A revolutionary novel by a forgotten reactionary novelist.
My hometown of Roselle, NJ is in a very old part of the United States. Elizabeth, the nearest big city, was founded in 1664. Westfield, the most important town in the western part of the county, was settled in 1712, and contains a house that dates all the way back to New Amsterdam. Unless you have a very sharp eye, however, you won’t notice much of the state’s colonial heritage, and for a very good reason. Not much of it is left. The currently existing landscape of northern New Jersey was built in two waves. The massive construction of working-class suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s that came out of the Baby Boom and the G.I Bill is fairly well known. “Little boxes on the hillside,” Pete Seeger sung in Little Boxes, his savage attack on post-war American suburbia, “little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same.” Most of the grand mansions and solidly built colonial revivals, on the other hand, the houses that have retained their value in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, were built during the less well-understood, but probably more important phase of economic development that unfolded during the two decades before the First World War. If the suburbanization of the 1940s and 1950s was based on the car culture, the suburbanization of the 1890s and 1900s was based on the construction of railroads. Starting at about 1890 and continuing on through about 1910, the colonial era towns of Union County, NJ, which up until then had been mostly farmland, were rebuilt as upscale bedroom towns for people who commuted to Wall Street by the New Jersey Central Railroad. While New Jersey had already become a multicultural, and largely Catholic state, little cities like Summit, Westfield, Cranford, and Scotch Plains retained the White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture of the old colonial bourgeoisie, now made wealthy beyond their wildest dreams by the economic boom that followed the Civil War.
Who built these grand old houses? Why have they been abandoned?
Northern New Jersey has never to my knowledge produced a great historian or realist novelist. The closest Union County has come is Van Wycks Brooks, after whom a once wealthy neighborhood in Plainfield has been renamed. Indiana, on the other hand, has produced the now almost totally forgotten but, I would argue, still worth engaging writer Booth Tarkington. Reading Tarkington’s 1918, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons feels a bit like reading the origin story of my civilization, not “Western” or “Christian” or even “American” civilization, but the civilization of the suburban American bourgeoisie. Tarkington was a conservative Republican who opposed the New Deal and who probably thought people with “ethnic” names like “Rogouski” were ruining America. Nevertheless, The Magnificent Ambersons, which is set in the Woodruff Place neighborhood of Indianapolis, cuts right to the heart of American capitalism, and ultimately exposes it as an empty and soul-killing exercise in futility and environmental destruction.
In the 1870s, Major Amberson, a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg, riding the wave of economic prosperity that followed the establishment of the United States as a world power in the wake of the Civil War, becomes the wealthiest man in what was then the fairly small city of Indianapolis. He builds a grand mansion, then a hotel, then a second great Victorian house, all of which become the core of a burgeoning, upscale little suburb. He has three children, two sons, George and Sydney, and a pretty daughter named Isabel, who becomes a desirable “catch” for many of the town’s eligible young men. Eventually she settles on two suitors, Eugene Morgan, a dashing young lawyer from a middle class family with a degree from a state college, and Wilbur Minafer, a rather dull, plodding, unromantic young man, but one from a more suitable background. One night Eugene Morgan gets drunk and accidentally steps through a bass violin at a party being held in her honor at the Amberson Mansion. Whether it’s mainly due to bourgeois snobbery or some odd streak of perversity is never fully explained – I’d guess the latter – but Isabella rejects Eugene the love of her life and marries the uninspired Wilbur Minafer.
Booth Tarkington may have been something of a Wilbur Minafer himself, a dull, conservative WASP, but he’s written a novel with romantic critique of American capitalism. By rejecting love in the name of social status, Isabella dooms the Amberson family to dissolution and eventual destruction. As Mrs. Johnson, the town gossip, accurately predicts, since Isabella can never love a man like Wilbur, she will end up doting on her children. George Amberson Minafer, Isabella’s only son, grows up to be an arrogant, conceited, and to be perfectly honest – although I don’t think Tarkington meant for us to see it this way – fairly stupid young man. Even though he gets the best education money can buy – a local prep school and an Ivy League university – he not only makes more enemies than friends, he doesn’t prepare himself for a profession. If George is a sympathetic character almost in spite of himself, then it’s because he speaks to our own fears of what we all could become. More specifically he speaks to a successful writer’s fears of becoming a nobody. He’s a rebel who’s also a conformist bourgeoisie, a man with an artistic temperate but without any talent for or even inclination to take up a creative discipline like poetry or music. In the end, he’s simply a snob who wants to live in his money, a rich slacker who wants “be” and not “do.” The main problem is that he’s not as rich as he thinks he is. Wilbur Minafer may have been a gentleman from an proper family, but he has no talent for making money. Major Anderson may have been a savvy businessman in the 1870s, but by the turn of the century he’s little more than a relic living off past glory. What’s more, capitalism in Indianapolis in the early 1900s, like capitalism everywhere else, as Marx pointed out, has to revolutionize itself continually or die.
If the revolutionary technology of the Civil War Era was the railroad, by 1907, when Henry Ford invented the Model T, it was the automobile. Booth Tarkington’s stand in for Henry Ford is none other than Eugene Morgan, Isabel’s rejected suitor. What made Eugene Morgan ineligible in 1890 has by 1910 made him the heir apparent to Major Anderson as the unofficial King of Indianapolis. We never find out the name of Eugene Morgan’s wife. By the time he returns to Woodruff Gardens after twenty years she’s already dead. Morgan also has a pretty daughter of marriageable age named Lucy, with whom the arrogant George Amberson Minafer falls hopelessly in love. George’s love for Lucy is not exactly what you would call “unrequited” – he’s an exceptionally good-looking young man from a prominent family and Lucy is tempted by his offer of an engagement – but it’s certainly unfulfilled. Lucy, who’s very much the daughter of her upwardly mobile father, can’t understand, not only why George Minafer won’t prepare himself for a profession, but why he just doesn’t seem to have any interests in life. Tarkington once again may have been a conservative Republican, but he’s also written a novel with a strong feminist undercurrent. Lucy Morgan is quite simply too smart for George Minafer. She’s too strong to be bullied into a marriage she doesn’t want. She doesn’t like his assumption that he’s entitled to her love. In the meantime, Wilbur Minafer has been getting sicker and sicker, mainly out of worry that he’s made too many bad investments. Eventually he dies, setting up the opportunity for the widower Eugene Morgan to finally marry Isabel, the love of his life, and an ultimately tragic confrontation with her son George.
It’s easy to see why George Amberson Minafer stands in the way of his mother’s second marriage. He’s partly motivated by his resentment over Lucy’s rejection. More importantly, lacking a profession or any useful occupation, he’s finally found his calling in life, to defend the family honor against an outsider, to imagine himself as Hamlet to Eugene Morgan’s Claudius and Isabel Amberson Minafer’s Gertrude. It’s a little harder to understand why the forty-year-old Isabel allows her twenty-year-old son to become her patriarchal oppressor. I suppose you can only expect so much from the turn of the century Midwestern bourgeoisie. In any event, George gets control of Isabel in a way he could never get control of Lucy, bullies his mother into rejecting a second chance of happiness with the man she genuinely loves, and then whisks her away to Europe after he decides there’s too much gossip. In reality, there’s never as much gossip as George thinks. His distorted sense of his own importance has exaggerated in his mind the extent to which people are interested in his mother’s move love.
By this point, the House of Amberson, both the literal physical mansion in Tarkington’s fictional Woodruff Place as well as the family reputation and fortune have rotted way. Major Anderson’s oldest son Sydney has already demanded his share of the inheritance, which the old man reluctantly gives. His younger son George has made a series of bad investments of his own. What’s more, the property values in the old suburbs, long degraded by the city’s rapid industrialization and urbanization are dealt a death blow by the increasing popularity of Eugene Morgan’s automobile. Nobody wants to buy or rent property downtown anymore. They all want to live further away from the noisy, dirty factories and the air made unhealthy by soft burning coal. One kick will bring down the edifice of the Amberson family for good.
That kick is the death first of Major Anderson, then of Isabel. Major Anderson dies of old age. Once unable to rebel against what she thought were the expectations of her parents – in reality Major Anderson never had a problem with Eugene Morgan and it was her own inflated sense of her own importance that made her think he did – Isabel is now unable to rebel against her son. She grows sick, then dies of a broken heart. The rest of the rotten old House of Amberson crumbles in rapid succession. Major Anderson’s younger son George and Wilbur’s sister Fanny had made foolish investments in an electric headlight company that eats up the rest of the family fortune. The paperwork for the great old mansion had never been put in proper order. Unable to take a low paid position as a law clerk and law student – he has to earn enough money to support himself and his Aunt Fanny — the once lordly George Amberson Minafer ends up as a low paid factory worker, and then, after he carelessly steps into the street and gets hit by a car, a disabled factory worker. He will remain childless. The Amberson bloodline has come to an end.
The son as the patriarchal oppressor of his mother.
Orson Welles’ 1942 film The Magnificent Anderson’s is quite simply the most virtuoso adaption of a novel to cinema that I have ever seen. Welles, who was only twenty-seven-years old, works on a level as far above the typical Hollywood director of his age as Mozart was above Antonio Salieri. I actually saw Welles’ film before I read Tarkington’s book. Somehow, almost miraculously, Welles sculpts 600 pages of narrative into a feature length movie. Welles’ camerawork is so fluid and so powerful, his direction so effortless, that he doesn’t suggest the movement of time. He transforms it into images and sound. Welles’s film is both pure cinema and pure narrative. He has not translated Tarkington’s novel into a film. He has reproduced Tarkington’s novel as a film. Unfortunately, either through malice – Citizen Kane had offended the powerful Hearst Corporation – or sheer stupidity – Welles’ film was too cynical about American capitalism to be released only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor – RKO Studios cut forty minutes out of the intended two hour and ten minute film, released it as a ninety minute B-Movie, and burned the scenes they edited out of the original theatrical cut.
Booth Tarkington’s remarkably prophetic warning about the car culture.
“They destroyed Ambersons,” Welles once remarked, “and that destroyed me. I think it also impoverished American culture. Welles had revived Tarkington’s radical critique of American capitalism, and above all the car culture, only a few years before the construction of the Interstate Highway system and the second great wave of suburbanization in the 1940s. Had this great, butchered film been shown in its full length – a film none of us have ever seen – and had it become a hit, we might have saved public transportation. General Motors might not have been able to buy up and destroy large parts of the Los Angeles streetcar nework. We might not have demolished Penn Station. We might not have built mile after mile of sterile, “ticky tacky,” little Levittowns that are now, in turn, as neoliberalism hollows out industrial America, falling into disrepair and disuse. We might have been a better, more humane culture. Nevertheless, as I read Takington’s novel and watched Welles’ film, as I used both to fill in each others gaps, I felt as if I was learning something about the world in which I live, as if I was peeling back layer upon layer of dirt and cultural obfuscation away from the civilization that nurtured and oppressed me. I became George Amberson Minafer. I was given the opportunity not to share his fate.