“Major Amberson had ‘made a fortune’ in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. …”

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?

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2 comments on ““Major Amberson had ‘made a fortune’ in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. …”

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    I’ve grown interested in the characters. I’m also spending time trying to match the mindset of the uber-rich of the late 19th century to the mindset of the rich in the early 21st.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I, as noted in my newest post, feel limited in my interest by Tarkington’s fascination with George, but maybe you’ve read farther than me. I can keep going as I share a little of the George-fascination and I like a lot of Tarkington’s little details as a narrator, but I’m growing frustrated at the smallness of this world, in which virtually no character can be seen except in the light reflected from the glory that is George Amberson Minafer.

      Your comment about the mindsets has been with me as I read. What do you think–are they analogous? So far, there is an sense of aristocratic predestination to these rich that I wouldn’t say I see today: money and public display of it seems to be a way of saying “I’m better, qualitatively, than you as a human being”, whereas I feel that, in the modern era, the public display of wealth is more a way of saying “I can do anything I want; I get to have these things and you don’t”. The modern attitude I’m describing seems a lot more childish to me, but in some ways less insidious than the classism that borders on racism (in that it seems that the poor and even middle class are a lesser form of being than the rich, in the eyes of someone like George). But I’m not at all settled about this, and would love to hear more of what you have to say!

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