The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

First off, many apologies for being a rubbish blogger of late. I have managed to keep my own blog going simply by burning the midnight oil, but catching up with your own blogs, replying to emails, and generally being on top of communicating with others who aren’t in the same room as me since I moved to New York has been nigh on impossible. I shouldn’t publically admit this, but in my old London life, my job was..shall we say…less than demanding, and most of my blogging was done during work hours. Now I have a very demanding job that affords me little time to go online for recreational purposes during the day, as well as a jam packed schedule of new friends and new places to visit and volunteering and classes outside of work, and so I am left with half an hour or so between getting home and going to bed each day to catch up with friends and family over email as well as doing blogging. Hopefully I’ll work out a better system soon that doesn’t mean I only get 5 hours sleep every night…(don’t tell my mum!)

My long train journey out to Westchester each day for work means I get a fair amount of reading done – something I CAN stay on top of with more ease than blogging. Thanks to the wonderful Ellen, a native New Yorker who reads my blog and who I was fortunate enough to get to meet a couple of weeks ago, I have a good stack of American books from my Reading America list on my TBR pile. After the loveliness of Daddy Long Legs, I fancied a weightier and slightly more autumnal read, and so the early 20th century family saga, The Magnificent Ambersons, fitted the bill. A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1919, it has since fallen off the list of well known American classics, but at the time of its publication, it was a best seller. I can see why; it tackles the themes of growth and change over the latter part of the 19th century, drawing a vivid portrait of how quickly the landscape and lifestyle of America and its people was revolutionised by the advent of the mechanical age. Contemporary readers would have gone through the same experiences, and recognised the feelings of bewilderment the characters in the novel express as they see the world of horses and carts and spacious country homes they were so familiar with transform overnight into an alien land of automobiles and apartment houses. I found it absolutely fascinating, though also maddening; the main character of George Amberson Minafer has to be the most infuriatingly arrogant person I’ve ever come across in literature!

The story centres around the aforementioned George, the grandson of a Mid Western tycoon who earned a fortune through skillful investments and swiftly became the richest and most prominent man in his small town. He purchased a large amount of land in the town with his money, and sculpted marvellous boulevards with fountains and sculptures, and on two parcels of land he built two magnificent mansions, of the like no one in the area had ever seen before. One was for him and his wife, and the other for their beautiful, charming daughter Isobel, newly married to Wilbur Minafer. The Ambersons were the undisputed Kings of the town, and no one came close to their magnificence. Looked up to, envied, and seemingly charmed, the Ambersons had it all. Into this gilded existence was born Isabel’s only child, and her father’s only grandchild, George. Petted, spoiled and adored by his mother, and with every whim attended to by his doting grandfather, George grew up knowing just how important his family was, and how important he was as a consequence.

This self important attitude makes George increasingly unpopular with the locals and his peers as he gets older, and his insistence that he should only fraternise with people of his own social status only inflates his ego and bolsters his view that ‘being things’ rather than ‘doing things’, are more important. George thinks the working world is beneath him, and that he should be free to spend his time living on his grandfather’s earnings and thinking about important issues, which, unfortunately, he doesn’t have the intelligence to ponder with any real depth. It is only when he meets the laughing, independent, and clever Lucy Morgan that he starts to think about anyone other than himself. George’s lack of ambition disturbs her, but George is unable to see that his way of life is unsustainable, and dismisses her concerns.

Lucy comes to the town with her widowed father, Eugene, an old beau of George’s mother. Eugene is forward thinking, and an entrepreneur; he has invented a new type of automobile, and is convinced that they are the future. George thinks he is completely mad, and can’t understand why anyone would want to drive in a metal contraption when they can be driven in a comfortable carriage by a horse. Eugene warns him that the world is changing, and that the small town they now live in is becoming a city, with houses being built on the outskirts, and the large lots around the mansions in the old Amberson section of town being broken up into smaller ones for apartment buildings and rental houses as the area becomes more and more unpopular and run down. The rich no longer want to live in the centre of towns and are moving further out into the country; as communities spread out, motor cars will become a necessity rather than the silly luxury George considers them to be. However, George dismisses Eugene’s warnings about the Amberson’s dying way of life, and even as his garden is dug up for new housing and the magnificent fountains and statues his grandfather built fall into disrepair, George can’t see that the world is galloping into a future that is leaving him, and his family, behind.

This novel so perfectly captures the period of intense change and invention at the end of the 19th century, and is a fascinating window into how quickly the world changed, and how blind some people were to the future that was so rapidly becoming a reality. George’s family fail to adapt to the changing social, cultural and political environment around them, and stick doggedly to the way they have always done things. The way their town changes and becomes a city, and the change from the desire for people to live in the centre of towns where their businesses were, to living outside of towns in the peace and quiet, away from their places of work, fascinated me, as it helped to explain how and why mechanised systems rather than horsepower became of interest to people, and suddenly necessary to their new way of life. There is a real sense of sadness about the novel, in exploring how all change leaves people behind, and how quickly people’s achievements can be forgotten and their memories trampled over by new generations. This is powerfully illustrated by the slow decay of the once fine ‘Amberson Addition’ of the town, whose majestic fountains and fine houses become nothing but dirty eyesores and dingy boarding houses as the fashions change and people reject the way of life they used to represent. The Ambersons are victims of their own unwillingness to accept that the world doesn’t stay the same forever, and I spent most of the novel mentally screaming at the characters to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s a fascinating, infuriating, and deeply moving novel that explores one of the most exciting, fast moving period of time in modern American history, and I highly recommend it. A real American classic!

32 comments

  1. this is a classic that i’ve heard of but never really thought about or considered reading. thanks for putting it more firmly on my radar, i’ll be finding a copy for my kindle soon.

    1. I’d never heard of it before someone recommended it to me for my Reading America list, and I’m so glad I came across it. It’s a shame Booth Tarkington has fallen so far out of literary fashion. I hope you manage to find a copy for your kindle soon!

  2. Here’s my vote for Booth Tarkington making it back onto some of the reading lists. His characters are wonderful and the stories really capture the reader.

    1. Hehehe! Mary you’re so funny! I really did…it was a very interesting experience switching continents and gaining an understanding of the period I am so familiar with in UK history, from a US perspective.

  3. As I read your excellent review, Rachel, I couldn’t help thinking how timely the novel was for its day and how timely it is now. Though we are trading the horse for the automobile, I do think technology’s impact on how we do things and work has had an equally profound effect on how we live that the onset of cars and machinery did in the time of this novel. From books and blogging to banking and medicine and so much more, we must move with the changes or be left in the dust like George.

    I don’t know why the Magnificent Ambersons hasn’t been on my radar. I will have to rectify this.

    I have been so impressed by all that you are doing as you settle in to a new country, new job, new friends, and all. I know you are “out there” in the land of blogging and will keep us to date as you can. (and I won’t tell you mum how little sleep you are getting, tee hee) I just knew you would use the train to read.

    Enjoy.

    1. As usual, you are so right, Penny. I love books like this that explore periods of change in previous generations, as it reminds me that the challenges those in the past faced are not so dissimilar from the ones we face in our own age. With the advent of new technologies, there are invariably those from former generations ‘left behind’, as it were, and I think you can make some comparisons with The Magnificent Ambersons when it comes to our own use of computers and ever more advanced digital technology, that so often alienates older people who haven’t experienced digital technology in the workplace and are seeing the world overrun with gadgets they don’t know how to use and that are often replacing traditional methods they soon won’t have access to.

      Thank you, Penny – you are very kind. It is a lot of fun being caught up in this whirl of change but it is rather exhausting too! I need a holiday already!

      I hope you read this soon – I am certain you would love it.

  4. I’ve been curious about this one. It was made into a movie with Barbara Stanwyck years ago and I used to see it advertised on AMC quite a lot. I’ve read other Tarkington books – his Penrod books are hilariously funny, and very unlike the sounds of this one (although set in the same time period). Thanks for the review! I hope, for your sake, you find a way to make your nights a little longer.🙂

    1. I really want to see the movie now– I think it would translate brilliantly onto film. I’ve heard that Tarkington is a bit hit and miss but I’d be interested to explore his other books. Thank you – I need sleep desperately!!!😉

  5. Hi Rachel. Glad you liked the book, and I am recommending the movie to you. It was directed by the genius Orson Welles and although the studio, RKO is this case, rather butchered it, I believe the genius still shines through. Welle’s use of the camera and black and white film is stunning. Tim Holt is perfectly cast as George and all and all the cast is great.

    Let’s get together soon. You will have to reintroduce me to NYC!! Currently reading Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor, Sinead’s brother. As we say in NY, “Go Figure” or “Who Knew?” Highly recommended.

    1. Ellen, thank you for giving it to me! It was such a lovely gift. And now you are recommending the film, I am sure I will love it too! That is strange – I never knew he was Sinead’s brother! Let’s meet up again soon – I have emailed!

  6. The book sounds wonderful and is immediately added to my list!

    And don’t feel bad about not having so much time to blog, I think all of your readers understand🙂

    1. Good! I’m sure you’ll enjoy it when you get around to it, Iris!

      Thank you, I appreciate that! I feel so pressured to get everything done sometimes, that I forget noone really minds if I don’t blog for a few days!! I’m not THAT important!!

  7. You can practically hear the music coming from the cover can’t you!

    You know my heart lies with English storylines but this does sound like one that I would like. And what a fabulous name the author has! Don’t worry about checking in with my humble blog, Rachel. Enjoy yourself and experience everything you can while away…the computer will wait and so will we.

    1. I know, it’s a gorgeous cover, isn’t it? I know, Darlene, but I think you would love this regardless – the period details would still charm you!

      Darlene yours is one blog I always make sure I check in on. I am prioritising these days, and you are always a priority!🙂

  8. I can remember seeing a book Penrod and Sam by Booth Tarkington on my parent’s bookshelf as a child. One day I actually read the book out of desperation when I had read everything else. I loved it and have looked for it to reread. Now I will also look for the Magnificent Ambersons as well. I don’t know how I missed it. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Janet! Yes he wrote some very funny children’s stories, so I hear – he was a very prolific writer and there are tons of novels out there, though according to the preface writer of my edition, there’s a good reason why many of them are no longer in print. The Magnificent Ambersons is considered his masterpiece, followed by Alice Adams – he won the Pulitzer for both of them – so do look out for them.

  9. I read this book a few years ago (after I’d seen the aforementioned Orson Welles adaptation and became curious about the source material). I loved it, finding it moving, sad, and very well-written. Like you, I found parallels to today’s world. I hope I’m a Eugene and not a George, but I suppose we never know until we see the ruins around us.

    1. It is everything you describe it as, Deb. Well worthy of being read today, as so many parallels can be drawn to our own age. This timeless quality and the quite profound lessons it teaches about moving with the times are what should make it a lasting classic, and I’m surprised it has such a low profile compared to similar authors like Edith Wharton. I hope I am a Eugene too, but I think we can all be Georges sometimes, hankering after the old times and criticising the new. It’s funny how shortsighted we can be. I always remember my dad saying, when he started working in computers in the 80’s, that he left the computing world because he didn’t think there’d be any money in it. It’s funny to think that anyone could have thought computers wouldn’t catch on, but I suppose plenty of people thought that, just as George did about automobiles.

  10. I read this several years ago and I think I had the same response to it you did, though I remember also enjoying it. It’s a pity it’s not read as much these days but maybe it feels dated to modern readers. I totally understand your problems with working, blogging, and answering emails and visiting other blogs–I have that same problem (why I just try and catch up when I can…like today!) But it’s good to hear you’re having a good experience and are keeping very busy with things! I love the photos you’ve been sharing and posts about your experiences–finally I get to catch up!

    1. Hi Danielle! It’s so nice when you come by and leave your comments, it makes me feel flattered that you made time to come and see me! Glad you enjoyed Booth Tarkington too, and that you are liking my photos – it’s fun for me to present a new outlook! There seems to be endless things to photograph in New York…there’s always something fun happening!

  11. I just recently discovered this through Librivox. What I cannot understand is why did we read Catcher in the Rye instead of this back in the 60s and why is that useless book still being read? The Magnificent Ambersons is by a man who lived through that time and saw it, so it would go well with a history class in addition to English literature.

  12. Booth Tarkington’s view of change is classic and is as true today as his setting of the turn of the 19th to 20th century. One hundred years ago we did not have computers, Iphones, cellphones, CD players, etc. Even the music changes from Ragtime to the big bands of the 40’s to the contemporary sounds of 2013. If you do not keep up with the changing technology and trends as they develop, you ARE LEFT BEHIND and as bewildered as George Minifer. This novel will be as relevant 100 years from today to your grandchildren as it is today.

  13. Cheers. Just finished the book and enjoyed your summary. I live close to the neighborhood where much of the novel is set, “Woodruff place” in Indianapolis. Many of the grand fountains and unique animal sculptures remain. Tarkington’s tomb in Crown Hill cemetery, a little up the hill from Benjamin Harrison’s, if you peer inside, reads simply “onward” frozen in a stained glass window.

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