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Attaboy! Booth Tarkington's Rascals

Saturday, August 7, 2004; Page C01

An occasional column in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

One of the many lamentable ways in which American literature has changed over the past century or so is that our best writers almost never write for younger readers. With the singular and laudable exception of Michael Chabon -- whose most recent novel, "Summerland," is what book publishers call a "juvenile" -- our ostensibly serious novelists write only for adult readers, leaving the vast market for young people's books to those authors, some of them notably talented, who specialize in it.

Booth Tarkington in an undated photo: He was a formidable comic novelist, especially in the books he wrote for younger readers. (Doubleday & Co.)

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During the late 19th and early to middle 20th centuries, by contrast, writers of considerable distinction scarcely thought it beneath themselves to write for children. Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" were for younger readers, though the latter is certainly for adults as well. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, whose novels and poems were widely read in the late 19th century, is remembered now (if at all) for his wonderful "The Story of a Bad Boy." James Thurber wrote "The Thirteen Clocks" and "The Wonderful O" for children, while the great essayist E.B. White is beloved to this day for his children's books, notably "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little."

Then there is Booth Tarkington. We live in an unjust world, one of the many injustices of which is that Tarkington is pretty much forgotten now outside Indiana, his native state, but from 1899 (with the publication of his novel "The Gentleman From Indiana") until his death in 1946 he was one of the most successful and honored American writers. He twice was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (the only other author thus honored is William Faulkner), for "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1918) and "Alice Adams" (1921). He wrote prolifically and he wrote well. Now he is generally dismissed in literary and academic circles as a genial regionalist, a condescending judgment that scarcely recognizes his many strengths.

Not the least of these, though perhaps the least known, is that he was a formidable comic novelist, especially in the books he wrote for younger readers: "Penrod" (1914), "Seventeen" (1916), "Penrod and Sam" (1916) and "Penrod Jashber" (1929). These were spectacularly successful -- according to Gordon Grant's introduction to the Indiana University Press edition of "Penrod," Tarkington's "mansion in Kennebunkport, Maine, was referred to, with good reason, as 'the house that Penrod built' " -- and were still popular when I first came to them in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In 1949 I turned 10, which made me two years younger than Penrod Schofield. For reasons I have never understood -- I was a well-behaved, polite boy whose rebellious streak didn't emerge until the mid-1950s -- I positively adored books about bad boys. The term as then used did not describe juvenile delinquents, but mischievous preteens who were good in heart and soul but just couldn't stop getting into trouble: Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Tom Aldrich, Penrod Schofield and Sam Williams. Their antics transfixed and delighted me, and I never tired of their stories, reading them over and over -- and over -- again.

Still it has been at least half a century since I last read "Penrod and Sam," which was always my favorite of the "Penrod" books. After rereading both it and "Penrod," I would not care to be pressed to choose between the two, but perhaps the edge should go to "Penrod and Sam" by virtue of an extraordinarily funny scene in which Penrod, Sam and their friend Verman conspire to terrify Mrs. Cullen, visiting in the kitchen, with a long black snake made out of stockings stolen from Penrod's sister and powered by a neighbor's cat, involuntarily serving in the lead stocking as the contraption's legs. When the snake dashes into the kitchen, it elicits "distinctly Irish shrieks . . . together with the clashing of hurled metal and tin, the appealing sound of breaking china, and the hysterical barking of a dog." Then:

"The library door flew open, and Mrs. Cullen appeared as a mingled streak crossing the room from one door to another. She was followed by a boy with a coal-black nose; and between his feet, as he entered, there appeared a big, long, black, horr'ble snake, with frantic legs springing from what appeared to be its head; and it further fulfilled Mrs. Cullen's description by making a fizzin' noise. Accompanying the snake, and still faithfully endeavoring to guide it with the detached handle of a rake, was a small black demon with a gassly white forehead and gasslier white hair. [The dog], still evidently feeling his bath, was doing all in his power to aid the demon in making the snake step lively. A few kitchen implements followed this fugitive procession through the library doorway."

That passage, though funny in and of itself, only hints at the comic suspense that Tarkington builds as the boys listen to Mrs. Cullen talking about a man who'd had terrifying visions of a snake, decide to give her a good scare, assemble the snake, round up Mrs. Williams's cat, paint themselves up as demons, and pull off the whole stunt. But Tarkington had a remarkable gift for comic scenes: Penrod resisting manfully as his mother tries to cajole him into taking vile medicine, Penrod bored out of his gourd at church, Penrod getting his hands on "a Real Pistol!" and attempting to fire it, Penrod playing the lead role in a mud fight of epochal dimensions, Penrod leading his sister Margaret and a would-be beau on a forced march.

I'd expected "Penrod and Sam" to be dated, but with one important exception -- more on that presently -- it remains fresh. The Indiana it depicts probably has mostly vanished in the age of television and the Internet, but boys are always going to be boys no matter where you find them, and Tarkington knew boys inside and out. He had returned to Indianapolis in 1911 after many years in New York and Europe, and closely studied the antics of his sister's sons, testing -- according to David J. Nordloh's useful introduction to the Indiana edition -- "the representativeness of his memories against the realities of this new generation of boys."

Penrod is truly a representative boy: mischievous, rebellious, sassy (but definitely not to his father!), restless, adventuresome but also sensitive, softhearted and, when it comes to "the most beautiful little girl in all the world, Marjorie Jones, of the amber curls," clumsy and shy. He cannot abide school -- which is "merely a state of confinement, envenomed by mathematics" -- and counts the hours until the only day that matters, Saturday. He wants to play the "monster horn" that he sees in a brass band, because like all children he is "anxious to Make a Noise in the World." When he and Sam see an old horse in an alley, they chase him:

"A boy will nearly always run after anything that is running, and his first impulse is to throw a stone at it. This is a survival of primeval man, who must take every chance to get his dinner. So, when Penrod and Sam drove the hapless Whitey up the alley, they were really responding to an impulse thousands and thousands of years old -- an impulse founded upon the primordial observation that whatever runs is likely to prove edible. Penrod and Sam were not 'bad'; they were never that. They were something which was not their fault; they were historic."

The combination of Tarkington's recollections of his own boyhood and his observations of his nephews, as well as an eye that was piercingly observant, makes "Penrod" and "Penrod and Sam" nothing less than primers on boyness. "There is no boredom (not even an invalid's)," he writes, "comparable to that of a boy who has nothing to do. When a man says he has nothing to do, he speaks idly; there is always more than he can do. Grown women never say they have nothing to do, and when girls or little girls say they have nothing to do, they are merely airing an affectation. But when a boy has nothing to do, he has actually nothing at all to do; his state is pathetic, and when he complains of it, his voice is haunting."

When, one day in school, Penrod realizes he has failed to do his homework, he casts about desperately for a way out:

"In stress of this kind, a boy's creed is that anything is worth a try; but his eye for details is poor. He sees the future too sweepingly and too much as he would have it, seldom providing against inconsistencies of evidence which may damage him. For instance, there is a well-known case of two brothers who exhibited to their parents, with pathetic confidence, several imported dried herring on a string, as a proof that the afternoon had been spent, not at a forbidden circus, but with hook and line upon the banks of a neighbouring brook."

Anybody who has been a boy -- except of course Georgie Bassett, who "was the best boy in town and . . . intended to be a minister when he grew up" -- knows the deep, eternal truth of these observations, and relishes them. Today's boy may be mischievous and self-deluding in ways other than those afforded to Penrod and Sam, but he is a boy all the same, and Tarkington well knew that boys will be boys.

In only one instance does "Penrod and Sam" seem anachronistic by today's standards, and that is a familiar one. In language and in stereotypes, Tarkington portrays black characters in antiquated and occasionally offensive ways. This is unfortunate, to put it mildly, and some parents may decline to lead their children to his work for that reason. Yet here we must step carefully, for a good deal of evidence indicates that Tarkington is more respectful and sympathetic to his black characters than first impressions suggest. Penrod and Sam play with their black friends Herman and Verman pretty much as equals, and Tarkington invests them with a certain dignity. When Verman is insulted by Georgie Bassett with a racial slur, Sam quickly and emphatically comes to his defense, making plain that Verman "won't let anybody" call him that.

Here we see the racial divide not through the eyes of the adults to whom Sam is speaking but through those of the boys. Yes, the divide is still there, but it's a lot narrower than it is in the adult world. Sometimes bad boys can be very good.

"Penrod and Sam" is available in an Indiana University Press paperback ($14.95).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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