The Plutocrat explores the power of money

The Plutocrat is a very good novel, but one that I suspect modern readers will find as alien as Jane Austen.

The book is about a young playwright, Laurence Ogle. Flying high on the success of his first play, he books passage for North Africa.

against photos of 2016 rich people, text says before the Forbes list, there was The Plutocrat.


The Plutocrat by Booth Tarkington
1927 bestseller #2. 543 pp. My grade: A-

On board ship, Ogle is smitten with the sophisticated good looks of a Parisian woman with a son about his own age.

Mme. Momoro, however, is more interested in an American businessman who is dragging his family across the Atlantic to get daughter Olivia away from an unsuitable young man.

To Ogle, Mr. Tinker appears to be a course, back-slapping shopkeeper, totally lacking in culture and sensitivity; the wife appears dull; the daughter sullen.

Ogle has been brought up to believe in a natural aristocracy of intellectual, artistic individuals. He’s shocked that other intelligent people express high regard for Tinker and his buying power.

When Ogle finds himself far from home, short of money, without friends, he’s forced to re-think his prejudices.

Even if Booth Tarkington weren’t such a fine writer, The Plutocrat would be worth reading just to see how far we Americans have come — or gone — in the last century in our regard for the power of money.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Sweet Seventeen captures summer romance

Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen is a frivolous, funny, and forgettable tale about awkward 17-year-old’s first romance.

Willy Baxter looks at himself in mirror
A view of his trousers makes Willy break out in perspiration.

Gawky William Sylvanus Baxter, called Willie by his family and “Silly Billy” by his friends, is smitten with the charms of blue-eyed Miss Pratt, who is visiting the Parchers for the summer.


Seventeen by Booth Tarkington

Arthur William Brown, Illus. Grosset & Dunlap, 1915. 1916 bestseller #1. My grade: C.


Willie  and his pals compete for Miss Pratt’s attentions, congregating on the  porch off Mr. Parcher’s study.

Miss Pratt’s blue eyes are about the only thing in her head. She converses in baby talk through the medium of her lap dog, Flopit,.

Miss Pratt’s baby talk and her serenading suitors offend Mr. Parcher’s ears.

Willie’s younger sister, Jane, accidentally overhears Mr. Parcher telling his wife to rid of the girl and her satellites, especially Willie.

Jane promptly brings the story home to her mother.

Seventeen’s turn of the century setting has a certain charm, but it can’t conceal the triviality of the plot or the shallowness of the characters.

One summer is too short for a teen as dense as Willie to learn anything from his experience.

Willie doesn’t grow up a bit in this novel, and readers are the poorer because of it.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Alice Adams seeks to rise above adolescence

dust jacket of Alice Adams + note about the accompanying review

Alice Adams lives with her bickering parents and slouching younger brother, Walter, in a begrimed house in an industrial American city at the end of World War I.

Alice is unhappily unmarried.

Alice’s attempts to set local fashions draws ridicule from girls with money and social standing.

Mrs. Adams is constantly nagging her husband about not providing the children with the advantages money can buy.

When Arthur Russell comes to town, Alice thinks he’s her last chance to make something of herself.

Mrs. Adams finally convinces her husband that the only chance Alice has of happiness is for him to lay aside his scruples, quit his job at Lamb and Company, and start a plant to manufacture glue using a process Mr. Lamb had paid him to develop years before.

When it comes out that Walter has been embezzling at work, the family’s hopes of upward mobility are crushed forever.

Mr. and Mrs. Adams are vivid characters, and Booth Tarkington makes Alice and Walter very believable young adults trapped in adolescence.

It’s easy to see where Alice get’s her petulance and drama, where Walter gets his refusal to face facts.

Like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Tarkington’s Alice Adams shows the effects of on the children of a silly mother mated to a husband without the moral fiber to counterbalance his wife’s bad influence.

Alice Adams ends on an upbeat note, but that note isn’t strong enough to overcome the impression that Alice will never get a husband and never be satisfied either without one or with one.


Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington, Grosset & Dunlap, 1921. 434 pp.


This review is one of the Great Penformances’ occasional reviews of influential novels that didn’t make the bestseller list.  Although Alice Adams was not a bestseller for the prolific Booth Tarkington, he won his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Alice Adams. His first, in 1919, was for The Magnificent Ambersons.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

These two novels make American history breathe

My top picks from the 1915 bestseller list are each windows into America’s transformation from the horsepower age to the motor age: The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington and The Harbor by Earnest Poole.

Tarkington and Poole were each Pulitzer Prize winners, though they didn’t win for their 1915 novels.

The two novels have several common threads. Each focuses on the boy who tries to pick his own way in the world despite a dominant, even domineering,  father.

In each novel, the son never approaches his father’s stature, either for good or ill. The father in The Turmoil is a scoundrel; the father in The Harbor is an honest man, but rigid.

In each book, the setting acts almost as a character, influencing how the humans behave. The Turmoil is set in a mid-size American City obsessed with growing bigger, wealthier, more powerful. The Harbor‘s setting is the New York City Harbor in which new ideas wash up with the tides.

Reading these two novels as a set would provide a fairly good introduction to American economic history from the Civil War to the First World War.

 

The Turmoil packs industrial-size wallop

In The Turmoil Booth Tarkington has crafted a novel about human and national ambition that illuminates while it entertains.

Abandoned clay factory

Sheridan — he’s called only by his last name — built his town into a city by hard work, business acumen, including some shady deals, and luck.


The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington

1915 bestseller #1. Project Gutenberg ebook # 1098 My grade: B+.


Sheridan’s long-range plan is to turn all his operations over to his sons. Jim and Roscoe are already in management.

His father has no luck getting son Bibbs, “the odd one,” interested in business.

Mary Vertrees’ family, once the city’s social leaders, have fallen on hard times. Mary must marry money to save her parents.

Mary sets her cap for Jim Sheridan. He is killed in an accident the same day Mary realizes she cannot marry him.

Mary and Bibbs become friends. Mary encourages his interest in writing, but Bibbs’ father wants him in the business.

Bibbs has to choose between his writing and his family —  and decide whether Mary is part of his future.

Tarkington’s characters are believable bundles of contradictions. The elder Sheridan is a tyrant, for example, but a tyrant who means well. Bibbs is sensitive and insightful, but has his father’s business sense.

This romance set against a begrimed backdrop of an Industrial Age city is one you won’t soon forget.


Tarkington planned a trilogy of novels about the American worship of Bigness and the money it brings. The Turmoil was the first of the set that he wrote, but when Tarkington collected the novels in a single volume called Growth in 1927, he placed it as the second novel in the set.

©2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Image: Abandoned clay factory photo by anafa

Funny novels for April Fool’s Day reading

We here in the Northeaster U.S. have had a long, hard winter.

We’re ready to enjoy some sunshine.

Even if the temperature doesn’t climb above 40 tomorrow, you can bask in the warmth of smiles with one of these funny vintage novels.

The Reivers

The Reivers is a folksy, rambling tale William Faulkner puts in the mouth of Lucius Priest,  an old man telling an “when I was your age” tell to his grandson.

Lucius recounts how in 1905 when he was 11, he and two pals who worked at the family’s freight business borrowed his grandfather’s automobile and drove  from Jefferson, Mississippi, up to Memphis, Tennessee.

One of the men traded the automobile for a horse, intending to win—how could they not win?—repurchase the auto with part of the proceeds, and come back home ahead of the game.

The Reivers has the kind of corny absurdity that’s a hallmark of country folk who know how to entertain themselves when nothing much is happening.

Fran

If The Reivers is humor for humor’s sake, Fran is humor for satire’s sake.

Writing in 1912, John Breckenridge Ellis uses Fran to satirize the “deserving orphan” novel formula that was wildly popular from the time of Charles Dickens until World War II, when the supply of orphans in the US and Britain dried up.

Orphaned after the death of her mother, Fran seeks out the scoundrel who abandoned her late mother, announces she plans to make his home her home, and does.

Ellis makes Fran’s father a hypocritical philanthropist, which give Ellis the chance to lampoon the pseudo-religious as well as the orphan novel formula.

Fran’s youthful appearance—she’s nearly 20 but looks about 13—allow Ellis to put her through the typical experiences of all fictional rescued orphans, such as going to school, dressing properly, and learning to be polite.

Fran’s school experiences are a hoot. Here’s a sample of what happens:

“Fran,” [school superintendent] Abbott reasoned, “if we put you in a room where you can understand the things we try to teach, if we make you thorough—”

“I don’t want to be thorough,” she explained, “I want to be happy. I guess all that schools were meant to do is to teach folks what’s in books, and how to stand in a straight line. The children in Class A, or Class B have their minds sheared and pruned to look alike; but I don’t want my brain after anybody’s pattern.”

Claire Ambler

In Claire Ambler, Booth Tarkington uses humor to edify.

Claire Ambler is an American heiress with unswerving loyalty to herself.  She’s a flapper of the jazz age, blissfully seeing herself as the center of the world.

“All her life—even when she was a child—she had seemed to be not one person but two. One was an honest person and the other appeared to be an artist. The honest person did the feeling and most of the thinking; but the artist directed her behaviour and cared about nothing except picturesque effects.”

Tarkington lets Clair flap until it’s clear to readers, if not to Clair herself, that her self-centeredness is not simply funny: It’s downright dangerous.

Sources

The Reivers is readily available from libraries and online book sources in a a variety of editions and formats. There’s also a film version, if you’d rather view than read.

Fran is available for download free at Project Gutenberg.

Claire Ambler is not available either through Project Gutenberg or in re-issue. I recommend you try WorldCat to see if it is available in a library near you.

Penrod Still Is Good for Laughs

Cover of 1914 edition of Penrod features an ink drawing of Penrod readingBefore the Great War, before iPods and video games, boys invented their own fun.

Penrod Schofield, age 11, is nothing if not inventive.

Silent films give him outlines of stories. Penrod’s imagination transforms them into stunning productions in which he plays the lead.

Booth Tarkington is justly famous for his word portraits of adolescents from a bygone era. His tongue-in-cheek comments and Gordon Grant’s sketches for Penrod are sure to tickle your funny bone.

In his imagination, Penrod is strong, brave, and powerful.

In his home, he’s a trial.

In his neighborhood he’s “the worst boy in town.”

Penrod’s family tries hard to control his behavior, but their idea of appropriate behavior for boys —Sunday School, attending dance classes — doesn’t appeal to Penrod. He’d rather spend his time with “Herman and Verman,” the neighbor kids whose father is in jail.

The worst insult that anyone can give Penrod is to call him “a little gentleman.” Anyone who attempts such vile language is apt to be tarred.

Fortunately, few people have reason to offer that particular insult.

The only person who actually understands Penrod is his ancient Aunt Sarah. She says boys are just like people, only “not quite so awful, because they haven’t learned to cover themselves all over with little pretenses.”

Penrod
By Booth Tarkington
Illustrated by Gordon Grant
Grosset & Dunlap
306 pages
Project Gutenberg ebook #402
1914 bestseller # 7
My Grade: C+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of 1924: So Big, So Driven, So French, So Misplaced

Of the 10 novels that were bestsellers in 1924, four stand out for providing far more than just an entertaining story: So Big by Edna Ferber, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield [Fisher], The Little French Girl by Anne Douglas Sedgwick, and The Midlander  by Booth Tarkington.

Cover of So Big by Edna FerberAlthough the stories are very different, each explores obstacles that make understanding another person’s perspective difficult.

In Edna Ferber’s So Big, Selina Peake rejects her father’s philosophy that life is “just so much velvet” worth experiencing regardless of how good or bad it appears at the time.

Late in life Selina comes to regret teaching her son the only things worth having in life are earned through hard work. Dirk reaches mid-life without having enjoyed living.

In The Midlander (which became National Avenue when Booth Tarkington put it in his single-volume trilogy Growth in 1927), Dan Oliphant never varies from the real estate career he chose almost at random in his early twenties.

Dan is so sure that his housing development will be a success, he lets every personal relationship shrivel while he puts all his effort into the Ornaby Addition.
Spine of Anne Douglas Sedgwick novel The Little French Girl
Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s The Little French Girl is the only one of my quarter of favorites not set in America. Alix Vervier’s mother has decided her 15-year-old daughter will marry within the family of an English war-time acquaintance. Mme Vervier ships Alex across the cultural solar system from France to England.

Alix must mature enough to regard her mother with sufficient dispassion that she can determine what of her mother’s behavior is motivated by love and what is motivated by self-interest.

In The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield [Fisher] shows Eva and Lester Knapp trapped in roles they both hate. By accident, Lester becomes the stay-at-home mom and Eva becomes the wage earner.

There’s no doubt everyone in the household is financially and emotionally better off as a result of the switch. It is also clear, however, that those gains come at a significant moral cost that the family may regret in the future.

Cover of The Home-MakerEach of these insightful novels is worth reading. So Big and The Home-Maker are written in very accessible styles. The Midlander requires a bit more mental work, but it’s not difficult reading.

To understand what’s happening in The Little French Girl demands full concentration and either a French dictionary or a reading knowledge of French. Readers who give it a chance will find it worth the effort.

The Midlander Draws Plot From Characters

In The Midlander*, Booth Tarkington creates a set of distinctive characters whose behavior weaves a plot that feels inevitable.

From childhood, the Oliphant brothers are uncongenial. Harlan Oliphant is an aloof aristocrat, respectable and responsible; his younger brother, Dan, is a rumpled democrat, popular and aimless.

Tarkington embeds the Oliphant brothers’ story in the setting of the rise of America’s great manufacturing cities in the two decades before World War I.

Harlan falls for the girl next door; Martha cares only for Dan, who considers her just a good pal.

When Dan chooses a city girl instead of Martha, his grandmother changes her will in favor of Harlan, whom she dislikes, rather than let Dan waste her fortune.

Dan impulsively becomes a real estate developer, planning to make a fortune in 10 years or so when Midland would have grown big enough to reach his Ornaby Addition.

Dan’s wife, Lena, makes no attempt to fit in with his plans. She is bitterly jealous of Martha.

Dan never wavers from his vision, never grows beyond his 20-year-old self as everyone else around him changes in more or less subtle ways.

Despite the novel’s complexity, Tarkington’s lean prose here makes The Midlander both entertaining and rewarding reading.


*Tarkington published the first edition of The Midlander in 1924, wrapping up a set of three novels which he brought out in a single volume under the name Growth in 1927. In Growth, Tarkington changed the name The Midlander to National Avenue. National Avenue appears as the final work in that volume. The other novels in the trilogy are The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and The Turmoil (1915)


The Midlander*
By Booth Tarkington
Pages 591-887 of Growth
1924 bestseller #7
My grade: A-

©2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Two Vanrevels Tax Credulity

The Two Vanrevels is romantic melodrama set in the Ohio Valley in the hoop-skirted days before the Civil War.

When beautiful Miss Betty Carewe comes home from convent school, the first to see her, lawyer Tom Vanrevel, is immediately smitten. Tom’s profligate law partner Crailey Gray also succumbs to Betty’s charms.

Being unfamiliar with the town, Betty thinks the man she saw with her school chum, Franchon Bareaud, was Franchon’s fiance, Crailey. When Crailey comes courting, Betty thinks he’s Tom, the man whom her father hates for his abolitionist views.

Long used to covering for his parter, Tom continues to protect him even after he realizes Betty thinks he is Crailey.

The story ends in a dramatic denouement in the mode of the silent movies of the turn of the century.

Even readers who appreciate the mores that governed polite 19th century society will find it hard to swallow Booth Tarkington’s plot or believe his characters.

Wouldn’t a young girl who has only one friend in town naturally say to that friend, “Who was the man with you?”

Leave this novel lie with the frock coats and hoop skirts. It doesn’t deserve an airing.

The Two Vanrevels
By Booth Tarkington
A. L. Burt, 1902
351 pages
1908 #8
My Grade: C –
Project Gutenberg ebook #3428
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni