Perspective

The Decline and Fall of the Midwest

Even more than Vachel Lindsay, who liked to say that the Mason-Dixon line ran straight through his heart, Booth Tarkington embodied the regional conflict that defined the Midwest.  Born in Indianapolis only five years after the end of the war between the regions, Newton Booth Tarkington was descended on his father’s side from Southern Democrats (from North Carolina by way of Tennessee), but his mother, Elizabeth Booth, had impeccable Yankee credentials (her grim ancestry stretched back to the Puritan Thomas Hooker, who founded Connecticut).  The melding of the two races produced a Unionist Republican family with a devotion to hard work that was tempered by the graciousness and open-mindedness of the Old South.

After leaving Princeton without graduating, Tarkington soon became a successful writer and a professional drinker.  By 1911, at the age of 42, his marriage had failed, and he was on the verge of becoming a literary has-been and a more-or-less confirmed alcoholic.  The hard living caught up with him, and he suffered a fairly serious heart attack at the beginning of 1912.  He decided that he preferred to die sober.  As he said later, he did not so much decide to quit drinking as decide that he had quit already.

The results of good health and a new marriage were impressive: the series of Penrod stories; The Turmoil, written in just 60 days in early 1914; Seventeen,...

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