Growing up in the Midwest, Booth Tarkington set his eyes on the prize—literary success. He was driven, and throughout his years, Tarkington left imprints of his memories, childhood, and understanding of life on many of his novels and stories.

A Writer in Waiting

Booth Tarkington was born as Newton Booth Tarkington in 1869 in Indiana. Born to a lawyer and a judge, Tarkington was privy to a good education, having attended Purdue University in Indiana and Princeton University in New Jersey. At Princeton, Tarkington edited the school’s literary magazine, Nassau Literary Magazine. In 1918, he earned an honorary Doctor of Letters from the school. It was not such accolades, however, that prompted him to write. Tarkington had been a writer in waiting, and his writing life soon flourished, as shown through various quotes, a review of his life, and some of the books and stories he sculpted.

Booth Tarkington
Booth Tarkington

Home Sweet Home

Tarkington set his sights on writing at an early age but didn’t begin to write formally until he finished school. Much like many writers of his time, Tarkington persisted through rejections and in 1899, his first novel, The Gentleman from Indiana, was published. This was inspired by his work in the Indiana legislature, and it remarked much about his home state of Indiana. He writes, ”There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagarian Eastern travelers, glancing from car windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery…”

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Of Life and Boyhood

In 1900, he published Monsieur Beaucaire, a historical romance. Tarkington’s Penrod series consists of Penrod (1914), Penrod and Sam (1916), and Penrod Jashber (1929). These tales, inspired by his nephews and his own boyhood memories, give many insights about growing up as a young boy. Tarkington writes, ”One of the hardest conditions of boyhood is the almost continuous strain put upon the powers of invention by the constant and harassing necessity for explanations of every natural act.” Throughout his books, Tarkington drew upon what he knew. He knew of his boyhood experiences growing up, of his life in Indiana, and of wealth. Thus, several of his books and stories involved wealthy characters or characters yearning to be wealthy.

Monsieur Beaucaire
Monsieur Beaucaire

Splendid Wealth

In 1918, he published The Magnificent Ambersons as part of the Growth trilogy, along with The Turmoil and The Midlander. The Ambersons are aristocrats, and the trilogy explores their economic demise as they witness industry tycoons rise in wealth. Orson Welles adapted this for the big screen just as the industrial revolution heightened. Tarkington emphasizes this well. ”They had one supreme theory: that the perfect beauty and happiness of cities and of human life was to be brought about by more factories; they had a mania for factories.” Wealth is looked at differently in his 1921 novel, Alice Adams, also adapted to the screen. Katharine Hepburn plays Alice, a girl yearning for a high-class lifestyle, and her mother does all that she can for her. Alice ponders, ” Beautiful things happen to other people; why should I be the only one they never can happen to?” A lifestyle, promoted with wealth, is the beauty she seeks.

Katharine Hepburn as Alice Adams
Katharine Hepburn as Alice Adams

Tarkington’s Success

In The Magnificent Ambersons, Tarkington observes, ”Whatever does not pretend at all has style enough.” Tarkington did not pretend to be a writer, and this is proven in his fervent publishing success. In his career, Tarkington published over fifty short stories and books. Not everything was written in novel form. Tarkington also wrote serial stories, larger stories published sequentially, often in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. These serial stories included The Flirt (1913) and Seventeen (1916). The latter was adapted for the stage and the screen.

Tarkington’s success had been established, and in 1922, he was named ”America’s greatest living writer” by Literary Digest. Nine of Tarkington’s books were listed on the bestsellers list. He won Pulitzer Prizes for The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams.

Pulitzer Prize Medal
Pulitzer Prize Medal

Even in the last ten years of his life, Tarkington was writing. He published various novels in his final ten years, including The Lorenzo Bunch (1936), Kate Fennigate (1943), and Image of Josephine (1945), among others. Tarkington died in 1946.

Lesson Summary

Booth Tarkington‘s literary list of published works is formidable. His boyhood memories helped him to create witty plots for boys of all ages to enjoy, and his awareness of a burgeoning aristocratic culture further influenced his characters. He was additionally influenced by his home state and the places he traveled. As a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams, Tarkington also received Hollywood honors; several of his books, including the two Pulitzer Prize winners, have been adapted to the screen. He wasn’t committed to writing novels, either, as he wrote several serial stories, which were larger stories, often published sequentially in magazines. Tarkington wrote about what he knew best, and his memories and passions live on in his writing.