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.


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—“

12 comments on “1919: The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington

  1. graham says:

    georgie sounds like an annoying posh twit.

  2. Daniel says:

    I find Georgie’s transformation hard to believe. I do think that people can change, and change a great deal, but there must be a personal desire. People control themselves, and how they wish to live. Georgie’s reversal in temperment and quality does not strike a believable chord with me because he just changed. There was no real decision, it seems, for him to want to change. It makes a nice happy story for him to become good, but there is little evidence to show that he believes that he ought to be good. I am rather disappointed with this book as a whole.

    Your remarks concerning how Booth seemed to think the reader would find fault in both Eugene and Georgie, but in reality Eugene is a pretty okay guy, were quite striking. How could Booth sympathize with Georgie and not Eugene? I am very curious as to know what Booth saw in Georgie, and appernatly ignored in Eugene.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Daniel, were you reading along with me (I thought a couple of the comments above suggested you were)?

      Anyway, your comment about desire is an interesting one–how much do we really control who we are? But the underlying problem–that he seems to become good without any sense that being good is something he believes is worthwhile–is a very real one. If the circumstances of his life truly changed him, we needed to see a lot more of it.

      Regarding Booth’s sympathies, I wonder if he sees Eugene as someone whose work will slowly destroy the town (while Eugene’s naturally nice disposition makes no one oppose him) while Georgie is essentially harmless (and everyone opposes him, since he’s not really a decent human being). Georgie isn’t harmless, of course. That’s where it falls apart, I think–if Georgie were as ineffectual as his Aunt Fanny Minafer, we might see this as a strange morality play, in which the good man kills what is beautiful about the town. But instead, at most we can blame Eugene for unintended consequences (which he accepts full blame for…another slip by Tarkington, if he wants to paint Eugene in a darker light, since it makes Eugene into one of the most thoughtful barons of industry I’ve ever seen), while Georgie ruins lives.

      I am hesitant to believe Tarkington misunderstood his characters and his readers that badly. But if not, then what was the point of constructing the book as he did? A real mystery.

      • Daniel says:

        Haha, no I have not read it (nor will I, after your thrashing review). I just happen to read your blog religiously.

      • jwrosenzweig says:

        A “religious” reader of the blog? I’m pleased there’s already a few voices I can count on to swing by and offer their opinions. 🙂 Well, I hope you’ll consider reading one or two of the books along the way–I think it would be great to get your reactions to the characters for comparison. (And if my initial impressions are any sign, this next book might be a good one to pick up.)

  3. Paul Hamann says:

    I agree with most of what you said, but I’m not certain there was an actual transformation in Eugene. His only real kindness in the whole book was deciding not to make Fanny totally destitute by (gasp!) taking a job that paid well immediately. REmember–he’s still saying “riffraff!” even as late as chapter 34.

    I was more interested in the idea of “come-uppance.” Tarkington says, straight up, that Georgie gets his…by seeing the Amberson name erased! That’s hardly come-uppance, as I see it, because it’s not happening to -him-. I was hoping Fred or Lucy or some wronged party would get an opportunity for a more active revenge than simply saying “gee, look how far that family has fallen.” And that bit about Georgie’s reaction to the name change of Amberson Boulevard or the omission of Amberson from the “Great Families” book wasn’t come-uppance so much as a continued revelation of Georgie’s shallowness…the same shallowness that caused him to hurt Eugene and his mother so deeply.

    Georgie hasn’t changed so much as become helpless due to economic and then physical circumstance. My reaction…a shrug. So what?

  4. Drew says:

    Well, I finished The Magnificent Ambersons last night and, I must admit, I agree with you. What a… I don’t even know how to describe it. I think my blog entry on the subject will have to suffice for a description of how I felt about it.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Drew: I’m sorry it went as I would have predicted — I very much look forward to reading your review of the book! I hate to say it, but there’s one more Tarkington in your future (a book I liked slightly more than this one…..but not by much). I hope you get to rebound from this one by reading something a bit more enjoyable!

  5. […] the awards, saying essentially “Is it too late for us to consider giving the award to The Magnificent Ambersons?”  Fackenthal must have been desperate to avoid another snub year, since he rapidly […]

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I think I liked this book better than you did. Possibly because I had just finished the depressing, disjointed Winesburg Ohio. I enjoyed the fluid writing of this book which made it a quick read. I also enjoyed the historical context which continued a documentation of the economic and social upheaval in the US which I first encountered in Edith Wharton’s (much better) House of Mirth set 15 years earlier. I didn’t like the main character but found him interesting to watch (like a train wreck). The ridiculous seance stuff at the end was a real “jump the shark” moment, though, and another book about a rash young man published only a year later is infinitely better, (This Side of Paradise).

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Yes, in retrospect I may have been a little too hard on Tarkington. My expectations at this point were pretty high, and Booth caught some flak that he wouldn’t if I’d read these during the great doldrums that were much of the 1920s and 1930s in Pulitzer-land. I still think that I’m less pleased with the book than you were, but not by as much as this review would imply. I’ll have to give This Side of Paradise a look, though (and given your remark about Winesburg, I guess I’m glad the Pulitzers never did recognize Sherwood Anderson’s work, which I know folk at the time bashed them for).

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