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.
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?
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.
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.
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—“