“Marriage reduced all women to a common denominator; changed a cool, self-satisfied girl into a loving and generous one.”

Poor misguided Claude.  Somehow, despite clear warnings from Enid’s father and Enid’s own clear statement that she doesn’t feel well-suited to marriage, he’s convinced her to marry him.  And now she’s acting strangely, more interested in the house he’s building than in him, detached from the romance he was expecting.  Well, thank goodness marriage is a magic spell that transforms each woman into the wife her husband had always wanted.

Worst of all, of course, is that Claude is just beginning to realize what I could have told him long ago: that Gladys Farmer, the schoolteacher and his childhood friend, was the woman for him.  She has always believed in his talent, and she feels it would be a grave tragedy for Claude to live out an empty life as a farmer trudging crops to the station—only with her could he ever have the life he wants.  But Claude’s older brother, Bayliss, has his sights set on Gladys, so Claude could never really step in and claim her love, even if she made it clear that she loved him, even if he was not already engaged.  There’s a heaviness to this realization—good or bad, with Newland Archer, you didn’t sense that he’d let his marriage to May be an anchor around his neck, but Claude’s innate sense of honor and duty seem to be forming a cage around him.  By the end of Book II (there are five “books” to the novel), Claude is, in fact, married to Enid, and he seems resigned to a very cold and loveless life indeed.  It’s not clear what Enid’s approach to marriage will be, but I doubt she will forgive Claude easily for convincing her into a union she never truly wanted.

In the background (but coming rapidly to the fore) is the Great War—it is the summer of 1915 by the time Claude marries Enid.  There’s something really fascinating about watching the news of the war spread: Mrs. Wheeler dragging a map of Europe out of the attic into the sitting room, where she can study it as she reads the daily papers, asking Claude to read aloud from encyclopedia articles about French towns.  Ernest Havel explaining painfully to Claude why the soldiers in the Austrian army have no real choice in the matter…that they must fight or face persecution and violence.  Cather’s uneven here.  Sometimes her characters are too knowing.  They see the war too clearly, and speak with too distant a historical eye on the proceedings.  It’s a bit reminiscent of Ernest Poole in those moments (see my notes on His Family for more).  But as often, if not more often, I think she retains her strengths: she places the war in very real Nebraska terms, and it’s complicated.  Claude and his mother have to reconcile what the papers say about Germans with their German friends—people like the Erlichs—who bear no resemblance to the “Huns” who apparently aim at devouring Europe.  War means fear and death, but also prosperity: Mr. Wheeler has never worked so hard to plant so much wheat, knowing that the prices for grain will go sky high due to the war.  And underneath everything, the war looks eerily like the manifestation of what she positions herself against—the elevation of machine over humanity, the march of industrial “progress” slowly crushing the life out of the world.  You don’t have to agree with Cather to find this a powerful theme.

And because I continue to really enjoy Cather’s clear and serious tone, I’ll include another short passage from this section, in which Claude and his mother have just discussed what it means that the government of France has fled south out of Paris:

It was curious, he reflected, lying wide awake in the dark: four days ago the seat of government had been moved to Bordeaux,—with the effect that Paris seemed suddenly to have become the capital, not of France, but of the world!  He knew he was not the only farmer boy who wished himself tonight beside the Marne. … One’s manners wouldn’t matter on the Marne tonight, the night of the eighth of September, 1914.  There was nothing on earth he would so gladly be as an atom in that wall of flesh and blood that rose and melted and rose again before the city which had meant so much through all the centuries—but had never meant so much before.  Its name had come to have the purity of an abstract idea.  In great sleepy continents, in land-locked harvest towns, in the little islands of the sea, for four days men watched that name as they might stand out at night to watch a comet, or to see a star fall.”

“You’ll find out that pretty nearly everything you believe about life—about marriage, especially—is lies.”

The above words are not what most people would be glad to hear on any occasion.  To hear them, as Claude Wheeler does, after asking a man’s permission to court his daughter, must be even more devastating.  What is strange is that Mr. Royce, whose daughter Enid is a long-time friend of Claude’s and has tended Claude on his sick-bed, doesn’t seem opposed to the marriage for his daughter’s sake.  If anything, he seems to be warning Claude that Enid won’t make him happy, that Enid is a poor choice of a wife (for Claude, at least), and the fellow seems sincere.  Maybe this tells me more about the Royce’s relationship than it does about our author’s attitudes, but it still seems a strange conversation for Cather to offer us.

Generally, I’m enjoying the book a lot.  Claude’s struggles as a farmer (and his difficulties relating to his family, as well as his trouble figuring out who to court and how to court them) are interesting, occasionally amusing, and seem to endear him more and more to me even as they reveal his deepest flaws.  The background of all this is how much the world is changing—the mill runs on a gas engine now, not water power.  Claude reflects at length on the strangeness of the farmer’s world, in which truly excellent produce and livestock are sold, and the money is used to buy cheap, flimsy, unreliable bits of machinery and furniture.  A horse, he notes, will last you three times as long as an automobile: we might be down to “twice as long” now (with the exception of my father’s ancient green van) but it’s still an interesting idea.  Claude’s family and friends are an interesting group, especially the housekeeper, Mahailey, who chatters in some indescribable brogue and bustles about the house during a snowstorm wearing a specially hideous coat and hat she saves for “calamitous occasions”.  Even Enid, who’s become suddenly a major character in the story, is a more complicated creature than simply the attractive girl next door.  I am fairly certain Claude’s dreams of romance are doomed (this section of the novel, Book II, is entitled “Enid”…I’m thinking that the last book would bear her name if a successful courtship was likely), but I’ll admit I can’t figure out why.  If Enid turns Claude down after the way she’s behaved towards him, I’ll certainly understand his shock.  It’s funny, though–by page 150, you’d think I could tell you what this novel is “about” but I can’t say I’m certain yet.  It’s about more than Claude Wheeler learning to love the right girl, or learning that farming is pretty hard after all, or learning that the academic life is the life for him.  More than that, I cannot say.

What I will say again is that Cather is a good writer, and this book is a good read.  It does not sparkle with the same wit and humor that Edith Wharton has at her fingertips, but there is a quality to this society and these characters that is undeniably appealing without being excessively cheery.  There are real tensions–the society’s reactions to Ernest’s atheism (and the suspicion that Claude shares his skepticism), or perhaps the awkward and often unpleasant behavior of Bayliss, Claude’s older brother.  None of it surges over into melodrama, though–in many ways, I feel I’m reading the sort of book about Nebraska that Tarkington wanted to write about Indiana.  A wide, sweeping view of the community in which the characters live, casting an eye somewhat critically on the “progress” that is changing the world.  A focus on a young person who does not quite understand themselves for who they are, and who, for good or bad, feels a sense of detachment from the family and friends who surround them.  I wish Booth had read some of Cather’s work and taken it more to heart.

So, both to illustrate the style of Cather (to contrast it with the excerpts I gave of Wharton’s work) and to share a little moment I enjoyed, here’s a snippet from one of the chapters on the snowstorm:

“He rose and went to look out, but the west windows were so plastered with snow that they were opaque.  Even from the one on the south he could see nothing for a moment; then Mahailey must have carried her lamp to the kitchen window beneath, for all at once a broad yellow beam shone out into the choked air, and down it millions of snowflakes hurried like armies, an unceasing progression, moving as close as they could without forming a solid mass.  Claude struck the frozen window-frame with his fist, lifted the lower sash, and thrusting out his head tried to look abroad into the engulfed night.  There was a solemnity about a storm of such magnitude; it gave one a feeling of infinity.  The myriads of white particles that crossed the rays of lamplight seemed to have a quiet purpose, to be hurrying toward a definite end.  A faint purity, like a fragrance almost too fine for human senses, exhaled from them as they clustered about his head and shoulders.”

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—“

“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.

“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?

“Mankind had suddenly unmasked and shown itself for what it was–still only a precocious child…”

“…And the picture rose in his mind of a child, standing there of giant’s size with dangerous playthings in its hands, and boastfully declaring, ‘I can thunder over the earth, dive in the ocean, soar on the clouds!  I can shiver to atoms a mountain, I can drench whole lands with blood!  I can look up and laugh at God!'”

The Great War has come.  I’d thought it was a non-factor in the book (which thus far made no mention of what year it was) because it didn’t concern these people in their private lives, far away from the battle…but no, Roger picked up the paper, July 30, 1914, and now everything has changed.  The petty childishness of the family (commented on before) is now dwarfed, in Roger’s eyes, by the childishness of the human race.  Seeing, as I do, from the benefit of a century’s hindsight, it is hard not to read a phrase like “I can shiver to atoms a mountain” and not feel Roger (and Ernest Poole, who conceived of him) eerily looking through time to the horrors of the mushroom cloud.

The war and private tragedy are combining to crush this little family that I have come to care about (even though their weaknesses are on full display…perhaps never more so than now in the first months of the war).  It’s hard to read this book in context–I look at a passage like Roger’s watching his young grandchildren and asking himself what kind of world will be left, asking himself if they can escape war and poverty.  And I cannot help but think that George and Elizabeth will be young and married when the market crashes.  They will raise children in the Great Depression only to see their sons go off to Normandy’s beaches or fly to their deaths in the Coral Sea, to see their daughters tend Victory Gardens and dance at the USO and pray their loved one returns safely home.  The century ahead, which Roger looks to with hope–hope that it will prove to be all that the dreams of progress promise it will be–is hard to see in that light.  But maybe I’m making the 20th Century out to be more grim than it truly was–Roger was too early to understand it, and I was too late.

As the family pulls together (and not easily) to survive the winter of 1914-1915, Deborah (the idealist school principal) turns to her father and says “Every nation at war is doing it, Dad–become like one big family–with everyone helping, doing his share.  Must a nation be at war to do that?  Can’t we be brothers without the guns?”

Can’t we, indeed.  I wonder.  It seems like fear is all that speaks to our hearts in a voice loud enough to bring us together.  Is Deborah too idealistic…can anyone point to a time where people pulled together without the threat of violence (if not war)?  And if not, what does that say about humanity?  I’m near the end, now: the next post will probably be my review of His Family.  Whether or not I can find an answer that satisfies me, I hope I can find Ernest Poole’s–he wrote this before the war had ended.  What did he see in their future?

“I was thinking of hungry people…”

“…Hungry, oh, for everything–life, its beauty, all it means. And I was thinking this is youth–no matter how old they happen to be.”

One hurdle I have to clear at the outset–I’m realizing I just have to talk about these books as though you’ve read them, even if you haven’t.  I’ll try to identify characters and situations clearly, and not give away every crucial plot point, but to dig into what I’m thinking, there’s no vague way to do this.

As I get further into His Family, it’s becoming clearer that one of the critical problems of the rapid pace of modern life (as far as Ernest Poole is concerned) is that no one really grows up.  Everyone is constantly a beginner at life–Roger Gale, the aging patriarch, is racist, perhaps sexist, certainly not comfortable in 1910s New York.  But his racism feels less like a deep angry fear, and more the casual intolerance of a child who’s never played with a particular group of children.  At first it seemed this would be a book about how old-fashioned, conservative Roger can’t accept the world, while his daughters try to enlighten him.  But it’s steadily clearer that the kids are just as clueless–Edith who hopes somehow to mimic her deceased mother (and can’t accept the world’s changing any more than her father can), and on the other end of the spectrum Laura, whose desperate quest to find a world devoid of responsibility and full of fun would be at least amusingly understandable in a teenager, but seems recklessly doomed in the late twenty-something that she is.

Deborah, the middle child, the schoolteacher, seems the most grounded so far with her desire to reach out and save the lives of these tenement children (“all Jews and Italians”, according to Roger).  But she is anchoring herself to a belief in 19th Century progress that must have already seemed quaintly deluded in a world that was slowly grinding progress into death and blood in the trenches of Northern France.

The underlying problem for me, of course, is whether our culture is any better at dealing with modernity.  Are we less likely to behave childishly, to seek escape in entertainment or tradition or the hope of progress?  Am I?  And does Poole see these people for who they are, or is he as deluded as the rest of them–is he sympathetic to Deborah or Edith, or even, heaven help us, Roger?  I wonder.  Roger’s about to visit Deborah’s school with her–we’ll see if I can pick up the signals there.

(Side note: The children in these turn-of-the-century novels always talk so preciously…the dialogue of the adults seems far more natural to my ears than the kids around the dinner table.  Have children changed so much, or is it just that literary conventions about children have changed?)