Monday, February 7, 2011

Lost Book: Booth Tarkington's Gentle Julia

Summer Girl by Robert Lewis Reid, 1896 (Julia spent a lot of time on the front porch.)

I intermittently read lost American books, which pleasant pursuit brought me to Gentle Julia by Booth Tarkington (1869-1946). I remembered Tarkington as the author of the Penrod books--Penrod and Penrod and Sam--that herald the antics of a boy of 10 or 11 and his buddies in a suburban neighborhood in the 1910s. I laughed hard at these books, which were read out loud in our classroom by my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Doolan (and a great teacher she was). Tarkington also wrote the books upon which the movies Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons were based. So I picked up Gentle Julia, which is about a young woman who lives in a small city in Indiana, thinking that perhaps it would involve domesticity as well.

In fact, Julia is just the foil for a story about her niece, 11-year-old Florence Atwater, a very active young lady, who is constantly sneaking around and trying to bend Julia's marital outcome to her (Florence's) own will. The sweet and beautiful Julia has many suitors.

A sad note in this entertaining book, written in 1922, is the character of the maid at Florence's house, Kitty Silver, who is portrayed in the stereotypical way that many African Americans were in the twenties and thirties of the last century: uneducated, good-hearted, and funny, and often consorting with children, with whom they apparently have so much in common.

Otherwise, as in this scene, Tarkington is a precision writer of comic dialogue:

(From the window of her home, Florence is watching her cousin Herbert and his friend who are sitting on a fence down the lane writing in notebooks.)

And seldom in the history of the world have any such sessions been invested by their participants [Herbert and friend] with so intentional an appearance of importance. The important importance of Herbert and his friend was so extreme as to be all too plainly visible across four intervening broad back yards; in fact, there was sometimes reason to suspect that the two performers were aware of their audience and even of her goaded condition; and that they deliberately increased the outrageousness of their importance on her account. And upon the Saturday of that week, when the notebook writers were upon the fence the greater part of the afternoon, Florence's fascinated indignation became vocal.

"Vile Things," she said.

Her mother, sewing beside another window of the room, looked up inquiringly.

"What are, Florence?"

"Cousin Herbert and that nasty little Henry Rooter."

"Are you watching them again?" her mother asked.

"Yes, I am," said Florence; and added tartly, "Not because I care to, but merely to amuse myself at their expense."

Mrs. Atwater murmured, "Couldn't you find some other way to amuse yourself, Florence?"

"I don't call this amusement," the inconsistent girl responded, not without chagrin. "Think I'd spend all my days starin' at Herbert Illingsworth Atwater, Junior, and that nasty little Henry Rooter, and call it amusement?"

"Then why do you do it?"

"Why do I do what, mamma?" Florence inquired, as in despair of Mrs. Atwater's ever learning to put things clearly.

"Why do you 'spend all your days' watching them? You don't seem to be able to keep away from the window, and it appears to make you irritable. I should think if they wouldn't let you play with them you'd be too proud----"

"Oh good heavens, mamma!"

"Don't use such expressions, Florence, please."

"Well," said Florence, "I got to use some expression when you accuse me of wantin' to 'play' with those two vile things! My goodness mercy, mamma, I don't want to 'play' with 'em! I'm more than four years old, I guess; though you don't ever seem willing to give me credit for it. I don't haf to 'play' all the time, mamma; and anyway, Herbert and that nasty little Henry Rooter aren't playing either!"

"Aren't they?" Mrs. Atwater inquired. "I thought the other day you said you wanted them to let you play with them at being a newspaper reporter or editor or something like that, and they were rude and told you go away. Wasn't that it?"

"No, Mamma, it cert'nly wasn't."

"They weren't rude to you?"

"Yes, they cert'nly were!"

"Well, then--"

"Mamma, can't you understand?" Florence turned from the window to beseech Mrs. Atwater's concentration upon the matter. "It isn't 'playing'! I didn't want to play being a reporter; they ain't 'playing'---"

"Aren't playing, Florence."

"Yes'm. They're not. Herbert's got a real printing press; Uncle Joseph gave it to him. It's a real one, mamma, can't you understand?"

"I'll try," said Mrs. Atwater. "You mustn't get so excited about it, Florence."

"I'm not!" Florence returned vehemently. "I guess it'd take more than those two vile things and their old printing press to get me excited! I don't care what they do; it's far less than nothing to me! All I wish is they'd fall off the fence and break their vile ole necks!"


bookssnob said...

I recently discovered Booth Tarkington through reading The Magnificent Ambersons. I loved his writing and will see if I can track down this. I should read more of him, actually.I'd also like to try Alice Adams.

Jodi said...

I think I've experienced these types of mother-daughter conversations over the years. ;) Sometimes mothers just don't get it. :)