Book Review: The Magnificent Ambersons

Booth Tarkington won a Pulitzer prize for The Magnificent Ambersons, set in Indiana in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

One one level, the story focuses on Georgie Amberson Minifer, only grandchild of the great Major Amberson. “His grandfather had been the most striking figure of success in the town: ‘As rich as Major Amberson!’ they used to say.” The town was proud of the Major, and his mansion was the big finale when people took visitors on a tour. But Georgie was considered a “princely terror” who felt his entitlement even as a child. Many people looked forward to the day when Georgie would “get his comeuppance.”

As a reader, I began to look forward to the same thing and wondered how it would come about. I also wondered if it would be the ruin of him or the making of him. Even though Georgie is not a likeable character at first, one does feel sorry for him during his “comeuppance.”

On another level, the book masterfully conveyed the changes of the times: the advent of the automobile, which many considered just a fad at first; the growth of the little town into a big city with the problems that kind of growth can bring; the decline of “old families” and their pedigrees and the rise of industrialism and entrepreneurship.

But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us.

The city was so big, now, that people disappeared into it unnoticed, and the disappearance of Fanny and her nephew was not exceptional. People no longer knew their neighbours as a matter of course; one lived for years next door to strangers—that sharpest of all the changes since the old days—and a friend would lose sight of a friend for a year, and not know it

A big part of the first chapter describes the various ways the rich distinguished themselves in fashion, facial hair, architecture, and such. It was an enjoyable observation of changing styles. I found it interesting that the term “hand-me-downs” came not from getting clothes that had belonged to someone else, but from getting them “off the shelf” rather than specially made from a tailor: “Trousers with a crease were considered plebeian; the crease proved that the garment had lain upon a shelf, and hence was ‘ready-made’; these betraying trousers were called ‘hand-me-downs,’ in allusion to the shelf.”

It took me just a bit to get into the story, as it begins with a heap of description. One thing I most appreciated about Tarkington’s writing was his skill in conveying things to the reader through Georgie’s eyes that Georgie himself missed. For instance, various people comment on his father not looking well, but Georgie thinks he looks just as he always did—and then Georgie is surprised to find out his father really is ill. Georgie’s fairly young throughout the book, so he’s forgiven for a bit of immaturity. But his lack of understanding other people or situations comes more from his exalted view of his own opinion.

Gossip can be a problem for anyone, but it’s a partuclar bane for the rich and famous. I found the advice Georgie’s uncle George gave him worth consideration:

In this town, naturally, anything about any Amberson has always been a stone dropped into the centre of a pond, and a lie would send the ripples as far as a truth would.

“Gossip is never fatal, Georgie,” he said, “until it is denied. Gossip goes on about every human being alive and about all the dead that are alive enough to be remembered, and yet almost never does any harm until some defender makes a controversy. Gossip’s a nasty thing, but it’s sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.”

People who have repeated a slander either get ashamed or forget it, if they’re let alone. Challenge them, and in self-defense they believe everything they’ve said: they’d rather believe you a sinner than believe themselves liars, naturally. Submit to gossip and you kill it; fight it and you make it strong. People will forget almost any slander except one that’s been fought.

Nobody has a good name in a bad mouth. Nobody has a good name in a silly mouth, either.

I also found especially interesting the Major’s thoughts when he knows his time is coming near:

The Major was engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. No business plans which had ever absorbed him could compare in momentousness with the plans that absorbed him now, for he had to plan how to enter the unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson—not sure of anything, except that Isabel would help him if she could. His absorption produced the outward effect of reverie, but of course it was not. The Major was occupied with the first really important matter that had taken his attention since he came home invalided, after the Gettysburg campaign, and went into business; and he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime between then and to-day—all his buying and building and trading and banking—that it all was trifling and waste beside what concerned him now.

For those who would want to know, the book has a few objectionable elements: a smattering of bad words and taking the Lord’s name in vain, the condescending view of “darkeys” and a couple of uses of the “n” word, and one character visiting a medium. That character (not Georgie) said he wasn’t superstitious, only believed what the medium said for about ten minutes, and realized he had inadvertently supplied her with information enough for what she told him. But the incident was a major turning point in his attitude, and I was disappointed Tarkington used it to bring that about.

Wikipedia says, “In the 1910s and 1920s, Tarkington was regarded as the great American novelist, as important as Mark Twain.” I’m nor sure why he’s not read as much today. I’m thankful I chose this book for the Classics from the Americas category of the Back to the Classics challenge. I enjoyed Tarkington’s story and insights very much.

I mostly listened to the audiobook read by Peter Berkrot, but I read the last few chapters in the free Kindle version because I can read faster than the narrator does, and I wanted to finish it. It’s also online free through Project Gutenberg. There are a couple of movie versions of the book, but I haven’t seen any of them.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Magnificent Ambersons

  1. Pingback: Reading Plans for 2019 | Stray Thoughts

  2. Enjoyed your review! I’ve heard of this, but never read it. I didn’t know it was set in Indiana. I know what you mean about “heaps of description” from writing of this era. It always takes me a while to get into that “slower” mode of reading.

  3. Pingback: End-of-September Musings | Stray Thoughts

  4. I didn’t like this book when I read it many years ago. Upon reflection, and many more years of life experience, I think I might reread it and find it much more enjoyable.

    • I didn’t like it until more than halfway through–or, at least, I didn’t like Georgie. I liked the description of the times and the changes, and ultimately I liked where it all ended up.

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