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 of two-time Pulitzer Prize winners). In his day Tarkington was considered among the best novelists of his generation but today the latter authors are remembered far more fondly. Booth Tarkington was a Princeton man (though he never actually graduated) and he originally hailed from Indianapolis, which was the backdrop for many of his novels. He came from an upper-crust patrician Midwestern family that lost much of its wealth in the Panic of 1893. Tarkington married twice. He 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 offered a beautiful panoramic introduction to 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 once built 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 also a silent film version called Pampered Youth that was released in 1925 and it was 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 the new technology. George’s judgment is clouded by hubris. In George’s defiant rejection of all things new, he also prevents his mother from finding love with Mr. Morgan, a businessman and rising automobile magnate. 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, in part to separate her from Mr. Morgan, but while traveling George’s mother grows sick. They return home shortly before her death. Suddenly George sees the world and his town through new eyes -he sees a changed city and the declining status of his family.

The Amberson family wealth now lies in ruins. Their investments have sunk and they are 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 in 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 is around to witness it, except Lucy and her father who visit George to make amends.

The Amberson Mansion from Orson Welles’s 1942 film

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 arrogance prevents him from making smart business decisions, and the old patriarchs who do not invest in the automobile ultimately fall by the wayside. Aristocratic values are no match for the march of Progress. Tarkington’s novel reflects a conservative tone, yet it is also cautionary. It is a warning to readers of the inevitability of technological progress.

In all, The Magnificent Ambersons is not a great novel. It is far too long, far too verbose and lacks beauty. It attempts to be more of a pretentious Greek tragedy (particularly at the conclusion), but it is not an enduring work despite being Booth Tarkington’s most well-known 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.

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 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). Although Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons was heavily edited by the film studio, which then 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.

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

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