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
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.
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
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
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
(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
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
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/
Booth Tarkington: Hoosier novelist
Tarkington biography from Princeton