The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as critic Joseph Epstein once put it, is given to those who don’t need it or don’t deserve it.
The former group is composed of writers whose careers are already established, such as Ernest Hemingway. For Whom the Bell Tolls was to have received the award in 1941 until the president of Columbia University, which administers the prizes, overruled the jury on the grounds that the book was indecent. Twelve years later Hemingway was declared the winner for The Old Man and the Sea at a time when he was as famous as a writer has ever been in America.
But say this about the Pulitzers: if they give somebody the award twice, they get it right. There have been only three such writers: William Faulkner, John Updike, and a man whose work has faded into undeserved obscurity, Booth Tarkington, of Indianapolis.
Tarkington won in 1919, only the second time the prize was awarded, then again in 1922. That he had won half the prizes given in the history of the fiction Pulitzer at that date is a reflection of the dominant position he once held in American letters. His novels topped annual best-seller lists numerous times, a feat accomplished today mainly by writers of thrillers, not those who ground their works in the particular reality of the region where they grew up, as Tarkington did.
I came to Tarkington by a circuitous route; a movie review in The New Yorker in which Pauline Kael compared the plot of George Lucas’s American Graffiti to Tarkington’s Seventeen, an idyll of adolescent romance in an Indiana small town. Kael also cited Tarkington as an unacknowledged influence in a review of Ah, Wilderness!, a film made from the Eugene O’Neill play, and used him to bring the reputation of film director Orson Welles down a notch in her essay Raising Kane, saying that all the best lines in Welles’s adaptation of Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons were taken straight from the novel itself.
Like Yeats, Tarkington was that rare writer who got up from his desk to enter politics; a Republican, he served one term in the Indiana House of Representatives, where he accumulated the experience he turned into In the Arena: Stories of Political Life. Political fiction has a notoriously short shelf-life—seen a production of MacBird! recently?—but Tarkington’s sketches of life in a state legislature can be sampled with pleasure a century later.
That Tarkington is not read widely today is probably a fault of our times, and none of his doing. He was no innocent himself—he was after all a politician as well as a world traveler—but he placed a high value on the virtues of innocence, a product that’s been marked down in our cynical age. His family suffered a reversal of financial fortunes in the Panic of 1873 that dropped them from a point where upper class pretensions were within their grasp to a more lowly state, but Tarkington never played the po’ boy and didn’t indulge in self-pity. In an age when pre-distressed blue jeans with ripped knees are sold at a premium to kids in the social strata Tarkington’s family occupied, the phony drives out the genuine by a sort of literary Gresham’s Law.
Tarkington attended Purdue for two years, then—after the family fortunes recovered a bit—transferred to Princeton, where he socialized with Woodrow Wilson, but he left that school one course short of graduating. He remained fond enough of Purdue to donate money for a dorm that is named in his honor.
Tarkington received Pulitzers for Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons, which is included in Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels, but lesser works of his that are now forgotten were just as popular; Mary’s Neck and The Two Vanrevels appeared on annual best-seller lists nine times, for example. In 1921, at the age of 52, the nation’s booksellers rated him “the most significant contemporary American author” in a Publisher’s Weekly poll.
Our view of Tarkington is obstructed these days because the great twin peaks of the Jazz Generation novel—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway—erupted shortly thereafter and still block the view, just as jazz neophytes sometimes can’t see beyond Coltrane to his predecessors. Tarkington deserves re-reading, however, and even a revival among American readers with their notoriously short memories. As with George Lucas, who followed American Grafitti with Star Wars, our moviemakers and writers sometimes tell the same tales over and over again without knowing where they came from. A better definition of “myth” would be hard to find.