The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Having stumbled on this obscure novel at a local used book sale, I almost tossed it aside. The 1918 first edition donned a worn red cover… the pages cut- with jagged edges and yellowed with age- were printed with irregular typeset, double-spaced with outrageously deep one and a half inch margins. The first sentence reads, “Major Amberson had made a fortune in 1873 when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then.” And surprisingly, the magnificence of this novel also began then!
It is the story of a wealthy family in a small American town. The industrial revolution is just picking up speed and Midland is suffering growing pains: increased population, sprawling real estate development, factories with smoke stacks puffing black sooty pollution, and “horseless carriages” careening down country roads disturbing the equilibrium of both man and beast.
The Ambersons are wallowing in all their wealth and glory. They are the richest, most well known and well respected family in town. But nothing lasts forever. And this is a story of the decline of the “magnificent” Ambersons. It extends from the gilded plush rooms of the Amberson mansion to their nondescript boarding house on the other side of town.
Written in simple direct prose, Tarkington tells his tale. An example… “I mean the things that we have and that we think are so solid… they’re like smoke, and time is like the sky that the smoke disappears into. You know how a wreath of smoke goes up from a chimney, and seems all thick and black and busy against the sky, as if it were going to do such important things and last forever, and you see it getting thinner and thinner.. and then, in such a little while, it isn’t there and nothing is left but the sky, and the sky keeps on being just the same forever.”
The novel starts out as a somewhat childish coming-of-age story. Little Georgie Amberson is a spoiled brat, teasing the girls, taunting the darkie servants, and terrorizing his playmates. However, the deeper the reader delves into the story, the more intense and sophisticated it becomes. Georgie has to grow up and face the fact that the Amberson clan is like that puff of smoke coming out of the chimney.
But the book is also a love story… beautiful, sappy and sentimental.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and just squeaking onto the Modern Library list of best 100 novels (as number 100,) The Magnificent Ambersons is a wonderful tale. One caveat: The Magnificent Ambersons can be read as a stand-alone novel. But In case you are the type of reader that feels compelled to only read complete series, it is the middle of a three part story called The Growth Trilogy. Book One is titled Turmoil and Book Three National Avenue. Neither acquired the distinction of The Magnificent Ambersons.
All contents © 2014 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.