Seventeen (Tarkington novel)

Seventeen: A Tale of Youth and Summer Time and the Baxter Family Especially William is a humorous novel by Booth Tarkington that gently satirizes first love, in the person of a callow 17-year-old, William Sylvanus Baxter. Seventeen takes place in a small city in the Midwestern United States shortly before World War I. It was published as sketches in the Metropolitan Magazine in 1914, and collected in a single volume in 1916,[1] when it was the bestselling novel in the United States.

Seventeen: A Tale of Youth and Summer Time and the Baxter Family Especially William
First edition
AuthorBooth Tarkington
CountryUnited States
PublisherHarper and Brothers
Publication date
March 1916
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
Pages329 pp (first edition, hardback)

Plot summary

The middle-class Baxter family enjoys a comfortable and placid life until the summer when their neighbors, the Parcher family, play host to an out-of-town visitor, Lola Pratt. An aspiring actress, Lola is a "howling belle of eighteen" who talks baby-talk "even at breakfast" and holds the center of attention wherever she goes. She instantly captivates William with her beauty, her flirtatious manner, and her ever-present prop, a tiny white lap dog, Flopit. William is sure he has found True Love at Last. Like the other youths of his circle, he spends the summer pursuing Lola at picnics, dances and evening parties, inadvertently making himself obnoxious to his family and friends. They, in turn, constantly embarrass and humiliate him as they do not share his exalted opinion of his "babytalk lady".

William steals his father’s dress-suit and wears it to court Lola in the evenings at the home of the soon-regretful Parcher family. As his lovestruck condition progresses, he writes a bad love poem to "Milady", hoards dead flowers Lola has touched, and develops, his family feels, a peculiar interest in beards and child marriages among the 'Hindoos'. To William's constant irritation, his ten-year-old sister Jane and the Baxters' Negro handyman, Genesis, persist in treating him as an equal instead of the serious-minded grown-up he now believes himself to be. His parents mostly smile tolerantly at William’s lovelorn condition, and hope he will survive it to become a responsible, mature adult.

After a summer that William is sure has changed his life forever, Lola leaves town on the train. The book concludes with a Maeterlinck-inspired flash-forward, showing that William has indeed survived the trials of adolescence.


On the book's publication, The New York Times gave it a full-page review, calling it a "delicious lampoon" and praising it as "a notable study of the psychology of the boy in his latter teens."[2]

Most reviewers have seen Seventeen as humorously truthful. A contemporary reviewer[3] wrote, “Every man and woman over fifty ought to read Seventeen. It is not only a skillful analysis of adolescent love, it is, with all its side-splitting mirth, a tragedy. No mature person who reads this novel will ever seriously regret his lost youth or wish he were young again....” “As funny, but sadder than Penrod, it has the same insight into how it feels to be young.”[4] In a review of the 1951 stage version, New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson called it a “humorous and touching story of adolescence…It has a touch of immortality that most popular works lack. Fundamentally it is true.”[5]

Other reviewers fault the book for not being realistic. “Real adolescence, like any other age of man, has its own passions, its own poetry, its own tragedies and felicities; the adolescence of Mr. Tarkington's tales is almost nothing but farce staged for outsiders.”[6]

Reviewers have suggested that Willie Baxter could be an older Penrod.[7] Seventeen and Penrod are similar in structure; both are collections of sketches, and some characters and situations from Penrod are recycled in Seventeen: “[m]any of the characters are parallel...There are whole episodes that are similar…”[7]

F.S.Fitzgerald has mentioned "Seventeen" in his personal "10 best books" he ever read list as "The funniest book I’ve ever read".



  1. Calta, Louis. "'Seventeen' bows here this evening." New York Times, Jun 21, 1951, p. 24.
  2. New York Times, March 15, 1916, p. BR73.
  3. Phelps, William Lyon. The Advance of the English Novel (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1916), pp. 267–301
  4. Avery, Gillian. "Booth Tarkington: Overview" in Twentieth- Century Children's Writers, 4th ed., ed. Laura Standley Berger (Detroit: St. James Press, 1995).
  5. Atkinson, Brooks. "Two new musicals." New York Times, Jul 1, 1951, p. 55.
  6. Van Doren, Carl. "Contemporary American Novelists: Booth Tarkington," The Nation, 112:2901 (February 9, 1921), pp. 233-35.
  7. Avery.
  8. "Seventeen". Orson Welles on the Air, 1938–1946. Indiana University Bloomington. Retrieved November 9, 2017.
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