As you have likely guessed, this is the first line of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1919. I love first lines, generally–they so often seem very carefully chosen to frame the story. I think this is no exception–the emphasis on “making a fortune” (yet putting it in quotation marks, as if to say, “but not really”) and the question of what it means to be “magnificent” rush out at me, and the first few pages do little to change that. The 1870s are described in remarkable detail–whole paragraphs on men’s and women’s outfits, the salaries paid to servants, the layout of the house, even a paragraph devoted exclusively to the beard (a personal favorite). But all very technically, like reading an account book: this is an Indiana town whose exact details can be nailed down because of how small its world really is, and the fact that its inhabitants seem to classify so carefully based on the type of cloth in a coat, or the silhouette of a buggy, tell me a lot about them. It is a different world…and Tarkington makes it obvious that it was very different from his anticipated reader’s world, too. Even in 1918, this town is so old-fashioned as to be alien.
A favorite early moment of mine is the following statement by the narrator: “In the days before deathly contrivances hustled them through their lives, and when they had no telephones–another ancient vacancy profoundly responsible for leisure–they had time for everything: time to think, to talk, time to read, time to wait for a lady!” I wonder…did they ever really have such time, or is this just the same nostalgia we apply to the 1940s and 1950s? And if they really did, where did it all go? Certainly most of us (certainly I) would give a large amount to have such time to ourselves again, time to think and talk and read. How could it be that time-saving devices took our time away from us?