Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Modern Masterpieces
Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

The Magnificent Ambersons

Coming in at #100 on the Modern Library’s list is The Magnificent Ambersons, by Boothe Tarkington, an engaging story of a midwestern American family with a supremely spoiled son.  The attitude taken to this family and this young man is through the eyes of the community in which they live.  It illustrates that persistent issue of class in American society.  The community views the family with a mix of respect and distain because of their wealth and arrogance, which is manifested through the son. The son’s behavior is unacceptable but allowed to pass without correction.  “He’ll get his comeuppance,” the townspeople say, chorus-like.
The novel is epic and grand, in the style of novel writing of the time (it was published in 1918 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919).  Similar in theme to Sister Carrie (#33 on the list), it uses the story of George Amberson and his family to reflect the social flux at the time.  George’s family enjoys their prestige, which is gained through inherited wealth and a “good name,” but as they ride through life on this reputation, which is unearned, other families are building their own prestige through work and earned wealth and influence.  George, raised to expect everything and give nothing, not even polite interaction, is oblivious to this shift and to the portent of his fall from grace.  George is the person, recognizable in every generation, who thinks that things will always remain the same because they are good for him and therefore there is no reason for change.
“Comeuppance” is the theme of the book, and it is a wonderful word. Examined too closely it comes to seem nonsensical, but in context, it is the perfect word to attach to this young man.  The community/chorus can see clearly that the entitlement he enjoys cannot last because he doesn’t do anything to maintain it.  He is his mother’s golden child, and whatever natural attributes he might have (if he does have any at all) wither with time because he does not do anything to better himself.  He thinks that he is already as good as a person can be.  We have all seen this character, in fiction and in real life, the attractive sparkle who starts to dull in comparison to others, but who regards himself as the only star in the sky. 
The Magnificent Ambersons is a joy to read. The impression of the enjoyment persists long after.  It was made into a movie, with the screenplay adaptation by Orson Welles, and with himself somewhat miscast as the George, who is much younger in the tale than Welles appears on screen. Nevertheless, it is a compelling performance and presentation and it aptly amplifies the fine qualities of this masterful story.

Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.