Tarkington and Small Town Politics in Beasley’s Christmas Party

Booth Tarkington was an American novelist and playwright. He “won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 for his novel The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) and again in 1922 for Alice Adams (1921).” Booth Tarkington “is, with William Faulkner and John Updike, one of only three novelists to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.”

He was born Newton Booth Tarkington on July 29, 1869 in Indianapolis, Indiana to Elizabeth Booth Tarkington and John Stevenson Tarkington, a lawyer and judge, and named for a maternal uncle, Newton Booth, who was then the Governor of California. Booth Tarkington went to Purdue University and then Princeton University but never earned his undergraduate degree because he was missing a course. Despite never earning a college degree, Tarkington went on to receive many awards and honors:

  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice.
  • The 1931 O. Henry Memorial Award for the short story “Cider of Normandy.”
  • An honorary doctorate from Purdue University.
  • An honorary masters and an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.
  • An honorary doctorate from Columbia University, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prize.

Booth Tarkington was “one of the more popular American novelists of his time.” Many of his works were adapted for stage and screen by both himself and others. Tarkington’s historical romance, Monsieur Beaucaire, was adapted to the screen starring the famous silent movie star Rudolph Valentino. Alice Adams was later adapted to the screen starring legendary actress Katherine Hepburn.

Later in his life, Booth Tarkington, suffered eye problems and eventually went blind but he continued producing novels by dictating aloud to his secretary. Tarkington died on May 19, 1946 and is buried in his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana.

As an author, Booth Tarkington was a Midwestern regionalist and much of his fiction was set in his native state of Indiana. He was renowned for “exploring the realms of middle-class, middle-America, romantic illusions, and the power and corruption of wealth.”

Tarkington’s novel, Beasley’s Christmas Party, is set in an unnamed state in the Midwest. A young journalist has just moved to the small town of Wainwright to work on the Wainwright Morning Edition. The journalist becomes interested in a nearby house: “it looked like a house where there were a grandfather and a grandmother; where holidays were warmly kept; where there were boisterous family reunions to which uncles and aunts who had been born there, would return from no matter what distances; a house where big turkeys would be on the table often.”

The journalist eventually discovers that the house belongs to David Beasley, a quiet man who has become a leading contender for the state governorship despite the fact that he neither gives speeches nor talks about politics: “There was something remarkably ‘taking,’ as we say, about this man – something easy and genial and quizzical and careless. He was the kind of person you LIKE to meet on the street; whose cheerful passing sends you on feeling indefinably a little gayer than you did.”

The journalist also discovers that Beasley has a secret. Beasley has taken in a young orphaned boy who is very ill: “My first impression of him (the young boy) was that he was all eyes: I couldn’t look at anything else for a time, and was hardly conscious of the rest of that weazened, peaked little face and the under-sized wisp of a body with its pathetic adjuncts of metal and leather. I think they were the brightest eyes I ever saw – as keen and intelligent as a wicked old woman’s, withal as trustful and cheery as the eyes of a setter pup.”

The boy, Hamilton Swift, Junior, is almost entirely bedridden. Young Hamilton has developed a colorful collection of imaginary friends to help him wile away the time and David Beasley has thrown himself whole-heartedly into the imaginary games to comfort his little ward: “They were so real to the child, and Beasley treated them with such consistent seriousness, that between the two of them I sometimes began to feel that there actually were such people, and to have moments of half-surprise that I couldn’t see them.”

The earnest journalist keeps Beasley’s secret and even enters into the imaginary fun.  But eventually some of Beasley’s political enemies discover that something unusual is going on in the Beasley house. On Christmas Eve, Beasley’s enemies gather and recruit reporters, one of whom is our journalist, in an effort to uncover the secret and destroy Beasley’s political future.

Beasley’s Christmas Party is a warm and sweet little story. It is only about a hundred pages long so it makes a nice quick and easy read. Beasley’s Christmas Party is filled with descriptions that paint gentle yet accurate pictures of the people and town of Wainwright. The Christmas season in Wainwright is described in such a way that you can feel the hustle and bustle and the blowing cold: “Down-town the streets were crowded with the package-laden people, bending heads and shoulders to the bitter wind, which swept a blinding, sleet-like snow horizontally against them. At corners it struck so tumultuous a blow upon the chest of the pedestrians that for a moment it would halt them, and you could hear them gasping half-smothered “AHS” like bathers in a heavy surf. Yet there was a gayety in this eager gale; the crowds pressed anxiously, yet happily, up and down the street in their generous search for things to give away.”

Beasley’s political enemies are distinctly unpleasant. One of them is described as “a squat young man with slippery-looking black hair and a lambrequin mustache.” The leader of the enemies is given to over-dramatic exclamations: “He is a stark, starin’, ravin’, roarin’ lunatic! And the nigger’s humorin’ him!”

That last quote illustrates one of my only two problems with Beasley’s Christmas Party. It does echo the attitudes of its time when it comes to race. POC, in this story just an elderly couple who are Beasley’s servants, are described as “the old darky,” “the beaming mammy,” and even “the nigger.” It is not meant to be overtly malicious, but more the way some people of the time referenced other people.  But still, I found it very noticeable. The first time I ran into the  term “the darky” it actually knocked me out of the story. Until that point the story had a kind of timeless quality to it. Reading that term made me stop and realize Beasley’s Christmas Party was set in a whole different time and place.

My only other problem with Beasley’s Christmas Party was that the ending seemed a little abrupt to me. There is a whole languid buildup but then, it seemed to me, the story ends with the future of several characters left up to the reader to decide. Of course, that could just be the action-adventure lover in me. I prefer to see the bad guy get a sound thrashing but Beasley’s Christmas Party has a hopeful ending not a thrashing one.

Of course, one of the best things about Beasley’s Christmas Party by Booth Tarkington is that it is FREE in the Public Domain.

Please click this link to read online or download Beasley’s Christmas Party at Project Gutenberg.
Please click this link to download a copy of Beasley’s Christmas Party from Feedbooks.
The Internet Archive has several different copies of Beasley’s Christmas Party:
Click here to download or read online the full plain text version of the story.
Click here to download or read online a copy of the 1909 book.
Please click here to download or read online a different version of the book Beasley’s Christmas Party.
Click here to read or download  another version of the book.
Click here to read or download a copy from Harvard University.
Please click here to download or read online yet another version.
And please click here to download or read online one last copy of Beasley’s Christmas Party.
There is, unfortunately, no audio book version available from LibriVox.

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