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Arts and Letters

Fatal Eagerness


Novels and Stories: The Magnificent Ambersons / Alice Adams /
In the Arena: Stories of Political Life

Booth Tarkington
Library of America, pp.669, $35.00

In the very early years of this century, at a public high school in rural southern Indiana, they offered a class in Indiana literature. I do not now know if they offer it still. I suspect, as with all things, it has been replaced with something practical and up to the minute. Perhaps they replaced it with coding or a class on how to be an Instagram influencer. I did not take the class, though, so I did not have the pleasure of reading Booth Tarkington’s Magnificent Ambersons at what would have been an especially opportune moment in my life. I am sorry I did not, though somewhat like George Amberson Minafer, I suspect that I would not have recognized the value of Tarkington’s novel about the decline of a grand family in a thinly disguised Indianapolis. I have recently supplied the gap in my education with the Library of America’s publication of a volume containing a selection of Tarkington’s novels and short stories.

It is worth noting that I have never once suffered any consequences between 2004 and the fall of 2019 for being mostly unaware of Tarkington’s work, even his best known book. For one thing, everyone sort of knows what Ambersons is about, thanks to Orson Welles’s great (but butchered and, as we will see, deeply flawed) film version. For another thing, except for some notices of the Library of America volume, Tarkington is not very popular. In fact, one might even say, compared with other novelists of the 1910s and 1920s, Tarkington is a little obscure, except in the Hoosier State.

Even in Indiana, Tarkington is remembered more than he is read. Most notably, Indianapolis hosts the Penrod Arts Fair every fall. It is named for the Penrod Society, an Indianapolis area association devoted to the promotion of the arts, which is in turn named for Tarkington’s Penrod Schofield, who was a sort of Hoosier Tom Sawyer. The character was hugely popular and the subject of numerous film adaptations between 1918 and 1953. Tarkington is also remembered in the name of the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood on the near north side of Indianapolis, which includes parts of town that no doubt would have been in his mind when he wrote The Magnificent Ambersons.

One can find traces of Tarkington elsewhere in Indiana. A few of the stories in his collection In the Arena were written at the French Lick Springs Hotel, in French Lick. In Tarkington’s day, the Hotel was a fashionable destination for the rich and famous who came to French Lick to enjoy the scenery, to take the waters, and (it is alleged) to gamble—all in relative seclusion. If you can believe it, even Indiana’s political movers and shakers indulged in the pleasures of French Lick. However, changing tastes left French Lick behind for destinations in the balmy south and after decades of slow decline, the Hotel got into pretty rough shape. A Bloomington billionaire named Bill Cook bought the property and restored it at colossal expense, putting in a riverboat casino. (French Lick is the dictionary definition of landlocked, but Indiana, bafflingly, allows people to build casinos, surround them with moats, and call them “riverboat casinos.”) One can read In the Arena where it was written, though perhaps without the diversions present when Tarkington was there.

Even for all that, it is a little extraordinary that it took three hundred and nineteen volumes for the Library of America to get around to Tarkington, presenting The Magnificent Ambersons, Alice Adams, and In the Arena in a typically handsome, well-made edition. Tarkington was, in his day, at the very height of his profession. Ambersons and Alice Adams both won Pulitzer Prizes. In reading an interview with Thomas Mallon, the editor of the Library of America edition, I learned that the only other novelists who matched this feat were William Faulkner and John Updike. (Rare air indeed, though I suspect Updike will join Tarkington on the outdoor free pile sooner rather than later—if he hasn’t already.) Tarkington’s books sold well. He was highly regarded by his peers, and it is alleged that it was Tarkington who gave Theodore Roosevelt the phrase about the man “in the arena.”

There is a relatively facile explanation for Tarkington’s relative obscurity, namely, that he had the misfortune to write his two greatest novels as fiction was preparing to undergo a revolution. In terms of style and subject matter alike Tarkington has no affinities with either the social realist novels of concern or the modernist experiments that would follow in the coming decades. On this reading Tarkington’s sepia-toned world in which everything worked out for the best simply lost its purchase on the literary imagination even in his own lifetime.

Mallon, writing in the Atlantic some years ago, described this phenomenon as Tarkington’s “fatal eagerness to please.” What this means, I gather, is that Ambersons has a happy ending. Sort of. It is not as though George Amberson Minafer manages effortlessly to recover the Ambersons’ faded fortunes, sweep Lucy Morgan off her feet, and make amends for his behavior toward Eugene Morgan. At the end of the novel, he’s still the heir of a forgotten family who just got mangled by an automobile.

Of course, just as Eugene Morgan speculated eloquently on the effects of the automobile on men’s souls, one could speculate on the effects of a century of novels that are either grim or unreadable. Such effects are no doubt attenuated in these last days, with Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, and social media apps yet to be developed blasting away the few remaining bits of our attention spans left intact following the rise of cable news. No doubt the novel will join the horse-drawn carriage and the MiniDisc among the innovations swept away by the march of progress.

In a sense, Tarkington represents the end of the true tradition of the English novel. His concerns are ultimately natural: manners, love, family, and money. None of these would be out of place in any of the novels written in the hundred years or so before Ambersons was published. His psychological realism sits comfortably here, not least since Tarkington never tries to oppose psychology to the natural concerns of his characters. Even the happy endings fit into this tradition. It would be strange indeed to write about Jane Austen’s “fatal eagerness to please,” for example, no matter how well her books turn out for her characters.

It would no doubt be foolish to challenge the artistic merit, so frequently confirmed by critics and doctors of professors, of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Finnegans Wake. But that does not quite meet Morgan’s point: a century of grim, realistic novels certainly had effects on the soul—have they been good effects? Or, perhaps more relevantly for our purposes here, have they been better for the soul than Tarkington’s novels?

At any rate, Tarkington is assigned to the category of novelists between Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway who had the misfortune to write books people liked to read. Or worse: he is declared to be a regional author. The simple Hoosiers are nuts for Booth Tarkington, one might say, but as for those of us in chic bars in New York City, we know the truth about his books. Such a point might even be almost fair: everyone knows how crazy Hoosiers are for their authors. James Whitcomb Riley, a master of dialect poetry, is little more than a curiosity, except in the Hoosier State, where (at least until recently) schoolchildren were required to memorize his poems. One can also go on and on about one Kurt Vonnegut or about Ross Lockridge, Jr.: authors particularly beloved in Indiana if nowhere else.

One could profitably analyze the Hoosier’s psychology with respect to his authors. For my part, I think it has something to do with the fact that Indiana is often a place people are from. Figures as diverse as Amber A’Lee Frost and Adam Driver are from Indiana, for example, with emphasis on the from. This is enough to give those of us who stay a complex. Indiana isn’t a backwater, we holler, a provincial dead end from which everyone with any talent escapes. After all, look at our heroes! We produced not only Riley, whom no one remembers, Vonnegut, who lived in New York most of his adult life, and Lockridge, who met a very sad end, but Cole Porter, Larry Bird, and several recent vice presidents! Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, and Evansville might not be, you know, New York City, but they are not entirely devoid of culture.

However, when one actually reads The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams, one is struck by how unjust Tarkington’s posthumous reputation is. For one thing, his writing has an enviable poise. Realistic, a little wry, but never unsympathetic to his characters. Even when characters are doing monstrous things—and they do do monstrous things—one never gets the feeling that Tarkington has descended to caricature. Quite the contrary. Tarkington manages to present the psychological motivations of his characters with great clarity. True, he never breaks into the consider-the-agony-of-the-roses interiority of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, but the psychology of George Amberson Minafer as he careens from travesty to tragedy is no less vivid than Geoffrey Firmin’s.

I think part of the problem is that The Magnificent Ambersons has been wrapped up in the story of Orson Welles. While there have been other adaptations of Tarkington’s novels, including a 1935 version of Alice Adams starring Katharine Hepburn and Fred MacMurray, none of them is even remotely as well known as Welles’s adaptation of Ambersons. The story of Welles’s Ambersons is therefore a significant part of the popular understanding of Tarkington.

And everyone sort of knows the story of Orson Welles’s adaptation. Fresh off Citizen Kane, Welles set out to adapt the novel. After shooting it with his great Mercury Players, he went to Brazil to make a movie called It’s All True, which was more or less war propaganda. He worked out a very rough cut of Ambersons. At some point, R.K.O. panicked and took over the editing. Welles was shut out of the process, both by distance and corporate ineptitude. Eventually R.K.O. released its edit and cinéastes have lamented the tragedy ever since, holding out hope that one day the rough cut Welles was working on will be found in some Brazilian archive.

It goes without saying that, even in its butchered form, the movie is supposed to reflect Welles’s vision above all. The book seems to be a sort of genteel nostalgia trip through Indianapolis in the waning days of the nineteenth century and the early days of the twentieth. Welles took it and shaped it into a story about progress and men’s souls in much the same way he turned the life of William Randolph Hearst into a gripping drama.

However, an extraordinary thing happened when I read Ambersons. It became clear that all of the great scenes in Welles’s movie were already in Tarkington’s book almost verbatim. From the wonderful introduction to the gentler rhythms of life in those days to Eugene Morgan’s dinner-table speech about the automobile and men’s souls, it is all in the novel. The movie as released is, in fact, pretty faithful to Tarkington’s story. R.K.O. may have panicked, but the result R.K.O. produced after it took over editing is not violent toward The Magnificent Ambersons, notwithstanding the strife with Welles.

Welles’s vision, on the other hand, seems to do real violence to Tarkington’s story. A dear friend once observed to me that George Amberson Minafer is reduced from a complex character to a mere shadow of Isabel Amberson. Part of this is no doubt Tim Holt’s performance. Holt captures the pompous, arrogant side of George without too much of the charm and grace. One is inclined to blame Welles a little bit for this, too, since Holt’s performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is warm and genial. But it is also clear, even in the R.K.O. edit, that Welles saw the relationship between Eugene Morgan and Isabel Amberson as the core of the story, to which the other relationships are, in narrative terms anyway, subservient.

Welles even attacked Tarkington’s “fatal eagerness to please.” Welles’s shooting script for Ambersons dated 1942 lingers on the repeated blows suffered by George (and Aunt Fanny): the death of Isabel and Major Amberson, the departure of Jack Amberson, the career in old Frank Bronson’s law office abandoned to get money to fund Fanny’s room and board in the boarding house. It ends with George as a forgotten man in a city that has left him behind. The car accident and George’s reunion (and potential reconciliation) with Eugene and Lucy Morgan are compressed and stuck on at the end. The story of George Minafer for Welles ought to end with George finally receiving his comeuppance in anonymity.

As elsewhere Welles takes all of this from Tarkington. The reversals suffered by the Ambersons in the book are no less brutal than those imposed by Welles. They are the same, in fact. Welles, however, admits no sunlight into the gloomy Amberson Mansion in decline. Tarkington is not so stingy. In his obscurity, George Minafer finds the core of generosity and decency that Tarkington clearly considers part of the Amberson legacy. He takes on dangerous work to support his maiden aunt and he excels at it, quietly and without complaint. And when he is run over by the car, the driver and his girl are quick to find excuses and shift all blame to George. One has the sense that, at long last, George is justified when he calls them “riffraff.”

Welles finds none of this quality in George. And this demonstrates the danger of getting too down on Tarkington’s happy endings. It is Welles, not Tarkington, who tells an unrealistic story. In our everyday life, we know that people confronted with true adversity often reveal hidden qualities. More than that, we like to see it. Tarkington understood that. And he understood that there is no inherent conflict between psychological realism and happy endings. We can understand why George Amberson Minafer is a pompous, strutting fool until he finally receives his comeuppance, and we can be happy when he is reunited with Eugene and Lucy Morgan. This is why I suspect that Tarkington’s novels are better for the soul than what replaced them.

Patrick Smith blogs at Semiduplex.

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