1919: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington


Plot Summary:

The Magnificent Ambersons is the epic story of an American family’s traumatic tumble from the dizzying heights of fame and fortune. A dynasty spanning three generations, the Ambersons’ pre-eminence as society’s elite is threatened–not only by a hungry new breed of industrial entrepreneurs–but from its own arrogance and greed. At the center of the story is George Amberson Minafer, the pampered but pitiful, scion of the clan upon whose shoulders the fate of the family fortune will be won…or lost.
At once an exciting chronicle of a family’s rise to fortune and its tortured downfall, it is also a fascinating portrait of the forces that shaped American society.

My thoughts:

I wasn’t very interested in this book at the beginning. Though it follows three generations of the Amberson family, after a short setup explaining the history of the Amberson family in town, it jumps right into the story of George Amberson Minafer, grandson of Major Amberson, spoiled rotten to the core, doted on by his mother, and with endless wealth and family influence in the town. I wasn’t terribly interested in reading a whole book about a spoiled wealthy kid running amok in town, but what kept me interested from the beginning, was the continued mention that the townspeople were just waiting for George Amberson Minafer to “get his come-uppance,” and I have to admit, I wanted to stick it out and see it happen myself.

But the story soon grew into something more than that. It charts the introduction of the automobile and industry into the town, and the rapid and dirty growth of the city because of it, a growth that threatens the fame and fortune the Amberson family once held in town. At the center of this growth is Eugene Morgan, automobile entrepreneur, and his daughter Lucy. Eugene was once a suitor of Minafer’s mother, Isabelle, and Minafer soon becomes suitor to Lucy. But what follows isn’t merely a love story; it’s an inspection and commentary on the changing face of industrial America.

It’s clear that Tarkington is less than thrilled by industrial growth, with the dirt and soot that it brings, with the cities growing so quickly that neighbors don’t even know each other anymore. But instead of a shallow commentary on the dangers of industrialization, with cardboard, static characters, Tarkington creates dynamic, complex, and realistic characters. Eugene Morgan, the man who brings industrialization to the city, is compassionate, driven, and relatable. While George Amberson Minafer, last vestige of the “good old days,” is annoying, clueless, and often contemptible. But even those descriptors are shallow because of the evolution and growth the characters go through. And while he may still deserve his “come-uppance,” the Minafer at the end of the novel is a greatly changed man from the spoiled kid at the beginning.

All in all, it was a complex, interesting, and compelling look at the changing face of America, and the people who are either pushing the country forward, or falling behind and being forgotten. There are no easy answers to any of the problems Tarkington introduces, and he explores the difficulties and sometimes even the suffering, that comes from those very real human emotions and interactions. It’s not a perfect novel, and the ending feels slightly forced, but overall, was fascinating, and I think Tarkington deserves better recognition for his work today.

Favorite passage:

They boasted of their libraries, their monuments and statues; and poured soot on them. They boasted of their schools, but the schools were dirty, like the children within them. This was not the fault of the children or their mothers. It was the fault of the idealists, who said: “The more dirt, the more prosperity.” They drew patriotic, optimistic breaths of the flying powdered filth of the streets, and took the foul and heavy smoke with gusto into the profundities of their lungs. And every year or so they boomed a great Clean-Up Week, when everybody was supposed to get rid of the tin cans in his backyard.

Why you should read it:

Convincing and realistic human characters, and a fascinating look at the changing face of America in the early 20th century.

Currently reading: Bromley Neighborhood by Alice Brown


One thought on “1919: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

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