York City and sojourned in France, Indiana remained his home and the setting of his best work. In his “Growth Trilogy,” whose masterpiece is The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)—a title remembered today primarily for Orson Welles’s studio-mutilated 1942 film—he described with haunting and elegiac ruefulness the alteration, in ways subtle and gross, of Midwestern life in the years between the Civil War and the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy waged by his old Princeton friend and lecturer, Woodrow Wilson.
There have been American writers who out of principle or caprice refused to learn to drive (Ray Bradbury, Ayn Rand) and those who assailed the car culture as pernicious (Sinclair Lewis, Andrew Lytle), but no one has ever hated the automobile as much or drawn up as scathing an indictment of what Russell Kirk called the “mechanical Jacobin” as Booth Tarkington.
In America Moved, he deplores the “speed mania” of a country whose motto he mocks as “Let’s Go!” He lovingly recreates his Indianapolis: a city of broad maple and sycamore shaded avenues; handsome brick homes upon whose verandas swains serenaded chaste maidens; a society in which almost all attended church, and the dissentients tended to be interesting oddballs, Bob Ingersoll and Tom Paine readers, village atheists of the sort every village needs. All this, Tarkington says, was “utterly destroyed” by the motorized juggernaut whose victims included not only green lawns and stately trees but dogs and horses and “reverent children” and “dignified parents.” This rings of fuddy-duddyism, but it contains a good deal of truth, too.
Rampant mobility—which from the Goods Roads movement to the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was a Big Government project, lest encomiasts of the Open Road forget—undermined family, church, community, and neighborliness. In Middletown (1929), their study of Muncie, Indiana, Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd diagnosed the auto-malady; Booth Tarkington made of it art.
Worshiping the “topless surrey,” Americans obliterated distance in exchange for asphalt, standardization, and carnage. Tarkington doubts the trade was worth it. And this was before the automobile was the bringer of death to two midcentury Indiana boys: novelist Ross (Raintree County) Lockridge Jr., asphyxiated in his garage, and James Dean, mangled in his silver Porsche.
In America Moved, Tarkington laments the 20th-century American love affair with “giantism” and bigness for its own sake, as embodied in the pointless and ugly skyscrapers that were like inhuman hands stretching up to block from us the sun, the moon, the stars, God.
The antidote to giantism is love. Jeremy Beer has committed an exemplary act of Hoosier patriotism—of love—by escorting America Moved into print. His next project is a biography of the elusive Oscar Charleston, baseball Hall of Famer and legend of the Negro Leagues—and, of course, an Indianan.