A year's bestseller lists can divulge more information about the reading public than perhaps the individual readers know about themselves. In this sense, the bestseller status of Booth Tarkington's Seventeen in 1916 is as humorous, nostalgic, and touching as the short novel itself.
Seventeen is a light-hearted novel about the anxieties and ecstasies experienced by most young boys during adolescence. Author Booth Tarkington focuses on the plight of one such seventeen year-old, Willie Baxter, to gain sympathy for him and those around him during one angst-ridden summer of "first love." Readers are taken along on Willie's visits with the object of his affection, and though much of the contact between them remains a secret, Willie's pesky little sister Jane often gives an eavesdropping, "fly on the wall" perspective. While Willie's reactions to his beloved Miss Pratt may seem more like those of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy to twenty-first century readers, his emotions are portrayed in the book as comical but genuine. This characterization makes readers sympathize with Willie, and the unquestionable realness of his family's exasperated feelings towards him and his situation make Willie's "supporting cast" likeable as well. The humor that results from Mr. Parcher's encounters with Willie, his constant and obnoxious visitor as long as Miss Pratt is the Parchers' house guest, is hysterical to any reader who has had visitors outstay their welcome. Thus, at first glance it may seem that Seventeen's success rests on its simple, enjoyable plot and sympathetic, unproblematic characters.
However, much more can be observed about Seventeen's quick rise to the top of the charts. Booth Tarkington was a well known author in the early twentieth century, and his book The Turmoil had just been well received in 1915. Promotors of Seventeen used these factors wisely. For example, some ads for the book in The New York Times Book Review featured pictures of Tarkington, and a 1916 Publisher's Weekly ad promoted Seventeen as a "worthy successor to "THE TURMOIL." Furthermore, Seventeen was published in the heyday of Tarkington's juvenile fiction career, which was itself the major highlight of his more varied repertoire of writings. In 2002, most critics and reviewers remember Tarkington for his outstanding stories about children and adolescents. Furthermore, among this genre, the Penrod stories are usually considered his most substantial work. Incidentally, Penrod was a bestseller in 1914, just two years before Seventeen made its splash. While Seventeen has newly devised characters and situations, it was written just after Tarkington discovered one of his greatest and more lucrative talents: writing bestselling juvenile fiction. Of course, fans of Tarkington also noticed this new burst of talent when they laughed aloud reading Penrod in 1914; thus, they didn't hesitate to purchase Tarkington's latest book on adolescents (Seventeen) in 1916. In this way, Seventeen can be considered a follow-up bestseller based on the success of Tarkington's previous books and on the author's reputation, even as it was changing and solidifying to become that of a mainly juvenile fiction writer.
While critics of Tarkington may say that Seventeen sold in high numbers only because of Penrod's success, several aspects of Seventeen's content keep it in print in 2002, perhaps for reasons unobserved even by its most avid fans. Tarkington banks (correctly, apparently) on the idea that the Baxters' humdrum experience will provoke happy nostalgia about childhood in his reading audience.
While the book was promoted as a child's book, its complicated adult language undoubtedly left most children in the dark as to what was truly occurring in the book's pages. A seventeen year-old reader may sympathize with Willie when he's dealing with his bratty younger sister, but he probably does not see many parallels between Willie's problems (begging to wear an adult evening suit or struggling with a collar-button) and his own (asking for a curfew past midnight or having to pay a speeding ticket). An audience Jane's age probably finds the plot boring, since Jane's character is not excited by the prospect of being "in love of" someone, which is the center of Willie's life and problems. Therefore, while the book is about children, it is not exactly for them; indeed, most of readers' laughter comes at the expense of Willie and his peers.
Tarkington's treatment of the "children" in Seventeen is one reason why this book would have no hope of becoming a bestseller in 2002; it dates itself and becomes a "period piece" bestseller. Ten year-old Jane acts more like a seven- or eight-year-old, and seventeen-year-old William could easily pass as a thirteen-year-old boy. Tarkington is not using these characters as exceptions to usual standards of the time; all of the young characters in the book are called children, and their behavior and speech confirms that status. When Willie talks about the rare cases of people his age who are married, it is understandable why Mrs. Baxter gets fidgety and nervous about Willie's proposed affections for Miss Pratt. She believes ? as much as readers of this book do ? that Willie's character is more that of "Silly Bill" (an occasional childhood nickname) than that of "Mr. William Sylvanus Baxter." In 1916, the concept of adolescence was regarded completely differently than it is in the twenty-first century. The word "teenager" was not even developed for everyday use until the 1940's and 1950's. A person went from childhood to adulthood, probably signified by moving out of the parents' home, getting married, or getting a job. In 2002, a person can be a baby, a child, a pre-teen, a teenager, and a young adult before finally accepting the full responsibility of the title "adult"! Since Tarkington's youthful characters in Seventeen are the main source of its humor and character relations, its ideological distance from 2002's generation of teenagers separates itself enough that the book loses massive readership.
Another huge attitude difference between the social atmosphere of 1916 and that of the 2000's is the management of racial issues. In Seventeen, African-American people are usually referred to as "colored," a term rarely accepted in social contexts post-1970. The Baxters regularly enlist the help of Genesis, an African-American handy-man. William hates to be identified with Genesis in public, which he has the occasion of doing twice within this summer. At one point he shouts at his mother, "You expect me to walk through the public streets with that awful-lookin' old nigger" (Tarkington 11). An adolescent repeating this phrase in 2002 would be chastised not only for talking back to his parent (as William might expect to be), but also for the use of what has come to be considered an extremely offensive word to most black Americans, or perhaps even for the anti-black sentiment in general. While Tarkington sometimes hints at the word "damn," the closest he comes to other offensive language is William's frequent cry of "Ye gods!" In 2002, writing "damn" or other such words would be much less likely to draw criticism than using the word "nigger" outside of anything other than a necessary context. The only other black characters in the novel are also servants, one serving the Baxters a meal and the others serving at Miss Pratt's farewell dance. Even this treatment of the race issue, no doubt considered usual and harmless to Tarkington's mainstream white readership in 1916, would be considered unfair in the twenty-first century. Genesis is given favorable character traits, but his speech is represented by an almost incomprehensible attempt at spelling out the dialect phonetically, so readers in no way come to see him as an equal to the other characters vying for main roles. The change in racial mood since Tarkington's time is certainly one of the more drastic changes that have taken place in America since the book's publication. Altering the book market to gear it towards people of mixed races and ethnicities has inevitably changed the books themselves; thus, this book would probably not sell well if first published in today's social atmosphere.
The book capitalizes on the pervasive youth and innocence of not only William, but also of his small, close-knit family. The Baxter family ? Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, son, and daughter ?forms the ideal American family unit, an image sought out by most of America well into the 1950's. Mr. Baxter works most weekdays, while Mrs. Baxter stays home and takes care of the house and children with help from hired servants. Since the story takes place during a summer break, siblings Willie and Jane mingle with their contemporaries to participate in various activities. This picture of an unhurried hot summer for the family is construed as typical in the book: the other families in the neighborhood nonchalantly follow this same standard for summer behavior. For most readers, no such summer or family ever existed. To be sure, lazy days and happy family moments have been experienced by a majority of Americans, but certainly not to the point of perfection suggested by Tarkington in these pages. Thus, another reason this book was a bestseller is that it paints a picture of a town, family, and life in which every reader wishes to take part. This yearning exists in 2002 as it did in 1916, and it exists for readers whose lives come close to the ideal as well as for those who have almost nothing in common with the picture being painted. Perhaps written in the same vein as "self-help" books that sell in large numbers in the twenty-first century, simply put ? this book makes readers happy.
Even at the time Seventeen was a bestseller, its content has to have been considered idealistic: the nation was becoming involved in its First World War. Just as the war changed America's economy, politics, and education system, it had a major effect on what the nation picked up to read. Conceivably, in 1916 readers could have appreciated the juvenile aspects of the literature exponentially more than they had enjoyed Penrod in 1914. William is seventeen: in Tarkington's world, this means he is still protected by his parents, enjoying his dream world of fantasy love, safe from even the idea of firing squads, trenches, or mass murder. William's problems are incredibly trivial compared to those of most of the reading audience in 1916. The bestselling figures of Seventeen show that the United States longed to continue giving its children these beloved years of carefree growing up. The choices for other bestsellers in 1916 confirm this idea: Just David, Eleanor Porter's follow-up to Pollyanna, glorifies childhood as a treasured period in any person's life, and the main subject matter of H.G. Wells's Mr. Britling Sees it Through is World War I. Although bestsellers have changed over the century, their potential use as tools of relaxation and escape ? such as books that fall into this war time category ? remains the same.
Whether Americans loved Seventeen because it reminded them of their own childhood innocence or created for them a likeable and necessary fantasy of such a time, the fact that the book remains in print in 2002 shows that these heartwarming effects can be enjoyed by many who never experienced life in 1916. However, its removal from the bestseller lists after a short reign at the top demonstrates that, just as the attitudes of the American public change dramatically over time, so must the makeup of the lists. Books about war and childhood may continue to sell well, but the datable aspects of Seventeen, such as its treatment of adolescence and race, make the book relatively hard to find in 2002. Although period pieces may not be as socially valued in later decades, their impact at the time of publication is obvious by the large number of bestsellers that fall into this category. In his Dictionary of Literary Biography, James Woodress describes some of Tarkington's books as "works of lasting value in their authentic recreation of a time in America's past and in their statements of social significance" (Gale n.pag.). Thus, Seventeen joins many other period bestsellers in creating a legacy that continues to lend twenty-first century readers a small glimpse into one narrow window of American history.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. James Woodress on "Newton Booth Tarkington." Volume 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945, 1981; Volume 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945, Second Series, 1991. Referenced on Gale Database.
Gale Contemporary Authors Database. [Online] Entry from April 28, 1998. Copyright 2002. [Entry for "Newton Booth Tarkington"].
The New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1916. "A Novelist's Humorous View of Youth."
Publisher's Weekly [Microfilm]. January - June, 1916. Alderman Library, S-13.
Suite 101 Writing & Publishing Community. [Online]. Copyright 1996-2002. Viewed December 2002. http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/11243/89986
Tarkington, Booth. Seventeen: A Tale of Youth and Summer Time and the Baxter Family, Especially William. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1916.
Whole Heart Ministries ? Books. [Online]. Copyright 2002. Viewed December 2002. http://www.wholeheart.org/books_just_david.asp.