Set in a fictional version of an unnamed Indianapolis at the dawn of the automobile, The Magnificent Ambersons could have predicted the decline of Rust Belt cities, but its publication preceded that particular decay of American culture by half a century. Instead, the novel focuses on the collapse of old wealth and high American society, its mannerisms and refusal to change run over by the Second Industrial Revolution. The book itself ends when the main character, the darling George Amberson, spoiled only child of the city’s most notable family, himself is run over and badly injured by a car. His fate is a fitting and symbolic “comeuppance.” After all, young George despised the machines.
The Magnificent Ambersons could also serve as a premonition for what would happen with American society as cars became accessible to the average American. Cities decayed, urban flight led to the decline of urban centers, and the country sprawled under a mass of highways, borrowing an environmental debt that we pay are only today beginning to pay off. But this is not what bothered the focus of our book. Instead, the automobile allowed others to escape his influences. A spoiled only child, George had no intentions of making a career of much of anything but living off his inherited wealth, a wealth which slowly vanished as the city grew around him. Cars were also being built by the father of George’s love interest, Lucy, a man who George’s mother, Isabel, had a fling when she was younger. This complex family dynamic became more complicated after the death of George’s father.
These complicated romances are meant to humanize the Amberson heir. George exhibited few emotions other than indignity, particularly when Lucy chose to have an independent life of her own. George forbade his mother from seeing her own love interest; the two fled toward Europe for a time as the family wealth was in decay. They came home when Isabel fell sick and soon died. Shortly after, the family wealth collapsed. Destitute, George took a job hauling explosives, humbled and unrecognized as Amberson Avenue found itself renamed, as the decaying fountain in front of his mansion was removed. His family’s legacy was erased from history under a haze of grease and gasoline and factory smog. Modern capital passed the Ambersons by.
The book focuses on George, but there was little he could do to stop this. The family’s wealth was mismanaged by his elders. He was scarcely 22 years old when the bottom fell out. The townsfolk foretell of George’s comeuppance, but his only sin was being kind of a dick. The story was not without his redemption. As he lay on his hospital bed, his beloved Lucy came to take his hand, her family made wealthy by the booming automotive industry. Capitalism taketh away; capitalism giveth back again.
With the hindsight of a hundred years the book serves as a frustrating echo of a lesson not learned. The same forces that led to the demise of the Amberson family led to the demise of the Midwestern Industrial City. Tarkington might have been the Springsteen of his era, so beloved of him was his Indianapolis. What we see, however, is the salvation of an irredeemable character who could have solved any of his problems at any point of his life simply by communicating or by acknowledging that women are people, too. Like in The Turmoil, the story of George Amberson is the biblical story of Job; God, the Invisible Hand of the Market.
The Magnificent Ambersons tickles the American ethic. America is a constant process of rebirth, its renewal a cleansing of what is old. The novel constructs a Midwestern philosophy that we cannot let go of even today. In the story, there is a lesson, but I am not sure if any telling of it has ever really learned it.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.