They had one supreme theory: that the perfect beauty and happiness of cities and of human life was to be brought about by more factories; they had a mania for factories; there was nothing they would not do to cajole a factory away from another city; and they were never more piteously embittered than when another city cajoled one away from them.
― Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons
Since moving back to the Midwest, I have read many early 20th-century Midwestern writers. You probably know the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Willa Cather, a peerless chronicler of loneliness in small towns (A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House), the struggles of aspiring musicians and artists (Lucy Gayheart, The Song of the Lark, Youth and the Bright Medusa), and the hard lives of immigrant farmers (My Antonia, O Pioneers!).
But there are many neglected Midwestern Pulitzer Prize winners. All but forgotten is Booth Tarkington (1869-1946), born in Indianapolis, a once popular writer who won the Pulitzer for two excellent novels, The Magnificent Ambersons in 1919 and Alice Adams in 1922.
The Magnificent Ambersons is a small masterpiece. It’s not so much the style, which is very plain, as the development of the parallel themes of the decline of a wealthy family who dominated a midwestern town with the rise of the automobile and urban sprawl. It very radically connects the popularity of the car to the desertion of once wealthy neighborhoods in the inner city.
Tarkington begins with a sketch of the Amberson family. Major Amberson, the patriarch, made a fortune in 1873, when others were losing theirs, and his family not only owns the town, but dominates society. And a lovely society it was for the rich, with much parading on sidewalks and in buggies. In Orson Welles’s excellent film version, it starts with Welles’s narration of a paragraph on the opening page.
In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by. Trotters were out, in the winter afternoons, racing light sleighs on National Avenue and Tennessee Street; everybody recognized both the trotters and the drivers; and again knew them as well on summer evenings, when slim buggies whizzed by in renewals of the snow-time rivalry. For that matter, everybody knew everybody else’s family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to noon dinner or evening supper.
The gracious, charming Ambersons live idyllic lives and set the bar for manners and hospitality in the thriving town. But time passes. Businesses come and go and new generations are born. The birth of the anti-hero, Major Amberson’s grandson, George Amberson Minafer, marks the beginning of a stagnancy among the upper classes. This arrogant rich boy, even while still dressed in Little Lord Fauntleroy ruffles and long curls, is rude to adults and beats up any boy who challenges his preeminence. A boy hanging on a fence sees Georgie on his white pony and yells jealously,
“Shoot the jackass! Look at the girly curls! Say, bub, where’d you steal your mother’s ole sash!”
“Your sister stole it for me! ” Georgie instantly replied, checking the pony. “She stole it off our clo’es-line an’ gave it to me.”
“You go get your hair cut!” said the stranger hotly. “Yah! I haven’t got any sister!”
“I know you haven’t at home,” Georgie responded. “I mean the one that’s in jail.”
Before the encounter is over, Georgie beats up “the stranger.” He has no regrets. His mild mother, Isabel, admires him so much she doesn’t discipline him. Uncle Jack Amberson, a congressman, is half-amused, half-exasperated, claiming he was not unlike him as a boy but grew out of it. Unfortunately Georgie shows no sign of growing out of it. He grows up to be a monster.
Why does Isabel dote on and coddle Georgie? Perhaps because of her marriage. Everyone thought she would marry the lively, brilliant Eugene Morgan, but he blew his chances when he drunkenly serenaded Isabel with a band and walked through a bass viol. (As one of the town gossips points out, it wasn’t the drunkenness that caused the breakup but the fact that he made a fool of Isabel.) Isabel married the quiet Wilbur Minafer instead.
Tarkington’s models and favorite writers were Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and George Meredith. I see the influence of Meredith. Georgie grows up to be a tyrant, and is not unlike the arrogant Sir Willoughby from Meredith’s The Egoist. Conceited Georgie falls in love with beautiful, bright Lucy Morgan, but she can’t bear his idleness. He tells her he has no interest in studying law or going into business. He is a gentleman with money, a graduate of an Ivy League school, and he intends to be, not do.
Lucy’s father, Eugene Morgan (Isabel’s old boyfriend), has worked his way up in the world through enthusiasm for the automoile, inventions, and tinkering. He has returned to town to start an automobile factory. Since Georgie is strictly a “Get a hoss!” man, you can imagine what he thinks of Eugene. And after he hears gossip about Eugene and his mother, Georgie loses everyone’s sympathy.
I am fascinated by novels that treat contemporary issues like pollution, and this seems very modern. Eugene’s factory thrives, other factories come to the city, the car replaces the horse, and the pollution is so intense that people must leave their now smutty, smoky homes for the suburbs. The Ambersons try to hang on, but the Major makes some bad business decisions and loses money. He doesn’t understand the new century.
Much as I love Eugene and Lucy, Tarkington hints that Eugene’s factory is the first of many that wrecked a gracious way of life. The dirt of the smoky city creates the flight to the suburbs.
What they meant by Prosperity was credit at the bank; but in exchange for this credit they got nothing that was not dirty, and, therefore, to a sane mind, valueless; since whatever was cleaned was dirty again before the cleaning was half done. For, as the town grew, it grew dirty with an incredible completeness. The idealists put up magnificent business buildings and boasted of them, but the buildings were begrimed before they were finished. They boasted of their libraries, of their monuments and statues; and poured soot on them. They boasted of their schools, but the schools were dirty, like the children within them. This was not the fault of the children or their mothers. It was the fault of the idealists, who said: “The more dirt, the more prosperity.” They drew patriotic, optimistic breaths of the flying powdered filth of the streets, and took the foul and heavy smoke with gusto into the profundities of their lungs. “Boost! Don’t knock!” they said. And every year or so they boomed a great Clean-up Week, when everybody was supposed to get rid of the tin cans in his backyard.
We are lucky that our small Midwestern city is about 10 years behind big American cities. For a long time, we hoped urban sprawl might pass us by. Until a few years ago, we had a viable downtown. Unfortunately, the demise of downtown often means the demise of the city. But a developer is trying to build a downtown mall: fingers crossed!
Loved The Magnificent Ambersons, which is the second of his Growth trilogy.