In the early part of the twentieth century, Booth Tarkington was one of the most prolific and popular authors. In 1922, he produced his fifth best-seller, Gentle Julia, which stayed on the best-sellers' list for only a year and was reprinted for the last time in 1933. A modern reader today is likely to never have heard of this blockbuster, though it had all the components that would seemingly make it an enduring novel. The disappearance of Gentle Julia from the bookshelves and from the scope of public knowledge prompts a common question regarding best-sellers: How can a novel have so many strong elements in its favor and still disappear? Though there may not be a clearly defined answer, the theories surrounding Gentle Julia's absence from modern literature propose that what the public makes a best-seller may in fact have little enduring, literary merit. Gentle Julia's short-lived success can be better understood by examining Tarkington's reputation and his works prior to Gentle Julia, the novel's success and literary merit, and the elements that could have contributed to its disappearance.
In the early part of the twentieth century, "Booth Tarkington" was a widely-recognized name, and rightly so; he was one of the established literary giants of the era. His resume includes nine best-sellers and two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels (which will be discussed later), and in terms of mere productivity, he produced one hundred-seventy-one stories, nine novellas, twenty-one novels, and nineteen full-length plays. An author with so much work in print had to be recognized by the public, and Tarkington indeed was. Many of his novels, such as Gentle Julia, were first published serially in the major magazines of the day: Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies Home Companion. The publication of his work in magazines familiarized the public with Mr. Booth Tarkington and contributed to his large readership. Publisher's Weekly voted him as "the most significant living author" in 1922, and his success in one genre enabled him to cross-over to another, as he did in play-writing. For the most part, the critics loved Tarkington, and year after year they raved about his "admirable study of character" (Rev. of The Magnificent Ambersons New York Times449), "piercing observation" (Van Doren 125), and "genuine humor" (Adams 14). Though popularity in the critical world does not always equal success on the shelves, Tarkington managed to claim both kingdoms. Readers bought whatever he produced, thereby giving him the nine best-sellers. His popularity brought about financial success and an affluence that managed to survive even the Great Depression. Tarkington himself said of his magazine stories, " ?My prices astonish me. . . .I'm rather sorry for the magazines that pay ?em' " (Woodress 302). Even though Tarkington was writing in an era of other "greats" such as Edith Wharton, Rudyard Kipling, Sinclair Lewis, Thornton Wilder, Margaret Mitchell, and John Steinbeck (all of whom are still widely read today), critics still deemed him one of, if not the best, as the Publisher's Weekly award reflects. Gentle Julia was ushered in by Tarkington's presence and repute, and standing on the shoulders of the most significant living author of the time, it stood little chance at failure. The fact that it did, as it seemingly should have, climb to the top of the charts proves that an author's reputation is highly integral in establishing a best-seller. Once an author produces enough novels that the public deems "good," or at least good enough to buy, readers assume that most of his works are going to be worthwhile, and a type of widespread cult is formed. A modern reader can see the manifestations of this in the continued success of authors such as Stephen King, Danielle Steel, and John Grisham. Tarkington was one of the first of these cultic authors to produce numerous, successful novels, and the fact that he made best-sellers lists in four different decades stresses the importance of reputation in making a best-seller.
Booth Tarkington's first novel, A Gentleman from Indiana, brought his name into the literary world, but the Penrod books and his other adolescent novels firmly established his reputation and forte. Penrod, the number seven best-seller of 1914, and Penrod and Sam, published in 1916, are chronicles of a twelve year-old boy that evoked readers' delight and critics' praise. Each chapter in these books deals with a comic adventure, or misadventure, of the youth Penrod Schofield, and while critics recognized that it was not high art, they were quick to appreciate Tarkington for his skills in comedic amusement. "Mr. Tarkington has written more ambitious stories, but never one more amusing," said the Outlook (Rev. of Penrod 46). Penrod and Sam, the follow-up novel to the first success, was in the same an-adventure-per-chapter format and was again met with favorable reviews. The critics saw within this work, as they did with the first, a sympathetic nostalgia. The Dial said Penrod and Sam made "the reader long for a return of the conscienceless, adventurous age of ten" (Rev. of Penrod and Sam 587). Seventeen, another novel grouped with Tarkington's adolescent stories, is not among the Penrod family but still deals with the follies of youth, more specifically, of youth in love. However, the critics claimed that it would be humorous only to adults who were able to view it in hindsight and not to a person "that is Seventeen himself . . . he will call it ?darned crazy' " (Lynd 1023). Despite the lack of nostalgia, Seventeen was still wildly popular, becoming the number one best-seller of 1916. Its success, as well as the success of the Penrod books, created Booth Tarkington's popularity and reputation as an adolescent novelist, though he would not be content to remain solely within this genre.
An important aspect to remember in considering Gentle Julia's success is the two Pulitzer Prize-winning books that preceded Gentle Julia's release. The Magnificent Ambersons, in 1919, and Alice Adams, in 1922, captured two of the first four Pulitzer Prizes ever given for novels. The fact that these awards were given to two of his more serious novels revealed the differences between popularity with critics and popularity with the general public. Though The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams were awarded the Pulitzer, neither of them ever became a best-seller, probably due to their grave nature and subject matter. The Magnificent Ambersons tells the tale of an aristocratic family in a pre-automobile era. The grandson of the family, George Amberson Minafer, believes he is destined to live a gentleman's life, and yet, as the automobile age comes to pass in the town, the family's glory fades away into oblivion, and George is forced to become a common laborer. The somber plot is a stark change from the Penrod stories, published only four years prior, and from Tarkington's other adolescent novels that focuses on levity and humor. The critics were well aware of the difference in style and subject, and yet they considered Tarkington's ability in writing serious stories just as skillful. "It has a depth of feeling and an interplay of life and character which make it a novel in a higher sense than can be ascribed to the vast majority of popular novels," read the review in the November 6, 1918 edition of the Outlook(380). This lofty praise, and Tarkington's popularity on the whole, paved the way for another Tarkington novel to win the Pulitzer in 1922.
Alice Adamswas another example of Tarkington's somber side. Its heroine, Alice, is a clever and beautiful girl whose lack of social status prevents her from getting ahead in life. It concludes with her resigning herself to a life as a typist and stenographer, which once again rings of an entirely different tone than Gentle Julia or any of the other adolescent novels. However, Alice Adams is the book that is most widely accepted, even today, as Tarkington's finest and most enduring work. The critics were enamored with it upon its release. " 'Alice Adams' is a novel that taxes the vocabulary of praise," raved the Bookman in the July 1921 issue (449), and other critics agreed, calling it "the product of a master hand" (Edgett 4). Even more so than with The Magnificent Ambersons, this novel made it perfectly clear to the critical world and the general public that Booth Tarkington could write in as sober a style as he could a humorous one. Heywood Broun of the Bookman considered the tale tragic, saying "No more poignant tragedy has been written in the year. The tragic method of ?Alice Adams' sways us utterly because it is a tragedy in which nobody dies, nobody goes mad, nobody commits suicide" (394). The fact that Tarkington's serious novels won him the two Pulitzers does not affect his popularity as an adolescent novelist, however, as seen by Gentle Julia's success the following year. Tarkington did have this separate, serious style, and it was critically acclaimed; this is paramount in importance in understanding the popularity of Gentle Julia. Gentle Julia was a novel that, unlike the Pulitzer books, returned Tarkington to the best-sellers list and showed that while the critics, and people such as the Pulitzer judges, preferred Tarkington as the social commentator, the public preferred Tarkington as the author of humorous, adolescent novels. What held true for Tarkington's career holds true for other best-selling authors as well; if an author has two different genres or styles he or she writes in, it is highly unlikely that they will both be equally appreciated by critics and readers. The fact that Tarkington's Pulitzer books never were best-sellers also demonstrates that what the critic praises, the reader doesn't necessarily buy. Despite their rather unimpressive sales figures, the existence of The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams, and their status as Pulitzer Prize-winning novels is an instrumental element in comprehending Tarkington's overall popularity, and more specifically, the success of Gentle Julia.
Gentle Julia was a success as soon as it left the printing press, with nearly no negative reviews and several extremely enthusiastic ones. When Collier's and The Pictorial Review released it first serially in 1918 and 1919, it was, as were most of Tarkington's magazine stories, received favorably. Tarkington had been coined "the darling of the large-circulation magazine" (Woodress 298), signifying that his works were enamoring readers in multitudes. When Gentle Julia came out in book form in 1922 then, many readers had already read its serialized version and were eager to buy it in book-length. This novel returned Tarkington to the best-sellers list after a six-year absence and spoke volumes about the readers' preference for simpler, comic stories. Most of the praise for Gentle Julia focused on two elements, the first of which is comedy. Hildegarde Hawthorne of The New York Times warned that the novel "rouses you every now and again to loud laughter; sudden ungovernable bursts that will not let down" and almost every other reviewer agreed (14). Doubleday, Page and Company chose to advertise for it by focusing on its humor; an ad in Publisher's Weekly contains different excerpts from reviews, nearly all of which mention its comic appeal. Another quote from Ms. Hawthorne of The New York Times is printed at the top of the ad, admonishing "[D]on't try to read it aloud to anyone, You couldn't do it justice, not in its best parts, because no one can speak distinctly who is all broken up with laughing." One of the scenes that she is probably referring to is the "walking-party" escapade, when Florence, a young adolescent, decides to relieve her beautiful Aunt Julia of an overflow of suitors who wish to go walking with her. One of the suitors sarcastically remarked to the other that no one had asked the younger Miss Atwater to go walking, and Florence took his implied offer seriously and then begins a desperate attempt at appearing grown-up. As Florence walks past her own front porch with Noble Dill, an older man she idolizes, her mother starts yelling for her to come in, and the embarassed Florence politely ignores her mother and then goes on to explain to Noble exactly how powerful she is in her own family. " ?Oh, I guess I pretty near never do anything I don't want to,' she said. ?I kind of run the house to suit myself. I guess if the truth had to be told, I just about run the whole Atwater family, when it comes to that!' " (Tarkington 65). Her attempts at seeming "mature" get progressively more comical as the scene continues. This is the type of scene that Tarkington was so skillful in creating, and his ability was not lost on the critics nor on the public; Gentle Julia climbed to the best-sellers' list as one of the funniest books of the day, and any modern researcher will be hard pressed to find a review of Gentle Julia that does not at least mention its "[g]enuine humor that scorns all tricks and cheap clowning and falsifications, and merely delights us by telling the unexpected truth" (Adams 14). This is the type of humor that, in traditional Tarkington style, fills the pages of Gentle Julia.
The novel was also successful, from a critical point of view, for its masterful characterization. Although the novel does contain several adult characters, such as the title's namesake Aunt Julia, the characters that are the most fully developed are the children. Tarkington puts Florence Atwater, the unruly and imaginative twelve year-old heroine, in a number of conflicts with her same-age cousin Herbert Atwater and his friend Henry Rooter, and these conflicts are what allows the reader, and the critic, to understand the subtleties of the children's characters. The Literary Review of the New York Evening Post said that "no one can surpass [Tarkington] in the delineation of American youth between the ages of ten and twenty. The technique of his treatment of their thoughts, dreams, and actions is perfected and delightfully pliant. He is not merely their humorist, but their inmost sympathizer" (619). This was the general consensus regarding Tarkington's characters; most critics appreciated his creation of a character through details, thoughts, language, and action. The realistic, believable character was a Tarkington trademark, with their believability evoking nostalgia. "[Gentle Julia] takes you into a land you once knew well and lets you view it from an angle that makes it as funny as it once was serious" (Hawthorne 14). A modern reader might think that though Gentle Julia would have some nostalgic value for the occasional adult reader, it was most likely aimed at an adolescent audience, but that is incorrect. Gentle Julia was part of a "noticeable trend . . . [of] novels about very young people written to entertain adults" (Hackett 82). It seems logical that when this trend faded away and adults no longer sought novels written about adolescents that the adolescents themselves would still be interested in novels with young characters. If that was true, however, the adolescent interest in adolescent novels didn't last very long; the last printing of Gentle Julia (except for a collection that came out in November 1999) was in 1933. Since adult interest died down, and obviously adolescent interest was not sufficient enough to keep the book in print for an extended length of time, it is possible that the nostalgic tone of the novel was not as positive of an attribute as the critics first acclaimed it to be. It is possible that what adult critics termed "nostalgia" could be interpreted by an adolescent reader as condescension or mockery; if that is true, then after the trend in adults reading Gentle Julia died off, there wouldn't be an audience left to target the book towards. Regardless of an adolescents' interpretation of the characters, from a critical point of view there is no denying that Tarkington created solid, believable characters in Gentle Julia , and that this mastery of characterization contributed to making it Tarkington's fifth best-seller.
Despite its success upon release, Gentle Julia does not top the reading lists of today's English classroom. In fact, few have even heard of Mr. Booth Tarkington himself. How, then, can a book whose writer was voted as "the most significant living author" of the time fade out of public knowledge completely? There may not be a clearly-defined answer, though there are some salient possibilities. One is simply the fact that certain types of literature come in and out of style just as fashions do. Gentle Julia is without a doubt a simple story. The New Republic wrote that it "accords with the seasonal taste for soft, sweet and cool drink. It is refreshing and harmless" (141). While the public whole-heartedly enjoyed this ?harmless' novel in 1922, this preference proved to be, as the New Republic phrased it, a ?seasonal taste.' Although there continued to be novels on the best-sellers list that were not high intellectual works, the concept of the adolescent novel slipped away rathere quickly. At the same time that Tarkington was writing adolescent novels, authors like James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald were creating the high modernist works of the time, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, also a novel about adolescence. However, Joyce's work was the flip side of Gentle Julia; instead of offering humor and adventure, it was a complex bildungsroman. Though many of these did not reach best-seller status, it seems as if their presence paved the way for works of the same intellectual nature to become popular. Within a decade, Gentle Julia had most certainly slipped from the best-sellers' list, and novels such as Babbit began to appear there more frequently, perhaps because the public acquired more of a taste for satire. It seems ridiculous to even propose that Gentle Julia could have survived past Tarkington's death in 1946, considering its latest printing was done in England in 1933, especially when the following decades would hail the war novel, the murder-mystery, and the spy novel. It seems highly unlikely that a story concerning a thirteen year-old girl's conflict with two pestering boys could have outsold, or even compared to From Here to Eternity (1951), Peyton Place (1957), or any of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, given society's evolving tastes in literature. Another contributing factor to the novel's disappearance is the language and style in which it was written. Tarkington wrote in a very different voice than modern authors, and in such flowery language that the modern reader is forced to read slowly and look for the action amongst the description. In describing Aunt Julia resting upon the couch, Tarkington writes "So warmly interested in the reading as to be rather pink, though not always with entire approval, this Julia nevertheless, at the sound of footsteps, closed the book and placed it beneath one of the cushions assisting the chaise longue to make her position a comfortable one" (26). Though there is no critical commentary discussing his use of language, it is probable that the excessive clauses hinder a modern reader's enthusiasm for the novel. If this is true, then it reveals a very simple truth about best-sellers, that what ?works' for one generation may not for the next. Because Tarkington wrote in a voice that was very current to his time period, he ran the risk of losing future audiences, which obviously did happen. Not all of Tarkington's contemporaries faded into such oblivion, however. Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (1920) and Ethan Frome (1911) continue to be in print and to be studied in classrooms. Steinbeck and Joyce, also writing in the same time frame, are still the subject of academic discussion and research. The fact that very few of these "great" novels were best-sellers in their own day reveals that what one generation of readers may make a best-seller may not be considered a great novel in the decades to come. The reverse is also true: although a novel may not be a chart-topper, it still has potential to gradually climb into the canon, as Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man did.
Gentle Julia's flame was bright but short-lived; it failed, as did most of Tarkington's works, to outlive its author. This suggests that Tarkington's fans did foster a type of widespread, cultic appreciation, and that in the very nature of the cult, once they lost the object of their veneration (when Tarkington stopped writing), the cult dissipated. The objective researcher is then forced to examine the substance of Tarkingtons' work: was it really as good as people perceived it to be? If so, then why didn't it continue to be read? Gentle Julia was, by Malcolm Gladwell's standards, a blockbuster: a novel that quickly achieved best-seller status and started off with high sales that eventually tapered off. Gladwell writes "People who buy or watch blockbusters have a clear sense of what they are going to get: a Danielle Steel novel is always - well, a Danielle Steel novel" (49). This applies to Gentle Julia, but in a different sense. Gentle Julia was Tarkington's return to the adolescent novel after having written his serious Pulitzer works, and its publication in book format, advertised as an adolescent comedy, prepared the reader for more of what they had previously (as in, before The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams) loved in Tarkington's books. The fact that it had been several years since Tarkington produced one of his popular adolescent comedies made the anticipation and intial sales all that much greater, indicating that once the public latches on to a specific type of an author's writing, it is very difficult for him or her to ?convert' his readers to another style. They will persist to favor the type of book that initially made the writer famous, and while that type may not be remembered in years to come, it will be what sells in the author's day. The failure of the Pulitzer books to achieve best-seller status is evidence that Tarkington's is just such a case. The general public then, is not necessarily a good indicator of what will be considered "quality literature" in the future; the books they buy en masse will most likely not be debated, discussed, and researched a century later. Although there are the authors who achieved best-seller status and whose novels have remained in the canon, there is a distinct correlation between best-sellers and being completely forgotten from public memory; this leaves a good deal of doubt as to the quality of what is currently sitting on the Barnes and Noble "Best Sellers" table. It seems only logical to wonder which blockbusters of today will be forgotten tomorrow. Readers seem to be generationally fickle in their preferences for literature, as is seen by the fact that Gentle Julia, a novel that by all standards was a blockbuster best-seller, has made a quiet and total disappearance from the realm of widely-read literature.
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