Friday, August 02, 2013

Booth Tarkington, Seventeen

Nobody thinks much about Booth Tarkington these days, but in the first half of the twentieth century, he was Kind Of A Big Deal.  He won two Pulitzer Prizes (one of only three novelists to do so, the other two being Faulkner and Updike), and his most well-known novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, was made into a movie by no less a personage than Orson Welles.  

From an early age, I was exposed to his work via his trio of Penrod novels--Penrod (1914), Penrod and Sam (1916), and Penrod Jashber (1929).  These are nostalgic, episodic novels about an eleven-twelve year old boy in a Midwestern town; I've been rereading them recently, and I can say that--incidental racism notwithstanding--they really hold up.  I would go so far as to characterize them as "delightful."  Actually, it's kind of odd, in retrospect, that I enjoyed them so as a child, because, subject matter notwithstanding, Tarkington's style is quite sophisticated and witty in a way that would most likely go over kids' heads; these are clearly not children's books per se.

Having loved the Penrod books so, I searched around for something else by Tarkington to read (I'm really not sure how old I was; probably middle-school-ish).  I wasn't interested in his books about lame adults, but I did come across Seventeen, which features a character who, with very minor editing, could easily be Penrod five years down the road.  So I read it, and I liked it, if not as much as the Penrod books.  I may have been too young and lacking in experience to fully appreciate it.  Flash forward to a few days ago, and I decided to revisit it to see how my older sensibilities would react to it.

The protagonist of Seventeen is one William Sylvanus Baxter, living in a Penrod-like setting with his parents and nine-year-old sister, Jane (an inversion of the circumstance of Penrod, who has a nineteen-hear-old sister, Margaret).  It's not a plot-heavy book, but unlike the Penrods, which are purely episodic, there is a central plot, which involves the arrival of  a girl named Lola Pratt, who is visiting the Baxters' neighbors for the summer.  William (along with a number of other boys) conceives a massive, convulsive crush on Miss Pratt (as she's almost always referred), around which the book revolves.  William, naturally, is not of a rational or self-aware mindset, and much of the book's humor--and it is pretty funny--involves his insane behavior; his desire to always seem perfectly sophisticated and debonair around Miss Pratt, and his utter mortification at any behavior of his family members or friends (Jane in particular) that he deems embarrassing or potentially so.  His frequent woeful jeremiads are highlights of the book.

There are also interesting gender issues in Seventeen that were not present (or only were in a muted way) in those other books.  Now, Miss Pratt is not developed as a character to any significant extent.  William's perceptions are the important thing; she is merely the catalyst.  However, I was struck by the parallels between their relationship (such as it is--they're never actually romantically involved in any meaningful way) and that of David Copperfield and Dora, his "child bride."  Unlike Dora's, Miss Pratt's childishness may be mostly affected, but it amounts to something very similar.  She has the habit (revolting, but totally charming to William and her other suitors) of constantly using baby talk ("My Baby Talk Lady," William calls her; "Ickle Boy Baxter" she calls him--you can see how mature this all is).  She also (again, like Dora) has a tiny lapdog that she's never without and that causes some difficulties for would-be paramours.  Finally--and perhaps most vitally--the whole business is devoid of any sexual overtones (yes, Dora has a miscarriage, but can you really imagine that there was any sex in that marriage?  Really?  "he only ever kisses Jip!" [her dog] my literature professor insisted, only half-facetiously).  Several times, William fantasizes about a gauzy, romantic future for the two of them, wandering through bowers; he pictures them with young children, but it seems overwhelmingly certain that said children were literally brought by a stork.  This might all be a bit misogynistic; certainly, we would have a very different book if Miss Pratt was a more serious character.  In the book's favor, however, although the protagonist's object of attraction is somewhat problematic, his sister Jane is awesome--even if Tarkington does have some gender issues, I would sure have loved to see a spin-off involving her exploits.

The fact that William is so constantly in a heightened emotional state means that, in spite of its similarities, the book has a somewhat different emotional tenor than Penrod, the moods of the protagonist of which are mercurial but frequently carefree and happy-go-lucky.  There are times when it can become a little bit oppressive; when you want to smack ol' Silly Bill (his friends' childhood nickname for him, which now causes him no end of distress) and say, oh, get over it.  Still, Tarkington does quite a good job of getting us into the character's mindset; we (or I, anyway) really empathized with his agony.  It's simultaneously completely absurd and the most deadly serious, achingly vital thing in the world (not unlike a Jim Steinman song in that way), and this dichotomy is displayed skillfully.  I must admit, the ending really got to me.  It may not be as effervescent as the Penrod books, but, due to the subject matter, it hits heights that they do not (nor were they ever meant to). 

(In the event that you should care about any of this, Penrod, Penrod and Sam, and Seventeen are in the public domain and freely available; due to our nutty copyright laws, Penrod Jashber is not, but it's not inconceivable that you might nonetheless find it as an ebook if you made use of teh google)


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