A hundred years ago, Booth Tarkington was probably the most famous and successful author in America. But today, even in Indiana, his birthplace and the state with which he is forever associated, and where I live, Tarkington is forgotten. Purdue University has a dormitory, Tarkington Hall, at which my late father was a faculty advisor. Pathetically, the Hall’s website says of Tarkington only that he was “a Purdue student of two years who as an alumnus, made multiple generous donations to Purdue.” Time has left Tarkington behind. Perhaps this is fitting, though, because he was entranced and bound by nostalgia, an understandable but ultimately pointless guiding principle.
If you have heard of Tarkington, who was born in 1869 and died in 1946, it is most likely because in 1942 Orson Welles made a movie of one of his most famous works, The Magnificent Ambersons—a movie that is doubly remembered both because it was directed by Welles and because the studio butchered his work in post-production (though the cut version is still regarded as a great movie). That book is one of three books in Tarkington’s Growth Trilogy, centered around how industrialization and modernization overtook Indianapolis, changing it from a sleepy provincial town to a chaotic, crowded, soot-covered metropolis. (The other two books in the trilogy are The Turmoil and The Midlander.) The theme of such modernization, and variations on it, dominated Tarkington’s life, and much of his voluminous output of fiction.