Back to the Classics Challenge after too long away…
We are on the Pulitzer Prize-winner category in this years challenge and, as usual, there were too many things from which to choose. I had great plans to read “Gone With the Wind.” I keep promising I’ll get around to reading it, as my wife can’t say enough great things about it. She even allowed me to read her copy of it. This copy was a replacement because her sister read and destroyed a copy my wife loaned her. (My wife and I are very protective of our books, there are some I won’t even let my kids read.)
But with other things going on and a long car trip planned, I just couldn’t guarantee its safety so I changed my mind. I wanted to read “His Family” by Ernest Poole, which won the first Pulitzer Prize for novel in 1918, but I couldn’t find it at any library (such is the enduring power of the Pulitzer) so I chose “The Magnificent Ambersons” by Booth Tarkington, which, in 1919, was the second novel given the Pulitzer Prize.
In another proof of the enduring power of the Pulitzer, I could only find one copy of it in our library system, and it was a large-print version. There were plenty of copies of the 1942 Orson Welles film based on the book, though.
At the time it was written, “The Magnificent Ambersons” must have been very current. It details the decline in the fortunes of the Amberson family in a small town in Indiana from just after the Civil War to the early part of the last century. It’s the second part of Tarkington’s Growth Trilogy (which I didn’t realize until I started the book) but it’s one of Tarkington’s few novels read anymore, and that may be because of Welles’ film. I should note that Tarkington won a second Pulitzer Prize three years later for the novel “Alice Adams.”
The Ambersons made their town great, perhaps even magnificent, once upon a time, but at the time the novel is set, maybe 1905 or so, the world they lived in is in flux. Wealth is something that is quickly becoming more democratic: You can work for it, and not just inherit it. The societal rules that arose to support and protect the wealthy classes are slowly breaking down.
Into this changing world is born George Amberson Minifer, grandson of Major Amberson, who created all the wealth in the first place. George’s mother, Isabel, dotes on him and helps turn him into a complete jerk and the town sits back and waits for his comeuppance. Even back then they knew karma was a bitch.
And there’s a couple love stories. One is between George and the young, but not dumb, Lucy Morgan. She is the daughter of Eugene Morgan who has returned to town to open a factory that builds this new thing called automobiles. George, who clings to his birthright as a gentleman (who doesn’t expect to work a day in his life), does not like this newfangled contraption, or Eugene for that matter.
He has more reason to dislike Eugene, too. It seems Eugene was one of his mother’s suitors so many years ago, but lost out to George’s father. When Eugene returns to town, Isabel welcomes the diversion of the return of an old friend and causes tongues to wag. It becomes a full-blown scandal thanks to George’s actions. This is the second love story.
There’s also George’s aunt Fanny, a spinster, for whom Eugene may be a final chance at landing a man. Fanny is the most sympathetic character in the book, though she lets pettiness and jealousy dictate her actions.
That’s one of the things I like about the book: All the characters are flawed in some way. Isabel is a free spirit and witty, but she ruins her child through her mothering. George is a royal pain in the ass, but Tarkington gives him a conscience every now and then and a reader can begin to hope for him. Eugene is the embodiment of the “can-do” spirit that fueled America’s growth, but is extremely naive when it comes to fitting himself into society.
Tarkington was making points with this book, which is its main flaw: The points are made over and over, beating the reader over the head. Characters speak in lengthy paragraphs and repeat themselves a few pages later. It’s hard not to skim. To wit, this quote from George’s uncle: “Gossip is never fatal 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.” Stopping after the first sentence makes it so much stronger. Or maybe just the last sentence. Either way, what’s there is just too long.
In the end, only the reader is around to watch George get his comeuppance, the townspeople having moved on and forgotten the role the Ambersons played. Is it satisfying? Yes, but in an unexpected way.
This is a novel that still entertains and still has something to say, nearly 100 years after it was written.