Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons witty observations on the Gilded Age. The first passages grabbed me.
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.
The story’s hero is George Amberson Minafer, the most egotistical fool I’ve ever read about. When George is a boy in the small Middle American town his grandfather developed from what seems to have been prairie, he fights with every boy who looks at him the wrong way. He’ll pound the pastor’s son to a pulp and curse at the pastor when he pulls the boys apart. George defines entitlement. From his childhood, he was well aware that as his family is the “First Family” of Midland, that everyone else was riffraff and should kowtow to him.
As a boy terrorized the town with his carelessness and the good citizens could do nothing but raise their fists in anger and shout that one day that so and so would get his comeuppance.
What made George such a public nuisance? His mother. Isabela Amberson Minafer doted on George as no woman ever doted on her child. This was her Achilles’ heel, which like in any Greek tragedy is guaranteed to lead to a character’s downfall. Isabela prized dignity. As a young woman, the most wealthy woman in town, she was humiliated when Eugene Morgan came to serenade her and since he’d been drinking fell flat on his face, a spectacle that Isabela assumed the whole world witnessed. That was enough for her to banish Eugene from her heart and to marry a safe, drab accountant, Wilbur Minafer. As the gossip in town predicted, Isabela would lavish her affection on her child, George as Wilbur wasn’t the sort of man to stir up much passion in a wife.