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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The World Does Move

Guest Blogger: Booth Tarkington. We’ve invited Mr. Tarkington, the renowned Hoosier novelist and playwright, to contribute again. This is taken from his 1928 memoir The World Does Move, and paints a scene of the Indiana countryside in the very early 1900s – a scene he’d already woven into his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Magnificent Ambersons.


. . . . BEAUTY WAS THERE, outdoors, and in the tranquil, friendly life of the people. By June, if you ascended to the top of the monument and looked forth from that high vantage in the air, you seemed to be upon a tower rising from an island of stone surrounded not by water but by verdure. There were just glimpses of roofs and windows among green leaves, for the shade trees marched down the streets all the way to the State House, the Courthouse, and the Circle, where stood the monument. Beyond the town, a lazy silken creek wandered among great sycamores; and there were other waters – a crystal river below high bluffs and a canal that was like a long straight strip of green looking-glass. And all the air was pure; only the clean white dust of the country roads blew a little in the sunshine, and the sky over the town was unflawed blue in winter and in summer.

Booth Tarkington and the "Zan Tee,"
Kennebunkport, Maine
Upon a summer evening, if you walked abroad, there was the multitudinous rustle of leaves as if you walked in a woodland – as indeed you did; there was the quiet murmur of voices from the verandas, or from where the people sat out upon the lawns; there was the plod-plod of horses passing with surreys for the evening family drive; there was the tinkling of the little bicycle bells and the gliding passage of the wheelmen’s lamps, whiter small lights than the gold pencillings of the fireflies among the shrubberies on the lawns. Sometimes the surrey drivers would draw rein and pause, and the foot passengers upon the sidewalk would stop; a quiet audience thus would gather outside an open window where a girl with a lovely voice sang to her piano. It is true that the song was likely to be sentimental, even sentimentally pathetic, and the theme was nearly always a variation upon the topic of constancy.
Oh, love for a year, a week, a day!
But alas for the love that loves alway!
Or it might be the audience gathered on the sidewalk and in the street beyond a picket fence about a lawn where young people danced upon a waxed platform and an orchestra played by the light of Japanese lanterns strung among the trees. The young people danced happily, and, although they sometimes danced as late into the next morning as two o’clock, they began – even when they were under seventeen – at about eight. They danced for sheer gaiety and without other stimulation, though liquor was obtainable openly at any bar. When the young men drank they kept away from the “girls they knew”; and, if they were known to drink often, the “girls they knew” kept away from them – permanently.

The music to which they danced was made by violins, ’cellos, flutes, harps, triangles, and bass viols; sometimes there was a clarinet and sometimes mild drums and cymbals were heard; and again no one can deny that most of the sound these instruments made was sentimental. What seems incredible now, it is a fact that in those days old people could bear to listen to the dance music that was modern then. Not only could they bear to listen – they loved to listen; they could listen all evening long without bleeding at the ears. For one reason, saxophones had not yet been ejected by the volcanic insides of hyenas in eruption.

There were even midnight serenades, in those days, of a summer night; that dashing custom had not quite disappeared. Young men would hire an orchestra and an “express wagon,” as the horse-drawn truck with a big canvas top was called; musicians and gallants would drive to the house of a pretty girl, encamp themselves noiselessly upon the lawn, and presently, after a faint and covert tuning of instruments, dulcet melody would ascend to her window. When she was sweetly thus awakened, she would slide out of bed, crawl on hands and knees to the window and lower the shade, raised for the passage of air. Then she would light the gas, and the bright window in the dark night was the serenaders’ reward, the assurance that their music was heard and accepted. After a while they would move silently back to the “express wagon,” the wagon would creak away, and the window would go dark again; yet for a time a breath of romance would linger within it and upon the air.

No serenaded lady could have thought to say she “got a kick” out of such a thing. Beyond question, it was a sentimental age! It was the age of sentiment, of faith, of leisurely days and quiet nights, of reverent children, of dignified parents, of placid newspapers and of settled and contented living at home.

There the town lay, then, peaceful and completed, warm and green and a little drowsy, upon a September afternoon, when the strangest sight of all the fin de siècle – a sight even stranger than the photograph of a living man’s skeleton – came rolling forth from within the cavern of forge and fire where it had been conceived.

The languid town awoke. Children, playing in back yards, ran shrieking into the street; coloured servants, glancing from front windows, yelled with surprise and bellowed for those in the kitchen to come and look; old ladies were roused from naps and fluttered to the windows. Horses snorted, reared and could not be soothed; dogs barked themselves insane, and well they might.

Well, indeed, might those jolly old dogs bark; well might those kindly old horses prance and run away! For what they beheld that day was their Juggernaut; they might as well have cast themselves beneath its wheels then and there. But for more than horses and dogs the monster rolling through the street was to be the destroyer. Yet a little time and it would have down those sturdy, strong-built, big old brick houses with their broad plate-glass windows where faces stared, half startled, half derisive, at the monster’s first passing. A little time and the monster would have them all down, every one of them; it would have them down and their trees down and their green lawns devoured. It would have the whole town down, and more; it would have the fin de siècle down and extinct, only the memory of it surviving in belittling laughter.

More, the monster and its adjutants would have the very spirit of that age down. The old faiths were to be put at bay; the old abiding was to vanish; the universal rule of the churches was to vanish; the old content was to vanish; the old romantic sentiment was to vanish; leisure was to vanish; the old reverences and dignities were to vanish; the old authority of parents was to vanish; even dance music was to vanish and be music no more. From the moment of that first apparition upon the streets of the placid town, Death waited for the God of Things as They Are.

And yet the monster that was to erase the world was no great shakes to look at when we goggled at it that September day. It was only a topless surrey with a whirling belt and other inexplicable machinery beneath it, emitting vapour and hideous noises. But there were no shafts for a horse – there was no horse – yet the wheels turned and the ridiculous miracle moved.

In the front seat a jarred and vibrated man, reddened in the face by his dreadful conspicuousness, held a crooked rod that seemed somewhat uncertainly to guide the forward wheels. And along the sidewalks and even at the tail of the monster, raced crowds of vociferous, mocking boys and girls.

“Git a hoss!” they shrieked continuously. “Git a hoss! Git a hoss! Git a hoss!”

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