Radio stations in my youth were always running phone-ins to find the greatest pop songs of all time – that is, of the last few decades. The top song, as I recall, was always the same: ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Likewise, polls of the greatest novels have their inevitable winners. Ask the public, and it’s The Lord of the Rings. Ask writers or critics, and it’s Ulysses or Proust. In 1998, Modern Library offered its 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. The list, determined by the editorial board, of course made Joyce No. 1. For me, one cheering inclusion was the book that scraped in at No. 100: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. I had thought this splendid novel almost entirely forgotten, other than as source material for the brilliant but troubled 1942 Orson Welles film of the same name.
Booth Tarkington (1869–1946), a native of Indianapolis, was a prolific and highly popular writer from the appearance of his first novel, The Gentleman from Indiana, in 1899 to his death almost fifty years later. Twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize – for The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and Alice Adams (1921) – he wrote or co-wrote over 20 plays, some of them major Broadway hits, in addition to 39 volumes of fiction, and each of his novels first appeared in magazines such as Harper’s and the Saturday Evening Post.
For the journalist Mark Sullivan, in his classic survey of early twentieth-century America, Our Times, Indiana was the typical American state, and Tarkington its typical voice: an unofficial laureate. This was a mixed blessing. Like many a writer in tune with his times, Tarkington fell from grace after his death. Today, along with Bulwer-Lytton, Hugh Walpole and John P. Marquand, he survives only in the shadowlands of yesterday’s bestsellers. Yet Tarkington at his best is more than merely the mouthpiece of his age. He not only
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