“Do you mean to tell me you’d marry a man simply because he happened to have a lot of money!”

The answer to such questions, of course, is almost invariably “Yes,” whether or not the person answering the question can be honest enough to say so.  (I’m not saying people are always willing to marry for money—just that if you’re getting asked that question, I’m inclined to think there’s a reason you are.)  Certainly it’s “yes” for Paula Arnold, the young woman being questioned by young Dirk DeJong.  She’s a family friend (daughter of Selina’s best friend from her childhood) and has been raised in fabulous wealth thanks to the success of her successful “pork baron” grandfather, August Hempel: she says frankly (and unashamedly) to Dirk that it would take a millionaire to keep her happy, and even though Dirk’s attractive and bright, he simply couldn’t provide for her at the level she’s accustomed to.

It’s become Dirk’s story now—I have to admit, I think Ferber may have tried too much with this novel.  Dirk’s a very different person than his mother, and having invested half the novel in Selina (who’s almost absent for much of the latter half), it’s hard not to feel that the whole Dirk storyline is a distraction to the reader.  I see some opportunities for drawing those plots together (which will come in at the end of this post), but it’s too often a bit disengaging, like two reasonably solid novellas that have been hastily stitched together.

I do have to emphasize that solidity–the novel isn’t shifting into a weaker story by following Selina’s son.  Dirk is interesting to watch, especially in the light of the novels I’ve already read on this journey.  He seems to want to be Georgie Minafer (the unredeemed version) or Newland Archer.  Despite his interest in, and talent for, architecture (thanks to training at Cornell), he’s not moving up fast enough, so he connects himself to the easy life of investments and the stock/bond trade.  It’s the early 1920s, after all, and that spiral seems to lead upwards forever.  Paula, who’s married a much older man for money (and unhappily, it should be noted), is constantly pushing him into this world, using her rich husband and rich family to make connections for Dirk and raise him into one of the brightest young stars in the city.  She’s in love with him, and he with her, it seems—it’s only a matter of time before their relationship is the scandal of Chicago.  (Sidenote: This aspect of the novel is in some ways strangely reminiscent of the story of Frank Lloyd Wright, which I read in a novel, Loving Frank, that was good enough to be almost worth recommending to you.)

There’s an obvious and depressing trend to these young Chicago men.  The old rich men, at least, had the virtue of industry and passion for what they did.  August Hempel may be a rich old tyrant, but there’s something vital about him, and the rest of these imperial barons who built the town up from the mud.  Their children and grandchildren, by contrast, seem to value riches without effort, style without substance.  And Dirk wants to live that way, as well.  But isn’t this the way every generation sees its children?  Ferber’s implicit criticisms of young bond-traders are surely not much different than the criticisms levied against the young businessmen of the 1950s or the young guns on Wall Street in the 1980s.  Is this the real Chicago of the 1920s, or just the narrative that we hand down in every generation—that the Golden Age is dead, that “the great men are gone and we shall not see their like again”?

All this setup, though, leads to a truly wonderful scene.  Selina learns from Paula’s mother that there’s talk all over town about Dirk and Paula, and the affair everyone expects will manifest.  The next time Dirk comes home, she asks him to come sit in her room that evening, and she confronts him about the course his whole life is taking.  Their conversation is masterfully done—Ferber allows both characters to speak as frankly and sincerely as two people would in such a situation.  When they’re melodramatic, it’s because people in such situations overplay their hands.  When they leave things unsaid, we hear them all the more loudly.  Selina is appalled that her son would abandon real and important work—the making of beautiful buildings—for something as common and base as the pursuit of wealth through the buying and selling of little pieces of paper.  And Dirk cannot fathom why his mother thinks so little of him, or fails to see the importance of changing to adapt to the new world.  At one point, she asks him (as she often did, long ago) how big he is, now.  He says “So big,” and holds his thumb and forefinger mere millimeters apart.  And in his heart he thinks himself very “big” indeed.  In context, it’s a very powerful moment.

And though Selina is angry with Dirk (and I understand that anger), I think she’s unfair to him.  She wants him to pursue his dreams.  She thinks he would have done better to work on her farm than go off to the financial markets.  But Selina’s journey from seeking the “hard and thrilling” life to the “hard but honest” life wasn’t exactly a bed of roses.  She could never be the comfortable farmer she is today if a land-owning farmer (Pervus DeJong) hadn’t married her, and if a rich man (family friend August Hempel) hadn’t offered her an interest-free loan after her husband’s death.  I’m not saying anything against Selina, who’s worked her fingers to the bone for that farm.  But without two successful men (well, one who was well off enough to have a decent farm, and one who was truly and epically wealthy) she’d never have gotten where she has.  Is it so hard to see that Dirk would look at the course of such a life, and decide that it would be better to be August Hempel than to be Selina DeJong?  And because he doesn’t understand either of them, really, he chooses a line of work that offers the path of seemingly least resistance.  It’s the American way.  And in a few years, it will utterly destroy the American economy…if he only knew.  I’m almost at the end, now: a review will almost certainly be my next post.

“What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?”

What, indeed.  I have to say, Edith Wharton still impresses me, having travelled a little further into this story.  The above remark is expressed by Mrs. Archer in a conversation with Mr. Jackson (the “discreet” old man of my first post on this book) regarding the Countess Ellen Olenska, the New York woman who married a European but has now abandoned her husband to return to a society that is not about to make room for her.  Ellen’s attitudes and behavior carry the scent of scandal, which Mrs. Archer cannot stand, mostly because her son Newland is about to marry May Welland, Ellen’s cousin, allying himself with a family that seems to have lost its sense of propriety.

What I’m enjoying most is the balance between restraint and cruelty—this is, after all, an “age of innocence” in which Mr. Jackson is too delicate to bring up a lady’s past (even though everyone in the room, even those professing to be shocked at the suggestion of impropriety, is well aware of what stories have been told, and about whom) and where conversations are very carefully framed so that the politest of exchanges takes on a much sharper meaning in context.  Wharton’s only playing around in the shallows right now—nothing really intense has yet occurred—but she clearly has all the talent she needs to go there.  I realize that life allegedly (and, I suspect, actually) used to be much more like this: Austen’s work would be just one another example of a world in which the surface is very restrained, even though cruel insults and affronts are intended and understood.  Is it better to live in the good ol’ crass USA?  Or do we have our own ways of hiding these jabs at people within our social circle?

I wonder, though, why I’m so much more comfortable here than with Georgie?  Perhaps it’s that this entire society is the rich, and they’re on relatively equal footing—if Mrs. Archer bad-mouths Ellen Olenska behind her back, it isn’t a power play in the same way as when Georgie humiliated Fred Kinney (or is it?).  Or perhaps it’s that Wharton is simply better at sarcasm and parlor-room conversation than Tarkington is.  Regardless, this is still a very enjoyable book, and one I continue to recommend (if you have a little time) picking  up and reading yourself.

And I can’t possibly end this post without noting that I have now met Mrs. Manson Mingott, the woman whose morbid obesity shocked and interested me at the very beginning of the book, and Mrs. Mingott has not disappointed in the slightest.  She is clearly at the center of society life (despite being virtually unable to participate in it), and so far avoids caricature as far as her personality goes.  Her weight was described so beautifully by Wharton than I’m simply going to give you the three sentences of physical description—I hope you find the writing as delightful as I did:

“The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like the flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.  She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.  A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.”

“On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. …”

Regular visitors, accustomed by now to my habits, may have already guessed that the above sentence is the first line of the novel The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, which won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1921. (But wait, you say, we were just on 1919?  Apparently in 1920 the Pulitzer board didn’t find a novel deserving of the prize, which speaks badly for either the year’s novels or the taste of the Pulitzer board.  I’ll investigate 1920 later, when I feel a little more aware of what it is the board looks for.)

This new novel, though, is a delight so far—Wharton is a skilled stylist, and her interests are clearly to take New York high society and very carefully, very slyly, show it for what it really is.  I don’t know whether to call this “satire” since I feel as though satires are generally a lot more broad and overstated.  Here, Wharton’s very subtle in her digs at these folks, but so many sentences make me smile that I want to sit here and quote them.  Her opening scene (detailing simply what happens at the opera, which has more to do with people watching other people in the audience rather than anything on stage) kept me intrigued.  The brief reference to “Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her to attend the Opera” has me, I have to admit, very interested in meeting this ponderous lady.  And Wharton tosses off so many little observations of people, attitudes, and institutions that it’s hard to keep up—at one point she notes “an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world … that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.” And before I know it (and while I’m still playing out the complicated dig there–the fake “culture” of this opera audience that would rather hear something incomprehensible than admit themselves to be less cosmopolitan than they are), she’s on to describing an old gentleman who is very discreet about the secrets of many people in attendance, partly because of his deep sense of honor which forbids him to reveal such things…but also because “he was fully aware that his reputation for discretion increased his opportunities of finding out what he wanted to know.”

I know all this sounds very tame, but in context (for me, at least) it’s clear that she’s using this stylized but honest narration to be very harsh about this little world of “Old Money” New York.  Strangely, the last two novels (each of which have disappointed on at least some level, one much more than the other) seem to be fusing in this one–a book that captures the spirit of New York, with its eye fixed very much on the very rich.  But in this case, I have no doubt that, if Newland Archer turns out to be the arrogant fop that Georgie Amberson Minafer was, Wharton and I can be on the same side, at least, in cutting Newland down to size.  I have no idea if that’s where this is going, but I’m having fun–if you haven’t picked up one of these novels yet to read, this one’s pretty readily available (Wharton’s still considered “classic” enough to be on bookstore and library shelves), and I’m thinking it’s going to be a good read.  We’ll see.

“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.