Booth Tarkington: Books from an Indianapolis Author

Newton Booth Tarkington, one of Indianapolis’ most famous people, wrote books for the people of Indiana. He was born in Indianapolis on July 28, 1869, the second and last child of John Tarkington, a respected lawyer in the Indianapolis business community, and his wife Elizabeth Booth Tarkington. He lived in the circle city his entire life.

His family’s home in downtown Indianapolis and most of his father’s livelihood were swept away by an economic depression in 1873, forcing the family to move to a smaller house on New York Street. Two years later as the country was recovering from the depression, Mr. Tarkington’s practice began to flourish once more. The happy family built a larger home at 1100 North Pennsylvania Street. As an Indianapolis kid, young Booth led a charmed life; complete with live-in servants and all the other amenities his father’s large salary could afford them.

In his youth, Booth Tarkington loved books and found comfort in his father’s library. He became a voracious reader, excelling in scholastic achievements. After attending Purdue University for a year, Tarkington transferred to Princeton where he studied for two years. Without receiving his degree, Tarkington began what would turn into a five-year literary apprenticeship. During this time, he wrote two books, Monsieur Beaucaire, The Gentleman from Indiana, and numerous short stories and plays. He also received stacks of rejection letters from various editors refusing to publish Booth’s books.

Video preview of the Indianapolis, Indiana author Booth Tarkington novel, Penrod

He began the book The Gentleman from Indiana almost immediately after leaving school, drawing inspiration from a visit to Marshall, Illinois on his twelfth birthday. The sleepy county in the heart of the flat lands west of the Wabash river became the inspiration for the fictional Plattville, Indiana, the setting for Tarkington’s novel. For Booth the small town symbolized the timeless perfection of a boy’s heaven. A version of this book, adapted for the stage by James Still, was recently performed at the Indiana Repertory Theater.

Booth Tarkington wrote 40,000 words in a few short months before his narrative came to a screeching halt. He put the book on hold until the last months of his apprenticeship, when the death of an old Princeton friend, John Cleve Green, gave him the push he needed to finish. Green had been the model for the title character in Tarkington’s novel, and the finished book would be a memorial to his memory. Eventually Booth sold the story to McClure Magazine, who shortened it and gave it serial publication. It was a wild success.

After gaining notoriety in the literary world, Booth continued to write and had several more books published in McClure and other magazines, eventually catapulting him to stardom among Indianapolis people. He wrote 171 stories, 9 novellas, 21 books, and 19 plays. In 1902, Booth married Louisa Fletcher and the two resided on the Old Northside, near the Morris-Butler house and Benjamin Harrison’s home. Booth was also placed on the ballot for the Indiana House of Representatives. He won both the primary and the election. However, when he contracted typhoid fever, his Indianapolis political career was forced to an abrupt end.

After he regained his health, Tarkington turned his attention to making a personal contribution to Indianapolis arts and Indianapolis culture. In the next few years he saw the staging of several of his original plays. After four dramatic failures and the unexpected death of his mother, his mood dampened severely. The strain of a failing marriage was weighing heavy on him; he turned to alcohol consumption for comfort. He would struggle through his divorce in 1911 before he gained control of his addiction in 1912. Booth was married the second time to Susanah Robinson.

The following year Tarkington published the first of the Penrod stories that launched him into the world of writing children’s books. This collection reflected his interest in how the mind of a boy works. As research for his tales of a boy’s life, Booth became absorbed in the activities of his nephews, to whom he would often write letters signed “Your Amiable Uncle.”

Booth won two Pulitzer Prizes for his books The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. Later in his life his health began to fail him. In 1930, he lost the use of his eyes completely, but after several surgeries his sight was restored. He lived on North Meridian Street and continued to write children’s books until his death in 1946. More than 5 million copies of Booth Tarkington’s work were sold in the first half of the twentieth century, making him one of Indiananapolis‘ most famous and beloved authors.

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