Life after Work

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington – Pulitzer Prize Winner of 1919

A tough book for me to get through, even as an audio book (Blackstone Audio, wonderfully read by Geoffrey Blaisdell, courtesy of Overdrive Digital Library). This book won the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 1919, the second one ever awarded. It describes the fall of what might be described as an aristocratic family in a fictitious town in Indiana. The main character, George “Georgie” Amberson Minafer is an intolerably pompous ass for most of the story. His mother in particular, but the rest of the family as well, indulge and spoil him right into college age  while the townspeople can’t wait for him to get his “comeuppance”. I knew we were getting prepared for the inevitable downfall. On top of all that George is so obtuse that he kept drawing the wrong (selfish) conclusion to nearly all challenges he was confronted with, it was almost comical. Unfortunately this made George so unlikeable that I was beginning to lose interest in the book altogether. Being able to spin yarn for John’s gloves helped me stick with it.

And to my surprise, I ended up enjoying the Magnificent Ambersons after all. Yes, George messes up to the highest degree, ruining several people’s chance at happiness, and tragedy strikes the whole family. Then, after losing everything he has an epiphany, George finally gains maturity (almost a little to quickly) and gets to redeem himself to an extent. But what will stay in my mind about this book is how Tarkington describes the end of an era that predates “modern times”. We see the introduction of the automobile into rural society, how the “old guard” stubbornly sticks to the horse drawn carriage and all the other trappings of the good old days, how the cities change from big mansions to apartment buildings and tenement housing, the beginnings of suburban sprawl, pollution and so on. Far from succumbing to nostalgia though, Tarkington manages to describe this process in a way that is neutral – while some parties (such as the Ambersons) lose, some win, riches are made, new technologies make life easier and more affordable for many. Considering the book was written in 1918 this changeover had happened relatively recently!

I also enjoyed the style of the book, there is a lot of sardonic wit. Here is an sample quote that I found in an Amazon review that perfectly illustrates Tarkington’s literary style:

Mrs. Johnson came in, breathing noticeably: and her round head, smoothly but economically decorated with the hair of an honest woman, seemed to be lingering far in the background of the Alpine Bosom which took precedence of the rest of her everywhere.

Warning: There is some racist language in this book when referring to servants. It made me cringe but does not take away from the main themes of the book.

I’m looking forward to reading another Tarkington novel as part of my Pulitzer project – Alice Adams, winner of 1922’s award, but I could also see myself returning to the Ambersons, since the Magnificent Ambersons is the middle book of the Growth trilogy. The first part, The Turmoil, was published in 1915, and the last part part National Avenue was published in 1927. However, for now I’m moving on to His Family by Ernest Poole, which I found on Amazon as a free Kindle book. It was the Pulitzer Prize winner of 1918 and with that I will have the 1910s complete (only 1918 and 1919 were award years).

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