The Pulitzer Project: The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington (1919)

Pulitzer Project

I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! I’ve just recently finished reading The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington, the recipient of the second Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.


A Brief Summary*: The book follows the rise and fall of the Amberson family, one of the most prosperous and well-known families of Woodruff Place, Indiana at the turn of the 20th century. Young George Amberson Minafer, the patriarch’s grandson, is spoiled terribly by his mother Isabel. Growing up arrogant, sure of his own worth and position, and totally oblivious to the lives of others, George falls in love with Lucy Morgan, a young though sensible debutante. As the town grows into a city, industry thrives, the Ambersons’ prestige and wealth wanes, and the Morgans, thanks to Lucy’s prescient father, grow prosperous. The decline of the Ambersons is contrasted with the rising fortunes of industrial tycoons and other new-money families, who derived power not from family names but by “doing things”.

Fun Fact: Woodruff Place is known as the first suburb of Indianapolis.

Setting: Indiana

Time Period: 1873 – 1910s

Review: I found it interesting to compare this to His Family, which won the Pulitzer the year before. Both books follow the rise of automobiles and its impacts on society. Where Poole writes odes to speed and modern machinery, Tarkington abhors the soot and smog of industrialization. I found the setting and writing quite compelling, but I thought the actual plot was cliched and trite. This is a book that uses words like “parvenu” earnestly and devotes pages to explaining George’s routine of changing into dinner clothes every evening. The last few chapters of the book seemed so bizarre to me; without giving any spoilers, I thought the events came out of left field and seemed like an overly dramatic way to end the novel. If you can be patient, I would suggest reading the book more for the writing than the story. I think you would find the book more enjoyable if you simply view the characters and storyline as a backdrop for Tarkington’s wit and observations.

I’d recommend this book to people who appreciate reading about details of clothing and fashion, who like to read about the turn of the 20th century, or are trying to read all of the Pulitzers.


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9 thoughts on “The Pulitzer Project: The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington (1919)

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  8. Are you aware that a famous movie was based on this book?This is one of your weaker reviews, not as bad as the Guard Of Honor review, but still pretty weak.The Magnificent Ambersons was #99 on the Random House list of great novels of the twentieth century. The Library Of America just came out with its Tarkington volume (Edited by Thomas Mallon) which included this, Alice Adams, and a collection of short stories about politics called In The arena.

    • To be honest, after reading this book, I wasn’t rushing off to watch a film adaptation of it. Now, almost five years later, I am a more open to revisiting Booth Tarkington (or at least to watching a movie…) To each their own, I suppose, but I don’t think I would have included this book in my list of great novels of the twentieth century. What about this book (or Alice Adams) resounded with you?

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