Before I begin, a quick question: hands up those who’d heard of Booth Tarkington before this very moment? Over here in the UK, of the canonical authors who’ve made it across the Atlantic from the early part of the twentieth century, Tarkington does not cut much of a dash. So I was intrigued to read in the introduction to this volume that in 1922, having just won a second Pulitzer Prize, (the first was for The Magnificent Ambersons), Tarkington was voted the greatest living American author and one of the ten greatest contemporary Americans. It’s rather sweet to know that whilst he was pleased with the first vote, he declared with disarming modestly of the second ‘You can’t say who are the 10 greatest with any more authority than you can say who are the 10 damndest fools.’ In those accolades, and in the author’s response to them, I felt that the whole of The Magnificent Ambersons could be summed up. The novel shows Tarkington is completely tuned in to the spirit of his times; the characters embody complex destinies that see them regularly teetering on the edge between greatness and terrible foolishness; and the driving force of the narrative is the tragedy occasioned by hubris. It’s a novel that transposes Oedipus Rex to the American Midwest and makes the ambivalent force of Big Business stand in for the navigating hand of the Gods. I can see why it worked, and I can also see why it’s a little dated, but for all that it is a continually engaging read.
So, the story begins in a halcyon time of great harmony, many years before the point in which our omniscient narrator stands watching. In this time, the ruling family in the small Midwestern town (much like Tarkington’s Indianapolis) was the Ambersons, whose wealth dominated the social scene and paid for the first growth spurt of building. The Major, grandfather of the family, is the source of its income, his three children, Sidney, George and Isabel, recipients of inherited glamour. The lovely Isabel, beautiful and charming, makes a surprising marriage choice, rejecting the suitor who seemed so perfect for her because of an incident with a bass viol on a night of drunken serenading, and from her union with her quiet, decent sort of husband comes the star of our narrative, George Amberson Minafer. George’s problem is that he’s spoiled rotten by the entire family, and particularly by his doting mother. The result is Little Lord Fauntleroy crossed with Satan, as, curls and velvet collars flying, he sets about beating up the local lads and being insufferably rude to the feudal populace. Cue for much dark rumblings about the need for Georgie to get his come-uppance, and recognition on the part of the reader that this is the flight path the story will take.
And indeed, there are no sub-plots, not much in the way of distraction, as the story unfolds with a certain inexorability. Georgie grows up and becomes very magnificent indeed with the narcissism of untried youth and the unshakeable confidence of family money. But the first chink in the armour comes when he falls in love with a new arrival in town, a Miss Lucy Morgan, who is accompanied by her father, the inventor Eugene Morgan. Eugene, it transpires, is experimenting with something he calls an automobile, although George is rudely scornful, unable to believe that anything so cumbersome will ever replace the horse. Lucy loves George but she can’t quite reconcile herself to his notion that gentlemen do not work, an ideology that she is aware will not please her father. This provides the reason why she holds out firmly against George’s ever more passionate entreaties that they should marry and causes no small source of rancour between him and his potential father-in-law. George is not in the habit of having people disagree with his point of view or disapprove of his ideals. It’s around this point in the narrative that we realize that Eugene is the suitor that Isabel turned down after his unfortunate drunken escapade, and that both may have been regretting that night ever since. And it’s not that much later in the story that George’s father, never a vivid character, slides out of the narrative to his quiet death and the stage is set for Isabel to remarry. The prospect causes George little short of a breakdown, if you can have one that’s based on rage and domination. In short, he goes completely bananas.
I’m not sure how much more of the story to give away, but let’s just say that George’s monumental possessiveness makes for some extremely ugly scenes and some extraordinary sacrifices. But having reached the zenith of his destiny as spoiled brat, things can now only fall apart, which they hasten to do. Tarkington has two interests here which dovetail neatly; on the one hand he is fascinated by psychological realism, or good old-fashioned character studies; on the other hand he is a very clever commentator on the recent history of America. The Magnificent Ambersons is part of a trilogy entitled Growth, that looks at the heroic struggle between capitalism and humanism, or the belief that people are the most important part of the world (as opposed to money or machines). The result is intriguingly ambivalent. Tarkington portrays big business rather like a formidable beast, one that hungrily swallows up small sympathetic communities and turns them into polluted, lonely cities. There’s a yearning nostalgia for the way life used to be, so gentle, so slow and so respectful. But equally he is aware that progress brings advantages with it, that it often wears the face of kind, admirable people like the inventor Eugene Morgan, and that it is, in any case, unstoppable. The march of progress tramples the Ambersons in the dust, not least because George’s gaze is firmly fixed on the past where their magnificence lay. But that consequence is by no means a necessary one: George is the way he is because of his unhealthily close relationship to his mother. He’s never become his own person, the story suggests, and instead is a kind of amalgam of his family and its reputation and history. Hence his overweening vanity about the Amberson name and his mania that no slur should be cast against it: he can’t distinguish himself as an individual and his value is dependent wholly on the fate of his tribe.
This is a beautifully written novel that brings together the history of the early twentieth century with the fate of a family in an extremely satisfying and convincing way. Most of all I enjoyed the character portraits which are detailed and vivid. You know you are in safe hands when characters start to make you wince, and it is almost unbearable to watch the terrible choices you know they are about to make. The catalyst to some of the disaster is George’s Aunt Fanny, a silly, emotionally incontinent spinster, the kind of character who swears they couldn’t say boo to a goose, revels in victimhood, and yet is somehow always caught with a hand hovering over the lever that releases catastrophe. She was utterly infuriating, but wholly plausible. It’s for those parts of the narrative that you pick up this kind of book, and Tarkington does them very well. Definitely worth a read for those who appreciate John Galsworthy, William Dean Howells, Balzac and other plot-and-character realists.
Apparently today, or possibly yesterday is/was de-lurking day (it’s hard catching up in a different time zone). If you do lurk, then feel free to de-lurk – emoticons and short greetings wholly sufficient.