The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

100. The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington

When I first glanced over this list, I'm embarrassed to admit that I asked myself, more than once, “Who?”. Booth Tarkington (1869 – 1946) won the Pulitizer Prize twice (yes twice!!), in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons and again in 1922 for Alice Adams, the same year that he was named “America's Greatest Living Writer” by Literary Digest magazine. That's right, Booth Tarkington was the Phillip Roth or John Updike (well I guess not Updike, since he's dead now) of his time – and I had no idea who he was.

But after reading The Magnificent Ambersons, widely considered his best book (although I'm told there exists a significant minority who'd champion Alice Adams for this distinction), I think I understand why. There's no question about it; Tarkington was a prophet. And not just because he anticipated the social and urban effect of the vehicularization of the U.S.. Sure that's impressive, but he also structured his novel around ideas – theories of cyclical social change – that while considered quaint relics of classical sociology now, didn't gain prominence in sociological circles until more than 20 years after The Magnificent Ambersons was published ( Trattato di Sociologia Generale, by Vilifredo Pareto wasn't published in English until 1935, although it was available in French in 1917; Social and Cultural Dynamics by Pitirim A. Sorokin was first published in 1935). But these ideas – that social institutions (and societal stages) appear and disappear in reoccuring cycles – are too prominent, too integral, not to ground even the most timeless elements in this book. While Tarkington's contemporaries likely came away from this book breathless and goose-fleshed – as one often does after chancing upon a visionary – I can't help but read it as just a good book, of merely historical interest.

The book centers around the eponymous Ambersons, the reigning aristocracy in a nameless, midland town. While the Great Panic of 1873 guts many a coffer, it stuffs Major Amberson's pockets full – and the Amberson magnificence is born. The Major spurs growth in the town by building a luxurious development – the Amberson Addition – complete with cedar plank roads, stone curbs and cast-iron statues painted to resemble stone. As the Amberson prestige flourishes, the Major's daughter, Isabel, blossoms into the town belle. She is courted by both Eugene Morgan and Wilbur Minafer, and Eugene is the betting man's favourite, until an unfortunate and drunken incident, involving a serenade and a kicked-in cello, pushes Isabel into a comfortable, if not particularly passionate, marriage to Wilbur. Georgie Minafer, a spoiled, self-absorbed brat, is the product of this union and since Isabel's brothers prove not be particularly fecund (George never married; Stanley, married with no children), Georgie grows up with the expectation that he' ll be the sole heir to the Amberson fortune.

This, in part, contributes to Georgie's unbearable arrogance. That, and creepy way Isabel worships him. She does everything she can to shield him from the fall-out of his hauteur and insolence, as Georgie basks in leisure, on high, like a little god.

Sure, a measure of snotty conceit is an inherent part of adolescence, and for most of us, it's little more than a phase that rarely leaves any permanent marks. But as Eugene and George Sr. wisely note, time alone is not enough to humble youth. That is something only experience – living in a world of intransigent consequences – can do. But Georgie doesn't live in that world, and as long as Isabel's obsessive devotion keeps him floating along on his cloud, as long as he chooses to “be” things, rather than “do” things, growth and humility are qualities beyond his reach.

However, when world owes you a walloping, it won't be put off forever. When Isabel dies, Georgie is hurtled to earth, forced to fend for himself, without family, friends or fortune. And while we spend the majority of the book suffering (albeit, at times, gleefully) Georgie's arrogance, it's hard not to feel bad for him in his ruin.

Yet, as the story ends, we're left confident that Georgie's fortunes will turn. It's not merely that a bad accident (he was run over by a car) turns his mortal enemy into a benefactor and brings his youthful love, Lucy, to the hospital to watch, dewy- eyed, over his bed. Rather, Tarkington has demonstrated this to be a world of cycles. For the cyclical social theorist, societies do not evolve or linearly progress. Rather, social institutions emerge and disappear, only to reemerge again, albeit in a slightly different form. The impetus that drives these cycles is the tension between satisfying our material needs for survival while meeting the spiritual needs of our inner life. Complicated spirals of work and play, industry and art, tradition and innovation, stir a culture dynamic. In this world, the fall of the Ambersons is neither deserved nor exceptional. Times of prosperity and leisure allow for the development of novel ideas and innovations, which in turn stimulate a period of materiality and work, which brings about new forms of prosperity, ushering in a new age of leisure. And so it goes.

At the peak of Amberson magnificence, it was the Major's cultural insight that the town was ready to pass from a period of materiality to one of ideas and art. He bet, correctly, that the townsfolk, although cultural (and biological) descendants of the pioneers, were just successful enough to be ready to throw off the paranoid frugality they inherited. They were ready to pay more for tree-lined boulevards and public fountains, and the lots in the Amberson Addition sold well, and the flurry of development further cemented the Major's prominence and fortune.

However, the Major's uncanny wisdom would, as it must, give way to gross miscalculation and error. In turn, he misjudges the cultural and economic impact of the automobile and misunderstands the impetus that drives people from detached houses into apartments. He forgoes these investment opportunities to channel resources into the schemes of his perpetually unlucky son, George (in this world, economic savvy is also blessed in cycles; this time around it skipped George).

And as the Major retreats into his “second childhood” and grows increasingly detached from the world, an era of art and ideas nears its end. However, it also fostered a generation of inventors whose innovations spin the town into a period of productivity and work.

It is the emergence (really, the reemergence) of Eugene Morgan, with his ideas on improving the 'horseless wagon' and his daughter, Lucy, that usher this new era into the town. It's Eugene 's turn to anticipate the cultural and social trends of the town; it's his turn to rocket to prominence, as the Ambersons disappear and die out.

However, it's not just social trends that spiral in cycles – personal life does too. Consider Isabel. She passes from the romance of youth into marriage and motherhood, only to find herself struck by romantic love again. Upon the death of her husband, Wilbur, Eugene resumes his courtship, and if it wasn't for Georgie's howls (not to mention the fact that he whisks her away on an extended trip to Europe), Isabel probably would have married again. Here, not only does the cyclical nature of change extend to our personal lives, it approaches near natural law, and woe to anyone (ahem.. Georgie) foolish enough to try to jam the wheel's turn. But don't worry too much about Georgie. He's made of good stuff, we're told, and in Tarkington's world, cycles extend through all aspects of reality. In the words of the Major:

It must be in the sun. There wasn't anything here but the sun in the first place, and the earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the earth. So whatever, we are, we must have been in the sun. We go back to the earth we came out of, so the earth will go back to the sun that it came out of. And time means nothing - nothing at all.


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