Saturday, February 14, 2009

Pulitzer Project: The Magnificent Ambersons

I finished reading The Magnificent Ambersons last night. Written by Booth Tarkington, an immensely popular early 20th century author, the book was awarded the second Pulitzer Prize for fiction back in 1919.

Reading The Magnificent Ambersons felt a bit like stepping into a time capsule. The novel is set in the Midwest, no doubt Indiana, in the late 19th century. The Ambersons are a wealthy family in a small city. The head of the family, Major Amberson, fought in the Civil War and is one of the most influential men in town when the story begins. He builds a magnificent Romanesque mansion on a four-acre tract to house his family, and, when his only daughter marries, has a grand house built for her and her husband right across the street from his. His daughter produces a son, George Amberson Minafer, who turns out to be both an only child and the only grandchild.

This does not bode well for George, of course. As far as his mother is concerned, George can do no wrong. It's no surprise that George goes from being a remarkably self-centered and obnoxious child to being an arrogant and oblivious young man. As a child, he's a bully, and as a young man he's a jerk. He has a circle of acquaintances but no real friends. He also has no ambition -- he goes off to an Ivy league school and earns a degree, but has no plans to use it for anything. After all, as he explains, why should he? He's an Amberson. He's the only grandchild. His family is wealthy -- he doesn't have to work. As far as George is concerned, work is something only the lower classes do.

I don't think I have to say much more for the logical course of the novel to be evident: Major Amberson makes a series of bad investments, the equivalent of opening a buggy whip factory next door to Ford's first auto assembly plant, and dies basically penniless. Real estate assets of the estate apparently go to settle debts as all George is left with for an inheritance are the contents of his mother's house (which the Major had never bothered to deed to her, so it's sold along with his), and he has to sell the furniture at auction. In the course of a few short weeks George goes from assuming that he'll be a man of leisure indefinitely to having to figure out how to pay the rent for himself and a spinster aunt at a cheap boarding hotel. As reality checks go, it's pretty brutal.

The book overall paints an interesting picture of American society in a time of rapid transitions. The automobile, electricity, and other innovations are all introduced to the town of Midlands as the story progresses. At the beginning of the novel the town is fairly homogeneous: there are the white residents who are the descendants of settlers who came from New England, and there are black residents who work as servants and stablemen (the references to darkies and the exaggerated dialect Tarkington puts in the mouths of blacks can be a little jarring to a 21st century reader), and almost everyone lives in a single family home, and, as Tarkington says, every respectable family has a Newfoundland dog for the children. Everyone knows everyone. It's described as a small city, but it's more like a small town. By the end of the book the city has grown to where to foreign immigrants have established distinct neighborhoods, multiple story apartment buildings crowd the streets, and no one knows or cares who anyone's grandfather was.

After reading the book, I looked up Booth Tarkington's biography on-line. I have a hunch The Magnificent Ambersons has a strong autobiographical component. Many aspects of George Amberson Minafer's life mirror Tarkington's -- right down to the age the character would have been at about the same time in American history -- so it's possible the author was looking back at his younger self and thinking, "what an ass I was!"

The novel is quite readable, although I found myself growing increasingly impatient with George. When was the young idiot finally going to get a clue? Could any human being actually be that dense and socially tone deaf? And then I remembered my young cousin raised by a single mom who thought her darling daughter was the center of the entire universe -- and realized Tarkington had indeed captured perfectly the mental processes of a egoistic young adult who had rarely heard the word No.

Tarkington was an extremely popular writer who knew how to tell stories that resonated with a wide audience. His books were best sellers, many were made into plays and movies, and the material continues to be re-worked today. The most recent version of The Magnificent Ambersons was televised in 2002, with James Cromwell playing Major Amberson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Amberson Minafer, but I think I'll check Netflix for the 1942 version directed by Orson Welles instead.


  1. I watched the movie many years ago, then read the book. Excellent material and I agree that Booth Tarkington reflected on his own life to a great extent.

    I learned how to get the TV to myself a long time ago..turn on a B&W movie.

  2. I rememeber reading it years and years ago and just hating that stupid george...then saw one of the movies and it was pretty good, but been so long can't remember which one it was..the old one, not the recent one..
    u doing ok? haven't seen you around lately..

  3. Thus because of these experiences we created a safety net and regulatory agencies to create a minimum base for all of society. Of course that has now been ripped to shreds in the last two decades as artifacts from an ancient age.
    Humorous, heh?

  4. I read the book many years ago and saw only part of the 1942 version of the film adaptation. I enjoyed it. I didn't know they had made a more recent version of it.

    I enjoy your book reviews very much!


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