1925: So Big, by Edna Ferber

Literary Merit:

A lot happens at the end of the book, much of which I’m still processing, but overall the sense I have right now is that Edna Ferber wrote the novel that Booth Tarkington set out to write in The Magnificent Ambersons.  Those of you who remember my reactions to that book may be a bit surprised….certainly this isn’t the way I’d envisioned starting this review, even as recently as 50 pages from the end of the book.  But in the end, this was a two-generation story about families growing up in the new American age.  Economic and social roles shift, and the author casts her lot firmly with one side while exposing the flaws of the other.  At the end of the book, a realization is reached by a young man who’d lived the wrong way.  I could have written that synopsis of Ambersons and been pretty much spot on.

What makes Ferber more successful in telling this story is a bit complicated to explain, and multiple reasons are overlapping here.  First of all, she’s too smart to hitch the main plot to a character as unlikable as Georgie Minafer—Selina DeJong is a delight (but sufficiently human to reveal some flaws), and her son Dirk DeJong (he of the “realization”) is at least a reluctant rich young jerk rather than an exuberant one (and he’s very conscious of not really wanting to be a jerk).  Second of all, Ferber is very sensible about the changes of modern life: her criticisms of “the modern woman” are smart in two ways.  She acknowledges clearly that not all modern women fit the stereotype (and is honestly fairly supportive of many advances for women), and even those modern women she opposes are described with a certain admiration.  She understands why so many young women angle for money and connections, why they put on such airs and play such games—she doesn’t approve of their antics, but she sees them as people like her in a way that Tarkington could never have managed.

What bothers me about Ferber is her willingness to draw lines sharply against Dirk.  The last portion of the novel leaves Dirk under absolutely no illusions regarding the fact that he’s made the wrong choices.  The woman who “loves” him has no real appeal, and the woman he loves (or thinks he does) is too down-to-earth to have anything to do with him.  His mother’s life as an asparagus farmer is richer and more exciting than his life among the rich, famous, and well-traveled in the best circles of Chicago society.  But it seems pointless to have shown him all this: the woman he loves (Dallas O’Mara) makes it plain to him that it’s too late for him to change.  That, at the ripe old age of his late 20s/early 30s, there’s nothing he could do to become the kind of honest, hard-working, tough young man that would ever really attract a woman like her.  I could understand this with Newland Archer—the whole point of that book was the inexorable gravity of his society pulling him down, with no opportunity for him to achieve exit velocity.  But Ferber didn’t do that with Dirk–he’s still close to a mother who is as grounded as anyone can possibly be (Dallas loves her), and as recently as a few years ago he was a young man fresh out of college and passionate about architecture.  If he doesn’t escape his life because he “can’t” or “won’t”, Ferber doesn’t take the time to make that choice believable.  In the end, Dirk’s decision to settle back into the life he hates seems inexplicable, and really a contrivance for the sake of ending the book the way she wants it to.

As I noted in an earlier review, there were really two books here.  I understand why she tied them together—putting Selina and Dirk in contrast to each other creates some meaningful opportunities.  But in the end, I felt she never really finished Selina’s story, and Dirk’s story feels only barely begun.  Ferber has enough talent (good characterization, a decent ability to describe social settings, dialogue that’s often a bit witty or insightful…admittedly a style that’s sometimes a bit too sentimental) to write a really good novel, and a much better personality and attitude than some other authors (poor Tarkington…I never miss a chance to bash him) which means her tone and her instincts are generally good.  She just tried to cram too many ideas into one novel, which leaves me a bit unsatisfied at the end of what was a pretty engaging read.

Historical Insight:

The latter half of the book is where this really shines.  Ferber’s good at depicting the growth of a “society life” in young, brash Chicago–she neither steals from Wharton (which would be easy to do: surely Ferber knew Wharton’s work well) nor strays so far from it that it makes Chicago feel foreign to the New York environment I’m accustomed to.  And this book is in the fascinating position of describing flappers just as they’re coming onto the scene (Ferber’s a bit wicked about them, but also a bit admiring), and Ferber’s attitudes about modern life gives her the advantage of guessing that the stocks-and-bonds boom time can’t last forever.  The book gave me enough of 1920s Chicago to sink my teeth into that I could add my knowledge about 1929 and what followed, to give a real poignancy to her story.  Ferber didn’t know that Dirk would be wiped out and penniless in 4 years, but I do.

There’s also a definite exploration of what Ferber thought it meant to be “American”—maybe more explicitly than any of the authors has since Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer confronted the differences between their worlds—and I think I was able to get a sense from her of what being American felt like at the height of the 1920s.  It’s nice to have ridden this train up from the Great War…I can sense the Crash coming but I don’t have to confront it just yet.

Rating:

I give So Big the rating “Read this after you’ve read about the 1920s”.  It’s definitely a good book, and definitely worth reading if you have any interest in the time period/setting.  But I think you should have dipped your toes into the 1920s somewhere else before this: whether you’re reading history, memoir, or another novel (like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), I think it will make this book a much richer experience when you do so.  Ferber’s good enough that I’m willing to seek out other books of hers, too.

The Last Word:

As I’ve said already, I think Ferber’s been awfully direct in this book about what she values about America and what she disapproves of.  She likes hard work, and artists who worship beauty, and good sturdy architecture.  She disapproves of imported Parisian fashions, and “posh” accents, and investment banking.  These lists could be much longer, but I’ll let Edna Ferber take us to the end of the review by indicating a bit more about Americans herself, in a conversation that Dirk DeJong and the woman he loves, the artist Dallas O’Mara, have while sitting in Selina DeJong’s farmhouse parlor, watching Selina talk animatedly to young Roelf Pool, an old friend.

Seated next to Dirk, Dallas said, in a low voice: “There, that’s what I mean.  That’s what I mean when I say I want to do portraits.  Not portraits of ladies with a string of pearls and one lily hand half hidden in the folds of a satin skirt.  I mean character portraits of men and women who are really distinguished looking—distinguishedly American, for example—like your mother.”

Dirk looked up at her quickly, half smiling, as though expecting to find her smiling, too.  But she was not smiling.  “My mother!”

“Yes, if she’d let me.  With that fine splendid face all lit up with the light that comes from inside; and the jaw-line like that of the women who came over in the Mayflower; or crossed the continent in a covered wagon; and her eyes!  And that battered funny gorgeous bum old hat and the white shirtwaist—and her hands!  She’s beautiful.  She’d make me famous at one leap.  You’d see!”

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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.

Rating:

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—“

“Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks.”

I’ve gotten to like Uncle George Amberson (who offers this remark on the world) and am sorry that he seems to have left the novel for sunnier climes.  Georgie, meanwhile, is in the storm now–in more mundane ways than Lear, perhaps (if this seems confusing, have a look at my conversation with Paul in comments on the last post), but no less real.  And, as I predicted, it seems like Georgie is becoming a good fellow in rapid speed…rapid enough to marry Lucy, I should think, before the end of the book.

I’ll give Tarkington credit, in that the shift in Georgie to practicality is far more believable than I’d expected–necessity is the mother of invention, and the financial state he’s in is pretty dire.  But it’s far too convenient.  People don’t change their personalities simply because life is difficult–if poverty made us all saints, the world would be a very different place.  Suddenly Georgie’s most prominent traits are generosity of spirit, practicality, a sense of family loyalty.  Where was this man before?  And where did his other traits go–25 years of condescension and arrogance can’t be swept away by two deaths in the family and financial ruin, or at least, I doubt they can.  I can see them waking someone up to the fact that they, while normally a good person, have been behaving badly.  But not someone who has never known what it meant to be selfless.

I’m struck by this–maybe you all think hardship works more wonders than I do (if you’ve seen it in real life, I’d find that a better reason to like Tarkington’s approach).  But I think Tarkington’s trying to get his sappy ending, and won’t let the character’s actual personalities interfere with the goal.

“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.

“In all my life, the most arrogant people that I’ve known have been the most senstitive. …”

“The people who have done the most in contempt of other people’s opinion, and who consider themselves the highest above it, have been the most furious if it went against them.  Arrogant and domineering people can’t stand the least, lightest, faintest breath of criticism.  It just kills them.”

So says Eugene Morgan, early “horseless carriage” manufacturer, and father to George Amberson Minafer’s intended fiancee.  There’s a lot of truth in it, and a lot of truth in his perception that Georgie Minafer’s sensitivity stems from the same place as his arrogance, although I wouldn’t call Georgie “domineering,” exactly.  Even once he’s fully grown and his own man, I can’t see it.

There’s an aspect of The Magnificent Ambersons that is like watching a slow-motion trainwreck–I can see by now (closing in on the 1/2 way point) how the Major’s fortune has slowly evaporated, how the children haven’t the faintest idea how to go about living their lives, how the Major’s only grandson, Georgie, will be an utter fool (and penniless, besides) unless perhaps Lucy Morgan gets through to him.  It’s the inevitable consequence of the Ambersons’ obscene amounts of money, or so Tarkington believes, and I can’t disagree.  None of the family, other than the Major, have ever had to bother with being good at anything other than continuing to build up their already overdeveloped senses of self-worth.

There are subplots that don’t involve Georgie (at last!) , but I can’t see how they amplify the theme–Fanny and Isabel’s (Georgie’s old maid aunt and his widowed mother) maneuvering for the love of Eugene Morgan doesn’t do much for me.  The rapid urbanization of the town–the loss of the “country estate” feel of the Amberson’s neighborhood and the rise of cheap wood homes–strikes me as very believable, but as the only person mourning the old ways is the ridiculous Georgie, it’s hard to sense that the author sees this as anything but positive.  There is a liveliness to the characters at times (especially Lucy, who continues to fend off Georgie in a charmingly disarming way), but everything continues to operate in the long shadow of Georgie Minafer.  I agree with the comment Paul made on my earlier post that this is intentional, and that Tarkington has something to say about Georgie, but unlike Paul, it’s not engaging me much as a reader.  I feel as though the message is a fairly obvious one, and the plot isn’t doing much to open up other possibilities for me.  I feel oddly like someone watching a director’s cut of It’s a Wonderful Life in which Capra explores the character of Mr. Potter instead of George Bailey–Potter’s interesting, of course, but the scope of his world becomes claustrophobic even in a few movie scenes.  I’ve spent 250+ pages stuck in a room with Georgie Minafer, and while he’s a better man than Potter was, I’d much rather go home with most of the other characters I’ve met.  I don’t mind characters who are unpleasant, but Georgie just isn’t doing it for me.

And though it’s entirely off-topic from the rest of the post, I just have to say that Tarkington’s casual racism shocks me (though it shouldn’t) with how matter of fact it is.  I can of course intellectually accept that the North was as racist as the South, and that racism was particularly bad here at the end of the 1st World War (as the first major race riots erupt in East St. Louis about this time).  But somehow it always blind-sides me when I turn a page and find a grotesque dialogue with a “darkie” servant.  It doesn’t happen often, but more than enough for me: I don’t know what to do with it, but by now, I’ve given up hope that Tarkington has any interest in getting us to see black servants sympathetically.  Tarkington can chide the Ambersons for being condescending to other middle-American white people, but he seems pretty blind to his own condescension.  But maybe I should just issue the “it was a different time” blank check we always issue to men like George Washington…I don’t know.  It seems different here somehow.

“And since the primordial day when caste or heritage first set one person, in his own esteem, above his fellow-beings, it is to be doubted if anybody ever felt more illustrious, or more negligently grand, than George Amberson Minafer felt at this party.”

George Amberson Minafer, only grandchild of the old Major, is even more thoroughly unpleasant than the above sentence can suggest.  Being the expected heir to the town’s wealthiest family, he behaves with contemptible arrogance in every possible way–it is not enough for George Minafer that he believes he is the most important man in town.  Everyone else must publically and consistently show that they acknowledge their own inferiority.  He learns, with time, to mask this with a veneer of polite conversation, but it lurks under the surface constantly.

And yet, so far, he is the one alive character in town–everyone else seems a mere backdrop to his outrageous appetite for attention.  It’s becoming a frustration of mine with Tarkington: he’s a talented writer (or so I would say), yet he’s so transfixed by George that it’s hard for him to get anywhere with another character (I am perhaps 15% of the way into the book–the past couple of days have left less time for reading).  I wonder where he’s going, and fear this will be a “George learns to be a good man” novel.  If it is, it buys into George’s belief that he is always the most important person in the room.  Ernest Poole does not have Tarkington’s facility with words, but Poole at least knew that characters need to reach outside themselves a bit–the Gales may have been selfish and childish, but these actions constantly run them into the lives of real people and force at least a meaningful conflict.  George Minafer is so publically worshipped (while being privately criticized) that the book is becoming a series of episodes in which I want to punch George in the face, but no one in the room with him can do anything more than sputter and then give up.

I’m still intrigued by the word “magnificent”, by the way.  The OED first suggests “Of an immaterial thing: imposing, exalted, sublime.” but I’m thinking Tarkington’s intentionally baiting us with that, and is now ready to bludgeon us with “Of a person: characterized by display of wealth and ceremonial pomp.” or “Sumptuously constructed or decorated. Also, in wider sense: imposingly beautiful, splendid.”  There is little that is sublime about George Minafer (or the rest of the Amberson clan, as far as I can tell), but much that is both pompous and designed to impose with its splendor.  But the Ambersons may surprise me yet.

“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?