The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) is the second novel to win the Pulitzer (awarded in 1919). Its author, Booth Tarkington, was one of the few authors to win the Pulitzer Prize twice (amazingly, he won it again for Alice Adams in 1922). With these accolades, he joins the exclusive club of William Faulkner and John Updike (as of 2020 Colson Whitehead has also joined this club). Today, the latter authors are remembered far more fondly than Booth Tarkington, though in his day Tarkington was considered the best novelist of his generation. He was a Princeton attendee (though he never actually graduated) and he was originally from Indianapolis, the setting for many of his novels. His family was an upper-crust patrician Midwestern family that lost much of their wealth in the Panic of 1893. Tarkington married twice, and had one daughter who died at a young age. In his later years he became a sailor, and he was celebrated among East Coast elite circles, rubbing shoulders with high society everywhere he went.
The Magnificent Ambersons is a tragic story about the decline of a once-prominent Midwestern family. The beginning of the novel is my favorite part. The reader is given beautiful panoramic descriptions of life in a small midland town at the turn of the century: children playing, women gossiping, warm summer nights, teenagers wooing their neighbor’s daughters, and carriages gently trotting by. At the center of this blissful epoch is the Amberson family, whose Gilded Age fortune laid the foundation for this little town. Streets and buildings bear the Amberson name, and the fabulous Amberson mansion sits at the far end of town. However, with the passing of an old generation and amidst the gaity and drama of the Amberson family, this little Midwestern town quietly grows into an industrial city (much like Indianapolis) and new technologies, like the automobile, begin to accelerate the pace of life.
At the epicenter of the Amberson decline is one spoiled and arrogant child named George or “Georgie” Amberson Minafer. He is a “pampered youth” (prior to Orson Welles’s magnificent film version of the story there was even a silent film version called Pampered Youth that was released in 1925 loosely based on Georgie Amberson). As George grows, he becomes the head of the Amberson family, but he refuses to embrace the newfangled automobile, and he pridefully rejects any investment in them. George’s judgment is clouded by hubris. In George’s blind rejection of all things new, he also prevents his mother from finding love with Mr. Morgan, a businessman and rising automobile magnate, and at the same time George also quietly loses his long-time love interest, Lucy Morgan (Mr. Morgan’s daughter). In an effort to escape his mounting troubles, George travels abroad with his mother (also in part to keep her away from Mr. Morgan), but while traveling George’s mother grows sick, and they return home shortly before she dies. Upon his return, George finally sees a changed city and he realizes all too late the true status of his family.
The Amberson family wealth now lies in ruins as their investments have sunk, and the Ambersons are now forced to sell their fabulous old mansion at the far end of town. In time, the house becomes dilapidated and forgotten. It is eventually torn down to make way for storehouses and manufacturing. George and his Aunt Fanny move into a small apartment in the city together where he is forced to seek employment (he is no longer a “pampered youth”). He works a dangerous job handling and transporting chemicals to pay the rent. Gradually, the Amberson name is forgotten throughout the city (streets are re-named, and old buildings are torn down). One day, George is struck by an automobile -the very machine he once refused to invest in. The injury breaks both his legs, and it also costs his job. The newspapers highlight the story, but George and the Ambersons have largely been forgotten by now. George lies injured and unknown on an ordinary hospital bed. At the beginning of the novel, Georgie was a little hell-raiser whom many in town hoped would get his comeuppance. Now, in the end, George finally gets his “comeuppance” but no one from that bygone era is around to witness it, except Lucy and her father who visit George to make amends.
Throughout the novel, George Amberson Minafer’s whole character is entirely predictable and one-dimensional. He is both prideful, and sensitive – incapable of behaving like a gentleman. At the beginning, he is scorned by many people in town for his reckless behavior. As he grows, his pride prevents him from making smart business decisions, and the old patriarchs who do not invest in the automobile ultimately fall by the wayside. Old patrician values are no match for the march of Progress. Tarkington’s novel reflects a conservative tone, yet it is also cautionary, warning readers that technological progress is inevitable.
In all, The Magnificent Ambersons is not a great novel. It is far too long, far too ‘wordy’, and it attempts to be more of a pretentious Greek tragedy (particularly at the end) than is believable. It is not an enduring work despite being Booth Tarkington’s best remembered book. Perhaps the theme of a small town changing into a big city, and losing its old charm, along with the downfall of a once great family, has now become a tired cliché.
Today, The Magnificent Ambersons is a largely forgotten novel, much like the fate of the Amberson family in the story. The book is more or less eclipsed by the far more memorable Orson Welles film of the same name released in 1942 (feel free to read my review of Welles’s film here). Welles’s film was his follow-up to Citizen Kane. Although Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons was heavily edited by the film studio, which led to a nasty battle between Welles and RKO, the film is nevertheless “magnificent.” Whereas Booth Tarkington and his novel are mostly relegated to oblivion, Orson Welles’s film, which was initially laughed at, is remembered as one of the most important American films ever made.
I close with an early paragraph from the novel, which also serves as the opening lines of the famous Welles film:
“The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet and everybody knew everybody else’s family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the “girl” what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare.”
Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons. Barnes & Noble Classics Series, July 1, 2005.