"Oh cute-ums! . . . Ickle boy Baxter goin' make imitations of darlin' Flopit again. See! Ickle boy Baxter puts head one side, then other side, just like darlin' Flopit. Then barks just like darlin' Flopit! Ladies and 'entlemen, imitations of darlin' Flopit by Ickle boy Baxter."
"Berp-werp! Berp-werp!" came the voice of William Sylvanus Baxter. (65)
William endures raptures when Miss Pratt pays attention to him, and utter despair when she pays attention to other boys. He dramatizes himself as a poet, an actor, as the noble Sydney Carton from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. When Miss Pratt departs at the end of the novel, he is still holding the candy he wanted to give her, and he is devastated--but, Tarkington lets us know, not for long.
Throughout the novel, Tarkington frequently comments as a wise adult on the perils of being seventeen years old:
It is the time of life when one finds it unendurable not to seem perfect in all outward matters: in worldly position, in the equipments of wealth, in family, and in the grace, elegance, and dignity of all appearances in public. And yet the youth is still continually betrayed by the child still intermittently insistent within him, and by the child which undiplomatic people too often assume him to be. (26)
While these observations have plenty of truth in them, and while Tarkington strove to write a realistic novel, his amused and tolerant adult point of view while describing what to adolescents are real difficulties makes the novel poke fun at the adolescents with whom he is sympathetic. Tarkington's teens are sweet, silly, ineffectual people, totally immersed in their tiny emotional worlds and insignificant troubles; we must love them and be patient with them, Tarkington seems to say, while they grow out of it.
No doubt many teens read Seventeen with some pleasure; it is clever and funny, and in it they probably recognized themselves as well as Tarkington's basic good will. Nevertheless, the tremendous popularity of this novel among adults, balanced with the thousands of series books teens were buying for themselves--books depicting teens with power, intelligence, and freedom--suggests quite a discrepancy between how adults wanted to see teens and how teens wanted to see themselves. Seventeen looks backward to a gentle, small-town life of summer parties and walks in the moonlight, where love and the right clothes were a teen's biggest concerns--a life that probably never really existed except in literature and film, but one that simplified the problems parents faced. Series fiction, with its emphasis on new technology and new freedoms, also simplified the world, remaking it as teens wanted it to be.
Alexander Ruth. "'The Only Thing I Wanted Was Freedom': Wayward Girls in New York, 1900-1930." In Small Worlds. Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950