Pondering the Pulitzer

1919 Winner: Booth Tarkington, “The Magnificent Ambersons” (notes thus far)

Let me just tell you something right off the bat: I’m having some strong and conflicting emotions about this novel and its author.

I said I was struggling against my hopefulness that these words HAD to be flawless because of the name of their creator.  So there’s that.

And the first few pages though I had to take some breaths to center my dizzy self and get a new red pen—I ran out of ink making too many underlines and side notes of praising—were dynamite.  There are positively gorgeous sentiments.  They sweep across the soft page, they make me want to nap in between lines of the paragraph.  Just…say those words again.

And then…you get a few more pages in and I’m having flashbacks of Lit Crit & Theory in college, where I, for some unknown reason, spent significant amounts of time defending Joseph Conrad.  I never really knew how this happened.  I think it’s because I was always on the defensive about my own literary theory: everything—for both writer and reader—is predicated on time, place, and circumstance.  (Ah, we’re back at me talking about “what makes a Pulitzer?”, aren’t we?  Good.)  And in defending this stance, I was defending Conrad.  Absolutely, he’s saying a bunch of stuff that looks very racist in black and white on the page—no pun intended.  But…number 1: nobody said these were Conrad’s thoughts.  They are the words and thoughts of his fictional (mostly) characters.  Number 2: well, you don’t know Conrad’s life.  I’m not saying it’s OK, I’m saying it’s more complicated.

For Tarkington’s background of his Ambersons: I guess I need to remember the same thing applies.  Are we picking up what I’m putting down?  OK, good.  We’ll see if this is a resounding theme.

I’m not saying I dislike the book.  I’m saying I’m caught off guard.  I’m saying I don’t know where to go with this.  I’m saying I wish I had picked a partner for this endeavor so I could turn to this partner and say, “Really?  Did that just happen?  Did it make you uncomfortable too?  And not in, like, a Gus van Sant kind of way?”

Really, the thoughts that keep striking me en masse go like this: Is this really only one year after “His Family”?  I get that the Ambersons and the Gales are families of different financial background and different parts of the country…but wowzah.  Sure, the Ambersons are not what you’d call “progressive” by any means…but wow…just wow.

I hadn’t thought of this.  These books were written within a few calendar turns of each other, and yet, they’re two completely different worlds.  Ideas about this are still swimming in my head.  I am not prepared to fully comment just yet.

I am still eager to continue reading this book.  The opening, as I said, sold me.  Here’s your sneak peak so you go and read it yourself:

Major Amberson has “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…

Also, the long descriptions Tarkington provides of facial hair styles in his lil’ world over there is either frigthening or enthralling—I’m not sure yet.  But I am picturing them on any man I see today.

Really, in closing, what I think is missing here is that I forgot to tell you I found out Booth Tarkington’s full name is Newton Booth Tarkington.  He was named after his uncle.  And that…is fabulous.

If you want to talk to me about my Pulitzer reading (or anything really), you can contact me at LauraPondersthePulitzer@gmail.com or twitter ( @l_hallman )

Happy reading, darlings!

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