Not many people read Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) these days, and that is a great shame. Tarkington was, at one time, one of the nation’s most popular writers, and he was known for the gentle lyricism of his prose as well as the faintly wistful and nostalgic tone of his worldview.
Tarkington is only one of three novelists (the others being William Faulkner and John Updike) who won the Pulitzer Prize for literature more than once. He won the prize, most significantly, for what has now become his most famous novel, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918; won the Pulitzer in 1919).
Many would argue that it is his nostalgia for a vanished America that has hurt Tarkington’s cultural currency, but I doubt that. No, I believe that Tarkington’s literary reputation was glossed over because he saw both the positives and negatives of the encroaching Modern World, and was very clear-eyed in his assessment of it.
This came to me quite distinctly while recently rereading Ambersons. It is the second novel in his Growth trilogy, which included the now-forgotten The Turmoil (1915) and The Midlander (1923; retitled National Avenue in 1927). Ambersons was famously made into a film by Orson Welles in 1942, but the film, fine as it is, was but a pale reflection of the novel.
The novel tells the story of George Amberson Minafer. He is born into the wealthy and socially-connected Amberson family and is, for want of a better term, a spoiled brat. Shallow, snobbish, uninterested (and uninteresting), his bad-boy behavior has a certain energy and dash, but he is a thoroughly selfish and wretched human being.
George behaves as a young prince in his Midwestern town, and, for all practical purposes, he is. When Eugene Morgan, who courted his mother, Isabel, back in the day, returns to town, George meets and falls in love with Morgan’s daughter, Lucy. When George’s father dies, it seems as if Morgan and Isabel will finally reunite; however, George’s selfishness and high-handed behavior ruins their chance of happiness.
When George leaves with his mother for Europe, the Amberson fortune slowly crumbles while Morgan, who makes automobiles, grows richer and richer. George and Isabel return to the town, where Isabel dies. When his grandfather dies almost immediately after, George learns that the family is now completely destitute.
Throughout the novel, the townsfolk grow to hate George, and pray that he will get his ‘comeuppance.’ This he receives in spades, losing his family, his home, his fortune, his reputation and his self-respect. He is relegated to living with, and caring for, his maiden Aunt Fanny and working for a chemical plant. Worse yet, George loses his hometown, as well. As auto-manufacturing grows more important, the town grows into a city, and then into a metropolis. The landmarks of the Gilded Age created by the Ambersons are gently erased by time, leaving the world he knew and his family name little more than a dim memory.
However, in Tarkington’s world, nothing is ever so simple. While George certainly gets everything he deserves, and then some, we cannot help but feel sorry for him. His crimes seem to be no more than the arrogance of youth and the stupidity of entitlement. In fact, in adversity George rises to the occasion handsomely.
More tellingly – and here is where Tarkington loses credibility with Modernists – he makes clear exactly what was lost by a world changing so much. Though George’s world was class-conscious, insular and snobbish, the new democratic age is chaotic, uncertain and vulgar. Where George’s world was parochial, self-centered and precious, the modern world hopelessly diffuse, avaricious and filthy. Tarkington saw it all – the failure of multiculturism, the rubble of our cities, the noise of our “culture,” our obsession with hucksterism and our deluded sense of social mobility. He knew that the gains were real, but the losses irrevocable and possibly fatal.
The engine of change here, for Tarkington and the town, was the advent of the automobile. Life got faster, noisier and dirtier. Yes, opportunities and horizons expanded, but at what cost?
Our recent rereading hit a significant chord because, all too often, we see ourselves as a (hopefully much nicer) later version of George. Most of the time, I no longer recognize my city, my country or my world. Here, for example, is George walking around what was once a beautiful, turn-of-the century town:
On Sunday mornings Fanny went to church and George took long walks. He explored the new city, and found it hideous, especially in the early spring, before the leaves of the shade trees were out. Then the town was fagged with the long winter and blacked with the heavier smoke that had been held close to the earth by the smoke-fog it bred. Every-thing was damply streaked with the soot: the walls of the houses, inside and out, the gray curtains at the windows, the windows themselves, the dirty cement and unswept asphalt underfoot, the very sky overhead. Throughout this murky season he continued his explorations, never seeing a face he knew—for, on Sunday, those whom he remembered, or who might remember him, were not apt to be found within the limits of the town, but were congenially occupied with the new outdoor life which had come to be the mode since his boyhood. He and Fanny were pretty thoroughly buried away within the bigness of the city.
One of his Sunday walks, that spring, he made into a sour pilgrimage. It was a misty morning of belated snow slush, and suited him to a perfection of miserableness, as he stood before the great dripping department store which now occupied the big plot of ground where once had stood both the Amberson Hotel and the Amberson Opera House. From there he drifted to the old "Amberson Block," but this was fallen into a back-water; business had stagnated here. The old structure had not been replaced, but a cavernous entryway for trucks had been torn in its front, and upon the cornice, where the old separate metal letters had spelt "Amberson Block," there was a long billboard sign: "Doogan Storage."
To spare himself nothing, he went out National Avenue and saw the piles of slush-covered wreckage where the Mansion and his mother's house had been, and where the Major's ill-fated five "new" houses had stood; for these were down, too, to make room for the great tenement already shaped in unending lines of foundation. But the Fountain of Neptune was gone at last—and George was glad that it was!
He turned away from the devastated site, thinking bitterly that the only Amberson mark still left upon the town was the name of the boulevard—Amberson Boulevard. But he had reckoned without the city council of the new order, and by an unpleasant coincidence, while the thought was still in his mind, his eye fell upon a metal oblong sign upon the lamppost at the corner. There were two of these little signs upon the lamp-post, at an obtuse angle to each other, one to give passers-by the name of National Avenue, the other to acquaint them with Amberson Boulevard. But the one upon which should have been stenciled "Amberson Boulevard" exhibited the words "Tenth Street."
George stared at it hard. Then he walked quickly along the boulevard to the next corner and looked at the little sign there. "Tenth Street."
It had begun to rain, but George stood unheeding, staring at the little sign. "Damn them!" he said finally, and, turning up his coat-collar, plodded back through the soggy streets toward "home."
Our cities, our countries, our very lives are all dynamic things. They are supposed to change. But all too often change is heralded as a great and good thing simply because it is a change, because it is new. We think of what we gain but are seldom very conscious of what we lose. While most critics and academics embraced writers who sang of the emerging American Century, Tarkington told us all what it would cost. He was the Poet Laureate of Loss; no wonder his cultural currency is low.