The first two volumes of Booth Tarkington’s Growth trilogy, The Turmoil and The Magnificent Ambersons were critiques of the boundless consumption of the Second Industrial Revolution and the birth of the American Midwest. Although the books were clearly critical of this uncontrolled and uncontrollable growth, viewed by the characters, in a reflection of the times, as prosperity, the novels were also popular tales of the interactions between the everyman and high society. In each volume, the main character battles against growth but ultimately finds his salvation in it, usually after shunning his ties to old wealth and high society.
So it goes also in The Midlander, also titled National Avenue. The book follows Dan and Harlan Oliphant, two grandsons of a wealthy and ornery matriarch. Dan and Harlan are polar opposites: Harlan is a snobby antisemite and conservative with his money and business; Dan, a pie-in-the-sky optimist who envisions a future suburban expansion for his city and puts his every penny into developing that future, against all prudent advice.
Along the way, Dan falls in love with a New York socialite, Lena, while maintaining an uncommon for the era friendship with his childhood neighbor, Martha. Martha is in unrequited love with Dan. This hurts Lena, who finds the folksy midwestern vibe of the city absolutely unbearable. Lena devotes herself fully to Dan, even as his dreams ruin hers. Harlan, meanwhile, harbors unreturned feelings of his own for Martha.
In the trilogy, women played only one of two roles: the helpless or hostile gossip, or the self-sacrificial nurturer who smooths our protagonists' paths with her own tears. In The Midlander, Martha is the only exception to these archetypes. In fact, I find her the most interesting character in the entire trilogy.
Against all odds and best advice, Dan Oliphant makes something of his dream for a suburban expansion of the unnamed midland city, but he fails to live long enough to see it prosper. Harlan, his effete and bigoted younger sibling, finally convinces Martha to marry him after he begrudgingly invests his own inherited wealth in ensuring the growth of Dan’s vision.
In the trilogy, redemption is found only when the main characters yield to the wisdom of the everyman. In The Turmoil, Sheridan’s unlikely son Bibbs takes over the family business. In The Magnificent Ambersons, the young brat Georgie finally sees his love returned once he has found humility in financial ruin; his beloved’s new familial wealth generated by the industrial boom of the era. In The Midlander, Dan stubbornly ignores all sensible advice and over-leverages his own inheritance to build a suburban expansion on an old farm far outside the city’s original core. He is singularly focused on this mission and is on the verge of financial ruin when his teenage son drink drives and is hurt in an automobile accident, a late wakeup call for Dan that allows him to repent. God, or Growth, absolves Dan of his sins in the afterlife: Dan’s life’s mission bears fruit, even as his wife and son abandon the midland city for Europe.
It’s clear to see why these books were popular at the time. In them, growth and prosperity are both damnation and salvation, salvation only comes when one humbles himself before the common man. The dialog is charming and the characters' dramas entertaining. The Magnificent Ambersons won a Pulitzer and Orson Welles' film version of the novel has a legacy of its own. I can see why the middle volume was given the honors it was, but I lament that the trilogy has largely faded from view over time. In fact, the reprinted copy of The Midlander that I have contains a back-cover description unrelated to the text at all. I wish that all three books were placed together; they stand better together than any does alone.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.