Tarkington’s latest consists of half a dozen excellent short stories sandwiched in between half a dozen mediocre short stories and made into an almost structureless novel on the order of Seventeen. But it has not Seventeen’s unity of theme nor has it a dominant character to hold it together like the Penrod books.1 In fact, the book could be called after little Florence as well as after her popular older cousin, Julia. Nevertheless, in parts it is enormously amusing.
The stories which make up the narrative were written over a period of ten years. They concern Herbert, age 14; his cousin Florence, age 13, and their cousin Julia, age 19—and Julia’s beaux, in particular one unbelievably calfish one named Noble Dill. From much interior evidence I doubt whether they were originally intended to form a continuous story at all. For instance, the Julia who is cross and peremptory with Florence in the early chapters is scarcely the gentle Julia who cannot bear to hurt a simple suitor’s feelings in the last—and in addition the book jumps around from character to character in a way that is occasionally annoying, as it proceeds from the lack of any unity of design. Add to this that Tarkington seems a bit tired. He has used material throughout the book practically identical with material he has used before. The dance is the dance of Seventeen, though not so fresh and amusing. The little girl, Jane, grown up, is legitimately new but the little boy repeats the experiences of Hedrick in The Flirt2—it is held over his head by a shrewd female that he has made love to a little girl, he lives in torture for awhile, and finally when the secret is exposed he becomes the victim of his public school.
All the above sounds somewhat discouraging, as if Tarkington, our best humorist since Mark Twain, had turned stale in mid-career. This is not the case. Parts of the book—the whole scene of the walk, for example, and the astounding abuse of Florence’s poem by the amateur printers—are as funny as anything he has ever done. Even the inferior parts of the book are swiftly moving and easily readable. When Noble Dill flicked his cigaret into the cellar I howled with glee. When Florence waved her hand at her mother and assured her that it was “all right,” I found that I was walking with the party in a state of almost delirious merriment. In fact, the only part of the book which actively bored me was the incident of the bugs—which had the flavor of Katzenjammer humor.3 I expected this incident to be bad because Edward J. O’Brien,4 the world’s greatest admirer of mediocre short stories, once gave it a star when it appeared in story form under the title of “The Three Foological Wishes.”
The book is prefaced by a short paragraph in which Mr. Tarkington defends, for some curious Freudian reasons, his right to make cheerful books in the face of the recent realism. But no one questions it and the greatest whoopers for Three Soldiers and Main Street and My Antonia5 has admitted and admired the sheer magic of Seventeen. We simply reserve the right to believe that when Mr. Tarkington becomes mock-sociological and symbolical about smoke as in The Turmoil,6 he is navigating out of his depth and invading the field of such old-maids’ favorites as Winston Churchill.7 His ideas, such as they are, are always expressed best in terms of his characters as in the case of Alice Adams and parts of The Flirt. Mr. Tarkington is not a thoughtful man nor one profoundly interested in life as a whole, and when his ideas can not be so expressed they are seldom worth expressing. Ramsey Milholland, one of the most wretched and absurd novels ever written, showed this. So did the spiritualistic climax of The Magnificent Ambersons.
It is a pity that the man who writes better prose than any other living American was brought up in a generation that considered it a crime to tell the truth.
But read Gentle Julia—it will give you a merry evening. With all its fault it is the best piece of light amusement from an American this past year.
1. Penrod Schofield was the twelve-year-old hero of three novels by Tarkington.
2. 1913 novel by Tarkington.
3. The Katzenjammer Kids—Hans and Fritz—were the subjects of a very popular comic strip that found its humor in practical jokes.
4. Editor of annual Best Short Stories collections.
5. 1918 novel by Willa Cather.
6. 1915 novel by Tarkington.
7. American novelist Winston Churchill (1871-1947); he was not related to the British statesman.
Published in St. Paul Daily News newspaper (7 May 1922, Feature Section).
Read another review of this book, from The New York Herald newspaper (April 30, 1922).