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Booth Tarkington

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) is a relatively unknown author today which is odd considering he is one of only three writers to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice (the others being Faulkner and Updike). He was a novelist, artist and playwright. His plays are even less known, yet at one time he had four running in New York simultaneously, all successful. By the early part of the 20th century, he was considered the great American novelist on par with Mark Twain, yet he never received a college degree. He, like Fitzgerald, went to Princeton but unlike Fitzgerald, never graduated.

Today he has managed to obtain oblivion rather than any lasting fame except in Indiana where the Booth Tarkington Civic Theater still exists. How such a light, who was so commercially and critically successful, managed to be extinguished, is probably worthy of study. It is a mystery.

That he influenced my writing is a fact. He wrote three books that have been described as for ‘bookish boys’ called Penrod, Penrod and Sam, and Penrod Jasber. I have ancient, illustrated copies of each. They are about the adventures of middleclass boys growing up in a midwestern town just after the turn of the century.

I’ve read those books countless times at various stages of my life and have always come away refreshed, amused, and happier than when I started. What I’ve loved about them is their celebration of life. They are like sunlight during the late afternoons of summer. Those books allowed me to glimpse the wonder and beauty of a story, and how it can make one feel. They are zany, touching, warm, and still make me laugh out loud.

For that, I will always revere him. Others may have forgotten him, but I never will.

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