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 a wonderful ear for the unconscious poetry of boyhood assertion:
“Sawdust,” Penrod said. “That’s the way the horse we used to have used to have it.”
Sam hooted. “Duke!” he cried. “Why, I bet Duke isn’t a quarter full-blooded! I bet Duke hasn’t got any full blood in him at all!”
“I’d like to know then if he couldn’t walk just as well on a rope as on a board he couldn’t tell the difference from a rope from.”
In addition, Penrod’s environs have a tactile and often olfactory reality that any novelist—of adult no less than children’s fiction—might envy. The sawdust box where he secretes himself from the world; the Friday Afternoon Dancing Class, with its be-ribboned girls and white-gloved boys; the Sundays in church, squirming under a “naïve stained glass” that “had held an awful place in the infantile life of Penrod Schofield,” who “accepted it without question as the literal Eye of Deity”—these are not stage sets but authentic, lived-in settings. Although the Penrod books spring from Tarkington’s conviction that “maturity forgets the marvelous realness of a boy’s day-dreams,” he takes care to record the waking world with satisfying particularity; much of the books’ power derives from this conviction that a writer must be faithful to the plaster and glass and bricks that dreams are actually made of.
The benign ghost of Mark Twain flutters over the entire enterprise and Penrod’s nearest literary kin may be Tom Sawyer. Both the Penrod books and Tom Sawyer are narrated in the third person, by an arch and frankly nostalgic middle-aged man who, in his eagerness to insert wryly affectionate observations, often winds up competing with his youthful creations; there are certainly passages in both accounts where the reader wishes the author would recede and simply allow his boyish characters to “play” without such close adult supervision.
Children on baseball diamonds will often make a determination of precedence by turning a baseball bat into a tool of selection: one child will place his fist around the bottom of the bat, a second will lay his above it, the first will lay a fist above that, and so on up the shaft. The winner is the one who, reaching the crown of the bat, places a straddling hand atop it. This eager overlapping of fist over fist approximates the way one voice will overlay another as, in climbing cadences, a boyish argument builds. It’s a process Tarkington recreates to perfection:
“What you talkin’ about?”
“Well, why can’t you wait till I tell you?” Penrod’s tone had become peevish. For that matter, so had Sam’s; they were developing one of the little differences, or quarrels, that composed the very texture of their friendship.
“Well, why don’t you tell me, then?”
“Well, how can I?” Penrod demanded. “You keep talkin’ every minute.”
“I’m not talkin’ now, am I?” Sam protested. “You can tell me now, can’t you? I’m not talk—“
“You are, too!” Penrod shouted.
The Penrod books are not so much novels as glued-together short stories. Their self-contained little episodes occasionally unfold in a single chapter but usually extend over two or three. The order of episodes could be transposed with very little harm to the narrative whole. The independence of the episodes in fact fits the amnesiac nature of boyhood in Tarkington’s formulation. Each new day is a new day, each new adventure a new adventure.
Most episodes tell the same story. First, temptation arises, in the form of some beguiling mischief or misbehavior. Internal resistance then proves weak and futile. The temptation is inevitably pursued to its chaotic, slapstick close. Finally, a moment of reckoning falls, often in an unexpected manner, upon the eleven-year-old wrongdoer. In short, the books are all about being “bad”—and the vagaries and inconsistencies of adult discipline in the face of badness: “the mysteries of grown-up jurisprudence, where intentions go for nothing and all is incalculable and ominous.”
If the succumbing to temptation is a story as old as Eve, the book highlights a fundamental difference between the child and the adult hero, between youthful versus grown-up temptation. None of the vices that traditionally destroy an adult protagonist—greed, lust, social ambition—has any place in the Penrod stories. What usually brings disaster down on the heads of Penrod and his friends is sheer boredom: the hellish confinement of the classroom, the drone of the preacher, the languor of heat-stupefied summer afternoons when boys are thrown back on their own resources.
Heartbreak, ostracism, impoverishment, death—such is the range of retribution awaiting the grown-up transgressor in a grown-up novel. For Penrod and his friends, however, the gravest threat is embarrassment. (This is something far more fearful than the spankings—known as “catching Billy Blue Hill”—that the boys’ fathers are sometimes called upon to administer.) The Penrod books capture that stage of early adolescence when mortification is felt so acutely the word recalls its etymological sense of death; it’s that awkward age when you frequently feel you really might die of embarrassment. (Proof that this aspect of adolescence hasn’t altered over the decades used to appear monthly in my own house, with the arrival of Seventeen magazine, back when my daughters were about Penrod’s age. Much the most compelling item was “Trauma-rama,” a column in which readers recounted recent humiliations. Although most of these seemed to involve teenage girls losing the top halves of their bathing suits under the watchful eyes of handsome older lifeguards, the column’s predictability in no way diminished its vital interest—a reminder that embarrassment is never anything but fresh to its squirming victims.)
Penrod is forever being caught out in some situation of nightmarish humiliation. In the book’s opening chapters, he is conscripted to play the Child Sir Lancelot in “The Children’s Pageant of the Table Round,” whose local author, Mrs. Lora Rewbush, is “a lady of charitable and poetic inclinations.” (The performance is a benefit for the Coloured Infants’ Betterment Society.) Penrod’s mother and older sister fashion his costume, which is to be “as mediaeval and artistic as possible.” He is got up in patent leather pumps decorated “with large pink rosettes,” silk stockings, a bodice to a “once salmon dress,” and powdered hair (“They always powdered their hair in Colonial times,” his sister points out). Penrod doesn’t immediately discern the very worst: that his trunks are a trimmed pair of his father’s long red flannel underwear. His moment of apprehension is a brilliant little study of boyhood abasement:
The Schofields’ house stood on a corner at the intersection of two main-travelled streets; the fence was low, and the publicity obtained by the washable portion of the family apparel, on Mondays, had often been painful to Penrod; for boys have a peculiar sensitiveness in these matters. A plain, matter-of-fact washerwoman, employed by Mrs. Schofield, never left anything to the imagination of the passer-by; and of all her calm display the scarlet flaunting of his father’s winter wear had most abashed Penrod. One day Marjorie Jones, all gold and starch, had passed when the dreadful things were on the line: Penrod had hidden himself, shuddering….
Most people have suffered in a dream the experience of finding themselves very inadequately clad in the midst of a crowd of well-dressed people, and such dreamers’ sensations are comparable to Penrod’s, though faintly, because Penrod was awake and in much too full possession of the most active capacities for anguish.
At the bottom of Penrod’s indignation and horror is a stunned sense of the inexplicability of adult behavior. Although he may be the Worst Boy in Town, he couldn’t imagine torturing anyone so cruelly as to send him out onto a public stage wearing his father’s red flannel underwear. How is a boy supposed to behave properly in a world where respectable people do such things?
Where Penrod and Tom Sawyer part company is in the endings to their novels. Tom Sawyer ultimately suggests a triumph of fanciful boyhood over the encroachments of workaday adulthood. With the discovery of the robbers’ loot in the final chapters, rescued from a haunted house and a haunted cave, Tom and his friend Huck ensure that they will march into the gray world of adulthood armed with the talismanic gold of childhood enchantment. Penrod, by contrast, represents a bittersweet farewell to youth’s magic. All signs are that Penrod is destined in time to become his father—the sort of reliable midwestern family man who, after a somewhat bumpy childhood, straightens out and gains respectability. Similar transformations await Penrod’s friends, both the boys and the girls, who seem bound to develop into the sort of rock-solid, largely contented, middle-class midwesterners that Sinclair Lewis, a few years after Penrod first appeared, satirized in Main Street and Babbitt.
These prospects wouldn’t have much alarmed Tarkington. He was far fonder than Lewis of those prospering, provincial, early-twentieth-century midwestern towns. A shy but genial man, Tarkington seems constitutionally to have lacked Lewis’s large capacity for outrage and repudiation. It hardly seems coincidental that Lewis died in Rome, thousands of miles from his hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, whereas Tarkington died in Indianapolis, not many blocks from the house of his birth.
Still, to Tarkington’s dismay, the leisurely town of his boyhood gradually subsided under a growing clangor of machinery, a gathering cloud of factory smoke. This is a theme taken up directly in the underrated Magnificent Ambersons, a novel that memorably recreates the mixture of giddiness, fear, and excitement with which midwestern townsfolk watch the approach of a sputtering, grimy prosperity. It’s a mostly implicit theme in the Penrod books, although their genesis unmistakably lay in preservationist feelings of nostalgia, a sense of a departing world which must have increased with each new volume of the trilogy and with each passing year after publication. The close of Penrod: His Complete Story summons a golden beam of light:
The last shaft of sunshine of that day fell graciously and like a blessing upon the boy sitting on the fence. Years afterward, a quiet sunset would recall to him sometimes the gentle evening of his twelfth birthday, and bring him the picture of his boy self, sitting in rosy light upon the fence, gazing pensively down upon his wistful, scraggly, little old dog, Duke.
This light falls, you might say, at precisely the same angle in the valedictory poem of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, where children, adrift down a stream in Wonderland, are glimpsed “lingering in the golden gleam” of a late July afternoon.
It is this quality of distant, glowing enchantment that can make the rereading of old childhood favorites so much more perilous than some beloved book from early adulthood. If, say, that Alexandria Quartet whose glittering and opulent exoticism so enchanted you as an undergraduate now looks blowsy on a return visit, you may feel that Durrell has let you down. But when a cherished book of childhood no longer grips the imagination, you’re likely to feel that you have fallen short—that the book hasn’t failed you so much as you have failed it (and failed, as well, your earlier, more receptive self). One reason I’ve never reopened The Lord of the Rings, which held me powerfully some thirty-plus years ago, is my strong suspicion that I would no longer fall fully under the spell of Tolkien’s orcs and elves and hobbits.
I was Penrod’s age—eleven—when I first devoured his misadventures, and returning to them once more, nearly forty years later, I was struck by how vivid so many characters and incidents remained. Various passages proved deeply reverberative—almost as if they had once been known by heart:
Thus began the Great Tar Fight, the origin of which proved, afterward, so difficult for parents to trace….
Besides, there are two things that will be believed of any man whatsoever, and one of them is that he has taken to drink.
Penrod, standing just outside the storeroom door, extended his arm within the room, deposited the licorice water upon the counter of the drug store, seized in its stead the bottle of smallpox medicine, and extended it cordially toward the advancing Maurice. Genius is like that—great, simple, broad strokes!
Or Penrod’s Aunt Sarah Crim, recalling his father:
“You look like him, Penrod. He was anything but a handsome boy.”
Or Penrod’s letter excusing himself from attending a dreaded dance:
“Dear madam Please excuse me from dancing the cotilon with you this afternoon as I have fell off the barn
The great cankering flaw of the Penrod books is their casual racism—their easy and unreflective assumption of various inferiorities of blacks to whites. In this regard Tarkington was, alas, all too typical of his origins and era. While he might speak well-intentionedly of this “amiable and interesting race”—and doubtless would have recoiled from any notion that his depiction of blacks was anything but harmlessly and fondly comic—there are scattered, persistent references likely to stir a shudder in any modern reader: “In his simple, direct African way he wished to kill his enemy”; or, “a carefree Negroid abandon.” These genuinely funny books are marred, as some of the best Hollywood screwball comedies of the Thirties are marred, by a cheap and callous willingness to descend into “darkie” humor.
By a curious twist, Penrod himself seems far more fair-minded and open-hearted than his creator. Penrod at his best embodies a healthy boyish conviction that anything that is interesting, entertaining, fun ought to be given a chance. It would never occur to him that the black boys who live in the alley, and whose range of anecdote and observation is so enliveningly different from his own, should be avoided purely on account of their race.
This separation of creator and created ultimately applies to Tarkington and Penrod on the largest scale. Tarkington’s life, for all his literary success and ample wealth, was beset by tribulations: a failed first marriage, a bout of alcoholism so severe it nearly killed him, the loss of his daughter to pneumonia, grave eye problems that required five operations and that left him wholly blind for sizable stretches of his adult life. Not surprisingly, as the Great Depression spun into the Second World War, he became increasingly caught up in politics and increasingly distressed about the flow of the world. The son of a Civil War veteran, Tarkington lived long enough to see, as his health was slowly failing, the atomic blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It’s now a little hard to imagine that William Dean Howells would have once written to say, after Tarkington published his novel The Turmoil in 1914, “I tremble a little for you. Now you must go on and be of the greatest.” Over time, Tarkington’s woes and triumphs alike have largely faded. Penrod, however, remains as bright as ever. He’s an insubstantial figure, not yet grown out of knickerbockers, but he outlasts his august, prize-laden creator.
Even Marjorie Jones, the Most Beautiful Girl in the World, softens toward Penrod in the end. On the final page of the last chapter, she tosses a folded note his way and runs off with a giggle. “Your my bow,” it declares.
Well, in years to come Marjorie is obviously destined to be one of the great alluring glories of the unnamed town’s adult society, a woman of sparkle and grace, and doubtless her spelling will improve along with her sophistication. But she will never write more movingly. And neither would Tarkington.
December 19, 2002