Booth Tarkington – The Magnificent Ambersons

Booth Tarkington – The Magnificent Ambersons

This novel is about the multi-generation decline of a once-prominent family in early 20th-century Indianapolis. Despite Tarkington’s aristocratic demeanor and conservative politics, his most famous novel is highly critical of ancien régime old money, or at least its stunted American equivalent. The fictional Ambersons were something of the Kardashians of their day, wealthy and socially conspicuous, but not particularly accomplished.

The protagonist, the third generation of his family, is essentially a twit. He stands in stark contrast to his unrequited love interest, a sharp young woman who lacks his social pedigree, yet is more polished and restrained. She is also wealthy, but her father is a self-made man. Compared to the old money families, he is a little rough around the edges, and has little interest in fineries and showpieces. But he has integrity and a strong work ethic, which are far more important. The older Ambersons shun him and his daughter from their high society, apparently unaware of their opposite trajectories.

The Magnificent Ambersons pairs well with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations not just for its disdain for aristocrats and snobbery, but for its positive portrayal of bourgeois virtues as entrepreneurship and humility. I also get the sense it was a source of inspiration for the movie The Royal Tenenbaums, though that movie, which I enjoyed very much, lacks Tarkington’s subtle positive message.

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