The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington

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Booth Tarkington wrote three novels that were eventually collected together into what became known as his Growth trilogy. Set about a century ago in a Midwestern city (fictitious, but based on Tarkington’s hometown of Indianapolis), they all have to do with the massive economic and social changes brought about by increasing industrialization and technological advances, especially the advent of the motor car era. They focus on the rich people of the town, how they make, and lose, their fortunes and how this changes over the years, and have much less to say directly about the other classes.

The Magnificent Ambersons is the second book of the trilogy (the others being The Turmoil and The Midlander, which was later retitled National Avenue), and by far the best known of the three, based on its winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, and its being made into a famous movie by Orson Welles in 1942.

The Ambersons are a wealthy family headed by patriarch George Amberson. His daughter Isabel is courted by Eugene Morgan, and things seem to be moving along well as they are clearly smitten with each other, but Morgan commits a social faux pas and ultimately Isabel makes the more conservative choice to marry the bland but decent Wilbur Minafer.

They have a child, an only child, whom they name George after his grandfather. They, Isabel especially, totally spoil George, who becomes the central character in the book.

Morgan leaves town, but returns many years later as a sort of automobile visionary, with all kinds of ideas for automobile-related inventions, ways to market automobiles, etc. He is now a single parent of a daughter Lucy, whom George promptly falls for.

Meanwhile, Wilbur Minafer dies, and Isabel and Morgan kind of gravitate back toward each other, with a renewal of their youthful passion very much in the air but not yet acted upon. George instinctively dislikes and feels threatened by Morgan, without being able to put his finger on why. (He doesn’t know about his mother’s past with Morgan.) He senses that in some way or other Morgan is a rival for his mother’s love and attention that he has always had a monopoly on.

For the longest time, virtually nothing is said in the novel about how the Amberson family got rich and stays rich. It’s almost like it’s in their DNA, like being rich is something they naturally are, not the result of anything they do. They come across more like European nobility. Sure, maybe somewhere in the misty past some long lost ancestor was a knight and did some service to the monarch that was rewarded or something, but basically the people in those families are nobles because they are born as such.

One of Tarkington’s messages in this book (and in the Growth trilogy as a whole), though, is that the reign of such families is coming to an end. The Amberson fortune is slowly disappearing (young George doesn’t realize it until it’s too late, as the possibility of his family ever not being rich is something he can’t even fathom), and the same is happening to other similar families, as they are being pushed aside by the hot shot, risk-taking, innovative, new-technology-embracing, go-getters like Eugene Morgan.

So is Tarkington celebrating or lamenting this change at the top that he sees? For the most part, Morgan and characters like him in the trilogy are presented favorably. Not that the “old money” folks are presented as villains, but I think Tarkington sees the self-made, newly rich, Gatsby types as mostly admirable, at least on an individual level.

At the same time, he’s troubled by the—generally unintended—consequences of the changes wrought by these folks: the faster pace of life, the noise, the competitiveness, certainly the despoliation of the urban environment with all the factory smoke and such.

I wonder, though, if he isn’t exaggerating certain characteristics of those who are making the biggest fortunes in this rapidly changing world. He depicts them as bold innovators and inventors, risk takers and workaholics, as opposed to the idle rich living off inheritances and gradually losing ground. But in my observation, in pretty much any era the bulk of the people who get rich are the ones who have the fewest moral scruples and who are the most cunning at being middlemen and exploiting unfair advantages and finding little angles and such. Not that working hard or having great ideas for new technologies never help at all in getting rich, but things like that tend to be quite minor factors.

I don’t know that it’s necessarily a flaw in the writing, but I was struck by how Isabel goes from a young hottie who turns heads wherever she goes and has all the guys after her, to a middle-aged, seemingly sexless, exaggeratedly doting mom practically overnight. She feels like two different characters, with virtually no transition period in between.

Wilbur Minafer, despite being positioned where you’d expect him to be one of the main characters in the book, rarely steps out of the background of the narrative. And evidently that matches the kind of person he is—someone who just doesn’t make much of an impression and is taken for granted by those around him.

There’s a touching passage that reflects this, as George contemplates the corpse of his father: “It needed only the sight of that forever inert semblance of the quiet man who had been always so quiet a part of his son’s life—so quiet a part that George had seldom been consciously aware that his father was indeed a part of his life. As the figure lay there, its very quietness was what was most lifelike; and suddenly it struck George hard. And in that unexpected, racking grief of his son, Wilbur Minafer became more vividly George’s father than he had ever been in life.”

There’s a lot about George that would make you think he’s intended to draw the reader’s ire or disapproval, as he manifests some of the most unappealing traits of the rich. He is particularly loathsome as a child, with his exaggerated sense of entitlement. It’s almost a running joke in the book the way so many characters voice their longing for the arrogant little snot to one day get his “comeuppance.”

But either Tarkington just isn’t that skilled at doing bad guys, or—much more likely—he wants George to be at least a somewhat sympathetic character, to show that whatever the flaws of the rich as a class, individual rich people are not without their redeeming qualities. For I did not find George nearly as unlikable as I might have expected.

Some of it is just the honesty and frankness of his arrogance and self-serving philosophy. There’s a Roz Chast cartoon of a man who is admired “for his lack of lack of pretension.” That’s George. He’s firmly of the belief that he’s not obligated to do anything productive in order to be entitled to live high on the hog his whole life, and he doesn’t see anything problematic about that. As he puts it, “I think the world’s like this: there’s a few people that their birth and position, and so on, puts them at the top, and they ought to treat each other entirely as equals.”

Or as he writes in a letter to Lucy: “I like Thackeray because he is not trashy, and because he writes principally of nice people. My theory of literature is an author who does not indulge in trashiness—writes about people you could introduce into your own home. I agree with my Uncle Sydney, as I once heard him say he did not care to read a book or go to a play about people he would not care to meet at his own dinner table.”

Also, in his own strange way, he’s not strictly an egoist. He has a certain notion of class-based honor, and it is not entirely a selfish one, but at times imposes duties that a true egoist would surely shirk. He may not feel an obligation to work for a living, but in other ways he will sometimes contribute something to the world or perform an act of kindness for someone in his life.

Related to this, there is certainly growth in him over time. Part of his focus on honor is an obsession with his and his family’s reputation, so when he figures out that a romance between his mother and Morgan is a realistic possibility, a concern that it’ll be bad for the family reputation (in part because it will fuel rumors that their involvement may have started while Minafer was still alive) causes him to strongly oppose and discourage it. But later he comes to see this as a mistake, and to put a higher value on happiness, especially the happiness of a mother who has loved him so maximally and unconditionally his whole life.

Also, when the family financial circumstances change in a way that is devastating to him and his position, despite his utter distaste for conventional work—and lack of any experience of it—he grimly enters the working class and does what he feels he has to do not only to support himself but the family members he feels responsible for.

It’s like when he was young he thoroughly took advantage of all the perks of his class, but as the wheel turns he proves willing also to shoulder the duties, however unpleasant.

I don’t know that you can call him a hero, or say that he evolves into a fully admirable person, as for one thing to his dying day he retains a clear distaste for those he considers beneath him, but like I say, he is by no means a wholly unsympathetic character. He’s a product of his environment, and actually does a pretty good job becoming a decent human being relative to that.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a solid book, both in terms of telling an interesting story with interesting characters, and in terms of what it has to say about the changing milieu, the changing America, in which the story takes place.

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