Reflection XXIX: In which our hero’s resolve is tested, and he makes an apology to Booth Tarkington

I’ve gotten into the habit—almost a “tradition” of sorts—of titling these posts with an apt line or two from the section of the novel I’d just read.  I think it keeps me grounded in the author, and it gives you a little taste of the book I’m reading.  I don’t think I’m strong enough to do that with The Able McLaughlins.  I’ll offer an example passage:

“If it is’na Isobel’s Wully!”  She shook his hand, and patted him on the shoulder, and reached up and kissed him.  He didn’t mind that.  She was practically an aunt, so intimate were the families.  In her silent excitement she brought him into her wretched little cabin.

And there stood another woman.  By the window—a young woman—turning towards him with sunshine on her white arms—and on the dough she was kneading—sunshine on her white throat—and on the little waves of brown hair about her face—sunshine making her fingertips transparent pink—a woman like a strong angel—beautiful in light!

Wully just stared.

I don’t know how you’re reacting to this section. Personally, I nearly threw myself out the bus’s emergency door.

It’s as though I’m reading, not a novel, but a message from a far-off land.  A land where they have read no fiction but stories that were rejected by the editors of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and the rambling journals of people who think being excited about something while you write means that your writing will be exciting.

I’m being too harsh, you might say…it’s been a long week, and clearly my patience is wearing too thin.  And maybe I just hit a particularly clunky passage.  Fair enough.  A good point—let’s see how Wully’s encounter with this radiant young woman goes…

“Chirstie!” he whispered.  “I didn’t know that you were here!  I didn’t know that you were the lassie for me!”  He kissed her fearfully.  He kissed her without fear, many times.  She said only “Oh!”  He held her close.

I should point out that the “conversation” between them is the first they’ve had for four years, and that when Wully left home, she was a girl of 12 or 13, while he was going off to fight in the Civil War.  He sees her ‘all grown up’ and can’t quite contain himself.  Oh! she says.  Oh, indeed.

I have three observations to make.  First of all, truly, I apologize to Booth Tarkington.  I was irked by him many, many times, but he never subjected me to this.  He never made me wonder if he had the talent sufficient to compose a greeting card or leave an amusing Post-it note on the fridge door.  I was entirely too hard on him.  Second of all, the tragic thing is that there’s a society here to tell a story about—a secluded Scottish community in Iowa where everyone knows everyone, and where the outside world does not come, until these boys go off to war and never come back (Wully’s brother is dead, and Wully just escaped a prison camp after being a POW for months).  I ought to be fascinated, but I can’t get past Wilson’s writing.

So, to my last point, where I ask your input—what’s wrong with her writing?  The choppiness of that last passage, for example, isn’t all that different from Hemingway, is it?  And yet his prose works and hers doesn’t.  I know that I’m exceptionally picky about style (if my reactions to my book group’s novels are any indication), but I think there’s something undeniably bad here.  Given that none of you have read this, pick a novel you’ve read whose writing style was so atrocious you couldn’t bear it.  What is it that we react badly to?  Is there anything definable about bad writing, or, like Potter Stewart, do we simply have to say “I know it when I see it”?  I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about that often as I continue–this book wants to stop my journey, but I won’t let it!  It’ll be a long stretch of road, though, I can tell you.

“I think character’s the most important thing in the world, after all, don’t you, Mr. Russell?”

Mrs. Adams asks this unfortunate question of the man her daughter is—what, in love with? infatuated with? it’s hard to say—just as Russell has arrived for dinner and is waiting in the parlor for Alice’s arrival in the room.  Prior to his arrival at the Adams home, he had just learned facts about Alice and Alice’s father that exposed all the things Alice was covering with her pathetic (and, frankly, unnecessary) lies, and Mrs. Adams is totally unaware that she is merely digging a deeper hole for her daughter to climb out of.  The entire dinner, which takes place on an excruciatingly hot summer night, is an extended conversation so mind-searingly awkward that it imposes a level of reflected social pain on the reader roughly equivalent to getting one’s hand slammed in the door of a bank vault.

Now, awkward interactions can serve a purpose in fiction: even truly painful dinner parties can be critical to the development of the plot.  But here it just seems spitefully mean, almost as though Tarkington wants to drag Alice through the mud for her sins, and bring us with her.  It’s hard to construct another reasonable justification for his approach.  What is worst about this, though, is the sense that Alice and her father’s true characters are not, in fact, as Russell perceives them to be.  Alice is most herself when she is around Russell, and her dissembling and under-handed side is a facade she puts up because she mistakenly believes it necessary for survival in her social environment.  Mr. Adams is truly a good and loyal man, who has only betrayed his employer’s trust and kindness because he was harried and intimidated (almost blackmailed) into a series of bad decisions by his wife, who has apparently no moral center whatsoever.  For Alice and Mr. Adams to suffer as they do at the hands of Tarkington feels cheap—he’s made me care about characters only to show me that he doesn’t, that he sees them as comic figures who should be subjected to scorn for their pathetic attempts to rise above their station.  I know there’s pages left in the story, and he’ll probably wrap everything up neatly and “happily”, but it will take a lot for me to forgive him.

And I know I’ve raised this six times already, but Tarkington’s appallingly casual racism is on full display again, and I can barely make it through some scenes as a result.  The ugly stereotypes he imposes on the black cook and the black “waitress” hired to serve at the dinner party turn my stomach, and again, it’s not as though he’s bringing in real three-dimensional characters who are being mistreated by the Adams’ to show a side of the family’s character.  He’s bringing in characters who behave exactly like stereotypes, and the only conclusion I can draw is that he thinks I’ll laugh along with him at how their laziness, indolence, etc., adds to the farce of this awful dinner.  I know it was the early 1920s and some would argue I need to read it in context, to be understanding of Tarkington’s limited perspective.  But when Claude McKay and James Weldon Johnson are writing (and publishing, and being acclaimed for) poetry that would put anything Tarkington wrote to shame, his treatment of African-Americans cannot be excused by ignorance, and I will not excuse it, myself.

How the Pulitzer board, which refused to issue a prize in two of the award’s first four years because they could find no novel worthy of such an honor, could have recognized Tarkington with a Pulitzer, not once, but twice, is utterly beyond me.  A review comes soonish, but first I have to get up the energy to go on reading and get this book done with (and never another Tarkington shall I read).

“She had now to practise an art that affords but a limited variety of methods, even to the expert: the art of seeming to have an escort or partner when there is none.”

I’m having trouble deciding how I feel about Alice Adams.  She isn’t Georgie Minafer….but not for lack of trying.  She has all the ability to be condescending, to value style over substance.  But because she is from a middle-class family, yet she wants to (and tries to) move in upper class circles, all her pretensions become pathetic.  She cannot remain full of herself for long, since the reality of how badly she is snubbed, how often she is laughed at, how out of place she often is, breaks through that facade and she feels something.

I’m not sure how I feel about this, in large part because I don’t know if I can trust Tarkington.  I worry that perhaps I’m supposed to root against Alice, and I don’t particularly want to find joy and humor in her being knocked down a peg by people (like her “most intimate friend”, the snobbish Mildred) who have it better than her to begin with.  But it’s also hard to hope that she triumphs in the end, since she has a personality that would use greater influence and prestige in the wrong way, I think.  So I’m left to feel vague sympathy with Alice, and wonder what the point of the story is.

Tarkington’s racism, which I’d mentioned being bothered by while reading Ambersons, is even more prevalent here.  If I knew better what to make of Walter, Alice’s unpleasant but probably wise brother, I’d know how to react to his simultaneously bashing Alice for never talking with African-Americans while describing those same African-Americans with some really unpleasant slurs.  I don’t know how these words were taken in 1922, but it’s hard for me to get comfortable with the conversation, mostly because I feel sure that Tarkington won’t really engage with race, won’t really try and alter the perceptions of his characters (or his readers) about race, but instead will use occasional stereotypical “colored people” to liven up the plot, and will otherwise ignore them.

Alice is desperate for a man, but the man who wants her, she doesn’t want.  Alice treasures her close friendships, though as her brother points out, none of them are friends of hers, and all of them look down on her.  Alice constantly berates her mother for causing stress to her father, and then stresses her father out.  I don’t know what to make of her, and I fear I’m in another “redemption” plot-line that I will scarcely be able to believe.  I hope I’m wrong.  We’ll see.

A letter from Booth Tarkington

Below is an obscure family possession that my mother remembered and scanned for me–my “Nana” (my father’s mother’s mother) was a schoolteacher in the 1920s, and at one point her students wanted to perform a play by Booth Tarkington.  She apparently wrote to him asking for permission, and received the following (very brief) letter back.  What I am struck by is not anything personal in the letter (as there really isn’t), nor that this makes Boothie like a dear old uncle (since this is as much interaction as he had with my family), but rather that the man took time in 1924, after having won two Pulitzer Prizes, to respond even briefly to a letter from a teacher from a small school he had never heard of, way out West.  I can’t decide whether this tells me something about the character of Booth Tarkington, or how different the world used to be.  I’m open to your theories on that, if you’ll offer them.

A letter from Booth Tarkington to my great-grandmother

A letter from Booth Tarkington to my great-grandmother