Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Need of Money

Booth Tarkington (1869–1946)
From Booth Tarkington: Novels & Stories

“State House, Indianapolis, Ind.,” c. 1904. Photochrom print by the Detroit Printing Co. From the Photochrom Print Collection, Library of Congress.
In December 1904 Theodore Roosevelt invited Booth Tarkington to the White House for lunch. Roosevelt was a fan of the author’s books (especially his debut novel, The Gentleman from Indiana) and he had been reading Tarkington’s new political stories as they appeared in McClure’s and Everybody’s magazines. Roosevelt indicated to Tarkington that he enjoyed the stories, particularly for the realism behind their satire. But then, to Tarkington’s surprise, the President maintained that the stories were perhaps too realistic and cynical and chided him for exposing the darkest aspects of politics.

“I thought that perhaps if people could be made to realize some of the worst things that do go on they’d want to remedy them,” Tarkington said in defense. “You’re absolutely wrong!” Roosevelt vigorously interrupted, and then delivered a lengthy harangue that Tarkington attempted to reproduce in his 1928 memoir The World Does Move. “You’re helping to crystallize the feeling that politics is no ‘business for a gentleman,’” the President insisted. “Anything that encourages asses in their asininity is harmful; but it’s infinitely more damaging to give able young men reason to say, ‘Politics is too dirty; I’ll go into the law or into business, and leave it to the swine to run my country!’” Despite their rather one-sided conversation, the two men ended their meal on friendly terms, and Tarkington described the lecture as “entirely benevolent.” Besides, he added, “it is possible to look back upon [Roosevelt’s arguments] now and believe that they were at least a little prophetic.”

Tarkington had begun working on his first two political stories the previous year, when he was a state legislator in Indiana. After he came down with typhoid fever and was forced to resign from office, he wrote three more and gathered them in the collection In the Arena: Tales from Political Life. (See our introduction to the previous Story of the Week selection “Great Men’s Sons” to learn about the genesis of the sixth story in the collection.)

“The Need of Money,” the third story he wrote specifically for the book, was included in a special election issue of McClure’s in November 1904—the month before Roosevelt called Tarkington to the White House. The juxtaposition of the story’s bleak and hopeless view of the legislative process and the magazine’s in-depth coverage of the presidential election, including profiles of both Roosevelt and his Democratic opponent, Alton B. Parker, probably aroused Roosevelt’s indignation. Tarkington biographer James Woodress speculates that the central character of the story could have been based on any one of the “nine members of the house who offered no bills and remained inconspicuous and inarticulate” during Tarkington’s months in office. “Moreover,” Woodress adds, “the sordid dealing of the railroad lobby, which had been active during the session, was taken directly from the author’s experience. He had served on the Committee for the Affairs of the City of Indianapolis and in that capacity had fought unsuccessfully to force the railroads to elevate their tracks through Indianapolis.”

Weeks after the book was published Roosevelt wrote to Tarkington again with further thoughts now that all of the stories had appeared as a collection. His letter was filled with praise. “I like In the Arena so much that I must write to tell you so. I particularly like the philosophy of the Preface.” The “comedies and pitiful tragedies,” he concluded, “are just such as I myself have seen.” Tarkington immediately sent a response. “The Preface was almost directly your suggestion . . . [I hoped] that if you happened to see it you would believe that the Professor was a least trying to do his best.” And indeed, the book’s three-page Preface presents an “old-timer, a lean, retired pantaloon,” who offers up some “wisdom” echoing many of the arguments made by Roosevelt at the luncheon:
Looking back upon it all, what we most need ‘in politics’ is more good men. Thousands of good men ARE in; and they need the others who are not in. More would come if they knew how MUCH they are needed. . . . The exquisite who says that politics is ‘too dirty a business for a gentleman to meddle with’ is like the woman who lived in the parlour and complained that the rest of her family kept the other rooms so dirty that she never went into them. . . .

It seems an odd thing to me that so many men feel they haven’t any time for politics; can’t put in even a little, trying to see how. . . . Well, in politics, the country needs ALL the men who have any patriotism — NOT to be seeking office, but to watch and to understand what is going on. It doesn’t take a great deal of time; you can attend to your business and do that much, too. When wrong things are going on and all the good men understand them, that is all that is needed. The wrong things stop going on.

Notes: The phrase sea-green Incorruptible (used on page 568) was an epithet applied to the French revolutionary Robespierre. The men claimed as Democratic Party forebears on page 579 are Stephen A. Douglas, U.S. senator, 1847–61, and a candidate for president in 1860; Samuel Tilden, New York governor, 1875–76, and a candidate for president in 1876; Thomas Hendricks, Indiana governor, 1873–77, and U.S. vice president in 1885; politician and statesman Henry Clay (1777–1852), who was a member and co-founder of both the National Republican and Whig Parties; and George Washington, who did not belong to a political party.

*   *   *
Far back in his corner on the Democratic side of the House, Uncle Billy Rollinson sat through the dragging routine of the legislative session, wondering what most of it meant. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.