Chapter 4: “The Magnificent Ambersons” by Booth Tarkington (1919)

“I mean the things that we have and that we think are so solid—they’re like smoke, and time is like the sky that the smoke disappears into. You know how wreath of smoke goes up from a chimney, and seems all thick and black and busy against the sky, as if it were going to do such important things and last forever, and you see it getting thinner and thinner—and then, in such a little while, it isn’t there at all; nothing is left but the sky, and the sky keeps on being just the same forever.”

5026And, so, here we are—a fourth Pulitzer-winning novel read and another 79 to go. For whatever reason, I’m falling woefully behind in my schedule (for the person that voted my finishing the project, but not on time, you just may be correct in assuming so! But I shall remain steadfast and vigilant in times of extreme pessimism, just to prove you wrong—that goes for you too, whomever voted that I won’t finish at all!). With 83 books (including 2010’s Pulitzer, which will be announced in April) to finish in 52 weeks, I estimated that I’d need to read a book and a half per week; thus far, I have only managed to read one book per week. My original goal is a grueling pace and one that I need to get back to (damn these worthless distractions that keep me from my commitments!).

It’s funny the things I allow to get in the way of, just about, anything that will better me. When I commit to working out, I allow myself to become even more lazy; when I commit to reading, I allow video games and iTunes maintenance (finding the highest quality album artwork, changing genres, adding and deleting files, etc) to prevent me from my books; when I commit to writing, I watch television—all things that don’t add up to anything and, in all reality, all things that I don’t even really care about. Maybe I should convince my roommates to lock me in my bedroom with nothing to do but read these books—that ought to do the trick.

Maybe.

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The most recent novel I have finished is Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons—the second novel to have won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (1919). Originally, I kind of wanted to save this novel until almost the very end of the journey; I thought it would be cute in a kitschy sort of way to read the earliest and the most recent winners in succession. But, with the circumstances of my personal life being as they are, I decided to be even more cute in a kitschy sort of way by reading the book I thought most mirrored my current state in life. In light of my breakup with a girl who lives in Indiana, I decided to read a book by Indiana’s favorite son (no, not Larry Bird, Michael Jackson, or David Letterman), Booth Tarkington; in light of the current disrepair we currently find our economy in, I decided to read a book about a rich family that loses their prestige; in light of my dislike and distrust of the incredibly wealthy, I decided to read a book about a rich family that loses their prestige. Looking back, I have mixed feelings about my decision.

On one hand, I found a sort of appreciation for Booth Tarkington. Now, that being said, aside from Alice Adams, which is another Tarkington novel I’ll have to read to complete this project, I can’t honestly say I’ll want to read another Tarkington book, just because he didn’t capture my interest. However, just knowing that he was a successful author in his day is enough for me to at least respect him.

What I found curious about Tarkington, though, is that until Joshua and I embarked on this journey together, I had never heard of the man. I was an English major at Northern Illinois University—a school which is widely renown for its liberal arts department and, more specifically, its English program and professors. In none of my literature classes was the name “Booth Tarkington” even mentioned. And even despite his writing during my favorite movement (the Modern age), I had never heard of him. But, in spite of my ignorance of his existence, he was, by all appearances, a very active and prolific writer—in his time, anyway.

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Let me get straight to the point: I was unimpressed with The Magnificent Ambersons. I found it to be unevenly paced and “magnificently”—if I may—disingenuous.

First, I want to tackle this book’s protagonist (if I can even refer to him in such a manner), little Georgie Amberson Minafer. I can honestly admit I’ve never encountered a more unlikeable main character in all my readings. It felt like Tarkington really wanted me to develop a bond with Georgie, but I just couldn’t! I was distracted by his shallow character and entirely annoyed by his incessant whining, unfounded biases, and his spoiled little boy persona that he never quite grows out of. I have a reader following me who embarked on a similar journey and, in his review of the book, I feel best described Georgie:

…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.

I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment of the novel. Early in the novel, Tarkington beats his reader over the head with Georgie’s malevolence and the fact that everyone in the town wanted nothing more than to see Georgie get what he had coming to him—he brings it up at least a couple times in every early chapter, just to remind the reader, over and over, that Georgie Amberson Minafer was a shitty little imp that everybody, save his own family, hated. Why, then, in view of this, is Tarkington so adamant about my wanting to develop a bond with Georgie? There are only two possible conclusions I can come to: 1, much like my (fellow) reader implied, Tarkington was taken with Georgie and wanted his readers to feel the same admiration for him, or 2, Tarkington employed Georgie as the protagonist in an ironic fashion and desired for his audience to develop a hatred toward him and a desire for divine vengeance. If the latter is true, well done, Tarkington! You’ve successfully created a character I absolutely despise.

And even in the long run, when Georgie “grows up,” his fate still seems to be a little disingenuous. After sabotaging his own relationship with Lucy, then sabotaging his mother’s relationship with Eugene and, I feel, essentially killing his mother, there is this all too brief moment in his life when the reader begins to think “Maybe Georgie has come to his senses and has become a responsible adult now!” This moment is interrupted by the screeching of tires (which I will further address in a few sentences) and Georgie winds up in a hospital bed, only to revert to his whiny self. And when he no longer has his mother and the rest of his family to coddle him, the two people he most wronged—Lucy and Eugene—rush to his bedside to coddle him even more! The reader is offered a glimmer of justice when Georgie is hit by an automobile and has both of his legs crushed, but Tarkington takes this justice away from us just as quickly as we are offered it!

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Now, as for this accident—let me say it this way: if there were a title that is just as reasonable for this book, besides The Magnificent Ambersons, it would be “Transparent Symbolism.” I swear, there are times when writers must legitimately think their audience to be completely ignorant, imbecilic nincompoops. How else can such overt symbolism be explained?

Wait—I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to explain this accident in context…

This book was written in the early 20th century, but takes place during the turn of the 20th century. The Ambersons are the wealthiest family in town and they got their riches from, presumably, real estate. However, their riches are being surpassed by those of industry and invention—most notably, the invention of the automobile. While it generated excitement and the country reveled in its advent, Georgie, dead-set in his ways, was absolutely opposed to it. And, frustratingly, he really didn’t have any reason to be—he just hated the idea of change. He made snide remarks about automobiles, scoffed at them, and would shout at their drivers “Get a horse! Get a horse!” And, honestly, I think he did these sorts of things just to be impossible; or, more likely, to garner attention.

So, of course, it’s ironic—and, yet, incredibly obvious—that Tarkington’s method to incite Georgie’s turnaround, his maturation, if you will, is to run him over with the automobile that Georgie was so opposed to. How does the phrase go? “Get in line and follow, or be run over.”

Thanks, Booth Tarkington—for being so painfully obvious.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 4: “The Magnificent Ambersons” by Booth Tarkington (1919)

  1. Excellent review — thanks for the tip of the hat. 🙂 You're absolutely right about the symbolism. Tarkington's an odd fellow…I think he believed the talk about his talent too much, and got ambitious. I think he could have written nifty little pulp novels, and got sidetracked in a quest for literary glory.I'm reading Early Autumn as we speak, and I think you'll find a lot more there to enjoy. I've had an easier time, anyhow! Good luck with the quest!

  2. Alice Adams is one of my favorite books, utterly delicious and, but for the Indiana setting, very different in every way from The Magnificent Ambersons (which I do like).

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