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#100…The Magnificent Ambersons

September 7, 2009

“In the days before deathly contrivances hustled them through their lives, and when they had no telephones–another ancient vacancy profound responsible for leisure–they had time for everything: time to think, to talk, time to read, time to wait for a lady!”

This quote from the first chapter of Booth Tarkington’s 1919 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Magnificent Ambersons, sets us up to enter the changing world of the turn of the century America. Horses and buggies are being swapped for “horseless carriages”. Factories are springing up everywhere. And in the midst of a small midwestern town lives the ‘old money’ Amberson family, around whose fortunes the interest of the town revolves. There is only one heir to the Amberson fortune, George Amberson Minafer, and he is spoiled beyond belief and utterly ridiculous. He feels everyone else not an Amberson is “riffraff” and beneath him, and he shows nothing but contempt for the technological marvels that are changing the world around him. Georgie discovers several universal truths about money during the course of Tarkington’s novel: that it doesn’t buy happiness or guarantee forgiveness, doesn’t quell gossiping tongues, and, to misquote Tarkington, it’s “rahthuh bettuh” to ‘do something rather than be something’.

Tarkington’s two most sympathetic characters, Lucy Morgan, Georgie’s love interest, and his father, Wilbur Minafer, are excellent foils for the spoiled, upper class Georgie. Lucy represents the rise of ‘new money’, as her middle-class father becomes successful with his ‘horseless carriage’ and Wilbur, whose marriage to Georgie’s mother Isabel was reputed to be ‘beneath her’ represents the ‘save, don’t spend’ maxim, knowing that wealth is not end-all, be-all. Both are good natured, loving people who are more closely in tune with the world and its changes than Georgie is. You get the feeling after reading Ambersons that Tarkington wanted his readers to feel negatively about the entitled upper class, sitting on its money and contributing nothing to society. It definitely came across loud and clear.

In real life, Tarkington’s family fortunes followed much the same path as the fictional Ambersons, and thanks to that, Georgie’s resistance to the changes that occur both in his surroundings and in his immediate family is real and believable. Like Georgie, Tarkington was not a big believer in higher education, dropping out of both Purdue and Princeton Universities without graduating. Like Georgie, the Tarkingtons were upper class but suffered a decline in their fortunes with the Panic of 1873. Tarkington knew what it was like to go from something to nothing; and at the story’s conclusion, he leaves it up to the reader to decide if Georgie will make it after all.

I enjoyed this book, although I don’t know that it was Top 100 of the Century worthy. The story was well-told and had plenty of plot twists. The momentum of Georgie’s downward spiral kept the story moving, and I really had no idea until the end how it would all end up for him. With today’s societal obsession with the rich and famous, Georgie’s story of riches to rags and quest for redemption in the eyes of those who love him is still as relevant and absorbing today as it was back at the turn of the century.


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