Thursday, December 13, 2012

Beasley’s Christmas Party, by Booth Tarkington

It is both amazing and sad to your correspondent that American novelist Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) is so little read (and regarded!) today.  Tarkington had a distinctly American voice – a distinctly Midwestern voice – that resonated with turn-of-the-century America in a deep and profound way.  He is one of only three novelists (the others being William Faulkner and John Updike) to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once – but today he is remembered chiefly for The Magnificent Ambersons, which was turned into a now-highly regarded film in 1942 by Orson Welles.
Tarkington was born in Indianapolis, Indiana and would eventually graduate from the prestigious Exeter Academy, Purdue University and, ultimately, Princeton.  He came from extremely well-to-do people, but the family lost money during the Panic of 1873 – though eventually they would recoup much of their fortune.  It was this up-and-down experience that would later influence his 1918 novel Ambersons.
It is amazing that a man called “the most significant contemporary American author” by Publisher’s Weekly in 1921 should be so little remembered today.  Perhaps his reputation was usurped by fellow Princeton graduate F. Scott Fitzgerald, a critical assessment that baffles your correspondent as Tarkington is the better writer with the more distinctive voice.  Perhaps it is the sense of wistful nostalgia, a sense of sweetness that makes Tarkington so unpalatable today; his lack of irony and cynicism is distinctly unfashionable in academic circles.
Christmas, and its ability to transform a diverse spectrum of men, was of particular interest to Tarkington, and he wrote of the holiday more than once.  He wrote the novella Beasley’s Christmas Party in 1909, and it was later dramatized by C. W. Munger.  It is available for free at Project Gutenberg or, and is heartily recommended for holiday reading.
The story concerns a journalist who moves to the all-American town of Wainwright, where he befriends Mr. Beasley, a local politician who is sure to run for governor and win.  However, Beasley has taken to talking with imaginary people, and when his political enemies learn this, they dragoon the reporter to witness this eccentricity and report upon it.  The resolution provides wonderful satisfaction, and perhaps not a little envy at political malice so easily erased.
Here is a taste of Tarkington’s prose: It might be difficult to say why I thought it was the “finest” house in Wainwright, for a simpler structure would be hard to imagine; it was merely a big, old-fashioned brick house, painted brown and very plain, set well away from the street among some splendid forest trees, with a fair spread of flat lawn.  But it gave back a great deal for your glance, just as some people do.  It was a large house, as I say, yet it looked not like a mansion but like a home; and made you wish that you lived in it.  Or, driving by, of an evening, you would have liked to hitch your horse and go in; it spoke so surely of hearty, old fashioned people living there, who would welcome you merrily.
It looked like a house where there were a grandfather and grandmother; where holidays were warmly kept; where there were boisterous family reunions to which uncles and aunts, who had been born there, would return from no matter what distances; a house where big turkeys would be on the table often; where on called “the hired man” (and named either Abner or Ole) would crack walnuts upon a flat-iron clutched between his keens on the back porch; it looked like a house where they played charades; where there would be long streamers of evergreen and dozens of wreaths of holly at Christmas-time; where there were tearful, happy weddings and great throwings of rice after little brides, from the broad front steps: in a word, it was the sort of a house to make the hearts of spinsters and bachelors very lonely and wistful – and that is about as near as I can come to my reason for thinking it is the finest house in Wainwright.
It is a perfect house, in fact, in which to spend some reading time this Christmas.

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