There’s a moment in Richard Linklater’s 2008 film Me and Orson Welles where Welles (Christian McKay) tells another character, “Ambersons is about how everything gets taken away from you.” That scene - which takes place in 1937, years before Citizen Kane - is meant to convey not only a theme from the novel, but also Welles’s own future. Reading the Booth Tarkington novel The Magnificent Ambersons, you can see why Welles was so attracted to it as a young man and how it served as a painful reminder of his own life in later years.
In many ways, the novel (first published in 1918) reads like a 100-year-old book, yet it also seems strikingly relevant. As the novel opens, we learn how the well-to-do Amberson family established themselves in a quaint Indiana town in the late 19th century and appeared to be on track to keep their wealth and prestige going strong for generations. Even after Isabel Amberson chooses the successful businessman Wilbur Minafer over the more creative (but less financially stable) Eugene Morgan, the family seems destined to become a pinnacle to which the rest of us aspire. Yet the primary player in the book is neither Eugene Morgan, Wilbur Minafter or Isabel Minafer, but the Minafer’s son George.
George Minafer is a brash, headstrong, impudent young boy who becomes a brash, headstrong, impudent young man. Everyone he encounters longs for his “comeuppance,” but he’s protected both by his wealth and his mother. He’s not going to give anyone the satisfaction of putting him in his place, especially the young woman he’s fallen for, Lucy Morgan.
Yes, Lucy is the daughter of Eugene Morgan, a man George despises for two primary reasons: Morgan is hoping to make improvements on the automobile, which is slowly catching on in popularity and greatly offending those (like George) who think the horse-driven carriage will never be surpassed for its practicality and elegance. Second, and much more offensive to George, Morgan has his eye on George’s mother Isabel, a man (in George’s opinion) far beneath her station. Morgan is clearly a visionary, a man who refuses to embrace old times. “‘Old times?’ Morgan laughed gaily from the doorway. ‘Not a bit! There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!’”
Yet George is determined to cling to the past, which includes a lionization of a family name that is quickly being forgotten in a town rapidly changing, and not just because of the advancement of the automobile. And Morgan’s take on George? When talking to George’s uncle, Morgan states,
“You need only three things to explain all that’s good and bad about Georgie.”
“He’s Isabel’s only child. He’s an Amberson. He’s a boy.”
“Well, Mister Bones, of these three things which are the good ones and which are the bad ones?”
“All of them,” said Eugene.
George has no intention of working for a living, not because he’s lazy, but because he’s an Amberson. Lucy can’t comprehend this philosophy of “being” rather than “doing.” Neither can she subscribe to George’s belief that things should stay exactly as they are, which runs up against the progress her father longs for in the form of improvements to the automobile, clearly a part of mankind’s future. One section of the book is worth quoting at length, in that it shows the conflict between expressions of these two characters’ philosophies and serves as a prime example of a style of writing from a century ago we rarely see:
There, in the highway, the evening life of the Midland city had begun. A rising moon as bright upon the tops of the shade trees, where their branches met overhead, arching across the street, but only filtered splashings of moonlight reached the block pavement below; and through the darkness flashed the firefly lights of silent bicycles gliding by in pairs and trios - or sometimes a dozen at a time might come, and not so silent, striking their little bells; the riders’ voices calling and laughing; while now and then a pair of invisible experts were of no account in the world - their music would come by, with the plod-plod of honest old horses, and frequently there was the glitter of whizzing spokes from a runabout or a sporting buggy, and the sharp, decisive hoof-beats of a trotter. Then, like a cowboy shooting up a peaceful camp, a frantic devil would hurtle out of the distance, bellowing, exhaust racketing like a machine gun gone amuck - and at these horrid sounds the surreys and buggies would hug the curbstone, and the bicycles scatter to cover, cursing; while children rushed from the sidewalks to drag pet dogs from the street. The thing would roar by, leaving a long wake of turbulence; then the indignant street would quiet down for a few minutes - till another came.
No one writes like this anymore, which is really too bad. There’s some wonderful stuff in this novel. Yet the book also contains sections which, to modern eyes, seem to work too hard in conveying information to the reader. Consider this scene with George and his Aunt Fanny:
…Miss Fanny, observing her nephew (George) keenly, got an impression that this fiery blush was in truth more fiery than tender. She caught a glint in his eye less like confusion than resentment, not so much a sweet agitation as an inaudible snort. Fanny had never been lacking in curiosity, and, since her brother’s death, this quality was more than ever alert.
Other passages go into far more detail in spelling things out for the reader, thoughts and ideas that were already suggested rather than made explicit. Yet these passages don’t take us out of the book. Writers still do this, after all. I mean less to critique the book (for which I’m not qualified) than to point out some of the ways a hundred-year-old novel may appear a bit strange to modern eyes.
Back to George himself. We can identify with him and yet at the same time want to slap him across the room. He’s got a good mind, but he doesn’t use it. He’s strong-willed, but goes through life with blinders on, just like the horses that pull the carriages he uses to get around town. The past and tradition are important to him. As I read, I kept wondering how much of himself Welles saw in George Minafer. Unlike George, Welles was willing to take risks, huge, often foolhardy risks. Tradition was certainly something to be considered, but also improved upon, and not in the passage of years, but right now.
I’m not sure when Welles got the idea to adapt The Magnificent Ambersons for the screen, but if the events of Me and Orson Welles are any indication, the book had already been published for nearly 20 years by the time Welles seriously began to consider filming it. On the other hand, Welles was only three years old when the book was published, so he couldn’t have read it when it first appeared. Yet something in the novel spoke to him. Was it the way that change comes about, taking our lives in new directions? Was it the sense of loss that comes with change and maturity? A combination of these things? Something else?
I purposely did not watch Welles’s film version of The Magnificent Ambersons while reading the book. (I plan to watch it this weekend, after I have finished writing this review.) I look forward to seeing what changes Welles made (and do not look forward to the changes that were made without his approval, some of which we will probably never know) and how the characters are brought to life by Welles’s Mercury Players. (For a brief history of how the film was butchered without Welles’s approval, click here.) Even in its truncated form, many consider it the greatest film of all time, even above Citizen Kane. I greatly enjoyed reading The Magnificent Ambersons, but I doubt anything in the film will suppress what I feel about George at the end of the book. I wonder how many times Welles himself - as he grew older and was faced with challenge after challenge, frustration after frustration - looked back on George Minafer and wondered what they both could’ve done differently.
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