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Maintaining Magnificence: Lessons from a Century-Old Hoosier Pulitzer Prize Winner

George Hanlin serves as Indiana Humanities’ Director of Grants, helping to connect organizations across Indiana with funding for public humanities programs such as workshops, lectures, exhibits, reading and discussion programs. He also manages the Novel Conversations program, which lends books (including many from Indiana Authors Award winners and finalists) to reading groups all over the state. Below, he talks about one of his favorite Indiana authors, Booth Tarkington, and the relevance of Tarkington’s seminal work, The Magnificent Ambersons, nearly a hundred years later.

We live in changing times. Over the past 20 years the world has gone through a technological revolution that has altered the way we interact with one another, the way we do our jobs, and (as scientists are beginning to learn) even the way our brains function. Because of globalization, many of us have different careers, live in different places, and have different neighbors.

As we’ve seen in the long, contentious election season that’s finally coming to an end, many Americans are figuring out how to adjust to this new reality and are forging ahead. A significant number of others, however, find themselves less equipped to manage and are falling behind, perhaps afraid or unwilling to accept that the world they grew up in is evolving.

This story of change—of who comes out on top and who gets left behind—is not a new one. In fact, nearly a century ago one of Indiana’s most celebrated authors wrote a novel about this very idea and won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. The author was Indianapolis’s Booth Tarkington, and the book was his masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons.

Tarkington’s novel tells the story of the Amberson family, the most prominent and powerful citizens in their city (generically described as a “midland town” but most certainly modeled on the Hoosier capital). The Ambersons are at their height in the late 1800s, old money in an era of Victorian mansions, horse-drawn carriages, and gas lamps. The novel’s protagonist, George Minafer, is the spoiled grandson of the family’s patriarch and generally has the run of the town, amid calls for his comeuppance.

Of course, the magnificence of the Ambersons does not last. For as Tarkington writes, “the town was growing and changing as it never had grown and changed before.” As the twentieth century unfolds, thousands of new people arrive, including immigrants who look and sound different. They come to work in factories, which foul the air and force residents to flee the city’s established neighborhoods in order to get away from the soot and grime. Meanwhile, the “patriotic old-stock” gives way to a new generation of capitalists and industrialists. The Ambersons, quick to scoff at modern developments such as the automobile, soon find themselves lost in the crowd.

Tarkington weaves a cautionary tale through the character of George. In the end, the vain young man finds himself in much-reduced circumstances. Most of the Ambersons are dead and their fortune gone, and George now works a dangerous job at a chemical company. With the book’s close there comes some hope that George might finally cast off his arrogance and move forward with a new outlook, but Tarkington leaves it up to the reader to ponder.

What makes The Magnificent Ambersons so engaging is the way that Tarkington tells the story of change through the dynasty of the Ambersons. He uses their fate to send a warning: the world is not stagnant, one’s social position is not guaranteed, and though change is often unpleasant, the inability or unwillingness to grow and adapt leads to decline.

Also engaging is the vitality of Tarkington’s message. It was important in 1918 when he wrote his masterpiece, and nearly 100 years later it’s just as meaningful as we navigate the challenges of our fast-paced world. All of us find ourselves in the same situation as George Minafer, and ultimately we must decide: will we accept the new environment we live in and give ourselves the chance to progress, or will we refuse to evolve and cast our lot with the once-magnificent Ambersons? 

A parade in Indianapolis in 1918, the year Tarkington published "The Magnificent Ambersons"