Welcome to the Essential Novelists book series, were we present to you the best works of remarkable authors. For this book, the literary critic August Nemo has chosen the two most important and meaningful novels of Booth Tarkington which are The Magnificent Ambersons and The Turmoil. He is one of only four novelists to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once, along with William Faulkner, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead. In the 1910s and 1920s he was considered America's greatest living author. Several of his stories were adapted to film. During the first quarter of the 20th century, Tarkington, along with Meredith Nicholson, George Ade, and James Whitcomb Riley helped to create a Golden Age of literature in Indiana.Booth Tarkington was an American novelist and dramatist.Novels selected for this book: The Magnificent Ambersons.The Turmoil.This is one of many books in the series Essential Novelists. If you liked this book, look for the other titles in the series, we are sure you will like some of the authors.
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The Magnificent Ambersons
About the Publisher
Booth Tarkington was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of John S. Tarkington and Elizabeth Booth Tarkington. He was named after his maternal uncle Newton Booth, then the governor of California. He was also related to Chicago Mayor James Hutchinson Woodworth through Woodworth's wife Almyra Booth Woodworth.
Tarkington attended Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, and completed his secondary education at Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school on the East Coast. He attended Purdue University for two years, where he was a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity and the university's Morley Eating Club. He later made substantial donations to Purdue for building an all-men's residence hall, which the university named Tarkington Hall in his honor. Purdue awarded him an honorary doctorate.
Some of his family's wealth returned after the Panic of 1873, and his mother transferred Booth from Purdue to Princeton University. At Princeton, Tarkington is said to have been known as "Tark" among the members of the Ivy Club, the first of Princeton's historic Eating Clubs. He had also been in a short-lived eating club called "Ye Plug and Ulster," which became Colonial Club. He was active as an actor and served as president of Princeton's Dramatic Association, which later became the Triangle Club, of which he was a founding member. According to Triangle's official history,
Tarkington made his first acting appearance in the club's Shakespearean spoof Katherine, one of the first three productions in the Triangle's history written and produced by students. Tarkington established the Triangle tradition, still alive today, of producing students' plays. Tarkington returned to the Triangle stage as Cassius in the 1893 production of a play he co-authored, The Honorable Julius Caesar. He edited Princeton's Nassau Literary Magazine, known more recently as The Nassau Lit. While an undergraduate, he socialized with Woodrow Wilson, an associate graduate member of the Ivy Club. Wilson returned to Princeton as a member of the political science faculty shortly before Tarkington departed; they maintained contact throughout Wilson's life. Tarkington failed to earn his undergraduate A.B. because of missing a single course in the classics. Nevertheless, his place within campus society was already determined, and he was voted "most popular" by the class of 1893.
In his adult life, he was twice asked to return to Princeton for the conferral of honorary degrees, an A.M. in 1899 and a Litt.D. in 1918. The conferral of more than one honorary degree on an alumnus(a) of Princeton University remains a university record.
While Tarkington never earned a college degree, he was accorded many awards recognizing and honoring his skills and accomplishments as an author. He won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction twice, in 1919 and 1922, for his novels The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. In 1921 booksellers rated him "the most significant contemporary American author" in a poll conducted by Publishers' Weekly. He won the O. Henry Memorial Award in 1931 for his short story "Cider of Normandy". His works appeared frequently on best sellers lists throughout his life. In addition to his honorary doctorate from Purdue, and his honorary masters and doctorate from Princeton, Tarkington was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia University, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prize, and several other universities.
Many aspects of Tarkington's Princeton years and adult life were paralleled by the later life of another writer, fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Tarkington was an unabashed Midwestern regionalist and set much of his fiction in his native Indiana. In 1902, he served one term in the Indiana House of Representatives as a Republican. Tarkington saw such public service as a responsibility of gentlemen in his socio-economic class, and consistent with his family's extensive record of public service. This experience provided the foundation for his book In the Arena: Stories of Political Life. While his service as an Indiana legislator was his only official public service position, he remained politically conservative his entire life. He supported Prohibition, opposed FDR, and worked against FDR's New Deal.
Tarkington was one of the more popular American novelists of his time. His The Two Vanrevels and Mary's Neck appeared on the annual best-seller lists a total of nine times. The Penrod novels depict a typical upper-middle class American boy of 1910 vintage, revealing a fine, bookish sense of American humor. At one time, his Penrod series was as well known as Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Much of Tarkington's work consists of satirical and closely observed studies of the American class system and its foibles. He himself came from a patrician Midwestern family that lost much of its wealth after the Panic of 1873. Today, he is best known for his novel The Magnificent Ambersons, which Orson Welles filmed in 1942. It is included in the Modern Library's list of top-100 novels. The second volume in Tarkington's Growth trilogy, it contrasted the decline of the "old money" Amberson dynasty with the rise of "new money" industrial tycoons in the years between the American Civil War and World War I.
Tarkington dramatized several of his novels; some were eventually filmed including Monsieur Beaucaire, Presenting Lily Mars, and The Adventures and Emotions of Edgar Pomeroy, made into a serialized film in 1920 and 1921. He also collaborated with Harry Leon Wilson to write three plays. In 1928, he published a book of reminiscences, The World Does Move. He illustrated the books of others, including a 1933 reprint of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as his own. He took a close interest in fine art and collectibles, and was a trustee of the John Herron Art Institute.
Tarkington was married to Louisa Fletcher from 1902 until their divorce in 1911. Their only child, Laurel, was born in 1906 and died in 1923. He married Susanah Keifer Robinson in 1912. They had no children.
Tarkington began losing his eyesight in the 1920s and was blind in his later years. He continued producing his works by dictating to a secretary. Despite his failing eyesight, between 1928 and 1940 he edited several historical novels by his Kennebunkport, Maine, neighbor Kenneth Roberts, who described Tarkington as a "co-author" of his later books and dedicated three of them (Rabble in Arms, Northwest Passage, and Oliver Wiswell) to him.
Tarkington maintained a home in his native Indiana at 4270 North Meridian in Indianapolis. From 1923 until his death, Tarkington spent summers and then much of his later life in Kennebunkport at his much loved home, Seawood. In Kennebunkport he was well known as a sailor, and his schooner, the Regina, survived him. Regina was moored next to Tarkington's boathouse, The Floats which he also used as his studio. His extensively renovated studio is now the Kennebunkport Maritime Museum. It was from his home in Maine that he and his wife Susannah established their relation with nearby Colby College.
Tarkington made a gift of some his papers to Princeton University, his alma mater, and his wife Susannah, who survived him by over 20 years, made a separate gift of his remaining papers to Colby College after his death. Purdue University's library holds many of his works in its Special Collection's Indiana Collection. Indianapolis commemorates his impact on literature and the theatre, and his contributions as a Midwesterner and "son of Indiana" in its Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
In the 1910s and 1920s, Tarkington was regarded as the great American novelist, as important as Mark Twain. His works were reprinted many times, were often on best-seller lists, won many prizes, and were adapted into other media. Penrod and its two sequels were regular birthday presents for bookish boys. By the later twentieth century, however, he was ignored in academia: no congresses, no society, no journal of Tarkington Studies. In 1985 he was cited as an example of the great discrepancy possible between an author's fame when alive and oblivion later. According to this view, if an author succeeds at pleasing his or her contemporaries — and Tarkington's works have not a whiff of social criticism — he or she is not going to please later readers of inevitably different values and concerns.
In an essay titled "Hoosiers: The Lost World of Booth Tarkington", appearing in the May 2004 issue of The Atlantic, Thomas Mallon wrote of Tarkington that "only general ignorance of his work has kept him from being pressed into contemporary service as a literary environmentalist — not just a 'conservationist,' in the TR mode, but an emerald-Green decrier of internal combustion":
The automobile, whose production was centered in Indianapolis before World War I, became the snorting, belching villain that, along with soft coal, laid waste to Tarkington's Edens. His objections to the auto were aesthetic—in The Midlander (1923) automobiles sweep away the more beautifully named "phaetons" and "surreys"—but also something far beyond that. Dreiser, his exact Indiana contemporary, might look at the Model T and see wage slaves in need of unions and sit-down strikes; Tarkington saw pollution, and a filthy tampering with human nature itself. "No one could have dreamed that our town was to be utterly destroyed," he wrote in The World Does Move. His important novels are all marked by the soul-killing effects of smoke and asphalt and speed, and even in Seventeen, Willie Baxter fantasizes about winning Miss Pratt by the rescue of precious little Flopit from an automobile's rushing wheels.
In June 2019, the Library of America published Booth Tarkington: Novels & Stories, collecting The Magnificent Ambersons, Alice Adams, and In the Arena: Stories of Political Life.
In “Literature in the Making” by Joyce Kilmer
Mr. Booth Tarkington never will be called the George M. Cohan of fiction. His novel, The Turmoil, is surely an indictment of modern American urban civilization; of its materialism, its braggadocio, its contempt for the things of the soul.
It was with the purpose of making this indictment a little clearer than it could be when it is surrounded by a story, that I asked Mr. Tarkington a few questions. And his answers are not likely to increase our national complacencies.
In the first place, I asked Mr. Tarkington if the atmosphere of a young and energetic nation might not reasonably be expected to be favorable to literary and artistic expression.
"Yes, it might," said Mr. Tarkington. "There may be spiritual progress in America as phenomenal as her material progress.36
"There is and has been extraordinary progress in the arts. But the people as a whole are naturally preoccupied with their material progress. They are much more interested in Mr. Rockefeller than in Mr. Sargent."
The last two sentences of Mr. Tarkington's reply made me eager for something a little more specific on that subject.
"What are the forces in America to-day," I asked, "that hinder the development of art and letters?"
Mr. Tarkington replied: "There are no forces in America to-day that hinder the development of individuals in art and letters, save in unimportant cases here and there. But there is a spirit that hinders general personal decency, knows and cares nothing for beauty, and is glad to have its body dirty for the sake of what it calls 'prosperity.'
"It 'wouldn't give a nickel' for any kind of art. But it can't and doesn't hinder artists from producing works of art, though it makes them swear."
"But do not these conditions in many instances seriously hinder individual artists?"
Mr. Tarkington smiled. "Nothing stops an artist if he is one," he said. "But many things37 may prevent a people or a community from knowing or caring for art.
"The climate may be unfavorable; we need not expect the Eskimos to be interested in architecture. In the United States politicians have usually controlled the public purchase of works of art and the erection of public buildings. This is bad for the public, naturally."
"I suppose," I said, "that the conditions you describe are distinctively modern, are they not? At what time in the history of America have conditions been most favorable to literary expression?"
Mr. Tarkington's reply was not what I expected. "At all times," he said. "Literary expression does not depend on the times, though the appreciation of it does, somewhat."
I asked Mr. Tarkington if he agreed with Mr. Gouverneur Morris in considering the short story a modern development. He did not.
"There are short stories in the Bible," he said, "and in every mythology; 'folk stories' of all races and tribes. Probably Mr. Morris's definition of the short story would exclude these. I agree with him that short stories are better written nowadays."
"But you do not believe," I said, "that American38 literature in general is better than it used to be, do you? Why is it that there is now no group of American writers like the New England group which included Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, Emerson, and Thoreau?"
"Why is there," Mr. Tarkington asked in turn, "no group like Homer (wasn't he a group?) in Greece? There may be, but if there is just such a modern group it would tend only to repeat the work of the Homeric group, which wouldn't be interesting to the rest of us.
"The important thing is to find a group unlike Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, Emerson, and Thoreau. That is, if one accepts the idea that it is important to find a group."
Mr. Tarkington's criticisms of the modern American city have been so severe that I expected him to tell me that all writers should live in the country. But again he surprised me. In reply to my question as to which environment was more favorable to the production of literature, the city or the country, he said:
"It depends upon the nerves of the writer. A writer can be born anywhere, and he can grow up anywhere."
There has recently been considerable discussion—Professor39 Edward Garnet and Gertrude Atherton have taken a considerable share in it—on the relative merits of contemporary English and American fiction. I asked Mr. Tarkington if in his opinion the United States had at the present time novelists equal to those of England.
"That is unanswerable!" he answered. "Writers aren't like baseball teams. What's the value of my opinion that The Undiscovered Country is a 'greater' novel than A Pair of Blue Eyes? These questions remind me of school debating societies. Nothing is demonstrated, but everybody has his own verdict."
Until I asked Mr. Tarkington about it I had heard only two opinions as to the probable effect on literature of the war. One was that which William Dean Howells tersely expressed by saying: "War stops literature," and the other was that the war is purifying and strengthening all forms of literary expression.
But Mr. Tarkington had something new to say about it. "What effect," I asked, "is the war likely to have on American literature?"
"None of consequence," he answered. "The poet will find the subject, war or no war. The sculptor doesn't depend upon epaulets."40
Mr. Tarkington is so inveterate a writer of serials, and his work is so familiar to the readers of the American magazines, that I desired to get his expert opinion as to whether or not the American magazines, with their remarkably high prices, had harmed or benefited fiction. His reply was somewhat non-committal.
"They have induced many people to look upon the production of fiction as a profitable business," he said. "But those people would merely not have 'tried fiction' at all otherwise. Prices have nothing to do with art."
Mr. Tarkington had some interesting things to say about that venerable mirage, the Great American Novel. I asked him if that longed-for work would ever be written; if, for example, there would ever be a work of fiction reflecting American life as Vanity Fair reflects English life. He replied:
"If Thackeray had been an American he would not have written a novel reflecting American life as Vanity Fair reflected the English life of its time. He would have written of New York; his young men would have come there after Harvard. The only safe thing to say of the Great American Novel is that the author will never know he wrote it."41
Mr. Charles Belmont Davis had told me that a writer who had some means of making a living other than writing would do better work than one who devoted himself exclusively to literature. I asked Mr. Tarkington what he thought about this.
"I think," he said, "that it would be very well for a writer to have some means of making a living other than writing. There are likely to be times in his career when it would give him a sense of security concerning food. But I doubt if it would much affect his writing, unless he considered writing to be a business."
Mr. Tarkington's answer to my next question is hereby commended to the attention of all those feminine revolutionists who believe that they are engaged in the pleasant task of changing the whole current of modern thought.
"How has literature been affected," I asked, "by the suffrage movement and feminism?"
Mr. Tarkington looked up in some surprise. "I haven't heard of any change," he said.
The author of The Turmoil could never be accused of jingoism. But he is far from agreeing with those critics who believe that American literature is merely "a phase of English literature."42 I asked him if he believed that there was such a thing as a distinctively American literature.
"Certainly," he replied. "Is Huckleberry Finn a phase? It's a monument; not an English one. English happens to be the language largely used."
The allusion in Mr. Tarkington's last reply suggested—what every reader of Penrod must know—that this novelist is an enthusiastic admirer of Mark Twain. So I told him that Mr. T. A. Daly had classed Mark Twain with Artemus Ward and Q. K. Philander Doesticks, P.B., and had said that these men wrote nothing of real merit and were "the Charlie Chaplins of their time."
Mr. Tarkington smiled. "Get Mr. T. A. Daly to talk some more," he said. "We'd like to hear something about Voltaire and Flo Ziegfeld. Second thoughts indicate that 'T. A. Daly' is the pen name of Mr. Charlie Chaplin. Of course! And that makes it all right and natural. I thought at first that it was a joke."
Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.
In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by. Trotters were out, in the winter afternoons, racing light sleighs on National Avenue and Tennessee Street; everybody recognized both the trotters and the drivers; and again knew them as well on summer evenings, when slim buggies whizzed by in renewals of the snow-time rivalry. For that matter, everybody knew everybody else's family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to noon dinner or evening supper.
During the earlier years of this period, elegance of personal appearance was believed to rest more upon the texture of garments than upon their shaping. A silk dress needed no remodelling when it was a year or so old; it remained distinguished by merely remaining silk. Old men and governors wore broadcloth; “full dress” was broadcloth with “doeskin” trousers; and there were seen men of all ages to whom a hat meant only that rigid, tall silk thing known to impudence as a “stove-pipe.” In town and country these men would wear no other hat, and, without self-consciousness, they went rowing in such hats.
Shifting fashions of shape replaced aristocracy of texture: dressmakers, shoemakers, hatmakers, and tailors, increasing in cunning and in power, found means to make new clothes old. The long contagion of the “Derby” hat arrived: one season the crown of this hat would be a bucket; the next it would be a spoon. Every house still kept its bootjack, but high-topped boots gave way to shoes and “congress gaiters”; and these were played through fashions that shaped them now with toes like box-ends and now with toes like the prows of racing shells.
Trousers with a crease were considered plebeian; the crease proved that the garment had lain upon a shelf, and hence was “ready-made”; these betraying trousers were called “hand-me-downs,” in allusion to the shelf. In the early 'eighties, while bangs and bustles were having their way with women, that variation of dandy known as the “dude” was invented: he wore trousers as tight as stockings, dagger-pointed shoes, a spoon “Derby,” a single-breasted coat called a “Chesterfield,” with short flaring skirts, a torturing cylindrical collar, laundered to a polish and three inches high, while his other neckgear might be a heavy, puffed cravat or a tiny bow fit for a doll's braids. With evening dress he wore a tan overcoat so short that his black coat-tails hung visible, five inches below the over-coat; but after a season or two he lengthened his overcoat till it touched his heels, and he passed out of his tight trousers into trousers like great bags. Then, presently, he was seen no more, though the word that had been coined for him remained in the vocabularies of the impertinent.
It was a hairier day than this. Beards were to the wearers' fancy, and things as strange as the Kaiserliche boar-tusk moustache were commonplace. “Side-burns” found nourishment upon childlike profiles; great Dundreary whiskers blew like tippets over young shoulders; moustaches were trained as lambrequins over forgotten mouths; and it was possible for a Senator of the United States to wear a mist of white whisker upon his throat only, not a newspaper in the land finding the ornament distinguished enough to warrant a lampoon. Surely no more is needed to prove that so short a time ago we were living in another age!
At the beginning of the Ambersons' great period most of the houses of the Midland town were of a pleasant architecture. They lacked style, but also lacked pretentiousness, and whatever does not pretend at all has style enough. They stood in commodious yards, well shaded by leftover forest trees, elm and walnut and beech, with here and there a line of tall sycamores where the land had been made by filling bayous from the creek. The house of a “prominent resident,” facing Military Square, or National Avenue, or Tennessee Street, was built of brick upon a stone foundation, or of wood upon a brick foundation. Usually it had a “front porch” and a “back porch”; often a “side porch,” too. There was a “front hall”; there was a “side hall”; and sometimes a “back hall.” From the “front hall” opened three rooms, the “parlour,” the “sitting room,” and the “library”; and the library could show warrant to its title—for some reason these people bought books. Commonly, the family sat more in the library than in the “sitting room,” while callers, when they came formally, were kept to the “parlour,” a place of formidable polish and discomfort. The upholstery of the library furniture was a little shabby; but the hostile chairs and sofa of the “parlour” always looked new. For all the wear and tear they got they should have lasted a thousand years.
Upstairs were the bedrooms; “mother-and-father's room” the largest; a smaller room for one or two sons another for one or two daughters; each of these rooms containing a double bed, a “washstand,” a “bureau,” a wardrobe, a little table, a rocking-chair, and often a chair or two that had been slightly damaged downstairs, but not enough to justify either the expense of repair or decisive abandonment in the attic. And there was always a “spare-room,” for visitors (where the sewing-machine usually was kept), and during the 'seventies there developed an appreciation of the necessity for a bathroom. Therefore the architects placed bathrooms in the new houses, and the older houses tore out a cupboard or two, set up a boiler beside the kitchen stove, and sought a new godliness, each with its own bathroom. The great American plumber joke, that many-branched evergreen, was planted at this time.
At the rear of the house, upstairs was a bleak little chamber, called “the girl's room,” and in the stable there was another bedroom, adjoining the hayloft, and called “the hired man's room.” House and stable cost seven or eight thousand dollars to build, and people with that much money to invest in such comforts were classified as the Rich. They paid the inhabitant of “the girl's room” two dollars a week, and, in the latter part of this period, two dollars and a half, and finally three dollars a week. She was Irish, ordinarily, or German or it might be Scandinavian, but never native to the land unless she happened to be a person of colour. The man or youth who lived in the stable had like wages, and sometimes he, too, was lately a steerage voyager, but much oftener he was coloured.
After sunrise, on pleasant mornings, the alleys behind the stables were gay; laughter and shouting went up and down their dusty lengths, with a lively accompaniment of curry-combs knocking against back fences and stable walls, for the darkies loved to curry their horses in the alley. Darkies always prefer to gossip in shouts instead of whispers; and they feel that profanity, unless it be vociferous, is almost worthless. Horrible phrases were caught by early rising children and carried to older people for definition, sometimes at inopportune moments; while less investigative children would often merely repeat the phrases in some subsequent flurry of agitation, and yet bring about consequences so emphatic as to be recalled with ease in middle life.
They have passed, those darky hired-men of the Midland town; and the introspective horses they curried and brushed and whacked and amiably cursed—those good old horses switch their tails at flies no more. For all their seeming permanence they might as well have been buffaloes—or the buffalo laprobes that grew bald in patches and used to slide from the careless drivers' knees and hang unconcerned, half way to the ground. The stables have been transformed into other likenesses, or swept away, like the woodsheds where were kept the stove-wood and kindling that the “girl” and the “hired-man” always quarrelled over: who should fetch it. Horse and stable and woodshed, and the whole tribe of the “hired-man,” all are gone. They went quickly, yet so silently that we whom they served have not yet really noticed that they are vanished.
So with other vanishings. There were the little bunty street-cars on the long, single track that went its troubled way among the cobblestones. At the rear door of the car there was no platform, but a step where passengers clung in wet clumps when the weather was bad and the car crowded. The patrons—if not too absent-minded—put their fares into a slot; and no conductor paced the heaving floor, but the driver would rap remindingly with his elbow upon the glass of the door to his little open platform if the nickels and the passengers did not appear to coincide in number. A lone mule drew the car, and sometimes drew it off the track, when the passengers would get out and push it on again. They really owed it courtesies like this, for the car was genially accommodating: a lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once and wait for her while she shut the window, put on her hat and cloak, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the “girl” what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house.
The previous passengers made little objection to such gallantry on the part of the car: they were wont to expect as much for themselves on like occasion. In good weather the mule pulled the car a mile in a little less than twenty minutes, unless the stops were too long; but when the trolley-car came, doing its mile in five minutes and better, it would wait for nobody. Nor could its passengers have endured such a thing, because the faster they were carried the less time they had to spare! In the days before deathly contrivances hustled them through their lives, and when they had no telephones—another ancient vacancy profoundly responsible for leisure—they had time for everything: time to think, to talk, time to read, time to wait for a lady!
They even had time to dance “square dances,” quadrilles, and “lancers”; they also danced the “racquette,” and schottisches and polkas, and such whims as the “Portland Fancy.” They pushed back the sliding doors between the “parlour” and the “sitting room,” tacked down crash over the carpets, hired a few palms in green tubs, stationed three or four Italian musicians under the stairway in the “front hall”—and had great nights!
But these people were gayest on New Year's Day; they made it a true festival—something no longer known. The women gathered to “assist” the hostesses who kept “Open House”; and the carefree men, dandified and perfumed, went about in sleighs, or in carriages and ponderous “hacks,” going from Open House to Open House, leaving fantastic cards in fancy baskets as they entered each doorway, and emerging a little later, more carefree than ever, if the punch had been to their liking. It always was, and, as the afternoon wore on, pedestrians saw great gesturing and waving of skin-tight lemon gloves, while ruinous fragments of song were dropped behind as the carriages rolled up and down the streets.
“Keeping Open House” was a merry custom; it has gone, like the all-day picnic in the woods, and like that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade. When a lively girl visited the town she did not long go unserenaded, though a visitor was not indeed needed to excuse a serenade. Of a summer night, young men would bring an orchestra under a pretty girl's window—or, it might be, her father's, or that of an ailing maiden aunt—and flute, harp, fiddle, 'cello, cornet, and bass viol would presently release to the dulcet stars such melodies as sing through “You'll Remember Me,” “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “Kathleen Mavourneen,” or “The Soldier's Farewell.”
They had other music to offer, too, for these were the happy days of “Olivette” and “The Macotte” and “The Chimes of Normandy” and “Girofle-Girofla” and “Fra Diavola.” Better than that, these were the days of “Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance” and of “Patience.” This last was needed in the Midland town, as elsewhere, for the “aesthetic movement” had reached thus far from London, and terrible things were being done to honest old furniture. Maidens sawed what-nots in two, and gilded the remains. They took the rockers from rocking-chairs and gilded the inadequate legs; they gilded the easels that supported the crayon portraits of their deceased uncles. In the new spirit of art they sold old clocks for new, and threw wax flowers and wax fruit, and the protecting glass domes, out upon the trash-heap. They filled vases with peacock feathers, or cattails, or sumac, or sunflowers, and set the vases upon mantelpieces and marble-topped tables. They embroidered daisies (which they called “marguerites”) and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and owls and peacock feathers upon plush screens and upon heavy cushions, then strewed these cushions upon floors where fathers fell over them in the dark. In the teeth of sinful oratory, the daughters went on embroidering: they embroidered daisies and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and owls and peacock feathers upon “throws” which they had the courage to drape upon horsehair sofas; they painted owls and daisies and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and peacock feathers upon tambourines. They hung Chinese umbrellas of paper to the chandeliers; they nailed paper fans to the walls. They “studied” painting on china, these girls; they sang Tosti's new songs; they sometimes still practiced the old, genteel habit of lady-fainting, and were most charming of all when they drove forth, three or four in a basket phaeton, on a spring morning.
Croquet and the mildest archery ever known were the sports of people still young and active enough for so much exertion; middle-age played euchre. There was a theatre, next door to the Amberson Hotel, and when Edwin Booth came for a night, everybody who could afford to buy a ticket was there, and all the “hacks” in town were hired. “The Black Crook” also filled the theatre, but the audience then was almost entirely of men who looked uneasy as they left for home when the final curtain fell upon the shocking girls dressed as fairies. But the theatre did not often do so well; the people of the town were still too thrifty.
They were thrifty because they were the sons or grandsons of the “early settlers,” who had opened the wilderness and had reached it from the East and the South with wagons and axes and guns, but with no money at all. The pioneers were thrifty or they would have perished: they had to store away food for the winter, or goods to trade for food, and they often feared they had not stored enough—they left traces of that fear in their sons and grandsons. In the minds of most of these, indeed, their thrift was next to their religion: to save, even for the sake of saving, was their earliest lesson and discipline. No matter how prosperous they were, they could not spend money either upon “art,” or upon mere luxury and entertainment, without a sense of sin.
Against so homespun a background the magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral. Major Amberson bought two hundred acres of land at the end of National Avenue; and through this tract he built broad streets and cross-streets; paved them with cedar block, and curbed them with stone. He set up fountains, here and there, where the streets intersected, and at symmetrical intervals placed cast-iron statues, painted white, with their titles clear upon the pedestals: Minerva, Mercury, Hercules, Venus, Gladiator, Emperor Augustus, Fisher Boy, Stag-hound, Mastiff, Greyhound, Fawn, Antelope, Wounded Doe, and Wounded Lion. Most of the forest trees had been left to flourish still, and, at some distance, or by moonlight, the place was in truth beautiful; but the ardent citizen, loving to see his city grow, wanted neither distance nor moonlight. He had not seen Versailles, but, standing before the Fountain of Neptune in Amberson Addition, at bright noon, and quoting the favourite comparison of the local newspapers, he declared Versailles outdone. All this Art showed a profit from the start, for the lots sold well and there was something like a rush to build in the new Addition. Its main thoroughfare, an oblique continuation of National Avenue, was called Amberson Boulevard, and here, at the juncture of the new Boulevard and the Avenue, Major Amberson reserved four acres for himself, and built his new house—the Amberson Mansion, of course.
This house was the pride of the town. Faced with stone as far back as the dining-room windows, it was a house of arches and turrets and girdling stone porches: it had the first porte-cochere seen in that town. There was a central “front hall” with a great black walnut stairway, and open to a green glass skylight called the “dome,” three stories above the ground floor. A ballroom occupied most of the third story; and at one end of it was a carved walnut gallery for the musicians. Citizens told strangers that the cost of all this black walnut and wood-carving was sixty thousand dollars. “Sixty thousand dollars for the wood-work alone! Yes, sir, and hardwood floors all over the house! Turkish rugs and no carpets at all, except a Brussels carpet in the front parlour—I hear they call it the 'reception-room.' Hot and cold water upstairs and down, and stationary washstands in every last bedroom in the place! Their sideboard's built right into the house and goes all the way across one end of the dining room. It isn't walnut, it's solid mahogany! Not veneering—solid mahogany! Well, sir, I presume the President of the United States would be tickled to swap the White House for the new Amberson Mansion, if the Major'd give him the chance—but by the Almighty Dollar, you bet your sweet life the Major wouldn't!”
The visitor to the town was certain to receive further enlightenment, for there was one form of entertainment never omitted: he was always patriotically taken for “a little drive around our city,” even if his host had to hire a hack, and the climax of the display was the Amberson Mansion. “Look at that greenhouse they've put up there in the side yard,” the escort would continue. “And look at that brick stable! Most folks would think that stable plenty big enough and good enough to live in; it's got running water and four rooms upstairs for two hired men and one of 'em's family to live in. They keep one hired man loafin' in the house, and they got a married hired man out in the stable, and his wife does the washing. They got box-stalls for four horses, and they keep a coupay, and some new kinds of fancy rigs you never saw the beat of! 'Carts' they call two of 'em—'way up in the air they are—too high for me! I guess they got every new kind of fancy rig in there that's been invented. And harness—well, everybody in town can tell when Ambersons are out driving after dark, by the jingle. This town never did see so much style as Ambersons are putting on, these days; and I guess it's going to be expensive, because a lot of other folks'll try to keep up with 'em. The Major's wife and the daughter's been to Europe, and my wife tells me since they got back they make tea there every afternoon about five o'clock, and drink it. Seems to me it would go against a person's stomach, just before supper like that, and anyway tea isn't fit for much—not unless you're sick or something. My wife says Ambersons don't make lettuce salad the way other people do; they don't chop it up with sugar and vinegar at all. They pour olive oil on it with their vinegar, and they have it separate—not along with the rest of the meal. And they eat these olives, too: green things they are, something like a hard plum, but a friend of mine told me they tasted a good deal like a bad hickory-nut. My wife says she's going to buy some; you got to eat nine and then you get to like 'em, she says. Well, I wouldn't eat nine bad hickory-nuts to get to like them, and I'm going to let these olives alone. Kind of a woman's dish, anyway, I suspect, but most everybody'll be makin' a stagger to worm through nine of 'em, now Ambersons brought 'em to town. Yes, sir, the rest'll eat 'em, whether they get sick or not! Looks to me like some people in this city'd be willing to go crazy if they thought that would help 'em to be as high-toned as Ambersons. Old Aleck Minafer—he's about the closest old codger we got—he come in my office the other day, and he pretty near had a stroke tellin' me about his daughter Fanny. Seems Miss Isabel Amberson's got some kind of a dog—they call it a Saint Bernard—and Fanny was bound to have one, too. Well, old Aleck told her he didn't like dogs except rat-terriers, because a rat-terrier cleans up the mice, but she kept on at him, and finally he said all right she could have one. Then, by George! she says Ambersons bought their dog, and you can't get one without paying for it: they cost from fifty to a hundred dollars up! Old Aleck wanted to know if I ever heard of anybody buyin' a dog before, because, of course, even a Newfoundland or a setter you can usually get somebody to give you one. He says he saw some sense in payin' a nigger a dime, or even a quarter, to drown a dog for you, but to pay out fifty dollars and maybe more—well, sir, he like to choked himself to death, right there in my office! Of course everybody realizes that Major Amberson is a fine business man, but what with throwin' money around for dogs, and every which and what, some think all this style's bound to break him up, if his family don't quit!”
One citizen, having thus discoursed to a visitor, came to a thoughtful pause, and then added, “Does seem pretty much like squandering, yet when you see that dog out walking with this Miss Isabel, he seems worth the money.”
“What's she look like?”
“Well, sir,” said the citizen, “she's not more than just about eighteen or maybe nineteen years old, and I don't know as I know just how to put it—but she's kind of a delightful lookin' young lady!”
Another citizen said an eloquent thing about Miss Isabel Amberson's looks. This was Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster, the foremost literary authority and intellectual leader of the community—-for both the daily newspapers thus described Mrs. Foster when she founded the Women's Tennyson Club; and her word upon art, letters, and the drama was accepted more as law than as opinion. Naturally, when “Hazel Kirke” finally reached the town, after its long triumph in larger places, many people waited to hear what Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster thought of it before they felt warranted in expressing any estimate of the play. In fact, some of them waited in the lobby of the theatre, as they came out, and formed an inquiring group about her.
“I didn't see the play,” she informed them.
“What! Why, we saw you, right in the middle of the fourth row!”
“Yes,” she said, smiling, “but I was sitting just behind Isabelle Amberson. I couldn't look at anything except her wavy brown hair and the wonderful back of her neck.”
The ineligible young men of the town (they were all ineligible) were unable to content themselves with the view that had so charmed Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster: they spent their time struggling to keep Miss Amberson's face turned toward them. She turned it most often, observers said, toward two: one excelling in the general struggle by his sparkle, and the other by that winning if not winsome old trait, persistence. The sparkling gentleman “led germans” with her, and sent sonnets to her with his bouquets—sonnets lacking neither music nor wit. He was generous, poor, well-dressed, and his amazing persuasiveness was one reason why he was always in debt. No one doubted that he would be able to persuade Isabel, but he unfortunately joined too merry a party one night, and, during a moonlight serenade upon the lawn before the Amberson Mansion, was easily identified from the windows as the person who stepped through the bass viol and had to be assisted to a waiting carriage. One of Miss Amberson's brothers was among the serenaders, and, when the party had dispersed, remained propped against the front door in a state of helpless liveliness; the Major going down in a dressing-gown and slippers to bring him in, and scolding mildly, while imperfectly concealing strong impulses to laughter. Miss Amberson also laughed at this brother, the next day, but for the suitor it was a different matter: she refused to see him when he called to apologize. “You seem to care a great deal about bass viols!” he wrote her. “I promise never to break another.” She made no response to the note, unless it was an answer, two weeks later, when her engagement was announced. She took the persistent one, Wilbur Minafer, no breaker of bass viols or of hearts, no serenader at all.
A few people, who always foresaw everything, claimed that they were not surprised, because though Wilbur Minafer “might not be an Apollo, as it were,” he was “a steady young business man, and a good church-goer,” and Isabel Amberson was “pretty sensible—for such a showy girl.” But the engagement astounded the young people, and most of their fathers and mothers, too; and as a topic it supplanted literature at the next meeting of the “Women's Tennyson Club.”
“Wilbur Minafer!” a member cried, her inflection seeming to imply that Wilbur's crime was explained by his surname. “Wilbur Minafer! It's the queerest thing I ever heard! To think of her taking Wilbur Minafer, just because a man any woman would like a thousand times better was a little wild one night at a serenade!”
“No,” said Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster. “It isn't that. It isn't even because she's afraid he'd be a dissipated husband and she wants to be safe. It isn't because she's religious or hates wildness; it isn't even because she hates wildness in him.”
“Well, but look how she's thrown him over for it.”
“No, that wasn't her reason,” said the wise Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster. “If men only knew it—and it's a good thing they don't—a woman doesn't really care much about whether a man's wild or not, if it doesn't affect herself, and Isabel Amberson doesn't care a thing!”
“No, she doesn't. What she minds is his making a clown of himself in her front yard! It made her think he didn't care much about her. She's probably mistaken, but that's what she thinks, and it's too late for her to think anything else now, because she's going to be married right away—the invitations will be out next week. It'll be a big Amberson-style thing, raw oysters floating in scooped-out blocks of ice and a band from out-of-town—champagne, showy presents; a colossal present from the Major. Then Wilbur will take Isabel on the carefulest little wedding trip he can manage, and she'll be a good wife to him, but they'll have the worst spoiled lot of children this town will ever see.”
“How on earth do you make that out, Mrs. Foster?”
“She couldn't love Wilbur, could she?” Mrs. Foster demanded, with no challengers. “Well, it will all go to her children, and she'll ruin 'em!”
The prophetess proved to be mistaken in a single detail merely: except for that, her foresight was accurate. The wedding was of Ambersonian magnificence, even to the floating oysters; and the Major's colossal present was a set of architect's designs for a house almost as elaborate and impressive as the Mansion, the house to be built in Amberson Addition by the Major. The orchestra was certainly not that local one which had suffered the loss of a bass viol; the musicians came, according to the prophecy and next morning's paper, from afar; and at midnight the bride was still being toasted in champagne, though she had departed upon her wedding journey at ten. Four days later the pair had returned to town, which promptness seemed fairly to demonstrate that Wilbur had indeed taken Isabel upon the carefulest little trip he could manage. According to every report, she was from the start “a good wife to him,” but here in a final detail the prophecy proved inaccurate. Wilbur and Isabel did not have children; they had only one.
“Only one,” Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster admitted. “But I'd like to know if he isn't spoiled enough for a whole carload!”
Again she found none to challenge her.
At the age of nine, George Amberson Minafer, the Major's one grandchild, was a princely terror, dreaded not only in Amberson Addition but in many other quarters through which he galloped on his white pony. “By golly, I guess you think you own this town!” an embittered labourer complained, one day, as Georgie rode the pony straight through a pile of sand the man was sieving. “I will when I grow up,” the undisturbed child replied. “I guess my grandpa owns it now, you bet!” And the baffled workman, having no means to controvert what seemed a mere exaggeration of the facts could only mutter “Oh, pull down your vest!”
“Don't haf to! Doctor says it ain't healthy!” the boy returned promptly. “But I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll pull down my vest if you'll wipe off your chin!”
This was stock and stencil: the accustomed argot of street badinage of the period; and in such matters Georgie was an expert. He had no vest to pull down; the incongruous fact was that a fringed sash girdled the juncture of his velvet blouse and breeches, for the Fauntleroy period had set in, and Georgie's mother had so poor an eye for appropriate things, where Georgie was concerned, that she dressed him according to the doctrine of that school in boy decoration. Not only did he wear a silk sash, and silk stockings, and a broad lace collar, with his little black velvet suit: he had long brown curls, and often came home with burrs in them.
Except upon the surface (which was not his own work, but his mother's) Georgie bore no vivid resemblance to the fabulous little Cedric. The storied boy's famous “Lean on me, grandfather,” would have been difficult to imagine upon the lips of Georgie. A month after his ninth birthday anniversary, when the Major gave him his pony, he had already become acquainted with the toughest boys in various distant parts of the town, and had convinced them that the toughness of a rich little boy with long curls might be considered in many respects superior to their own. He fought them, learning how to go berserk at a certain point in a fight, bursting into tears of anger, reaching for rocks, uttering wailed threats of murder and attempting to fulfil them. Fights often led to intimacies, and he acquired the art of saying things more exciting than “Don't haf to!” and “Doctor says it ain't healthy!” Thus, on a summer afternoon, a strange boy, sitting bored upon the gate-post of the Reverend Malloch Smith, beheld George Amberson Minafer rapidly approaching on his white pony, and was impelled by bitterness to shout: “Shoot the ole jackass! Look at the girly curls! Say, bub, where'd you steal your mother's ole sash!”
“Your sister stole it for me!” Georgie instantly replied, checking the pony. “She stole it off our clo'es-line an' gave it to me.”
“You go get your hair cut!” said the stranger hotly. “Yah! I haven't got any sister!”
“I know you haven't at home,” Georgie responded. “I mean the one that's in jail.”
“I dare you to get down off that pony!”
Georgie jumped to the ground, and the other boy descended from the Reverend Mr. Smith's gatepost—but he descended inside the gate. “I dare you outside that gate,” said Georgie.
“Yah! I dare you half way here. I dare you—”
But these were luckless challenges, for Georgie immediately vaulted the fence—and four minutes later Mrs. Malloch Smith, hearing strange noises, looked forth from a window; then screamed, and dashed for the pastor's study. Mr. Malloch Smith, that grim-bearded Methodist, came to the front yard and found his visiting nephew being rapidly prepared by Master Minafer to serve as a principal figure in a pageant of massacre. It was with great physical difficulty that Mr. Smith managed to give his nephew a chance to escape into the house, for Georgie was hard and quick, and, in such matters, remarkably intense; but the minister, after a grotesque tussle, got him separated from his opponent, and shook him.
“You stop that, you!” Georgie cried fiercely; and wrenched himself away. “I guess you don't know who I am!”
“Yes, I do know!” the angered Mr. Smith retorted. “I know who you are, and you're a disgrace to your mother! Your mother ought to be ashamed of herself to allow—”
“Shut up about my mother bein' ashamed of herself!”
Mr. Smith, exasperated, was unable to close the dialogue with dignity. “She ought to be ashamed,” he repeated. “A woman that lets a bad boy like you—”
But Georgie had reached his pony and mounted. Before setting off at his accustomed gallop, he paused to interrupt the Reverend Malloch Smith again. “You pull down your vest, you ole Billygoat, you!” he shouted, distinctly. “Pull down your vest, wipe off your chin—an' go to hell!”
Such precocity is less unusual, even in children of the Rich, than most grown people imagine. However, it was a new experience for the Reverend Malloch Smith, and left him in a state of excitement. He at once wrote a note to Georgie's mother, describing the crime according to his nephew's testimony; and the note reached Mrs. Minafer before Georgie did. When he got home she read it to him sorrowfully.
Dear Madam: Your son has caused a painful distress in my household. He made an unprovoked attack upon a little nephew of mine who is visiting in my household, insulted him by calling him vicious names and falsehoods, stating that ladies of his family were in jail. He then tried to make his pony kick him, and when the child, who is only eleven years old, while your son is much older and stronger, endeavoured to avoid his indignities and withdraw quietly, he pursued him into the enclosure of my property and brutally assaulted him. When I appeared upon this scene he deliberately called insulting words to me, concluding with profanity, such as “go to hell,” which was heard not only by myself but by my wife and the lady who lives next door. I trust such a state of undisciplined behaviour may be remedied for the sake of the reputation for propriety, if nothing higher, of the family to which this unruly child belongs.
Georgie had muttered various interruptions, and as she concluded the reading he said: “He's an ole liar!”
“Georgie, you mustn't say 'liar.' Isn't this letter the truth?”
“Well,” said Georgie, “how old am I?”
“Well, look how he says I'm older than a boy eleven years old.”
“That's true,” said Isabel. “He does. But isn't some of it true, Georgie?”
Georgie felt himself to be in a difficulty here, and he was silent.
“Georgie, did you say what he says you did?”
“Did you tell him to—to—Did you say, 'Go to hell?”
Georgie looked worried for a moment longer; then he brightened. “Listen here, mamma; grandpa wouldn't wipe his shoe on that ole story-teller, would he?”
“Georgie, you mustn't—”
“I mean: none of the Ambersons wouldn't have anything to do with him, would they? He doesn't even know you, does he, mamma?”
“That hasn't anything to do with it.”
“Yes, it has! I mean: none of the Amberson family go to see him, and they never have him come in their house; they wouldn't ask him to, and they prob'ly wouldn't even let him.”
“That isn't what we're talking about.”
“I bet,” said Georgie emphatically, “I bet if he wanted to see any of 'em, he'd haf to go around to the side door!”
“No, dear, they—”
“Yes, they would, mamma! So what does it matter if I did say somep'm' to him he didn't like? That kind o' people, I don't see why you can't say anything you want to, to 'em!”
“No, Georgie. And you haven't answered me whether you said that dreadful thing he says you did.”
“Well—” said Georgie. “Anyway, he said somep'm' to me that made me mad.” And upon this point he offered no further details; he would not explain to his mother that what had made him “mad” was Mr. Smith's hasty condemnation of herself: “Your mother ought to be ashamed,” and, “A woman that lets a bad boy like you—” Georgie did not even consider excusing himself by quoting these insolences.
Isabel stroked his head. “They were terrible words for you to use, dear. From his letter he doesn't seem a very tactful person, but—”
“He's just riffraff,” said Georgie.
“You mustn't say so,” his mother gently agreed “Where did you learn those bad words he speaks of? Where did you hear any one use them?”
“Well, I've heard 'em several places. I guess Uncle George Amberson was the first I ever heard say 'em. Uncle George Amberson said 'em to papa once. Papa didn't like it, but Uncle George was just laughin' at papa, an' then he said 'em while he was laughin'.”
“That was wrong of him,” she said, but almost instinctively he detected the lack of conviction in her tone. It was Isabel's great failing that whatever an Amberson did seemed right to her, especially if the Amberson was either her brother George, or her son George. She knew that she should be more severe with the latter now, but severity with him was beyond her power; and the Reverend Malloch Smith had succeeded only in rousing her resentment against himself. Georgie's symmetrical face—altogether an Amberson face—had looked never more beautiful to her. It always looked unusually beautiful when she tried to be severe with him. “You must promise me,” she said feebly, “never to use those bad words again.”
“I promise not to,” he said promptly—and he whispered an immediate codicil under his breath: “Unless I get mad at somebody!” This satisfied a code according to which, in his own sincere belief, he never told lies.
“That's a good boy,” she said, and he ran out to the yard, his punishment over. Some admiring friends were gathered there; they had heard of his adventure, knew of the note, and were waiting to see what was going to “happen” to him. They hoped for an account of things, and also that he would allow them to “take turns” riding his pony to the end of the alley and back.
They were really his henchmen: Georgie was a lord among boys. In fact, he was a personage among certain sorts of grown people, and was often fawned upon; the alley negroes delighted in him, chuckled over him, flattered him slavishly. For that matter, he often heard well-dressed people speaking of him admiringly: a group of ladies once gathered about him on the pavement where he was spinning a top. “I know this is Georgie!” one exclaimed, and turned to the others with the impressiveness of a showman. “Major Amberson's only grandchild!” The others said, “It is?” and made clicking sounds with their mouths; two of them loudly whispering, “So handsome!”
Georgie, annoyed because they kept standing upon the circle he had chalked for his top, looked at them coldly and offered a suggestion:
“Oh, go hire a hall!”
As an Amberson, he was already a public character, and the story of his adventure in the Reverend Malloch Smith's front yard became a town topic. Many people glanced at him with great distaste, thereafter, when they chanced to encounter him, which meant nothing to Georgie, because he innocently believed most grown people to be necessarily cross-looking as a normal phenomenon resulting from the adult state; and he failed to comprehend that the distasteful glances had any personal bearing upon himself. If he had perceived such a bearing, he would have been affected only so far, probably, as to mutter, “Riffraff!” Possibly he would have shouted it; and, certainly, most people believed a story that went round the town just after Mrs. Amberson's funeral, when Georgie was eleven. Georgie was reported to have differed with the undertaker about the seating of the family; his indignant voice had become audible: “Well, who is the most important person at my own grandmother's funeral?” And later he had projected his head from the window of the foremost mourners' carriage, as the undertaker happened to pass.
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