The following is an excerpt from Matthew Kahn’s project 100 Years, 94 Books–to review the bestselling books of the last 100 years and study what made them essential to their cultural moment.
Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) appears twice on the list. The first time was for 1915’s The Turmoil. While he had great commercial and critical success with serious and mature novels (garnering two Pulitzer prizes in the process), he was also well known for his comedic fiction starring children and teenagers. Penrod (1914), which followed the eponymous twelve-year old, was one of his bestselling books in terms of numbers of copies sold. Both Seventeen and Penrod and Sam (the sequel to Penrod) were published in book form 1916.
So what’s this book about?
Seventeen was originally published serially in ten parts in Metropolitan Magazine beginning in January, 1915, before being published as an individual novel by Harper in 1916. It tells the story of seventeen year old William Baxter and his summer spent trying to woo Lola Prat, the girl from out of town who he, and a number of his friends, have immediately fallen for. William treats the situation with all the subtlety and rationality one would expect of a love-struck seventeen year old. His wildly over the top responses to the rest of the world are hilarious and, as anyone who did not grow up in a cave can attest, embarrassingly true:
“He walked in his own manner, using his shoulders to emphasize an effect of carelessness which he wished to produce upon observers. For his consciousness of observers was abnormal, since he had it whether any one was looking at him or not.”
The cast includes bizarre and amusing characters like William’s ten year old sister Jane, the adventurous, free-spirited bane of William’s existence. And of course, the love interest, the exasperating Lola Pratt, whose refusal to speak in any fashion other than ‘baby talk’ straddles the line between humorously annoying and cringe-worthy.