A native of Indianapolis, Indiana, Tarkington was born on July 29, 1869, the second child and only son of John and Elizabeth. John practiced law and provided well for his family, so Tarkington grew up in relative comfort. Showing an inclination to write, Tarkington by age six could dictate a story to his older sister and at age fourteen had composed a fourteen-act play about Jesse James. Along with writing, Tarkington enjoyed drawing, and he often drew during class time.
To finish high school he enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy for two years, but then with financial difficulties in the family, Tarkington spent time at a local business college before gaining acceptance at Purdue University where he studied art. He transferred to Princeton University when his family regained financial stability and edited three school publications. Lacking a serious motivation in life, Tarkington left Princeton after two years without a degree.
Intending to perhaps make a living as a writer and illustrator, Tarkington returned home. Though he focused on his work, after five years he had little to show for it. Venturing off to New York City, Tarkington finally gained acceptance by McClure's Magazine
who serialized The Gentleman from Indiana
. In 1899 the story saw publication as a book, and Tarkington felt success. He penned novel after novel and continued writing short stories.
In 1902 he married a banker's daughter and won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Because of illness he had to later give up the position, but Tarkington gained tremendous insight and knowledge about politics which he then used in his writing. A collection of short stories called The Arena
captured the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, an author himself, and President Roosevelt invited Tarkington to the White House.
Finding accomplishment as an author, Tarkington began collaborating on plays with Harry Leon Wilson and managed some of the productions. With his family Tarkington traveled through Europe for almost ten years, but his writing diminished as his alcohol consumption increased. His wife divorced him in 1911, and Tarkington remarried a year later, becoming a teetotaler. At this point in his life Tarkington determined to work hard and devote his time to his new wife and his writing.
Prolific, Tarkington penned the "Penrod" stories, which all together in book form were called Penrod: His Complete Story
. Selling 500,000 copies during his lifetime, these books helped earn Tarkington a favorable reputation with the public with which many critics disagreed. However, his following collection of stories, Seventeen
, sold almost 800,000 copies and was adapted for a play, a feature film, and a musical comedy. In 1919 The Magnificent Ambersons
won the first Pulitzer Prize for literature, and in 1922, Alice Adams
received the fourth ever given Pulitzer Prize for literature.
Continuing to write, Tarkington's eyesight gradually weakened to the point of near blindness because of cataracts. With surgeries he regained some of his vision, and by learning to dictate, he created more literary works for children. In all, Tarkington produced 171 short stories, 21 novels, 9 novellas, 19 plays, several movie scripts, a few radio dramas, and some illustrations during his 47 year career. Wealthy and a popular writer, Tarkington died of lung complications following an illness on May 19, 1946.
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