a review by Rich Horton
Here is a true Old Bestseller, despite being to some extent a children's book: Penrod was #7 on the Publishers' Weekly list of bestselling novels of 1914. Booth Tarkington was a very successful writer, and showed up on that list a lot. He had the bestselling novel overall in 1915 (The Turmoil) and 1916 (Seventeen), and he also was in the top ten in 1902 (The Two Vanrevels), 1922 (Gentle Julia), 1924 (The Midlander), 1927 (The Plutocrat), 1928 (Claire Ambler), and 1932 (Mary's Neck). Curiously, his most famous novel (besides perhaps Penrod), Pulitzer Prize winner The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), did not make the list, and neither did his other Pulitzer Prize winner, Alice Adams (1921), though doubtless both sold well enough.
Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) was born in Indianapolis, and was a lifelong partisan of Indiana (his first novel was called The Gentleman from Indiana). He was named after a Governor of California (Newton Booth). He attended both Purdue and Princeton (where he became friends with Woodrow Wilson). He served one term in the Indiana House. He was a truly major author in his time, but his reputation has, it seems to me, diminished a great deal. He is now mostly remembered for The Magnificent Ambersons (and that in great part because of the famously botched Welles film) and for Penrod, and both of those books are much less read now than they once were.
|(drawing by Gordon Grant, photograph of Wendell Berry as Penrod)|
I said above that Penrod is to some extent a childrens' book, and that is true -- to an extent. But it is definitely a book that appeals to adults -- or did at the time when adults saw nostalgic echoes of their own childhoods in Penrod's. When I was young, my mother recommended Penrod to me -- it was one of those books boys were thought likely to like -- but though I remember getting it out of the library, I didn't read it.
Penrod is a very episodic book, depicting a number of comic adventures of Penrod Schofield, "The Worst Boy in Town" (presumably the Town is Indianapolis). Much -- perhaps all -- of the book originally appeared as separate stories, or sketches, in Cosmopolitan (and perhaps elsewhere). Penrod is 11 throughout most of the book, turning 12 at the end. The other major characters are his family, especially his older sister Margaret (whose love life is much disrupted by her younger brother), his best friend Sam, his two black friends Herman and Verman, his "bow" Marjorie Jones, and a few other schoolmates. And of course his dog Duke.
The incidents depicted include Penrod's agonized and disastrous role as Childe Lancelot in "The Pageant of the Table Round"; Penrod assuming that his Aunt is visiting because she is fleeing Uncle John, whom he presumes to have fallen victim to drink; Penrod and Sam putting on a show featuring numerous attractions including Herman and Verman as Tattooed Wild Men, and (much more funnily) rich boy Roderick Magsworth Bitts, Jr., as the ONLY LIVING NEPHEW oF RENA MAGSWORTH THE FAMOS MUDERESS; Penrod getting Marjorie's younger brother terribly sick; Penrod skipping the dance; Penrod deciding to become a bully; Penrod reacting to the new minister in town, a terrible bore who seems interested in Margaret; Penrod's 12th birthday; and many more.
A lot of this -- most of it -- is really very funny. Penrod is not really terribly intelligent (and he truly is a bad student), but he does have an active imagination. (And he likes to spread paint and tar quite liberally!) Bores and phonies tend to get their due. Penrod himself gets his due, some of the time -- and at other times, such as after his embarrassment of the Bitts family, he unexpectedly gets a reward. So -- I enjoyed it, and I can easily see why it was such a big success. (There were two sequels, Penrod and Sam (1916) and Penrod Jabsher (1929).)
But -- what about the elephant in the room? Which is to say -- racism. And let's face it, the depiction of Herman and Verman, Penrod's friends, is undoubtedly condescending, steretypical, and racist. For all that, Herman and Verman come off as basically good kids, and Penrod really does treat them as friends. Worse, I think, are Tarkington's authorial comments -- his declarations about the true nature and abilities of black people -- are really offensive. I have little doubt that these observations were more or less consistent with fairly mainstream views at that time. But that doesn't excuse them, and certainly it is easy to understand why many people might prefer not to read a book like Penrod any more -- or especially not to have their children read it.