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Largely overshadowed by Orson Welles’s famous 1941 screen version, Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons was not only a best-seller when it first appeared in 1918—it also won the Pulitzer Prize.
Set in the Midwest in the early twentieth century—the dawn of the automobile age—the novel begins by introducing the richest family in town, the Ambersons. Exemplifying aristocratic excess, the Ambersons have everything money can buy—and more. But George Amberson Minafer—the spoiled grandson of the family patriarch—is unable to see that great societal changes are taking place, and that business tycoons, industrialists, and real estate developers will soon surpass him in wealth and prestige. Rather than join the new mechanical age, George prefers to remain a gentleman, believing that “being things” is superior to “doing things.” But as his town becomes a city, and the family palace is enveloped in a cloud of soot, George’s protectors disappear one by one, and the elegant, cloistered lifestyle of the Ambersons fades from view, and finally vanishes altogether.
A brilliant portrayal of the changing landscape of the American dream, The Magnificent Ambersons is a timeless classic that deserves a wider modern audience.
Nahma Sandrow has written extensively about theater and cultural history, including the books Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater and Surrealism: Theater, Arts, Ideas. For many years a professor at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, she has lectured at Oxford University, Harvard University, the Smithsonian, and elsewhere.
Read an Excerpt
From Nahma Sandrow’s Introduction to The Magnificent Ambersons
Tarkington himself intended The Magnificent Ambersons to be read not as a novel but as a political wake-up call. He set out to show how modern industrialization, specifically the triumph of the automobile over the horse and buggy, transformed America. He illustrated this history lesson through the falling fortunes of one Midwestern family and the rise of another.
The Magnificent Ambersons is also a story of romance and coming of age. A young man learns his hard life lesson and gets his girl in the end. But the book is not so simple viewed in this light, either; it is an unconventional novel, without the comforts of a lovable protagonist or a happy ending,
More complex, more personal, and darker than either of these summaries suggests, The Magnificent Ambersons is a kind of poem, an elegy to lost youth and the irretrievable past. The feelings the reader is left with are melancholy, yearning, and a sense of loss.
How one responds to a work of art is an individual matter. On first reading The Magnificent Ambersons, some are more struck by the history, and some by the romance. No reader can be fully conscious of all the layers, all the time. But they’re all there, each deepening and enhancing the effects of the others. It’s probably best to read the book through once just for pleasure, and then to go back and analyze how the author created his effects. Such an analysis can be eye-opening, and can certainly make a second reading (like the second hearing of a piece of music) a startlingly different experience from the first.
This introduction approaches The Magnificent Ambersons layer by layer: history, fiction, and then poem. A section at the end discusses writers from Indiana. See “For Further Reading” for more books by and about Booth Tarkington.
Tarkington did not set out to write a novel of character at all. What he had in mind was an exposé of social ills and ongoing historical processes. The Magnificent Ambersons was part of an ambitious trilogy called Growth (1927), in which the author describes changes he saw in America, especially his own Midwestern part of America, in the early twentieth century.
Tarkington was not an intellectual, but he read and traveled, and gave serious and informed thought to what was going on in the world. He even served a term in the Indiana state legislature—and would probably have run for reelection if not for a debilitating case of typhoid fever—and was active in various political and social causes. He wrote about his observations and political opinions, most notably in The World Does Move (1928). In fact, his first published novel, The Gentleman from Indiana, concerns a crusading journalist who tries to reform corruption in an Indiana town.
Although Tarkington wrote Growth between 1914 and 1923, the trilogy looks back on a process that had been going on for the half century since the Civil War. As he wrote, contemporary Americans were struggling to assimilate the dizzying changes that were transforming their world. Tarkington’s paternal grandfather, for example, crossed the mountains northward from Virginia to Indiana, cleared forests, and broke virgin soil with a wooden plow. His maternal grandfather was a Yankee peddler who carried goods westward by pack horse over Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road. His favorite uncle made a fortune in the California gold rush. Like Tarkington’s father, The Magnificent Amberson’s Major Amberson served in the Civil War and lived to see airplanes and skyscrapers; George Amberson will probably live to see television and the atom bomb, as Tarkington himself did.
The immediate trigger for the trilogy was the shock Tarkington had when he come home from a stay in Europe. Downtown Indianapolis, including his own family house, was filthy with soot. The short explanation was that the region had run out of natural gas and started burning soft coal. Actually, larger forces had been at work on the town of Tarkington’s youth. In the wake of the Civil War, the nation showed the cumulative effects of the shift from an agricultural to an urban industrial nation, the settlement of the western frontier, population movements from country to city, massive immigration, and accelerating technological innovations. Businesses expanded so much—some to the point of becoming huge monopolies—that a new term, “Big Business,” took hold. Corruption, too, was plentiful. Human behavior seemed to be coming unfastened from an orderly social structure and decent values, leading to vulgarity and coarsening at all levels. This whole transformation was hastened by World War I, which began in 1914, though the United States did not enter until 1917.