Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854
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 symbolize for the Ambersons a dark future they can neither recognize nor accept.
Told in a conventional third-person narration, Tarkington’s tale charts the transition of a large Midwestern town (presumably Indianapolis, although it is never stated) into a modern city. Specifically, the novel deals with characters who are wedded to the past (the Ambersons) and those who look forward to the future (the Morgans). George Amberson Minafer, the protagonist and Major Amberson’s only grandchild, is clearly linked to an earlier age in the novel. As a nine-year-old child, George reigns like a feudal lord over the growing town, rebelling against any kind of authority and thrashing his perceived enemies. Indeed, the “F.O.T.A.” clubroom contains a representation of a shield and battle axes. His chivalric tendencies are also reflected in his ultimately disastrous efforts to protect his mother’s reputation. Calling those who are not of his own class “riffraff,” Tarkington’s protagonist fully embodies an aristocratic old order, one who prefers a horse to the horseless carriage. Significantly, George wins Lucy only when he sheds this veneer of nobility and adopts her father’s work ethic. Clearly, Tarkington rejects an American aristocracy.
In its broadest terms, The Magnificent Ambersons depicts the rags-to-riches-to-rags scenario that is the dark side of the American success story. The novel’s central theme is the necessity of adapting to change in a time of transition. Simply put, Major Amberson’s empire crumbles because he and his family fail to accommodate change. In contrast to the old guard, Eugene Morgan heralds change and is its most visible exponent. Indeed, he nurtures its most potent symbol, the automobile. Irony is the means by which Tarkington explores this theme. This is evident in specific incidents, but irony is also a factor in the larger structure of the book. When George attempts to show his bravado by racing past Eugene Morgan’s machine, the destruction of the sleigh ironically leaves the former little choice but to ride in the horseless carriage he sought to mock. The irony is compounded when this scene is compared with George’s more successful stunts as a child. In addition to demonstrating George’s lack of growth, Tarkington increases the irony by having his protagonist defeated by the embodiment of the future in the book, Eugene Morgan. Even more ironic is the automobile accident that lands George in the hospital. From the “princely terror” who whipped the hardware man in the third chapter, George has now become the hapless victim in chapter 34—felled by the very riffraff he so vigorously disdained. Most ironic of all is the economic context of the Ambersons’ rise and fall: They build their empire in a time of great hardship and lose it in a period of booming prosperity.
Critics have faulted the novel for what they regard as its sentimental and overly optimistic ending, but Tarkington’s conclusion serves two important purposes. First, it brings to a close the moral education of George Minafer. Having lost his aristocratic status and having received his deserved punishment, he is ready to adopt the American work ethic. Second, Tarkington’s adept engineering of the final reconciliation brings about a merging of the old and the new.
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