The Magnificent Tarkington

After 319 volumes over 40 years the Library of America (LOA) has finally collected three books by Newton Booth Tarkington. That the only author to win two Pulitzer Prizes for his novels had to wait until the timeless works of James Weldon Johnson, Charles Brockden Brown, David Goodis, and May Swenson had been issued says a good deal about literary politics—but at least the wrong has been righted. As 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Tarkington’s birth—and the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Magnificent Ambersons, his best-known novel—the timing is apt.

Tarkington was born in 1869 to an upper middle-class (but not wealthy) family in Indianapolis. Then a city of some 50,000, Tarkington would see his hometown grow ten-fold before his death in 1946.  Indianapolis was Tarkington’s primary home and literary inspiration, where he observed a new commercial order, with new families at its vanguard, take root. There he watched a remarkable social revolution unfold as new, democratic manners replaced older, aristocratic ones, and new technologies, especially the automobile, transformed the way people related, physically and imaginatively, to time and space. By the mid-teens he felt called to be this revolution’s literary chronicler.

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