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Booth TarkingtonBooth Tarkington

Hoosier Connection: Booth Tarkington was a native Hoosier whose work continually reflected his homeland connections to Indianapolis. Indiana figures strongly in his writings, either as a vivid backdrop to his narratives or as a focus for his storylines.

Works Discussed: The Gentleman from Indiana, The Conquest of Canaan, The Turmoil, The Magnificent Ambersons

Born on July 29, 1869, in Indianapolis, Indiana, Booth Tarkington entered a world that would change just as quickly as he would grow. When first becoming aware of Indianapolis, it was simply a “large country town… but grew during Tarkington’s lifetime to be a thriving industrial and commercial city" (Woodress 299). This rapid growth of his surroundings affected the way that he interpreted his environment, and this change became a focal point in a number of Tarkington’s novels.

The way that Tarkington reacted to his surroundings can be traced to how he incorporated them into his work. In his earlier novels, such as The Gentleman from Indiana (1899), he constantly makes detailed references to the Indiana landscape as a setting for his characters. In the opening paragraph for this novel, Tarkington shares an accurate reflection of the central Indiana landscape to create the setting for the rest of the novel:

There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagrarian Eastern travelers, glancing from car-windows, shudder and return their eyes to the swaying upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without. The landscape lies interminably level: bleak in winter, a desolate plain of mud and snow; hot and dusty in summer, in its flat lonesomeness, miles on miles with not one cool hill slope away from the sun. (3)

His attention to the specifics of his environment helped him create vivid and accurate locations for his novels. When describing an afternoon in The Gentleman from Indiana, Tarkington successfully captures the characters’ surroundings:

The white-ruffed fennel reached up its dusty yellow heads to touch her skirts as she passed, and then drooped, satisfied, against the purple iron-weed at the roadside. In the noonday silence no cricket chirped nor locust raised its lorn monotone; the tree shadows mottled the road with blue, and the level fields seemed to pant out a dazzling breath, the transparent “heat-waves” that danced above the low corn and green wheat. (151)

In his early novels, the characters did not greatly affect their environment but lived in harmony with it. This relationship changed in his later novels, as Tarkington’s own experiences taught him that people could drastically change their surroundings, and elicit those changes quickly. In The Gentleman from Indiana, some of the characters discuss their admiration for the skies:

"Yes, they’re the Indiana skies…aren’t any others anywhere that ever seemed much like them to me. They’ve been company for me all my life. I don’t think there are any others half as beautiful, and I know there aren’t any as sociable. They were always so… Seems to me they are the softest and bluest and kindest in the world."

" I think they are," said Helen, "and they are more beautiful than the "Italian skies," though I doubt if many of us Hoosiers realize it...." (159)

Indiana Skies
Indiana skies

Tarkington’s reaction to the Indiana skies changed quickly, as industrialization took hold in Indianapolis and began to cloud the skies with smoke and ash. In The Conquest of Canaan, (read full text) the opening paragraph clearly shows Tarkington’s uneasy concern with the juxtaposition of nature and humans.

A dry snow had fallen steadily throughout the still night, so that when a cold, upper wind cleared the sky gloriously in the morning the incongruous Indiana town shone in a white harmony – roof, ledge, and earth as evenly covered as by moonlight. There was no thaw; only where the line of factories followed the big bend of the frozen river, their distant chimneys like exclamation points on a blank page, was there a first threat against the supreme whiteness. (1)

The effects of air pollution is a theme that reoccurred in many of Tarkington’s novels at the end of his career. Many of his novels centered on characters who were enmeshed in a dilemma to preserve nature or to follow the so-called progress of the city. In The Magnificent Ambersons, Tarkington describes what the word “prosperity” meant to many people:

The idealists put up magnificent business buildings and boasted of them, but the buildings were begrimed before they were finished. They boasted of their libraries, of their monuments and statues; and poured soot on them. They boasted of their schools, but the schools were dirty, like the children within them. This was not the fault of the children or their mothers. It was the fault of the idealists, who said: “The more dirt, the more prosperity.” They drew patriotic, optimistic breaths of the flying powdered filth of the streets, and took the foul and heavy smoke with gusto into the profundities of their lungs. (187)

Tarkington also was aware of the other effects that industrialization had on a city, namely habitat destruction and urban sprawl. In The Turmoil, (read full text) one of Tarkington’s characters begins to question the growth of the city and its effects:

Industrial air pollution
Industrial air pollution

Here, where his eye fell, had once been green fields and running brooks, and how had the kind earth been despoiled and disfigured! The pioneers had… toiled and risked and sacrificed that their posterity might live in peace and wisdom, enjoying the fruits of the earth. Well, their posterity was here – and there was only turmoil. Where was the promised land? It had been promised… but here was the very posterity to whom it had been promised, toiling and risking and sacrificing in turn – for what? (585)

He also realized the affect that industrialization was having on the rapid growth of the city into the country. In The Magnificent Ambersons, Eugene relates the urban sprawl of city dwellers to country: “My relatives, the Sharons, have sold their house and are building in the country—at least, they call it ‘the country.’ It will be city in two or three years" (131). This trend of the suburbs continually growing and spreading into the surrounding countryside is still a growing concern today, especially around Indianapolis. Farmland is constantly being purchased to be made into housing divisions and apartment complexes. Tarkington was an astute observer of what changes were happening in his lifetime, and the effects that those changes would have on the future.

Tarkington was greatly affected as an author by Indiana. While many Indiana natives became successful and left, or reflected on Indiana from more exotic locales, Tarkington remained in his birthplace. The fictional places that he wrote about in The Magnificent Ambersons, The Turmoil, and National Avenue were easily recognizable to the residents of the east side of Indianapolis, where he lived. He was involved in his community and concerned with the well-being of the people and the countryside of Indiana. Through all his many roles as novelist, playwright, short story writer, artist, critic, art collector, and politician, living in Indiana deeply affected Tarkington. One cannot read Tarkington’s work without acknowledging the impact that Indiana made on this truly Hoosier writer.



Tarkington, Booth. The Conquest of Canaan. New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1905.

---. The Gentleman from Indiana. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1899.

---. The Magnificent Ambersons. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1918.

---. The Turmoil. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1915.

Woodress, James. Booth Tarkington, Gentleman from Indiana. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1955.


"Booth Tarkington." Born Today. 2 Dec. 2002. <http://www.born-today.com/Today/07-29.htm>

"Air Pollution." Air Pollution. 10 Nov. 2002. <http://classes.colgate.edu/



Newton Booth Tarkington: Hoosier novelist

Booth Tarkington biography from Princeton