The Turmoil, by Booth Tarkington

The Turmoil

The Turmoil, set in the early 20th century, was the first novel written in Booth Tarkington’s Growth trilogy, though the events depicted in it are not chronologically first, from what I understand (not yet having read the other two books of the trilogy).

The Turmoil, which takes place in an unnamed Midwestern city—that basically is Indianapolis, where Tarkington was from—tells the story of the Sheridan family. There’s patriarch James, a self-made man who now owns multiple businesses, is one of the wealthiest men in town, and is a proud booster of his city, America, capitalism, and especially himself. There’s his wife, a submissive woman who always seeks the well-being and safety of her family, generally ineffectually. And there are the Sheridans’ four adult children: sons James, Jr., Roscoe, and Bibbs, and daughter Edith.

The elder Sheridan is determined that his sons follow in his footsteps as very hardworking and very successful businessmen. James, Jr. and Roscoe, at the start of the novel at least, are fulfilling that promise. Bibbs decidedly is not.

Though James Sheridan is an attention-grabbing, larger-than-life figure who is afforded a high number of pages in the book, really Bibbs is the central character of the story.

Bibbs is a physically and emotionally fragile, dreamy, idealistic sort of lad with seemingly no ill will toward anyone but considerable ill will toward much of the modern world—the soul-killing business values of maximizing growth and profit above all else, the body-killing brutal industrial labor, the pollution, the frantic pace, etc. To the horror of his father, left to his own devices he’d spend his life doing things like writing essays and poetry, and communing with nature.

At the start of the novel Bibbs is returning home from recovering at a sanitarium after working in one of his father’s factories nearly killed him. The elder Sheridan firmly believes—to his credit I suppose—that before becoming a boss a man should live the life of a worker and prove that he can excel at the tasks he will ultimately supervise others to do, and that he does not consider such labor beneath him. Bibbs wants nothing to do with that kind of work, but if anything he’s even less interested in being a boss.

The character Bibbs reminds me of most in all of literature (well, all that I’m familiar with, that is) is Prince Myshkin, the title character of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, a sort of “holy fool.” Prince Myshkin, though childlike in many ways and manifesting only a limited capacity to function and succeed in ways the majority recognize as valuable, is certainly no literal “fool” in terms of IQ, but is actually quite wise and insightful in his odd way. If anything, Bibbs is even more intelligent, proving highly capable at pretty much any task he applies himself to; the frustration people—especially his father—have with him is that he won’t apply himself to the things they see as self-evidently worthwhile.

Dostoyevsky said that in Prince Myshkin he sought to create a character “entirely positive…with an absolutely beautiful nature.” Similarly, one senses Tarkington’s fondness for Bibbs. Surely Bibbs represents the author’s point of view on capitalism and modernity and such more than does any other character in the novel.

By the way, while the character that Bibbs most reminds me of is Prince Myshkin, by far the book that The Turmoil most reminds me of is Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt.

Written at roughly the same period of American history, both books are skeptical of the ascendancy of capitalist values and have serious misgivings about how it warps people and the world. Both are set in unnamed but only very thinly disguised Midwestern cities—Indianapolis in The Turmoil; Cincinnati in Babbitt. Both feature a gung ho businessman who represents this drift toward greed, incessant boosterism, and the worship of bigness for bigness’s sake that the authors wished to raise an alarm about—James Sheridan in The Turmoil; George Babbitt himself in Babbitt.

Though the novels are highly similar, certainly there are differences of style and detail.

While both books address their subjects with a certain amount of sardonic humor, I’d say Babbitt goes farther in the direction of satire. While both books provide an anthropological study of the behavior of businessmen of the early 20th century in the course of telling a fictional story about a specific family, I’d say there’s more emphasis on story in The Turmoil. Maybe 70-30 story over social science in The Turmoil, and the reverse in Babbitt. There are more well-developed characters in The Turmoil than in Babbitt.

The Turmoil has James Sheridan to represent thoroughgoing belief in American capitalism and its values, and Bibbs to represent disapproval of and opposition to these values, whereas Babbitt combines these positions in one character, as George Babbitt experiences a period of profound disillusion with the lifestyle he formerly saw as the epitome of human progress.

I would also say that while Lewis does not make Babbitt an unlikable guy at all, he seems to remain more consistently opposed to what Babbitt (Babbitt as he is at the start of the book anyway) represents. Not only is what he represents dismal and destructive, but there’s no escape from it. By the depressing end of Babbitt, the protagonist has thrown in the towel and recognized that there’s no realistic alternative to conformity to modern capitalism, regardless of its merits.

The Turmoil doesn’t feel quite so pessimistic in the end. Tarkington allows his characters a somewhat happy ending, and while not taking back all his preceding criticisms of American business and its excesses, he suggests that there are also admirable qualities to modern industrial capitalism, and that there may be ways to make a somewhat honorable peace with it, to find a place for oneself in it without completely selling out, and to mitigate the damage it does.

As I say, there seems to be more of a commitment to storytelling in The Turmoil, and even aside from all its symbolism and all it is supposed to tell us about this period of American social and economic history, purely as a story I found it to be reasonably interesting.

The Sheridans are nouveau riche. When they move into a ritzy neighborhood early in the book, they become neighbors with the Vertrees family. The Vertreeses represent old money. Or really former money; they used to be among the richest families in town, but are nearly broke now. But they still have a certain social cache that the Sheridans lack and desire.

It appears early in the book that the contrast is going to be that there is something vaguely more honorable about old money, that Mr. Vertrees is somehow above the sort of money grubbing and greed that James Sheridan represents, but in fact, Vertrees attempted to do the very same kind of investing and wheeling and dealing as Sheridan to be as rich as possible but he happened to be either not as good at it or just unlucky. So there’s really no relevant difference in values in that sense.

But the Vertreeses in their economic desperation implicitly encourage their only daughter Mary to seek to marry into the Sheridan family, though it greatly pains them to do so.

As the book proceeds, we see the elder Sheridan’s confidence shaken as his meticulously laid plans for his sons following him in business falter for various reasons. Meanwhile, Mary becomes a bigger part of their lives as she maneuvers to land one of the Sheridan brothers. (Though this summary makes Mary sound like a despicable, amoral gold digger, she’s actually one of the most positive characters in the novel.)

I mostly liked and cared about these characters, and enjoyed The Turmoil. Enough that I intend to read the other two books in the Growth trilogy.

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