“The Turmoil” is a book little read nowadays, and would probably be a book never read except for Orson Welles. Its author, Booth Tarkington, was a famous Indiana writer of the early 20th Century. Nowadays, when literary life is dominated by coastal authors, or those who want to move to the coasts, and the ecosystem around them, and the Midwest is merely “flyover country,” to be ignored or denigrated, this seems odd. But it wasn’t that long ago that in all aspects of life, from literature to politics, the United States had much more diversity—that is, diversity in its real, non-bastardized, sense, of an organic system of differing people making different actual contributions to society. And in “The Turmoil,” the geographic and philosophical diversity of the author and the novel’s setting adds greatly to its interest to the modern reader.
As far as Orson Welles, “The Turmoil” is the first of three novels forming a loose trilogy, nicknamed the Growth Trilogy. The second novel, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” is much better known today, largely because Orson Welles filmed it, and his film was butchered by the studio, creating the legend of a “lost” Welles film. This has kept the second book somewhat in the public literary mind, and some small percentage of those who read “The Magnificent Ambersons,” like me, then choose to read the other “Growth” books. Of course, I’m from Indiana, so Booth Tarkington is also somewhat in the backdrop of my life, making me even more likely to read these books. Purdue University has a dormitory named “Tarkington Hall,” which my father, who taught at Purdue, was associated with. And my mother read some of Tarkington’s “Penrod” stories to me as a child. Nonetheless, these books are worth reading for anyone, not just those with regional interests.
The story itself is a typically American one of the Industrial Revolution. Similar themes appear in other novels, most notably Edith Wharton’s “The Age Of Innocence” (although the comparison shouldn’t be stretched—in Wharton’s book, the focus is on the moral standards of the old upper class order, and here the focus is the daily works and lives of the quickly changing gentry class). The basic theme of “The Turmoil” is the erosion of the social dominance of old families and old money as a result of breakneck, helter-skelter industrialization, the “turmoil” of the title. While the city in which the novel takes place is not named, it’s Indianapolis, where Tarkington lived, a town (unlike rivertowns like St. Louis or Cleveland) initially based almost exclusively on farming. The novel takes place around 1915.
Apparently until the turn of the century, the social hierarchy in Indianapolis was dominated by a squirearchy—basically, wealthy farming families who, or whose children, dominated business life in the town but maintained some connection to the land. What they most definitely did not do was engage directly in industry, except perhaps as passive investors. This contrasts drives the plot of the book.
“The Turmoil” centers around two families—the upstart Sheridan family, wealthy from unspecified industry, headed by a hard-driving and under-educated patriarch who extols “Bigness” for its own sake; and the contrasting Vertrees family, a down-on-their-luck but socially prominent family of the old squirearchy. The story revolves around the accommodations the Vertrees family must make to the new order of things, in part by seeking an advantageous marriage, and the internal family conflicts of the Sheridan family, in particular the mostly failing efforts of the Sheridan patriarch to mold his three sons into models of himself. The characters are generally well drawn with considerable depth, and their interactions are believable. Running throughout is a sense of some sadness at the passing of the old world, tempered by an understanding of the inevitability of it all.
“The Turmoil” is an interesting book for a variety of reasons. First, it’s a view of a vanished time, which was the present time of the author. Tarkington’s focus was the people of Indianapolis and the impact of the present time on them. To us, that’s interesting, because his time is now the past, and seeing how people saw things themselves at the time can be fascinating. Second, the book is a vision of a time when people in Indianapolis, and other regional centers, could legitimately think of themselves as nationally relevant. Today, political and even more cultural, life is wholly dominated by East and West coast elites and their hangers-on. When seven of the ten counties in the country with the highest per capita income are contiguous to the District of Columbia, we can see that what happens in flyover country doesn’t matter. What national future our current polarization will create isn’t relevant here, though it’s likely to be Not Good. What is relevant here is that the characters of this novel, or at least some of them, see an unlimited future, for both themselves and their small city, in a way that would be inconceivable in the limited horizons of today.
Last, “The Turmoil” contains a lot of insight into the social problems of industrialization other than those emphasized today to the exclusion of all others, namely the travails of industrial workers. We all know about Sinclair’s “The Jungle”; we are all subjected to constant lectures on the plight of workers and the lower classes generally in the Industrial Revolution. Occasionally we hear about the wealthy—Carnegie, Morgan, and so on. But we never, ever hear about the gentry classes and the personal impact of the Industrial Revolution on them. Those classes are the real backbone of any society, yet they are ignored. And their turmoil is what this book is about.
My only major criticism of the book is that it contains fairly constant cringe-worthy stereotypes of black people, who only appear as servants to the Sheridan family, in essence as comic relief. Indiana was never a hotbed of racism (the KKK was powerful in the 1920s, but focused on Catholics and immigrants, not black people), and the stereotypes are patronizing rather than nasty. But still, they’re jarring to the modern reader, and effectively detract from the story. But if you can gloss over those parts, “The Turmoil” is a highly rewarding read.