This is the first Booth Tarkington book which I have read and despite my feelings towards it, I still have plans to read another. (That's because I'm already in possession of Penrod so I feel I ought to go ahead and read it but I am going to go with a two strikes and you're out if Tarkington annoys me again.) I feel, in part, that I shouldn't be completely annoyed with the author because he did win a Pulitzer Prize - twice - in his lifetime. I do realize that this is a reason to respect him but world accolades have never stopped me from disliking a person before. Unfortunately I think my not liking Seventeen boils down to the fact that I don't like Tarkington.
In the book Seventeen we meet
There was one - and only one - character that I really loved and that was the character of Mr. Parcher. Miss Pratt was visiting the Parcher family so any of her potential young suitors would come calling at the Parcher home. Mr. Parcher really had a time of things, having to endure the idle chatter and inane speech of the young folk. There is a chapter wherein Mr. Parcher is writhing in agony as he is forced to overhear the chatter between William and his lady love. Tarkington writes:
"And when the galled Mr. Parcher wondered how those young people out on the porch could listen to each other and not die, it was because he did not hear and had forgotten the music that throbs in the veins of youth."
I confess I had to set the book down I was laughing so hard at that line. It expressed the way I was feeling about the main characters precisely.
"Love," William continued, his voice lifting and thrilling to the great theme - "love is something nobody can ever have but one time in their lives, and if they don't have it then, why prob'ly they never will. Now, if a man really loves a girl, why he'd do anything in the world she wanted him to. Don't you think so?"Despite Tarkington's ability and desire to go on and on and on (and on and on) about the silliness that is youth I might still have liked him but for one major issue: his racist attitude.
"Ess, 'deedums!" said the silvery voice.
I would like to pause here and point out that there are very few people that I would label as being racists. (Thoughtlessness is probably more rampant a problem than racism, which is not to say that the later doesn't exist because that would be a foolish declaration all its own.) The reason I hesitate to label anyone racist without certifiable just cause is because I feel that has become a label which is overused and overplayed. As a result, I tend to shy off in making use of it. In order to agree that any one individual is a racist I need to see good reason and solid proof. Some people will argue that I move too slowly in using the word but I think a bit of caution is wise in this modern world in which we are all about the business of taking offense. Also, my hesitation comes from having some people label me a "racist by association" which I find completely ludicrous and is a charge I find both offensive and very, very hard to take seriously. I struggle to think anyone would say and/or think such a thing about me. (This is especially the case if you know my family and have seen a picture of us. For those of you who haven't, I'll give you a hint: we aren't all white!) Since I know this to be a term misapplied to myself I really hesitate to use it on others. With this disclaimer, I still have to say that Tarkington is racist.
Now, to be fair, I think I must point out that Seventeen was published in 1916. There are certain books that you can read read from an earlier time period in history and find black people in positions of employment and/or who are treated as 'lesser thans' and not feel so very disturbed because you, as a reader, have a grasp of history. We don't just stop reading certain books because of the time period during which they were written! There is a way which authors can treat their black characters which leads you to understand that they were writing from experience and personal witness and that is all. You don't read it and fault them for their opinion so much as you understand that they are a product of the times in which they lived. These types of writers I can thoroughly accept. Tarkington is harder to swallow because he writes of the black man has a worthless creature. His attitude is much more clearly one of condescension and superiority and, to be frank, I absolutely could not stomach it. Although Tarkington writes to be funny, he just wasn't because his view of mankind was completely screwy. It is very clear that Tarkington did not think kindly of his fellow black man and communicated his worldview in such a way that I felt quite uncomfortable. Truthfully, Tarkington made me flat out angry. I did a surface level investigation of his positions and discovered he's been called a "casual racist". I understand the description but it doesn't make it any better. If this is how Tarkington writes of his fellow man than I really can't say that I want very much to do with him.
Seventeen is definitely not going on my re-read list. As I say, I'll give Penrod a go only because I already own it. But if it's anything like Seventeen then I'm very done with Tarkington.
Again, I can see how other people might be able to read this book and see only the humor. (I mean, I can sort of see it with the help of my fantastic imagination.) Maybe other people can get beyond Tarkington's state of mind regarding blacks but I just absolutely could not. It's not very often I'm so disgusted by an author, but I found Tarkington over the top and wouldn't make a habit of recommending him to others. Like I said, I'll give Penrod a go but if I find more of the same I'm likely to become an Anti-Tarkington reader all the way. I think in some ways, I already am.