“Old times?” Morgan laughed gaily from the doorway. “Not a bit! There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!”
It is fitting that The Magnificent Ambersons, a novel imbued with knowing irony from start to finish, is remembered a century on not because of its author, Booth Tarkington, nor the Pulitzer Prize he received for it in 1919, but for Orson Welles’s ill-fated 1942 adaption of the same name. “They destroyed Ambersons, and the picture itself destroyed me,” Welles is often quoted as saying; when RKO slashed Welles’s original cut by a third of the length, disappointed audiences were left with the ghost of a film that had promised to be better than Citizen Kane, and cinephiles were left with a sort of holy grail, a dream of discovering the lost footage in some dusty archive, “Ambersons” a code-word, decades on, for what might have been.
Would Tarkington have been surprised by this turn of events? Much of his work, and especially The Magnificent Ambersons itself, hinges on time’s ephemerality: the way things were, eclipsed by the way things are now, which are eventually eclipsed by the way things will be. Whether the novelist could have predicted the full scope of his own current obscurity remains to be seen; in the early decades of the twentieth century, he was both famous and critically respected, named “America’s Greatest Living Writer” by Literary Digest in 1922. He won two Pulitzers, first for Ambersons and then, three years later, for Alice Adams. Only two other authors have received the prize twice: William Faulkner and John Updike.
There is a heavy strand of nostalgia in Tarkington’s framing, but it is twinned with the sort of unshakable acceptance that the past is past: characters that embrace progress succeed, and those that cannot look forward are doomed to decline.
But Tarkington was acutely aware of the inevitable march of time. Ambersons, like many of his novels, was set several decades in the past—in this case, it is a view of the Gilded Age and the turn of the twentieth century published in 1918, chronicling a period that was already fading from collective memory. There is a heavy strand of nostalgia in Tarkington’s framing, but it is twinned with the sort of unshakable acceptance that the past is past: characters that embrace progress succeed, and those that cannot look forward are doomed to decline.
Setting aside the admittedly heavy shadow of Welles and RKO Pictures, The Magnificent Ambersons is a novel that can—and should—be taken on its own terms. It is easy to read as an artifact of its time, especially as it preemptively eulogizes itself. But a century on, it still resonates: it describes the decline of an American society marked by extreme income inequality, written at the precipice of the boom that would lead to the greatest bust in our history, the Great Depression. And while progress in the novel is widely shorthanded as industrialization, it is specifically pegged to a single technology: the rise, and eventual supremacy, of the automobile.
If the car in The Great Gatsby serves as a clear-cut motif, cars in Ambersons are the metaphorical framing device that underpins the entire plot, sometimes to the point of heavy-handed absurdity—the novel’s protagonist, George Amberson Minafer, steadily rails against cars and all they represent until, in the final pages and at his lowest point, he is hit by one. But as Tarkington describes the car’s effect on the rapidly-expanding city in which the novel is set—a version of his hometown, Indianapolis—he is not merely describing a shift in manufacturing or business priorities. The car, in his view, is reshaping the American mind: cars are allowing cities to be built differently and, in turn, communities are being structured differently and people are relating to each other differently. Tarkington feels almost prescient as he sets up the oncoming twentieth century of sprawl—by the novel’s final chapters, the city
… was heaving up in the middle incredibly; it was spreading incredibly; and as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened its sky. Its boundary was mere shapelessness on the run; a raw, new house would appear on a country road; four or five others would presently be built at intervals between it and the outskirts of the town; the country road would turn into an asphalt street with a brick-faced drugstore and a frame grocery at a corner; then bungalows and six-room cottages would swiftly speckle the open green spaces—and a farm had become a suburb which would immediately shoot out other suburbs into the country, on one side, and, on the other, join itself solidly to the city. … Gasoline and electricity were performing the miracles Eugene had predicted.
The Magnificent Ambersons begins with the novelty of the horseless carriage—halfway through the events of the novel, one character declares, “…but I shouldn’t be really surprised to see a law passed forbidding the sale of automobiles, just the way there is with concealed weapons.” Even from the vantage of 1918, we are left with a sort of winking satisfaction about just how wrong those predictions were (and from 2019, the reference to concealed weapons makes this feeling even more acute). By the novel’s end, we are in a world of widespread automobile adoption, both physically and intellectually; with the benefit of the decades between when it is set and when it was written, it looks towards what would become the century of the car in the United States.
But how does it read 100 years on, as today’s critics and artists grapple with an era of unprecedented income inequality? Entering the third decade of the twenty-first century, the car’s ubiquity has morphed into a sort of stasis, as a nation of car-oriented sprawl grapples with the resulting systemic problems afflicting the majority of Americans’ lives. Even as most Americans still rely on cars, the romanticism of the open road feels like a twentieth-century relic. Discussion around the future of the automobile hinges on driverless technologies and restructuring car use and ownership, privileging functionality and efficiency. Younger generations are eschewing driving entirely—moving back towards the center of that sprawl, lobbying for more robust public transit, and sharing the occasional ride in a car they do not own.
What is the state of our “spiritual civilization” after a century of the car? The Magnificent Ambersons is curious as a work of divination, with Tarkington himself playing a sort of regretful prophet: much of his contemporary writing suggests he shares George’s unfashionable, backwards-looking views on twentieth-century progress, rendered all the more ironic coming out of the lips of a character he takes pains to draw as blatantly obnoxious.
In one of the novel’s most striking scenes, the characters engage in a potentially too-on-the-nose conversation about the “spiritual” cost of the car. “Automobiles are a useless nuisance,” George, the entitled, petulant protagonist, announces to Eugene Morgan, a successful automobile man and the father of the woman George is embarrassingly bad at courting. “They’ll never amount to anything but a nuisance. They had no business to be invented.” Morgan, chronically affable and secure in the knowledge that he has gambled on a technology with staying power, nonetheless agrees with him. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization—that is, in spiritual civilization,” Morgan tells the Ambersons. “It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect.”
What is the state of our “spiritual civilization” after a century of the car? The Magnificent Ambersons is curious as a work of divination, with Tarkington himself playing a sort of regretful prophet: much of his contemporary writing suggests he shares George’s unfashionable, backwards-looking views on twentieth-century progress, rendered all the more ironic coming out of the lips of a character he takes pains to draw as blatantly obnoxious. But this paradox drives the novel forward—it holds these views together simultaneously, as time marches on. As we imagine the next hundred years, and the “spiritual” costs of technological innovation, how should we read Ambersons today?
• • •
“Major Amberson had ‘made a fortune’ in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then.” The novel’s opening line situates the Ambersons in a specific moment in American history (arguably the most dramatic stretch of unregulated capitalism the nation had ever seen) while implying that their regal excesses were something won at the expense of others—and displayed in extreme contrast to the steady modesty of normal Midwestern life. “Against so homespun a background,” Tarkington writes, “the magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral.”
We are sped through the closing decades of the nineteenth century to the young adulthood of Isabel Amberson, one of the Major’s three children, an exquisite beauty who rejects a rowdy but charming suitor for a staid, unremarkable one. Wilbur Minafer is so unremarkable—his presence in the book is minimal, as is his quiet death a third of the way through—that Isabel, a town gossip declares, will “have the worst spoiled lot of children this town will ever see.” When questioned about her prediction, she elaborates: “‘She couldn’t love Wilbur, could she?’ Mrs. Foster demanded, with no challengers. ‘Well, it will all go to her children, and she’ll ruin ’em!’”
The Minafers have one child, and he is indeed ruined by his mother’s singularly-focused affection: George Amberson Minafer is such a terror that as he progresses from childhood to adulthood, the entire town collectively yearns to see him humbled. “There were people—grown people they were—who expressed themselves longingly: they did hope to live to see the day, they said, when that boy would get his come-uppance! … Something was bound to take him down, some day, and they only wanted to be there!” After spending time at an East Coast university, his haughtiness takes on an opacity which frustrates them further: “Nothing about him encouraged any hope that he had received his come-upance; on the contrary, the yearners for that stroke of justice must yearn even more itchingly: the gilded youth’s manner had become polite, but his politeness was of a kind which democratic people found hard to bear.”
George is a blunt analogue for the decline of the American ruling class at the twilight of the Gilded Age: propelled by his family name, he lacks any ambition of his own, save being “a yachtsman.” “Don’t you think,” he tells Lucy Morgan, the girl he seemingly wants to impress despite all evidence on the page, “really, don’t you think that being things is rather better than doing things?” Tarkington adds, with a characteristic narrative smirk, “He said ‘rahthuh bettuh’ for ‘rather better,’ and seemed to do it deliberately, with perfect knowledge of what he was doing.” George is the last to know that his family’s fortunes are steadily declining: as the novel progresses, we are given hints—often through the decay of their physical property—alongside clear signals that George’s myopathy catches a fraction of what is perfectly clear to most people.
Lucy is the daughter of Eugene Morgan, the rowdy youth who failed to win over a young Isabel Amberson; George initially dismisses him with the label of “queer-looking duck” when they first meet, but he grows steadier, in George’s limited perception, as his own fortunes rise. He is an inventor and entrepreneur, bringing both automobile manufacturing to the quickly-changing city and a grand vision of the role that cars will play in the future. Eugene’s “spiritual civilization” line is preceded by a frank assessment of the way his vehicles, amongst others, are rendering the value of the Amberson properties—once predicated on their prime central location—all but obsolete. “It isn’t the distance from the center of a town that counts,” he tells them. “It’s the time it takes to get there. This town’s already spreading; bicycles and trolleys have been doing their share, but the automobile is going to carry city streets clear out to the county line.”
Eugene’s “spiritual civilization” line is preceded by a frank assessment of the way his vehicles, amongst others, are rendering the value of the Amberson properties—once predicated on their prime central location—all but obsolete.
Eugene is at the heart of much of the novel’s interpersonal dramas: after George’s father’s death, Eugene and Isabel rekindle their close friendship, sparking heavy speculation in the process. This causes distress for two parties: Fanny Minafer, George’s long-suffering spinster aunt who harbors dreams of romance with Eugene, and George himself, whose obsession with his mother threatens to push subtextual Oedipal themes into the textual realm. (Their possibly-too-close relationship is a mutual one, culminating in a period, towards the end of the novel, where they essentially ‘run away together’ to Europe, returning only when Isabel is close to death.)
The romance plots feel overly stagey at times—particularly George’s pursuit of Lucy Morgan, and, bafflingly, her returned interest and affection—but they work as an effective smokescreen, occupying George’s thoughts as his family’s resources and status rapidly devolve. The Ambersons’ place in the world is made abundantly plain by the time of Isabel’s death: property sold off and cash lost in risky investments, the surviving family members leave town and George and Fanny are forced to take up residence in a sort of boarding house. George declines work as a legal apprentice for the wildly dangerous but immediately lucrative job of “nitroglycerin expert,” setting up the perfect metaphor, as a former friend details his fate, for a character long overdue for his come-uppance: “… George rides around over the bumpy roads, sitting on as much as three hundred quarts of nitroglycerin! My Lord! Talk about romantic tumbles! If he gets blown sky-high some day he won’t have a bigger drop, when he comes down, than he’s already had!”
As a riches-to-rags story, a serious, selfless George risking his life to support his aunt feels somewhat unearned, though perhaps it is more appropriate to read it as a sort of reckless death wish: utterly knocked down from what he always believed was his rightful place, George does not place much stock in the life he has left. Then, in the novel’s final pages, he is literally knocked down: hit by a car—symbolically laid flat by the technological progress of modern life—and left badly injured and hospitalized. The driver, the police officer, the newspaper, and Eugene Morgan himself collectively do their part to carry the metaphor to its most pat conclusion, as Eugene writes to Lucy, “I saw an account of the accident to George Minafer. I’m sorry, though the paper states that it was plainly his own fault.”
The novel closes with an extreme act of benevolence: moved by the spirit of George’s dead mother—literally, a medium is involved—Eugene returns to the city to rescue George from both physical and fiscal ruin. It is a saccharine ending, one that feels even more unearned than the refashioned humble George, perhaps meant to suggest that the desire for come-uppance we were strongly encouraged to root for was not so laudable after all. It sends a curious message at the end of a novel about the toppling of the ruling class, one that might have been easier to swallow if George had ever shown any self-awareness about his own behavior, or the sort of measured nobility, in the classical sense, that tempered other members of his family. George does not deserve his redemption but he is given it anyway. It is not particularly satisfying, but perhaps it is a truer message about systemic privilege than anything else—the sort of message that “democratic people found hard to bear.”
• • •
What are we to make of George Amberson Minafer, imperious and self-satisfied, curmudgeonly at age twenty, committed only to being things rather than doing things, his lack of ambition manifesting in an inability to look towards the future and see the potential for change? He is a strange protagonist to create at the close of the First World War—if not the start of the modern era, at least the close of the one before it—and a strange figure to offer a path to redemption.
Tarkington’s dissatisfaction with the direction and pace of change sits curiously beside his utter commitment to destroying George and the Ambersons, “burying” them beneath the weight of progress. Shortly before the car accident, George finds a book entitled Biographies of the 500 Most Prominent Citizens and Families in the History of the City and flips to the “A” section to read, “Alexander Allen Ambrose Ambuhl…”
The city had rolled over his heart, burying it under, as it rolled over the Major’s and buried it under. The city had rolled over the Ambersons and buried them under to the last vestige; and it mattered little that George guessed easily enough that most of the five hundred Most Prominent had paid something substantial ‘to defray the cost of steel engraving, etc.’—the Five Hundred had heaved the final shovelful of soot upon that heap of obscurity wherein the Ambersons were lost forever from sight and history. ‘Quicksilver in a nest of cracks!’
Georgie Minafer had got his come-uppance, but the people who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.
Pre-humbled George is not a foreign figure to modern readers: today’s ultra-wealthy class includes a strong contingent of people committed to “being things rather than doing things,” or sometimes, doing things while working very hard to project a façade of simply being things. The precariousness on which Tarkington constructs the Ambersons’ wealth—namely, land and property—might also feel familiar, though a decade on from a catastrophic housing-fueled financial crisis, with both wealthy individuals and institutions like banks emerging stronger than before, it is a challenge to imagine the sort of “burying” to which the Ambersons are consigned.
Eugene Morgan is a far less difficult figure: a wayward youth who has done his growing up (he is described, during his attempts to woo young Isabel, as “… generous, poor, well-dressed, and his amazing persuasiveness was one reason why he was always in debt,” and upon his return to the city, it is noted that his debts have been paid off in full). Eugene is a thoroughly twentieth-century character: a good-natured entrepreneur who wins great success through some combination of charm and shrewd judgment, all the while putting people out of business with a rueful smile. Even his reaction, when George blurts out that automobiles are a useless nuisance, personifies this sort of confident laissez-faire: “Again there was a silence, while the Major stared at his grandson, aghast. But Eugene began to laugh cheerfully.”
After the “spiritual civilization,” line, he continues his assessment of the future world of the car:
They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles ‘had no business to be invented.’
Eugene as a reluctant harbinger of change is a fitting mirror for George, unable to see or participate in the world changing around him. But taken on his own, his attitude towards cars is difficult to parse—this particular speech feels more like Tarkington, writing ten or twenty years on, than any character in the novel. Eugene is perpetually looking forward, even with Isabel. “Old times?” he tells one character. “Not a bit! There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!”
Out-of-character as it may be, Tarkington’s regretful technologist is an interesting figure to examine with a century of perspective. Few voices in technology today—automotive or otherwise—would ever utter a phrase akin to “the spiritual alteration will be bad for us.” Tech ethicists and speculative fiction writers alike are often resigned to afterthoughts in the corporate tech world, critiquing technologies that have already been built and systems that have already taken hold. Modern technologists are more likely to be like Eugene’s broader attitudes about the future—“there aren’t any times but new times”; these attitudes are fundamental in Silicon Valley, implicit throughout the tech industry and often made explicit in shocking ways.
Out-of-character as it may be, Tarkington’s regretful technologist is an interesting figure to examine with a century of perspective. Few voices in technology today—automotive or otherwise—would ever utter a phrase akin to “the spiritual alteration will be bad for us.”
While Tarkington himself weaves a thoughtful critique of modernization—and of the oncoming effect of the car in particular—throughout the text, he fails to create a character with a coherent view on the growing influence of the automobile. Cars are the ideal technological choice to represent the vast changes in American cities at the turn of the century, but it often feels like characters just happen to intersect with them, from the minor characters’ vague skepticism over the horseless carriage to Eugene’s ambivalence about the product he is creating to George’s accident, far smaller than the one being predicted—being blown sky-high at work.
But as for any indication of the spiritual alteration of men’s souls, even incrementally? Tarkington is at his best when he shows the way that cars—and more broadly, “gasoline and electricity”—are remapping the city, and the alterations of the populations within it. The sprawl of the city is accompanied by an influx of turn-of-the-century immigrants (introduced more matter-of-factly than xenophobically) shortly before George returns to the city to find it utterly changed. “A new Midlander—in fact, a new American—was beginning dimly to emerge.”
The changed city is the twentieth century, already in progress. “They had one supreme theory: that the perfect beauty and happiness of cities and of human life was to be brought about by more factories; they had a mania for factories; there was nothing they would not do to cajole a factory away from another city; and they were never more piteously embittered than when another city cajoled one away from them.” The resulting industrialization covers the city in what Tarkington frames as both a physical and a sort of spiritual dirtiness—and one that normalized itself as it grew. “… Lucy, after a hard struggle, had to give up her blue-and-white curtains and her white walls. Indoors, she put everything into dull gray and brown, and outside had the little house painted the dark green nearest to black. Then she knew, of course, that everything was as dirty as ever, but was a little less distressed because it no longer looked so dirty as it was.”
It is troublingly easy to find ourselves in Tarkington’s paradoxical middle ground today, caught between people looking backwards towards a time that cannot be recreated, or looking forward towards a bright technological future with little care for history and the lessons it brings with it. As inequality grows impassibly wider, the idea of a rebalancing becomes harder to grasp: we are not the large town ruled by the Ambersons, waiting for come-uppance, but the modern city so large we scarcely know who is pressing their fingers on the scales.
But Tarkington’s critique of technology endures: the idea that a device that changes the way people conducts their lives will inevitably change their very makeup of their soul. We only have to look at our vast network of roads and sprawling suburbs, at our dependence on a set of natural resources to power it all, and understand how thoroughly the car reshaped the country. We can only hope to find that point of balance, between the Eugene Morgans and the George Amberson Minafers of the world, as we look at the technologies shaping the next century.