“Major Amberson had ‘made a fortune’ in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then”.
In the one hundred year history of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, there have been only three writers that have won multiple times. Two are familiar names. William Faulkner for his WWI novel A Fable and a posthumous work entitled The Reivers. John Updike for two books in his renowned Rabbit tetralogy, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. The third name is Booth Tarkington, and you may have never heard of him. It’s amazing to think that in his lifetime, he was considered one of the preeminent American writers. He’s largely faded from view now, with his two Pulitzer wins in 1919 and 1922 a large part of his remaining legacy. Why have we forgotten him? Can we figure this out through a reading of his first prize-winning book?
The Magnificent Ambersons is one of Tarkington’s many novels about the American midwest, the region he hailed from and represented over and over in his writing. In the first few pages he introduces a city resembling Indianapolis, and goes into great detail regarding people, architecture, fashions, and social life. While this reads like a history textbook, the novel soon shifts to our central characters, the Amberson Family. George Amberson, the spoiled, wealthy heir, is our protagonist, whether we want him to be or not. He is perhaps one of the most unlikeable protagonists in literature, and for much of the early chapters one wonders if the novel will shift focus and pit Georgie against a more understandable figure. And eventually, this happens. Georgie and his old-money ways are contrasted by car manufacturer Eugene Morgan, a self-made man of humble origins with a vested interest in Georgie’s mother. So begins a push-pull of old and new. The book echoes Tarkington’s own societal context, transitioning from horse drawn carriages to motor cars, craftsmen to industry, houses to apartments, and many other changes. Time marches on, and if you drag your feet you’re left behind.
Tarkington spends more time developing the family relationships, the romances, humor, and a lot less time on his social commentary. We’re introduced to the ridiculous Aunt Fanny, the witty Lucy, and a host of other characters that complicate and enhance Georgie’s life. He falls in love despite his own haughtiness and pride, and this courtship is endearing even to the modern reader. The social commentary reads as more of an afterthought, bookending the novel and forgotten for large portions in the middle.
While this novel has its charming moments and presents a nuanced picture of several characters, it has its obvious shortcomings. Georgie himself, no matter how much time and attention he gets, is impossible to like. He gets his comeuppance and it’s humbling, but far too rushed to elicit any real reaction in the reader. We’re blinded by his disregard for everyone’s happiness, including that of his own mother. All in the name of old-world propriety and morals.
Which brings me to Tarkington himself. In his lifetime he was both a commercial and critical darling, regarded as one of the best Midwestern writers to have ever lived. Now he’s been largely forgotten. In my opinion, it comes down to politics.
As you might have noticed, this novel tackles themes similar to those of His Family by Ernest Poole, our first review. But while Poole’s liberal ideals were evident in his embracing of change and progress, Tarkington is staunchly conservative and it shows. He even served in the Indiana House of Representatives as a conservative, and wrote diatribes on his dislike of automobiles and city development. This even comes up in the novel itself:
“I’m not sure he’s wrong about automobiles,” he said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization — that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls.”
Long story short, Tarkington takes the side of old money, even in creating a character like Georgie. He aims for Georgie’s redemption and misses the mark, with a rushed ending and not enough character development for us to believe his change of heart. His ideals read as dated now, stodgy and hard to relate to. And honestly, I can’t imagine that his 1922 prize winner, Alice Adams, will read quite differently. We’ll have to wait and see.