1919 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

A stately American novel if there ever was one, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) won the second “Pulitzer Prize for the Novel” in 1919. 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 two Pulitzer Prizes, Tarkington became the founding member of an exclusive club which, in later years, also included William Faulkner and John Updike, who both won two Pulitzer Prizes (and as of 2020 Colson Whitehead has also achieved this rare distinction). In his day, Tarkington was considered among the best novelists of his generation, an erudite midwestern gentleman who dined with business magnates and politicians alike, but today he has fallen among the crowded ranks of mostly forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winners. Originally hailing from Indianapolis (where his novels were mostly set), Newton Booth Tarkington was a degree-less Princeton man whose upper-crust patrician Midwestern family tragically lost most of its wealth during the Panic of 1893, not unlike the fictional Amberson family. 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 successes, he was often celebrated as the toast of East Coast elite circles, rubbing shoulders with high society everywhere he went.

Mirroring Booth Tarkington’s own life, The Magnificent Ambersons is the tragic story 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. We see children playing in the streets, women gossiping on warm summer nights, and teenagers wooing their neighbor’s daughters while courtly carriages gently trot by. At the center of this blissful epoch is the Amberson family, whose Gilded Age fortune had built this little town. Streets and buildings all bear the Amberson name, and the fabulous Amberson mansion sits at the far end of town. All seems well in this ante-hurried-mobilian Eden. However, with the passing of an older 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. The old ways become dusty, frail, and complacent in their own hubris, thus beckoning a new age of progress.

In the midst of the Amberson’s decline is a spoiled and arrogant child named George or “Georgie” Amberson Minafer. He is a “pampered youth” (a silent film was released in 1925 loosely based on the novel entitled Pampered Youth). As George grows, he inherits the position of de facto head of the Amberson family, but, in his own fatal obstinance, he refuses to change with the times. He despises the newfangled automobile, and pridefully rejects an opportunity to invest in this strange new technology. He feels unthreatened and calloused to the whims of the world around him. George’s judgment is clouded by his own hubris. In his defiant rejectionism of all things new, he also prevents his mother from finding new love with a local automobile magnate named Mr. Eugene Morgan. At the same time, George also quietly loses track of 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 becomes gravely ill. They return home and she dies shortly thereafter. We are left to mourn the life she might have lived with Mr. Morgan had it not bbeen for George’s childishness. Suddenly, upon the passing of his mother, George sees the world anew — his town has truly 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 old house becomes little more than a dilapidated edifice for old memories and it is soon forgotten. In time, it is boarded up and torn down to make way for new 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 monthly rent. By now, the Amberson name is entirely wiped away 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 costs him his job. His accident is briefly highlighted in the newspapers, but George and the Ambersons have largely been forgotten by now. He lies injured and anonymous 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’s curse has finally come to fruition –only now, no one is around to witness it, save for Lucy and her father who decide to visit George in the hospital in order to make amends.

The Amberson Mansion from Orson Welles’s 1942 film

Throughout the novel, George Amberson Minafer 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 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 (as well as a dash of schadenfreude) 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 prominent 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, though Orson Welles’s truly “magnificent” interpretation of the novel is not to be missed.

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 though The New York Times noted that many of these early Jury members were appointed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters). 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 to give the prize to Tarkington than to not issue an award at all –not exactly a resounding endorsement of The Magnificent Ambersons.

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 vs RKO), the film is nevertheless a seminal achievement.

I will close this review 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.”

Booth Tarkington, 1922

Who Is Booth Tarkington?

Newton Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) was born in Indianapolis to a well-connected family (his uncle was the governor of California, Newton Booth, and he was also related to the Mayor of Chicago). He attended Phillip Exeter Academy and rubbed shoulders with family friends like President Benjamin Harrison. He began his career contributing numerous anonymous submissions to various publications. He drew comics for the Princeton Tiger while attending the university where he also served as a leader at several student organizations. After being rejected numerous times for his literary endeavors, he finally found success with the publication of “The Gentleman from Indiana” (1889), thanks to a family connection to S.S. McClure, and from here Tarkington embarked on a busy writing career, which included the publishing of a new novel each year. He was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1902-1903 but soon returned to writing, penning some forty novels and plays between 1899-1946. Both The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams won the Pulitzer (Tarkington is one of only four writers to date who have written two novels that have both won a Pulitzer Prize), however he was most fondly remembered in his day for his tales of Midwestern boyhood as found in his Penrod stories.

Politically, Tarkington was an ardent internationalist, a passionate supporter of the United Nations and Roosevelt’s lend-lease policy, however he staunchly detested FDR’s New Deal. His political conservatism was replete throughout his writings and in his taste in art. He was a defender of the old guard Midwest aristocracy, an elite class he believed was ever under threat of destruction from the march of Progress.

Tarkington wrote only in longhand, never having learned to use a typewriter. He was a frequent world traveler, residing at homes on the coast of Maine as well as Indiana. He was twice married. His first wife, Laurel Louisa Fletcher (later Connely), was a poet who helped arrange many of his early works (they were married from 1902-1911). She was the daughter of a Midwest banking family and a graduate of Smith College. They had one daughter, Laurel, born in Rome during one of the Tarkington’s extended trips aboard. Laurel lived from 1906-1923 –tragically, she suffered from schizophrenia and attempted suicide by throwing herself out a second story window, She survived the fall but passed away due to pneumonia at age 17 with her doting father by her bedside. After divorcing his first wife, Tarkington remarried Susanah Keifer Robinson in 1912 (he met her at a house party in Dayton, Ohio in 1912) and they had no children. Tarkington died at the age of 76 in 1946, and despite being nearly blind, he was three-quarters of the way through a new novel at the time. He left behind his widow Susannah and three nephews. During his lifetime, Tarkington was regarded as among the greatest of American novelists, hailed as the great Hoosier writer of the changing Midwest, however his reputation has declined precipitously in the ensuing decades. In 1983, Tarkington’s grandniece Susanah Mayberry published an affectionate memoir of her grand-uncle entitled “My Amiable Uncle” which fondly reflected upon his life, but more recent reflections on Tarkington have been less than friendly. Occasionally, Tarkington appears in contemporary articles –Thomas Mallon penned a scathing article in The Atlantic in 2004 entitled “Hoosiers: The Lost World of Booth Tarkington” and an even more blistering critique of Tarkington was written by Robert Gottlieb in a 2013 The New Yorker article entitled “The Rise and Fall of Booth Tarkington” in which he claimed “the candidate for the Great American Novelist had dwindled into America’s most distinguished hack.”

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.