(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)
By Booth Tarkington
Book #65 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Originally published in 1918, Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons tells a story familiar to that time, about the vast changes that had happened in America between the Civil War of the 1860s and then, as the nation first turned from an agricultural to an industrial economy and then brought resulting things like public education, indoor plumbing and electricity to the interior "heartland" of the country for the first time. Set in the fictional city of Midland but in reality a thinly veiled version of Tarkington's hometown of Indianapolis, we follow this history by basically following the fate of one super-rich family over the course of these decades -- one of the "founding families" of this city who helped maintain the genteel, agriculture-based aristocracy that used to run such little civilized patches out in the middle of the rural wilds of the Midwest, until the Industrial Revolution replaced them wholesale with an entirely new upper class of brash entrepreneurs, and with their former wealth of desirable land and vast farms quickly made worthless by the invention of cars, highways, public transportation and the very idea of suburbs.
As such, then, our particular story concentrates on just one member of this family, poor George Amberson Minafer (carrier of his father's name but heir to his mother's fortune), who ends up getting the short end of the stick from both sides of the historical ruler -- prepared by an overly doting mother for an old-money life as a spoiled blue-blood, blowing off his college years because of feeling like his real adult job will be to look after his family estate (not to "hold" a "job" like some commoner), it's his arrogant, unwavering belief in the unchanging nature of this old system that leads to so many problems when the changes actually occur, with the author cleverly using the rise of the automobile as an ongoing symbol of this change all through the course of this manuscript. (When given a chance to invest in the industry when they're first invented at the beginning of the book, George blows them off as a fad for the bored elite, and declares that nothing will ever beat the financial stability of large estates near the the center of town; while by the end of the book, it's precisely the explosive popularity of these 'horseless carriages' that have made his family's land a virtually worthless slum area of the rapidly growing city, exactly the same thing that happened for example in Chicago's Prairie Avenue neighborhood in those same years.) Throw in an on-and-off relationship with a feisty, independent neighbor, a kowtowed aunt who seems to be the only sane one of the entire family (and hence the one most completely ignored), and wistful descriptions of a slow-moving 19th-century "golden age" for the American Midwest (based on Tarkington's real-life childhood as a member of one of these ruined old aristocratic families), and you're left with a story in turns infuriating and pity-provoking, a simultaneous paen to progress and elegy for what is invariably lost in the process.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, it was the winner of the 1919 Pulitzer Prize, with Tarkington in general one of only three people in history who have won the Pulitzer more than once; plus there's the celebrated 1942 movie version by no less than Orson Welles, the fact that it made the Modern Library's "100 Best Novels of the 20th Century" list, and the fact that this was in the top-ten bestselling novels in the nation every year for an entire decade after first getting published. And that's because, fans claim, this is a blessedly clean and straightforward look at one of the more important periods of American history, essentially a period much like India is going through right this second -- when the US went from basically a big mass of mostly lawless rural villages to a legitimately unified and industrialized nation, with both all the good and all the bad things that come with such a transition, the "Great Change" that basically turned the American Midwest into the modern collection of industrial powerhouses and bland surrounding suburbs that we now know it as today. If you want an entertaining, plain-spoken look at this transition, without all the head-scratching experimentation that bogs down so many of his peers' works from those same years, just turn to what was for a long time one of the most popular novels in this country's history, the very definition of literary classic.
The argument against:
Critics of The Magnificent Ambersons tend to take the same facts its fans do but then posit the opposite argument; that the reason this hasn't held up very well over the years is precisely because it's missing all the "fancy-schmancy experimentation" that his peers in the 1910s and '20s were including; or put another way, the phenomenon known as Modernism, which would quickly become the singlemost defining trait of the American arts for the entire rest of the 20th century. While not exactly Victorian in nature, critics argue, Tarkington certainly missed the boat when it came to the grand tide of history that the arts were going through during his lifetime; and while his Henry-James-inspired Realist tone was rightly loved by his contemporary audiences, hungry for work that spoke in the same language as them and discussing the hot issues of the day, it's this same tone that made his work fall so flat almost the exact moment his original audience died out, leaving us with what is certainly a fascinating historical document but nothing you could reasonably argue that every single person should one day read before they die, the way that we're defining "classic" in this particular essay series.
Oh, have you never actually heard of Booth Tarkington before? Yeah, same with me until first putting this CCLaP 100 list together, and including in that list a few completely random and forgotten Pulitzer winners from the past, simply to see for curiosity's sake why they had won the Pulitzer and why they were then forgotten again so quickly. And indeed, this reading experience surprisingly ties in nicely with something making the rounds of the blogosphere just this week, when a professional book collector over at BookRiot.com controversially declared that in a hundred years, no one's going to have even the slightest clue who Jonathan Franzen is; because The Magnificent Ambersons in many ways made me exactly think of a 1920s Jonathan Franzen, and made me realize a lot more what this essayist at BookRiot was trying to say. Because the fact is that the book is really not that bad at all, a quickly paced and not too challenging generational story, that feels more important in the heat of the reading moment than it probably is because of taking on such a grand theme, and using the exact same kind of slang and dialogue style that was popular among real society at that exact moment in history; and these are all great things when it comes to contemporary audiences seeking contemporary works that speak directly to them, and we should rightly celebrate Tarkington for once literally being more popular in this country than Mark Twain, just as we should celebrate Franzen for having no less than the President of the United States quietly ask one day for an illegal early copy of Franzen's newest novel a few years ago, at a random bookstore while on vacation.
But if you compare The Magnificent Ambersons to just two other novels in the same years and exploring the same issues, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, it's impossible to deny that Tarkington comes up woefully and profoundly lacking; and that in a nutshell is the danger of declaring a book a "classic" at too early a moment in history, the whole reason we find it important to even make classics lists in the first place, because it's only the process of time and future generations that can tell us what history ultimately finds most important about our own era, and which of the artists of this era were to contain the strange spark that went on to define the entire generation after them. That's what makes it so fascinating right this exact moment in history to be exploring this particular literary time of just about a century ago, because this is the exact last moment in history that many of these books will even be argued as classics by anyone in the first place; and that makes it extremely interesting to read up on such people as Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair and more, in that who knows whether anyone will even remember these writers at all in another fifty years from now. Although I definitely recommend reading it, since it's a quick and easy read that nicely illuminates this particular period of history, I can't in good conscience declare The Magnificent Ambersons an undeniable classic, and in fact suspect that in just another couple of generations this debate won't even be taking place at all.
Is it a classic? No, but read it anyway
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)