The Midlander (alternate title National Avenue) is the final book of Tarkington’s Growth trilogy (following The Turmoil and The Magnificent Ambersons) about life in a Midwestern city during the time of rapid capitalist expansion a century or so ago.
It was the least successful of the three books, both with the public and with critics. Nowadays it is hard to even find a copy. (By itself, that is. It’s easier to get it as part of the single-volume Growth.) I eventually came up with a fairly expensive copy from a print-on-demand outfit in India. It’s not terrible quality, but there are little gaps in the ink and occasional small tears in some of the pages. There are no cover blurbs, introduction, notes, etc.—just the bare-bones text.
The Midlander is the story of Dan Oliphant. More broadly you could say it’s the story of the brothers Dan and Harlan Oliphant, the Oliphant family, the Oliphant family and those they are related to by marriage as well as their closest friends and neighbors, or even the city as a whole in which the Oliphants live (a fictional Midwestern town loosely based on Tarkington’s hometown of Indianapolis). But really Dan gets way, way more attention than any other character, and almost all the action revolves around him.
Dan and Harlan are almost identical in age, but opposite in personality. Harlan is reserved, haughty—the type of person it is hard to get close to, and who doesn’t seem all that desirous of having people close to him anyway. Dan is passionate, personable, social, and gung ho about everything he throws himself into.
Their parents are an attorney and a housewife—agreeable, loving folks who are soft touches for anyone who comes to them for help, and who never harshly discipline their two boys. A common lament in the book, in fact, most often from the boys’ grandmother—the stern but not uncaring matriarch of the family—is how child raising wisdom has been lost over the years, with the present generation (i.e., that of the 1890s or 1900s or so) being far, far too permissive. It’s a nice reminder that old people in every era whine about how spoiled “kids today” are, compared to whatever golden age they imagine they remember.
Fairly early in the book, when Dan is in New York after college, he meets and falls for a beautiful girl named Lena from a snobbish, rich family. Since he does nothing halfway, he is of course completely head-over-heels in love with her, convinced that she is perfection itself, and certain that they are fated to live happily ever after together. They do indeed marry, and he brings her with him back to his hometown, much to her chagrin as she sees it as a horrible backwater populated by the most vulgar rubes.
Meanwhile another of the main characters is Martha, a neighbor and childhood friend of the Oliphant boys. She had been especially close to Dan (then again, everyone is automatically closer to Dan than Harlan), but because she is the tall, big-boned, tomboyish—though not wholly unattractive—type, they were always buddies rather than any kind of sweethearts. As she matures, her feelings evolve to where she is certainly open to their relationship moving in a more romantic relationship, but Dan is blissfully unaware of this—though just about everyone who knows them can see how her interest in him has changed—and just sees her as his closest, most treasured platonic friend. Actually it’s Harlan who comes to see her more as a desirable woman and potential mate rather than “one of the boys” and a great buddy, but he’s not very good at expressing that or acting on it.
Shortly after arriving back in town, Dan sets to work on what is to be the great project, the great quest, of the rest of his life. He is convinced that the town is destined to grow enormously—at least if people like himself do their part to make it happen—and so he buys some farmland well to the north of town and converts it into lots for houses. This is to be “Ornaby Addition”—basically a suburb.
He puts all of his meager resources into it, but needs far more if he is to realize anything close to his vision. He badgers everyone with any money in town to invest in his great project, and every time they turn him down he pitches them again. With his grandiose ideas, he becomes a laughing stock, an irritant, or both to those he won’t let alone. Some can’t help grudgingly admiring his pluck and his unwavering belief in himself, but mostly those who care about him want him to realize he’s being foolhardy and is bound to lose all he invests, while those who don’t care about him just wish he’d go away.
This is the basic symbolism of The Midlander. Dan represents the new type of capitalist. He’s the entrepreneur, the person who may not have started with a great deal but intends to get rich as a self-made man, the incessantly optimistic city booster, the person with vision, the risk taker, the person who embraces every new invention and technology—most notably the motor car—the person positioning himself to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the massive economic and social changes the country is undergoing, the hard worker willing to learn any task from the bottom to the top of his enterprise to make it successful. The people who laugh at him, reject him, and resent him are “old money.” They are the people who mostly inherited their wealth, who believe in doing business in traditional ways with as little risk as possible, who are not willing to make more than minor adjustments in response to the major changes their world is undergoing. They are the past; Dan is the future.
Some of them do not regard Dan’s vision as completely implausible, but they see it as too speculative and too risky at this time. Their attitude is that if the city ever does somehow grow enough to turn Ornaby Addition into a moneymaker it won’t be for a long, long time, and that the best course of action is to wait to jump in later, when Dan goes broke and has to give up all that land at fire sale prices to them.
They figure if none of them helps him now, in the end they’ll divvy up his carcass like vultures and make out better anyway.
I found Dan impossible not to like and root for. He’s a totally positive, enthusiastic person, and not in a phony way. It’s not a face he puts on in order to get people to believe in him and invest money with him; it’s not just a bunch of positive thinking platitudes he repeats in order to try to trick himself into being an optimist. It’s all sincere; it’s just him.
He believes in himself, he believes in others. He doesn’t want to be successful at the expense of others; he wants to succeed in a way that is good for others. He thinks that deep down people are basically good and the world is basically a good place, and he’s thrilled to wake up every day and be able to devote himself to something.
He adores his parents, he is way more fond of and respectful toward his often bossy, unpleasant, tyrannical grandmother than most people in his place would be, he gets along with his brother though their vastly different temperaments keeps them from being all that close, and he regards Martha as about as good a person and friend as its possible to be. Though his exaggerated passion for Lena fades—partly because such things always fade and partly because she is so unhappy in what she regards as the boondocks that she becomes a very difficult partner—he continues to treat her well and make every effort to make their marriage successful. And when they have their first child—a son—he is every bit as wildly in love and every bit as convinced of his being the most extraordinary child ever as he was wildly in love with Lena and convinced that no woman could match her in beauty and all possible virtues.
Really he doesn’t even have any ill will toward the people who laugh at him or who root for his failure so that they can take advantage of it. He just doesn’t seem to have it in him to have ill will toward anyone.
So I found it easy to like him and sympathize with him. For that matter, his parents, Martha, and some of the other characters in the book are highly likable, admirable people.
The challenge is to empathize with some of the less likable characters. But I wouldn’t say that’s super hard, because, at least of the main characters, no one is a clear villain. The grandmother, Harlan, and certainly Lena have unpleasant aspects to them, and insofar as they are in conflict with Dan I naturally sided with him. But as I got deeper into the book I felt more of an obligation to give them a fair chance, to not write them off, to appreciate their good qualities, and to understand how they could have developed their less pleasant qualities. (Maybe I was just following Dan’s lead in the positive way he regards people and treats them.)
Lena is probably the most unlikable of the main characters, but I ended up feeling more sad for her than anything. She is a person who just never developed the ability to be happy unless she got her way. There’s no compromise, no “making lemons out of lemonade.”
I mean, she tries. In her self-perception she bends over backwards to accept less than what she wants. But really it’s more that while her hatred for not getting her way never lessens, she is sometimes able to keep it bottled up inside for a limited period of time.
And then when she can bear it no longer and must manifest her dissatisfaction, she knows no way of doing so except to throw a tantrum.
All the years of her married life that she lives in this Midwestern town, she never settles in, never makes friends, never stops having contempt for the place and its people, never stops dreaming of leaving.
There’s no doubt she’s bitchy, immature, and as prone to feeling miserable as Dan is to feeling upbeat. And when she’s miserable she acts so as to make those around her miserable, just as Dan’s enthusiasm tends to be infectious and to bring other people up. But to be fair, it’s not like she has no reason at all to think she has been mistreated.
Her marriage with Dan has hardly been one of equals, where they have equal input into major life decisions. For Dan, there were certain givens. He was going to live back in his hometown, and he was going to be a workaholic as regards Ornaby Addition and make that the number one thing that he devotes himself to. Whatever he could do to make Lena happy, whatever he could do so that she could have her way, he was much more willing to do than the typical spouse, but only insofar as it did not conflict with those non-negotiables.
Is that really fair? Is that really what Lena signed up for?
Well, given the even greater sexism back then, and the way women were expected to adjust to their husband’s career and such, probably so. But it still doesn’t feel quite right when you try to see it from her perspective.
So to a degree I can empathize with her, as I can even more easily empathize with the other main characters, even though I mostly experienced her as an unpleasant person and agree with several of the people who knew them that really Dan would have been a lot better off if he had been able to reciprocate Martha’s feelings for him and marry her instead.
Tarkington is an easy read. You wouldn’t think a book where the main “action” is someone spending years trying to make his real estate investment profitable would be a page-turner, but really the story moves along at a nice pace and is surprisingly engaging. He’s skilled with dialogue, and incorporates some decent humor. He is quite good, for instance, at capturing the entertaining aspects of crotchety old people.
I found The Turmoil, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Midlander to all be about equally entertaining, and equally thought-provoking. Certainly there is a great deal of overlap in their themes of the mixed blessing that industrialization and the rise of the automobile and such have proven to be, and of the changes and resulting conflicts in how people made money in different eras, so maybe by the time of The Midlander readers and critics were starting to experience his work as a little redundant. But I thought all three books were fine. I wouldn’t rank any of them too close to the top of my all-time favorite novels, but I’m happy to give all three a thumbs up.