Critical Assessment

“The total effect of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ is, as a Tarkington novel, extraordinary. One begins it with lively entertainment. Along toward the middle something appears to be the matter. The abounding verve which we have come to expect from Mr. Tarkington does not seem to be present in this patient, earnest progress in the accumulation of detail in elucidating the growth of character. . . . And altogether one is not so comfortable as one expected to be. Then comes a third stage, when it comes over one that his queer feeling arises from the fact that this book has not the particular kind of excellence which we look for from Mr. Tarkington – but is excellent in another way. One lays down the book considerably impressed; impressed with the performance, the adequate accomplishment of a high resolve; and impressed with one’s reflections as to this figure, the still new Mr. Tarkington, ever on the grow, in the service of a durable native American literature.”

Robert Cortes Holliday, “Tarkingtonapolis – From Mule-Car to Flivver,” The Bookman, September 1918.

First Excerpt

“A lone mule drew the car, and sometimes drew it off the track, when the passengers would get out and push it on again. They really owed it courtesies like this, for the car was genially accommodating: a lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once and wait for her while she shut the window, put on her hat and cloak, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the ‘girl’ what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house.

“The previous passengers made little objection to such gallantry on the part of the car: they were wont to expect as much for themselves on like occasion. In good weather the mule pulled the car a mile in a little less than twenty minutes, unless the stops were too long; but when the trolley-car came, doing its mile in five minutes and better, it would wait for nobody. Nor could its passengers have endured such a thing, because the faster they were carried the less time they had to spare! In the days before deathly contrivances hustled them through their lives, and when they had no telephones – another ancient vacancy profoundly responsible for leisure – they had time for everything: time to think, to talk, time to read, time to wait for a lady!”

MagnificentAmbersonsSecond Excerpt

“‘What are you studying in school?’


“‘At the university! Yes. What are you studying there?’

“George laughed. ‘Lot o’ useless guff!’

“‘Then why don’t you study some useful guff?’

“‘What do you mean: “useful”?’

“‘Something you’d use later, in your business or profession?’

“George waved his hand impatiently. ‘I don’t expect to go into any “business or profession.”’


“‘Certainly not!’ George was emphatic, being sincerely annoyed by a suggestion which showed how utterly she failed to comprehend the kind of person he was.

“‘Why not?’ she asked mildly.

“‘Just look at ’em!’ he said, almost with bitterness, and he made a gesture presumably intended to indicate the business and professional men now dancing within range of vision. ‘That’s a fine career for a man, isn’t it! Lawyers, bankers, politicians! What do they get out of life, I’d like to know! What do they ever know about real things? Where do they ever get?’

“He was so earnest that she was surprised and impressed. Evidently he had deep-seated ambitions, for he seemed to speak with actual emotion of these despised things which were so far beneath his planning for the future. She had a vague, momentary vision of Pitt, at twenty-one, prime minister of England; and she spoke, involuntarily in a lowered voice, with deference:

“‘What do you want to be?’ she asked.

“George answered promptly.

“‘A yachtsman,’ he said.”