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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons

by Booth Tarkington

(2/5 stars)

Coming from a blue-collar neighborhood, I've never had much tolerance for the Victorian-style books dealing with balls and courting rituals, where a huge scandal is created if someone uses the wrong fork at the dinner table. The excess, shallowness, arrogance, and outright stupidity of these wealthy people is usually enough to make my non-blue blood boil. So it's a good thing only the first third or so of "The Magnificent Ambersons" follows this Victorian model.

Because as the song says, the times they are a-changin as the 19th Century becomes the 20th in an unnamed Midwest town. Since after the Civil War, Major Amberson has been the wealthiest man in town, building one of the world's first subdivisions on his country estate to go along with his mansion and the one he builds for his daughter. Into a life of privilege and excess is born George Amberson Minafer. His mother dresses him like Buster Brown and gives him a pony to terrorize neighbors. Everyone--including this reader--would love for Georgie to get what's coming to him. And so he does. Georgie wants nothing more than to be a professional gentleman, American royalty, failing to see how inventions like electric lights and automobiles are changing the town around him into a city threatening to swallow the Amberson empire.

There is of course a girl named Lucy Morgan whom Georgie falls in love with and like many women, she can't help falling for the wrong man--Georgie in this case. Complicating matters is that Lucy's father Eugene, an automobile manufacturer though not a copy of Henry Ford, is an old flame of Georgie's mother Isabel. They say a change will do you good, but for these four people change is anything but good. The ending is silly and contrived as well as ambiguous, making it less than satisfactory.

This book was first published in 1919, but some of it still has relevance. The problems of suburban sprawl, pollution, and people being displaced by technology are ones our modern society still deals with. At the same time, some of this novel is hopelessly outdated, like the blatantly racist depiction of the black characters. You have to take the good with the bad in this case.

From Tarkington's descriptions on how dirty industrialization makes everything, one wonders if Georgie's resistance to change isn't an attitude the author shares. To hear Tarkington tell it, the 1880s-1890s in the Midwest town were a regular Camelot where everything was clean, everyone knew everyone else, and everyone knew his/her place. From the description on how many immigrants--especially Jews--move into the city you could make another assertion as well. Or perhaps I'm reading too much into things.

Depending on how you define progress, the fall of the Ambersons could represent the fall of the "good old days" or simply the natural order of things. No matter what, the warning to socialites is clear: nothing lasts forever. Perhaps Paris Hilton should read this--or have someone read it to her.

That is all.

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