The Magnificent Ambersons Essay - Critical Essays

Booth Tarkington

Critical Evaluation

Perhaps more than any other American writer of the twentieth century, Booth Tarkington demonstrates the insecure position of an author in relation to his critics. Born into an upper-middle-class Indianapolis family and educated at Purdue and Princeton universities, Tarkington went on to become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers of the early twentieth century. During this period, he readily produced his plays and regularly published his short stories and novels. Critical reception was no less favorable, with the novels The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams (1921) both receiving Pulitzer Prizes. Although postwar critics have virtually ignored Tarkington, his well-wrought tales are important examples of social realism. They chart the development of an industrial giant, the United States.

Tarkington is primarily a regional writer, his major works depicting the social upheaval of industrialism and its effects upon Midwest locales and their inhabitants in the industrial era. The Magnificent Ambersons is no exception. Initially published in 1918, Tarkington reissued the novel in the 1920’s as part of the Growth trilogy, which also includes The Turmoil (1915) and The Midlander (1923). Like the other realist writers of his time, Tarkington effectively employs physical detail to depict a palpable and often gritty reality. In The Magnificent Ambersons, much of the story takes place in the early years of the twentieth century. Tarkington re-creates the immediate past for the readers of 1918 by opening the novel with a lengthy discussion of the changing fashions—from clothing fads to the particular jargon of George Minafer’s social stratum. The most striking example of Tarkington’s brand of realism is the smoke created by the burning of soft coal. Though little more than a nuisance at the beginning of the novel, it obscures and eventually engulfs the Amberson estate when the latter goes bankrupt, casting a pall on the once mighty family. In Tarkington’s skillful hands, a seemingly minor detail comes to...

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