“What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?”

What, indeed.  I have to say, Edith Wharton still impresses me, having travelled a little further into this story.  The above remark is expressed by Mrs. Archer in a conversation with Mr. Jackson (the “discreet” old man of my first post on this book) regarding the Countess Ellen Olenska, the New York woman who married a European but has now abandoned her husband to return to a society that is not about to make room for her.  Ellen’s attitudes and behavior carry the scent of scandal, which Mrs. Archer cannot stand, mostly because her son Newland is about to marry May Welland, Ellen’s cousin, allying himself with a family that seems to have lost its sense of propriety.

What I’m enjoying most is the balance between restraint and cruelty—this is, after all, an “age of innocence” in which Mr. Jackson is too delicate to bring up a lady’s past (even though everyone in the room, even those professing to be shocked at the suggestion of impropriety, is well aware of what stories have been told, and about whom) and where conversations are very carefully framed so that the politest of exchanges takes on a much sharper meaning in context.  Wharton’s only playing around in the shallows right now—nothing really intense has yet occurred—but she clearly has all the talent she needs to go there.  I realize that life allegedly (and, I suspect, actually) used to be much more like this: Austen’s work would be just one another example of a world in which the surface is very restrained, even though cruel insults and affronts are intended and understood.  Is it better to live in the good ol’ crass USA?  Or do we have our own ways of hiding these jabs at people within our social circle?

I wonder, though, why I’m so much more comfortable here than with Georgie?  Perhaps it’s that this entire society is the rich, and they’re on relatively equal footing—if Mrs. Archer bad-mouths Ellen Olenska behind her back, it isn’t a power play in the same way as when Georgie humiliated Fred Kinney (or is it?).  Or perhaps it’s that Wharton is simply better at sarcasm and parlor-room conversation than Tarkington is.  Regardless, this is still a very enjoyable book, and one I continue to recommend (if you have a little time) picking  up and reading yourself.

And I can’t possibly end this post without noting that I have now met Mrs. Manson Mingott, the woman whose morbid obesity shocked and interested me at the very beginning of the book, and Mrs. Mingott has not disappointed in the slightest.  She is clearly at the center of society life (despite being virtually unable to participate in it), and so far avoids caricature as far as her personality goes.  Her weight was described so beautifully by Wharton than I’m simply going to give you the three sentences of physical description—I hope you find the writing as delightful as I did:

“The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like the flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.  She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.  A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.”

Poetry Friday: 1921

A poet I have always enjoyed, Edna St. Vincent Millay, published a collection of poetry entitled Second April in 1921—none of them poems of hers I am familiar with.  So I offer for your consideration and comment a poem from that collection, entitled

“Weeds”

White with daisies and red with sorrel
And empty, empty under the sky !
Life is a quest and love a quarrel
Here is a place for me to lie.

Daisies spring from damnèd seeds,
And this red fire that here I see
Is a worthless crop of crimson weeds,
Cursed by farmers thriftily.

But here, unhated for an hour,
The sorrel runs in ragged flame,
The daisy stands, a bastard flower,
Like flowers that bear an honest name.

And here a while, where no wind brings
The baying of a pack athirst,
May sleep the sleep of blessèd things
The blood too bright, the brow accurst.

“On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. …”

Regular visitors, accustomed by now to my habits, may have already guessed that the above sentence is the first line of the novel The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, which won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1921. (But wait, you say, we were just on 1919?  Apparently in 1920 the Pulitzer board didn’t find a novel deserving of the prize, which speaks badly for either the year’s novels or the taste of the Pulitzer board.  I’ll investigate 1920 later, when I feel a little more aware of what it is the board looks for.)

This new novel, though, is a delight so far—Wharton is a skilled stylist, and her interests are clearly to take New York high society and very carefully, very slyly, show it for what it really is.  I don’t know whether to call this “satire” since I feel as though satires are generally a lot more broad and overstated.  Here, Wharton’s very subtle in her digs at these folks, but so many sentences make me smile that I want to sit here and quote them.  Her opening scene (detailing simply what happens at the opera, which has more to do with people watching other people in the audience rather than anything on stage) kept me intrigued.  The brief reference to “Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her to attend the Opera” has me, I have to admit, very interested in meeting this ponderous lady.  And Wharton tosses off so many little observations of people, attitudes, and institutions that it’s hard to keep up—at one point she notes “an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world … that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.” And before I know it (and while I’m still playing out the complicated dig there–the fake “culture” of this opera audience that would rather hear something incomprehensible than admit themselves to be less cosmopolitan than they are), she’s on to describing an old gentleman who is very discreet about the secrets of many people in attendance, partly because of his deep sense of honor which forbids him to reveal such things…but also because “he was fully aware that his reputation for discretion increased his opportunities of finding out what he wanted to know.”

I know all this sounds very tame, but in context (for me, at least) it’s clear that she’s using this stylized but honest narration to be very harsh about this little world of “Old Money” New York.  Strangely, the last two novels (each of which have disappointed on at least some level, one much more than the other) seem to be fusing in this one–a book that captures the spirit of New York, with its eye fixed very much on the very rich.  But in this case, I have no doubt that, if Newland Archer turns out to be the arrogant fop that Georgie Amberson Minafer was, Wharton and I can be on the same side, at least, in cutting Newland down to size.  I have no idea if that’s where this is going, but I’m having fun–if you haven’t picked up one of these novels yet to read, this one’s pretty readily available (Wharton’s still considered “classic” enough to be on bookstore and library shelves), and I’m thinking it’s going to be a good read.  We’ll see.

Did You Know?

For a few hours, the article on His Family at Wikipedia is being spotlighted in their “Did you know” section on their front page, thanks to its recent expansion (inspired by my project)?  A little tiny slice of happiness for me…always wanted an article to make the DYK section, but this is my first success. It’ll probably be gone by the time you read this, of course, but it was fun while it lasted.

1919: The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington

Only explanatory note: I’m realizing “Historical Value” isn’t the right phrase–really what I mean by that category name is how useful/revealing I think the book can be about its time.

Literary Merit:

It’s hard to encapsulate my feelings about The Magnificent Ambersons as a novel: Tarkington’s clearly in possession of some talent for description, and there are times when the book is very engrossing.  But there are major weaknesses here I’ve complained about all along–most critically, that Tarkington invests us in an implausible “redemption” storyline for the one character no reader can reasonably be asked to empathize with.  Furthermore, Tarkington’s narrator gives us too many little nudges that there is something “right” about Georgie’s perspective–I think Booth was a lot more taken with Georgie than I am…that he saw him as a more complicated guy, a guy who represented a side of America that Booth was a little sad to lose.  If I’m not careful, I can go way overboard with the symbolism–Georgie’s being struck by a car after being the spokesperson for how the car was ruining America represents….I don’t have the heart to go through with it.

An interesting discovery (post-read) was that this is volume 2 in a trilogy of works about this fictitious Indiana town–a trilogy Tarkington called “Growth”.  The other two books are long since forgotten and out of print.  I think it may explain a lot, though, regarding why the book seems to drift–particularly, why the narrator sometimes seems a lot more interested in the changes in the town than in the plot which dominates the book.  It is a book (I would say) without subplots, unless we consider the effects of industry on the town to be a subplot (but if so, how plodding a subplot can you choose?).  So we’re left with a lament regarding the late industrial revolution, and the story of an arrogant jerk of a young man who miraculously learns to be good.  Not gripping.

The end of the novel, I want to particularly call out for its poor taste.  Tarkington uses a seance to force Eugene Morgan to change his mind about Georgie…and then realizes mid-seance he’s overplaying his deus ex machina, and bails out by creating a scenario in which Morgan realizes it was all a sham.  (But then if he didn’t believe the medium, why does he still follow the dead Isabel’s “advice”?)  And the final moments seem to emphasize Morgan’s change of heart, not Georgie’s…in the end, Georgie is automatically assumed to be gracious (he is kind to the Morgans, but we never see his decision/epiphany that allows him to make that change in his personality), while we follow Morgan’s struggle in great detail (when, frankly, I didn’t think Morgan’s character needed to redeem himself for me at all).  It just rings false–Tarkington thinks we’re going to be torn between Eugene and Georgie, seeing both men as at fault.  But Eugene is a patient, kind, forgiving, and generous man whose hope of romantic happiness is destroyed by a petulant child who refuses Eugene even a final visit to the love of his life on her deathbed.  If, after all that, he resented Georgie….well, who among us would blame him?

Historical Value:

I’ll say this: Tarkington describes Gilded Age Middle America very well.  If you want to envision what life was like in Grovers Corner, this book will do a fair job (at least in describing the lives of the wealthy).  And the reflections on the positives and negatives regarding progress are of some importance.  But in the end, Tarkington’s narrow vision just didn’t grip me.  By the end of His Family, I understood and cared about New Yorkers from the 1910s in a way I never had, despite that book’s real limitations (largely Poole’s sermonizing).  This novel just didn’t bring me to a historical place like that–a place where I could be at once fascinated by and connected to people and their world.  There were moments when I came close, but the characters and their interactions simply don’t allow Tarkington to explore the tensions of a growing city in anything like the depth he wants to.

Rating:

Still on the ridiculous scale of “Never read this book” to “You must own this book”, I give The Magnificent Ambersons a “You probably shouldn’t bother with this book”.  I hate to say it, but I think you’ll do much better to read other things–I can’t identify anything this book does well that isn’t done better in a number of other works.  It’s not a bad book, and Tarkington’s honestly a writer with some skill, but there are too many books in the world for me to say you should invest yourself in this.

Last Word:

It’s only fair to give Tarkington and Georgie the last word, and I’ll let them pontificate on the one message I found most interesting–the message regarding what it means that this small Indiana town is becoming part of the modern world.  From near the end of the book, Georgie lies in a hospital bed and thinks…

“…What a clean, pretty town it had been!  And in his reverie he saw like a pageant before him the magnificence of the Ambersons–its passing, and the passing of the Ambersons themselves.  They had been slowly engulfed without knowing how to prevent it, and almost without knowing what was happening to them. … Nothing stays or holds or keeps where there is growth, he somehow perceived vaguely but truly.  Great Caesar dead and turned to clay stopped no hole to keep the wind away; dead Caesar was nothing but a tiresome bit of print in a book that schoolboys study for awhile and then forget.  The Ambersons had passed, and the new people would pass, and the new people that came after them, and then the next new ones, and the next–and the next—“

“Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks.”

I’ve gotten to like Uncle George Amberson (who offers this remark on the world) and am sorry that he seems to have left the novel for sunnier climes.  Georgie, meanwhile, is in the storm now–in more mundane ways than Lear, perhaps (if this seems confusing, have a look at my conversation with Paul in comments on the last post), but no less real.  And, as I predicted, it seems like Georgie is becoming a good fellow in rapid speed…rapid enough to marry Lucy, I should think, before the end of the book.

I’ll give Tarkington credit, in that the shift in Georgie to practicality is far more believable than I’d expected–necessity is the mother of invention, and the financial state he’s in is pretty dire.  But it’s far too convenient.  People don’t change their personalities simply because life is difficult–if poverty made us all saints, the world would be a very different place.  Suddenly Georgie’s most prominent traits are generosity of spirit, practicality, a sense of family loyalty.  Where was this man before?  And where did his other traits go–25 years of condescension and arrogance can’t be swept away by two deaths in the family and financial ruin, or at least, I doubt they can.  I can see them waking someone up to the fact that they, while normally a good person, have been behaving badly.  But not someone who has never known what it meant to be selfless.

I’m struck by this–maybe you all think hardship works more wonders than I do (if you’ve seen it in real life, I’d find that a better reason to like Tarkington’s approach).  But I think Tarkington’s trying to get his sappy ending, and won’t let the character’s actual personalities interfere with the goal.

“Submit to gossip and you kill it; fight it and you make it strong.”

This advice from Uncle George Amberson comes at least an hour too late to the impetuous Georgie Amberson Minafer.  I take back my earlier comment that I can’t see Georgie as domineering, since he clearly is.  It’s a strange side of him, though–he goes from bristling at the idea that Lucy’s father, Eugene, thinks ill of him straight to a disastrous confrontation with the town gossip, purely because there is “talk” about Eugene and Georgie’s widowed mother, Isabel.  This meltdown of Georgie’s is interesting to me: first of all, when his uncle points out that there’s nothing wrong with a widow and widower getting married (the mourning year has passed), Georgie has no response other than to be appalled that anyone would think this marriage would be acceptable.  But what is it that bothers him so?  He was never close to his late father, Wilbur Minafer–is this Georgie processing his guilt at never having known his dad?  Is it that he feels Eugene will prevent Lucy from marrying him, and he wants to return the favor?  Or is it as simple as he says it is–that one’s good name is the most important thing about them?  But Georgie doesn’t seem much like John Proctor to me.

What is terrible about Georgie is that, even when given the chance to consider things calmly, he refuses.  And the pattern of his life continues–his mother knows, on some level, that Georgie is wrong, but in the end she cannot fight him.  She abandons her home and the man she loves (or might have loved, given time) to roam the earth despite her failing health, all so that Georgie can be satisfied that she will never marry Eugene.  But what kind of life is this?  Even Oedipus would find it hopelessly confining–Georgie, in denying his mother any life outside of her worship of him, will spend the rest of her life as her gloomy chaperone.  His will, his appetite for dominance, has outgrown any reasonable bound: he is a child who believes that only screaming will accomplish his ends.  His most pathetic moment–being ordered out of a home built on a piece of the old Amberson estate by the old gossip who lived there–was the moment where it seemed Georgie might rein himself in, might acknowledge that it was time to grow up.  He might realize that “being an Amberson” gives him very little authority (all of it merely social), and that his bad manners have spoiled any chance he has to gain the town’s respect.  But no.

The funny thing about all this is that Tarkington seems to be on his side.  Georgie is fundamentally old-fashioned–his quarrel with Eugene is essentially an Old Money vs. New Money quarrel (at least at first).  He wants to reject progress, dress as “important men” once did, and preserve the good old class structure in town.  It’s the Morgans who are more democratic, passionate, unconcerned with what the gossip will be.  And yet every chance Tarkington gets, he laments the fall of the old order, the old town, and bashes the arrival of the automobile (thanks to Eugene Morgan’s factories) in very unsubtle ways.  The two themes seem hopelessly contradictory, and I can’t understand why they are here–given that the impersonal 3rd person narrator is unlikely to repudiate earlier assertions about how dirty and awful the modern age is, can it be that we are to empathize with Georgie?  Or is the narrator supposed to, in some mysterious way, be him?  The style of the novel is confusing its message, for me.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m detached from the novel–not engaged by it.  But I’m frustrated with it, and it’s hard to see where it’s taking me.  The Morgans seem without flaw to me, and Georgie irredeemable (though I anticipate an 11th hour redemption, regardless).  I think the interesting characters in the middle of all this are the real Ambersons–the decrepit old Major, Uncle George (whose practicality doesn’t always show up at the right time), and Isabel Minafer, George’s hopeless mother who may yet salvage her life if she can cut herself free from the wreckage of her son’s insatiable will.  And Aunt Fanny Minafer, whose despair has fueled a lot of the trouble here in the later stages of the book, but who is at least a complex person (if a bit tiresome).  But I think Tarkington is much more interested in Georgie’s fall from grace and how immovable the Morgan kindness proves to be–if I’m right, I’ll be disappointed at the book’s ending.  I hope not: come on, Booth, why do the Ambersons matter?  Throw me a rope.  Only 100 pages to go–review tomorrow, in all likelihood.