Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Seventeen, by Booth Tarkington

Seventeen, by Booth Tarkington was my in-town bookclub's reading choice for the month of July. (I've held back my review a bit because we were delayed in getting together to discuss it.) It was supposed to be a light and jolly summer read and I can see how it would be perceived and marketed as such. I'm afraid I'm gaining a bit of a reputation for being a really snarky reader who nitpicks too much. But in the case of Seventeen, I think I have some room to nitpick.

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 the insufferable William Sylvanus Baxter, who is referred to frequently as "Seventeen" not so much to name him as to offer a description. William Baxter is the sort of character who you might say has been struck with more than a bit of 'moonstruck madness' and who goes about the place 'pitching and mooning'. He is in the height of his teenage prime when he meets Miss Pratt, a girl who is visiting some friends in the town where he lives. Miss Pratt is equally insufferable as she seems extremely unable to speak the King's English. She engages with others only through "baby talk" which can cause you to want to gauge your eyes out or cut your ears off. Anything to stop the madness can begin to sound agreeable! William and Miss Pratt are quite the pair, singing about love, talking about love, looking down on creation. The point of the book is most definitely to make fun of the immaturity of teenagers but as I don't really enjoy this behavior in real life, I certainly did not enjoy reading about it in my spare time. Surely I can see the humor that was intended but the length caused it to be more of a reading chore than anything else. Personally, I think this book would have worked better as a short story. In fact, I discovered after finishing the book that it began as a series of short stories which were combined into a book. Apparently Tarkington couldn't leave well enough alone.

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?"
"Ess, 'deedums!" said the silvery voice.
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.

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.


Barbara H. said...

"Ess, 'deedums!"??? Good grief. that makes me shudder right there. I had to smile at Mr. Parcher's reaction, too, except i bristled a bit at the reason for it attributed to forgetting "the music of youth." One can understand that very well and still think this kind of thing is ridiculous.

I've never read Tarkington - he's one of those names I thought I should probably check out some time, but now I am not inclined to.

I understand what you mean about books that reflect the times racially without necessarily endorsing the views vs. those who actually hold the views.

Shonya said...

This doesn't sound appealing to me in the least. I daresay I would have some of the same reservations you share--thanks for the heads up.

FancyHorse said...

I've read one book by Tarkington and wasn't impressed. It is part of an anthology from my mother's house. There are several book reviews in this entry, so I'll copy and paste this book's review for you.

"The Gentleman from Indianapolis: A Treasury of Booth Tarkington by John (editor) Beecroft, Booth Tarkington (Author), John Alan Maxwell (Illustrator)

I found this volume in my mother's home after her death and decided to keep it. It's in fairly good condition with the exception of the dust jacket, which I threw away keeping the end notes (blurbs).

Alice Adams (complete novel)
Reading from a 21st century perspective, I found the 1920s characters of Alice Adams and her mother very annoying and harmful to their family. The mother was constantly nagging her husband to better himself by leaving his secure if lowly position in a company to start a new business. Alice was a very cheerful person who seemed to get along happily with everyone, but she pretended to be of a social class higher than she was. She had been popular in high school, and thought that popularity alone could get her through adulthood. I found it strange that a 22 year old woman whose family's finances were almost stretched to the limit (partly because of hers and her mother's demands) would not be earning her own way.

I finally got through the novel, just to see how it would turn out, but it has put me off wanting to read the others in this volume: The Magnificent Ambersons and Penrod. I will give them a try though."

Let me know what you think of Penrod, as it's also in that volume.

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