He inhabits a domain of consistent characterizations. So set and predictable are the phrases that evoke the people and animals he’s closest to, they come to resemble epithets. The girl he pines after, Marjorie Jones, is the Most Beautiful Girl in the World. His little, long-suffering dog—who “looked like an old postman”—is Good Old Duke. Sam Williams, his best friend and neighbor, is Comrade Sam. And he himself is the Worst Boy in Town (pop. 135,000).
His name is Penrod Schofield. He’s eleven years old when readers meet him (“Penrod sat morosely upon the back fence and gazed with envy at Duke, his wistful dog”), and when they bid him goodbye, in a glorious blaze of late-afternoon sun, it’s his twelfth birthday. His creator was Booth Tarkington, an author who during his successful lifetime (1869–1946) twice received the Pulitzer Prize but who is probably best known today as the novelist behind a couple of enduring films: Alice Adams (starring Katharine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray, both early in their careers and both looking remarkably young), directed by George Stevens, and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons.
Penrod is clearly intended to be an Everyboy, of the modern American variety, so it’s hardly surprising that Tarkington is so unforthcoming about locales and dates. Penrod lives in an undifferentiated Midwest, presumably the author’s home state of Indiana. He first appeared in book form in 1914 and his adventures, nostalgically conceived, probably take place a few years before that. Tarkington in an afterword aptly described this as an era when “the stable was empty but not yet rebuilt into a garage.” Films are still such novelties they come wrapped in quotation marks: Penrod occasionally goes off to the “movies.” He finds most of his entertainment, though, in his own backyard, where he concocts an array of inventive, usually outrageous, and often destructive mischief. It isn’t for nothing that he’s known as the Worst Boy in Town.
Tarkington quickly realized he was on to a good thing, and in 1916 he published a sequel, Penrod and Sam. This was eventually followed by Penrod Jashber, a sequel to the sequel. In 1946, the three volumes emerged as an omnibus, Penrod: His Complete Story. The “Complete” of the title is a misnomer; in the interest of streamlining, Tarkington truncated or deleted a number of chapters, sometimes with unhappy results. The books are best read individually.
Even so, Penrod: His Complete Story amasses a portrait of an American boyhood that, for richness of detail and sheer vividness of recollection, has few equals. Penrod may be an ordinary boy—not especially intelligent, good-looking, athletic, or ambitious—but he is extraordinarily well-realized. As Tarkington noted: “Penrod has been a success because it has kept to true boy and avoided book-and-stage boy.” And: “‘Boy-writers’ depend on ‘Gee, fellers’ and ‘Say, kids’ and ‘kid nicknames’—if you’ll notice I have utterly avoided this stock stuff.” In its place, Tarkington displays …