Whatever Happened to Booth Tarkington?

booth tarkingtonHave you ever heard of Booth Tarkington? Born in Indianapolis in 1869, Newton Booth Tarkington was a playwright, politician, and novelist. He may be most famous for being one of three people to have ever won the Pulitzer more than once. (The other two writers who hold this honor are William Faulkner and John Updike.) In 1922, Literary Digest proclaimed Booth Tarkington as “America’s greatest living writer” – he sold over five million copies of his books before paperback books were available.

Tarkington loved his home state of Indiana – he set most of his works there, served on the Indiana House of Representatives, and was a generous supporter of Purdue University. There is even a dorm named after him – Tarkington Hall. His “Penrod” novels (three in all) have been compared to Huckleberry Finn, both in terms of style/plot and popularity. So why have I never heard of Booth Tarkington until I decided to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners?

Tarkington seems to have fallen out of popularity with the literary world shortly after his death in 1946. His writing has since been deemed to be uneven, inconsistent, and overly nostalgic.

To be caught with Tarkington in one’s hands is to be suspected of nostalgia, a willingness to endure the second-rate for the sake of some moonlight on the Wabash, which must still be flowing somewhere through the heartland.

alice adamsMany of Tarkington’s books are about very young people, coming of age in a time of rapid industrialization and change. He was obsessed with the “soul-killing effects of smoke and asphalt and speed” and writes about how cars are ruining society and quality of life. I noted in His Family that Ernest Poole had a similar (but positive) obsession with cars. I suppose this was akin to the environmental crisis of the early 20th Century. The Atlantic suggests that this obsession made his peers think he was a cranky old man, instead of a sensitive soul greatly affected by the changes surrounding him and his characters.

In 1942, Orson Welles adapted The Magnificent Ambersons into a feature film, which seems to have stood the test of time a little better than its novel counterpart. However, the book was recently added to Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels (it was #100 on the list), so maybe we will see Booth Tarkington make a comeback in the next few decades, what do you think?

Profile: Bill Traylor

Note from Jessica: One of the things that I’d like to start doing is profiling some of my favorite artists, writers, and friends. I am hoping to start interviewing living people soon too, so if you have any ideas of good interview questions, or if you would like to be my guinea pig, please let me know! For the first few profiles, I thought I’d introduce some of my favorite artists. 

credit: Bill Traylor, ca. 1939. Photography by Charles Shannon, courtesy of the Charles E. and Eugenia C. Shannon Trust.

Photograph by Charles Shannon

I first saw Bill Traylor’s (1853–1949) work at the Whitney Museum’s “America is Hard to See” exhibit a few months ago. The first thing I learned is that Bill Traylor is from Alabama like me. He was born into slavery, worked as a sharecropper after he was emancipated, and moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1928. Several years later, he lost his job due to rheumatism and became homeless. Traylor didn’t start drawing until 1938, when he was already 85 years old. Over the last decade of his life, he produced somewhere between 1,200 – 1,500 pieces of art.

Bill Traylor

Bill Traylor was a self-taught artist. He drew on a variety of sources for inspiration in his art, from past memories of living on a plantation to the events occurring in “Dark Town”, the six-block African-American community in Montgomery. Although he had an exhibition during his lifetime, he did not become  widely known and celebrated until around the 1980s.
Bill Traylor, Untitled

Traylor drew many variations of this standoff between a well-dressed couple, who engage each other with eye-to-eye contact, flashing fingers and animated body language and generally appear ready to invade each other’s spaces. [Artist Charles] Shannon recounted that Traylor once observed of such scenes, “She’s not asking him where he’s been, she’s telling him.”

There are some recurring motifs throughout his work, animals, mostly dogs, fighting couples, urban life, and a really unique use of negative space. He drew mainly on found objects, discarded cardboard boxes that he salvaged from the garbage. He sometimes worked the stains and dirt of the cardboard seamlessly into his art.
Bill TraylorIt is impossible to read about Traylor’s work without thinking about the implicit issues of how art historians and scholars deal with race. In the 1980s, Traylor’s work was described as “primitive” while European and white American artists were “modernists”. Traylor has been put into a genre called “Outsider Art.” Some scholars argue that Traylor has become the perfect example of a slave-turned-artist for American history because his art is effusively optimistic, playful and funny despite all of the hardships he suffered. His art is (arguably) not racially-charged, not angry about Jim Crow laws or the treatment of blacks in America, which makes the art community feel safe and comfortable around his art. G. Roger Denson writes about this much more eloquently and intellectually than I can:

In Traylor’s case, to appear childlike has a more profound meaning–that of survival–of flagging himself as unthreatening to a white world.

Bill Traylor

I like Bill Traylor’s work because I find him inspiring, the scholarship surrounding his work interesting, and his work smart and witty. There is still a lot that I need to read about him, and I am excited to share more with you as I come across it. Have you heard of him before? Have you seen his work before in person?


Additional Reading:

All artwork is by Bill Traylor