Thoughts on The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) was the winner of the second Pulitzer Prize ever in 1919. It was written by Booth Tarkington, one of the few artists to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on two separate occasions (he won it again for Alice Adams in 1922). For these accolades, he joins the exclusive club of William Faulkner and John Updike. Both of the latter authors are remembered today far more fondly than is Booth Tarkington, though in his day he was considered the best novelist of his generation. He was a Princeton attendee (though he never graduated) and was originally from Indianapolis. His family was an upper-crust patrician Midwestern family that lost much of their wealth in the Panic 1893. He married twice, and had one daughter who died at a young age. In his later years he became a sailor, and he was a celebrated author, rubbing shoulders with high society everywhere he went.

In The Magnificent Ambersons, the character of George Amberson Minafer is worth noting – he is raised as a spoiled child – a “pampered youth” (there was a silent film version called Pampered Youth that was released in 1925). His 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 the town for his reckless behavior. Many wish that his “comeuppance” would catch up to him. For years the Amberson family were the aristocratic members of the unnamed town, a town modeled on Tarkington’s childhood home of Indianapolis, however with the advent of the automobile, the old families who did not support its growth ultimately fall by the wayside. The Ambersons fall into this latter category. Their power and prestige gradually slips away until the town forgets about them entirely, renaming buildings and streets that once bore their title.

At the center of the decline of a great family is one spoiled and arrogant child, George or “Georgie” Amberson Minafer. He refuses to embrace the new automobile, and ultimately his hubris becomes his ultimate downfall as he prevents his mother from engaging in a romantic relationship with Mr. Morgan, the automobile magnate, and, as such, he also loses his long-time love interest, Lucy Morgan, the daughter of the automobile magnate. While traveling with his mother abroad, she becomes sick, and they return home where she dies. The Amberson family lies in ruins as some of their investments go south, and they are forced to sell their fabulous old mansion, which becomes a dilapidated part of town, and a storehouse takes over their old mansion. George and his Aunt Fanny move into an apartment together and he works a dangerous job handling and transporting chemicals so they can pay their rent. Gradually, the Amberson name is forgotten throughout the town, and George is struck by an automobile, breaking both of his legs. The newspapers highlight the story, but no one is aware of who George is or perhaps was. At last George had gotten his “comeuppance” though no one was around to witness his demise. At the end, redemption arrives when Lucy and her father go to George’s hospital to make amends.

The novel 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, however, it is the main work for which Booth Tarkington is remembered today. Perhaps the theme of a small town changing into a big city, and losing its old charm, has now become a tired cliché, along with the downfall of a once great family.

Today, the award-winning novel is largely forgotten, much like the fate of the Amberson family in their rapidly industrializing small Midwestern town. The book is more or less eclipsed by the far more memorable Orson Welles film of the same name released in the 1940s. Although it was heavily edited by the film studio, and led to a nasty battle with RKO, it is nevertheless a “magnificent” film, as his follow-up to the amazing Citizen Kane. Whereas Booth Tarkington and his novel are lost in oblivion, Orson Welles’s film, which was initially laughed at according to the studio, is remembered as one of the most important American films of all time.

I close with an early paragraph from the book, 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.”

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