Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington

Published in 1918, The Magnificent Ambersons won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in the following year. Booth Tarkington is one of only three authors to have won the prize more than once; the other two are John Updike and William Faulkner.  (Tarkington's Alice Adams won it in 1922.)  Although he was more prolific that either of the other two writers, Tarkington's name is less familiar than theirs to readers today.  If Orson Welles hadn't produced a film version of The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, the title might have fallen into total obscurity by now.  And that, although it would be sadly ironic, would be apt, since the book is about one family's departure from the sight and memory of the people who had once admired their magnificence.

In an unnamed midwestern town at the beginning of the 20th century, the Ambersons are the wealthiest and most prominent citizens, Major Amberson having erected his mansion on an enormous plot of land on Amberson Boulevard.  Nearby, he built another on the same scale for his daughter, Isabel, her husband Wilbur Minafer, and their son, Georgie.
At the age of nine, George Amberson Minafer, the Major's one grandchild, was a princely terror, dreaded not only in Amberson Addition but in many other quarters through which he galloped on his white pony. "By golly, I guess you think you own this town!" an embittered labourer complained one day, as Georgie rode the pony straight through a pile of sand the man was sieving. "I will when I grow up," the undisturbed child replied.  

For Isabel Amberson, the sun rises and sets on her angel, who grows into one of the most self-absorbed and least self-aware spoilt brats in fiction. It seems to Georgie that other people exist for his convenience, and his mother's pandering does nothing to disrupt this world view. He gets the occasional challenge from other boys, but the greater challenge comes from Lucy Morgan, a sensible young lady who often seems to find George's arrogance entertaining.  George pursues her with his unshakable senses of entitlement and superiority.  He is an Amberson, after all, and in that town at that time, the name is big.

Lucy's father, Eugene, is not an aristocrat but a gifted inventor who rumbles about the town in his own early version of the horseless carriage, a mechanism which George ridicules, insisting that there's no future in it.  Although he has a university degree, George seems to feel that putting it to use by aspiring to some sort of career would be downright ungentlemanly.  When George repeatedly asks Lucy to marry him, she asks him what he plans to do.  The question baffles him, and when Lucy points out to him that her father is a respected man in the town, George goes on the offensive.
"He has his way, and I have mine. I don't believe in the whole world scrubbing dishes and selling potatoes and trying law cases. Why look at your father's best friend, my Uncle George Amberson -- he's never done anything in his life, and --"
"Oh, yes, he has," Lucy interrupted. "He was in politics."
"Well, I'm glad he's out," George said. "Politics is a dirty business for a gentleman..."
"I expect to live an honourable life," he said. "I expect to contribute my share to charities, and to take part in -- in movements."
"What kind?"
"Whatever appeals to me," he said.
Lucy looked at him with grieved wonder. "But you really don't mean to have any regular business or profession at all?"
"I certainly do not!" George returned promptly and emphatically.

George, in search of an appropriate pastime, asks his grandfather for the money to buy another carriage horse so that he might pursue tandem driving.  The Major is reticent to hand over the money, and George attributes this to senility rather than any sense of financial constraint. The notion that the Amberson wealth might be affected by time and change is one of countless ideas never to cross his mind.

When reality (in the form of other, lesser people) intrudes, George resists, angry that the riffraff are trespassing, but this grows increasingly difficult as the city grows, immigrants (heaven forbid) arrive, and styles and fortunes shift. At the time of his father's death, George notes that the newer section of the cemetery seemed a "more fashionable and important quarter than that older one which contained the Amberson and Minafer lots."  His subsequent thought on the matter is a classic example of his insistence that being an Amberson is of much greater import than doing anything at all.
...a feeling developed within him that the new quarter of the cemetery was in bad taste -- not architecturally or sculpturally perhaps, but in presumption: it seemed to flaunt a kind of parvenu ignorance, as if it were actually pleased to be unaware that all the aristocratic and really important families were buried in the old section. 

An irate and perpetually self-absorbed George puts a stop to his widowed mother's plan to marry Eugene Morgan. In the following years, the automobile's popularity and Morgan's success steadily increase, and the Amberson empire cracks, decays, and finally topples.

Like many of the citizens in the Ambersons' town, the reader is just waiting for George to get his come-uppance. He is a loathsome snob, and Tarkington gives him only a few redeeming scenes.  If George had gotten his just deserts and nothing more, though, the book would never have received the acclaim that it did. It would have been shelved as one more righteous morality tale.  But George's tribulations do change and at least partly redeem him.

I couldn't help comparing George Amberson Minafer to Anthony Patch, the protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned.  Both young men are presumptive heirs to a fortune, and both embrace idleness as a virtue.  Patch, however, is a more complex character, written with a much sharper pen. We know that Fitzgerald and his character share many traits, including fondness for liquor and literature. I get the sense that Booth Tarkington loathed George and had little in common with him. Maybe an author will treat a character in whom he sees much of himself with more finesse and depth.

George may not have Anthony Patch's verve, but one day he notices that his city has renamed Amberson Boulevard to Tenth Street, and he does grasp, at last, the fundamental message of Tarkington's novel:  Just as his name has passed from the city's memory, so will those of the people who took his place. Everything is transitory. And in 1918, when change came at fraction of today's pace, that realisation probably came as a shock.

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