Thoughts on The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) is the second novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. Its author, Booth Tarkington, is one of the few writers to ever win the Pulitzer 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 who also both won two Pulitzer Prizes (as of 2020 Colson Whitehead has also joined this club). In his day, Tarkington was considered among the best novelists of his generation, but today he joins a crowded list of forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. Hailing from Indianapolis (where many of his novels were set), Newton Booth Tarkington was a Princeton man (though he never actually graduated) whose upper-crust patrician Midwestern family tragically lost much of its wealth during the Panic of 1893. Tarkington married twice and had one daughter who sadly died at a young age. In his later years he became a sailor, and as a result of his literary success, he became the toast of East Coast elite circles, rubbing shoulders with high society everywhere he went.

Much like Booth Tarkington’s own life, The Magnificent Ambersons is a tragic story about the decline of a once-prominent Midwestern family. The beginning of the novel offers readers a taste of yesteryear –we are treated to a beautiful panorama of life in a small midland town at the turn of the century, where we see children playing in the streets, women gossiping on warm summer nights, and teenagers wooing their neighbor’s daughters while stately carriages gently trot by. At the center of this blissful epoch is the Amberson family, whose Gilded Age fortune built this little town. Streets and buildings bear the Amberson name, and the fabulous Amberson mansion sits at the far end of town. All seems well in this ante-automobile populated Eden. However, with the passing of the old generation comes a new sense of urgency and growth. This little Midwestern town quietly grows into an industrial city (much like Indianapolis once did) and new technologies, like the automobile, begin to accelerate the pace of life. Suddenly, the prestige of the Amberson family begins to wane.

In the midst of the Amberson’s decline is one spoiled and arrogant child named George or “Georgie” Amberson Minafer. He is a “pampered youth” (there was a silent film loosely based on the novel entitled Pampered Youth that was released in 1925). As George grows, he inherits the position of de facto head of the Amberson family, but he refuses to change with the times. He despises the newfangled automobile, pridefully rejecting investment in this strange new technology. George’s judgment is clouded by his own hubris. In George’s defiant rejection of all things new, he also prevents his mother from finding love with a local automobile magnate named Mr. Eugene Morgan. At the same time, George also quietly loses his own long-time love interest, Lucy Morgan (Mr. Morgan’s daughter). In an effort to escape his mounting troubles, George travels abroad with his mother, in part, to keep her apart from Mr. Morgan, but while traveling, George’s mother suddenly grows gravely ill. They return home shortly before her death and we are left to mourn the life she might have lived with Mr. Morgan. Suddenly, George sees the world anew — his town has changed and his family has become an anachronism.

The Amberson family wealth now lies in ruins. Their investments have sunk and they are forced to sell their fabulous mansion at the far end of town. In time, the house becomes dilapidated and is forgotten. It is eventually boarded up and torn down to make way for storehouses and manufacturing. George and his Aunt Fanny move into a small apartment together where George is forced to seek employment (he is no longer a “pampered youth”). He works a dangerous job handling and transporting chemicals in order 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 suddenly 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. His accident is highlighted in the newspapers, but George and the Ambersons have largely been forgotten by now. George lies injured and unknown in an ordinary hospital bed. At the beginning of the novel, young Georgie was a hell-raiser whom many hoped would one day receive his comeuppance. Now, in the end, George finally gets his comeuppance, but no one is around to witness it, except Lucy and her father who visit George in order to make amends.

The Amberson Mansion from Orson Welles’s 1942 film

Throughout the novel, George Amberson Minafer’s is a frustratingly 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 up, his arrogance prevents him from investing in the automobile. Aristocratic values are no match for the march of Progress. Tarkington’s novel reflects a conservative tone, yet it is also cautionary, warning us of the inevitability of technological progress.

In all, The Magnificent Ambersons is not a particularly outstanding novel in my view. The opening pages are a pure joy as we enter into the nostalgic gaiety of a turn-of-the-century Midwestern town. However, we are soon burdened by the sheer gravitas of George Amberson and his collapsing lifestyle. The Magnificent Ambersons employs a heavy dose of tragic pity coupled with an Aesopian moral, as if to remind us that “pride goeth before a fall.” Perhaps the theme of a small town transforming into a big city, and losing its old charm, along with the downfall of a once great family, has now become a tired cliché. Booth Tarkington bathes himself in old world tragedy and misfortune while avoiding any coup d’œil of good old American optimism. For this reason, The Magnificent Ambersons seems ill-suited to rank among the best of our literary endeavors.

The 1919 Pulitzer Prize Decision
Apparently, the same Novel Jury convened in 1919 as in 1918 (I am unsure of who those Jury members were). The initial consensus was not to select a novel for the year 1919 but at the last moment one of the Jury members wrote to the Pulitzer Advisory Board asking if it was too late to grant the award to The Magnificent Ambersons. They decided it was better than not issuing the award at all.

Booth Tarkington, 1922

Today, The Magnificent Ambersons is a largely forgotten novel. The book is more or less eclipsed by Orson Welles’s far more memorable film of the same name released in 1942 (feel free to read my review of the film here). Although Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons was heavily edited by the film studio, which then led to a nasty battle between director and studio (Welles and RKO), the film is nevertheless “magnificent.” Whereas Booth Tarkington and his novel are mostly bypassed today, Orson Welles’s film is one of the finest American pictures ever made.

I will close with an early paragraph from the novel, which also serves as the opening monologue of the Orson 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.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

Click here to read my review of Booth Tarkington’s other Pulitzer Prize winner: Alice Adams.

1 thought on “Thoughts on The Magnificent Ambersons

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on His Family | Great Books Guy

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