The shelves of the literature section at my local university’s library are packed with novels that were once loved and talked about but have long since been forgotten. Who now reads (the American) Winston Churchill or William Gilmore Simms? These days, I look to such books to learn more about those aspects of our past that have been suppressed by our progressive ideals. They may have more to tell us than the books which are still in favor.
I learned about Penrod (published in 1914) at Mencius Moldbug’s site – Mencius seems to read an astonishing number of these forgotten books – where he recommended it for a portrait of America before progressivism. Neither the odd-sounding title, which is the name of the 12-year-old boy protagonist, nor the fictional-sounding name of the author, Booth Tarkington, meant anything to me. After a few pages, though, I was hooked. I usually write about books to make some other point, not as a reviewer. But you really should read this book. It’s an American classic. And, blessedly, Penrod, and its first sequel, Penrod and Sam (1916), are in print, published by the Indiana University Press, (1) and available online on Project Gutenberg.
Penrod is a chronicle of the misadventures of Penrod Schofield, a boy growing up in a Midwestern town who, like Tom Sawyer, is constantly getting in trouble as a result of his boyish energy and mischievousness. The novel starts with Penrod being dressed by his mother and sister in a ludicrous homemade costume as the Child Sir Lancelot for a “Pageant” to be performed “for the benefit of the Coloured Infants’ Betterment Society.” Penrod’s humiliation at being forced to recite lines describing himself as “gentle-hearted, meek, and mild,” and his mortification at the discovery that the trunks are made from his father’s old long underwear, lead to a desperate remedy which, as you might imagine, unleashes chaos on the Pageant. Penrod goes on, undeterred, to other schemes, such as a setting up a “drugstore” using discarded medicines and tonics which he and his friend Sam induce another boy to drink; and exhibiting people and animals in a “museum of curiosities.” The “curiosities” include Penrod’s two black friends, the brothers Herman and Verman (one has a missing finger and the other a speech impediment) and the son of one of the town’s aristocratic families who shares the same last name as a famed murderess. For these and other activities Penrod is regularly whipped by his father. He goes through a period of hero-worship of a crude bully, and gets in the way of his sister’s suitors. He is in love with Marjorie, a pretty, haughty girl who usually disdains him, but is won over by her jealousy of another girl and Penrod’s indifference to her at a party (a lesson for students of pick-up techniques?). In the end she is calling him her “bow” (as she spells it).
The book is delightfully and often roaringly funny, with the humor frequently deriving from the incongruity between the even-toned, cultivated musings of the narrator, replete with literary references, and the absurdity or crudeness of the events being described. This type of humor would be hard to achieve today. For instance, Penrod’s practice of hoisting his dog, Duke, in a basket up into a compartment in the stable that serves as his hideout, is described thus:
“Eleva-ter!” shouted Penrod. “Ting-ting!”
Duke, old and intelligently apprehensive, approached slowly, in a semicircular manner, deprecatingly, but with courtesy. He pawed the basket delicately; then, as if that were all his master had expected of him, uttered one bright bark, sat down, and looked up triumphantly. His hypocrisy was shallow: many a horrible quarter of an hour had taught him his duty in this matter.
“El-e-vay-ter!” shouted Penrod sternly. “You want me to come down there to you?”
Duke looked suddenly haggard. He pawed the basket feebly again and, upon another outburst from on high, prostrated himself flat. Again threatened, he gave a superb impersonation of a worm.
“You get in that el-e-VAY-ter!”
Reckless with despair, Duke jumped into the basket, landing in a dishevelled posture, which he did not alter until he had been drawn up and poured out upon the floor of sawdust with the box. There, shuddering, he lay in doughnut shape and presently slumbered.
Penrod apparently became thought of as a “children’s book” to be read in school, but the novel’s very adult commentary on middle-class American life, with reference to social problems like alcoholism and adultery and to issues like commercialism, religion, class, and race, is aimed at a mature audience. Further, the author presents to his readers a somewhat progressive view of child psychology, articulated by Penrod’s ninety-year-old (progressive?) great aunt Sarah, quiet supporter and defender of the “Worst Boy in Town.” According to Sarah, boys are naturally selfish, wild, and generally uncivilized, and parents need to accept this. She asks his mother:
“I suppose Penrod is regarded as the neighbourhood curse?”
“Oh, no,” cried Mrs. Schofield. “He–”
“I dare say the neighbours are right,” continued the old lady placidly. “He’s had to repeat the history of the race and go through all the stages from the primordial to barbarism. You don’t expect boys to be civilized, do you?”
“You might as well expect eggs to crow. No; you’ve got to take boys as they are, and learn to know them as they are.”
Aunt Sarah elaborates on Penrod’s parents’ misunderstanding of their son. Penrod’s mother, says Sarah, thinks Penrod is a “novice in a convent,” and his father thinks he is a “decorous, well-trained young business man.” “[W]henever you don’t live up to that standard,” she tells the boy, “you get on his nerves and he thinks you need a whalloping.” But neither the feminine cajoling by mothers nor the masculine punishment by fathers does much good. In Sarah’s view, Penrod will turn out just fine, though the road to adulthood is bound to be bumpy. As a twelfth-birthday gift, she saves Penrod from his next whalloping by giving him his father’s old slingshot and the story of why she confiscated it from him thirty-five years before. Penrod’s father, we see, has forgotten that he himself was once a boy.
This is not to attribute an overly serious message to the book. It is comedy above all, with Penrod’s selfishness, impulsiveness, and lack of “sense” gloriously exaggerated (he seems to me younger than twelve). The society portrayed in Penrod has long since vanished (as Mencius remarks), with many elements very foreign to our experience, from formal dance parties for children, to casual cruelty to animals. Yet in many ways the childhood experience it portrays will feel familiar to most middle-class Americans who grew up until the 1970s or so. With almost all mothers living at home, and with discipline and order sustained cooperatively by parents at home and by teachers, policemen, and other authority figures outside, children could – paradoxically – run wild in their neighborhood, exploring, fighting, and creating elaborate games. Penrod’s world was not without danger – bullies, dogs, illness, falls, and (in Penrod and Sam) loaded guns in drawers at home. But, by and large, Penrod has it well, and we feel sure that he will grow into a respectable pillar of the community like his father. The author celebrates childhood’s barbarism, and criticizes the upper middle class of regional towns for their class snobbishness and their attempts to over-cultivate and over-discipline their children. Yet a reader today should be struck by how good the results of that order were. The town, in a way, is like the boring, narrow-minded town of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street; yet how much life and love one finds there!
Incidentally, over Christmas vacation, I also read Tom Sawyer, which must have been one of Tarkington’s models for Penrod. I won’t say Penrod is the greater work, but it was a lot more fun to read. The main reason we don’t read it now is that Penrod portrays black Americans in ways that are completely unacceptable in America today – something duly noted in the Introductions to both volumes. This is true of Mark Twain, too; but Twain’s severe criticisms of the society and politics of his time, and his apparent higher “anti-racist” purpose in Huckleberry Finn, bring him continued respect today. Tarkington, basing his tales in Indiana, is probably no more prejudiced than Twain, but while Twain attacks slavery and lynching in the South, Tarkington accepts the gentler, informal segregation of North. It is probably this, more than the particulars of his treatment of black characters, that renders him disrespectable today. It is thus very fortunate that Tarkington’s status as an Indiana author has brought him a home in the Library of Indiana Classics series. My copy has the words “Regional” and “Children’s” as keywords on the back cover, but I can’t imagine anyone reading Penrod to their children today!
I have left the issue of race for last because it is, first of all, an injustice to this work to make its portrayal of race the main issue. Penrod is about white middle-class life in the early 20th century. “Coloured” persons were a regular part of life but were confined to a certain subordinate position and were not part of the presumed readership of the novel. Therefore, Penrod portrays black people as they appeared to most white people at the time. In that context, I would argue that Tarkington’s portrayals of the brothers Herman and Verman, though admittedly clownish and certainly dated, are done convincingly, with a sense of fairness and compassion. There is also the matter of the casual comments and generalizations about “coloured people” made by the author from time to time. This is a subject for a separate discussion, but for now I will just say that many of these generalizations, positive as well as negative, still recognizably refer to black Americans today, at least as experienced by most white people. Whether that fact shows merely that the author was “racist” and that white people today continue to be so, or whether it indicates some deeper, enduring differences between the races that are not under the control of whites, I leave to the reader to decide. But to me, an America that has banished Penrod is not an America I care to be a part of. Let’s bring the kid back. He may break a few windows – by accident! – but he won’t burn down the house.
(1) Booth Tarkington, Penrod, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985; and Penrod and Sam, Indiana University Press, 2003.