Sunday, November 16, 2008

# 100 The Magnificent Ambersons – Booth Tarkington

“When I got an automobile of my own and began to drive it, I brought to the enterprise a magnificent ignorance of the workings of a gas engine, and a profound disinterest in its oily secrets.”

So intoned—with comically Freudian overtones—the narrator of “Recollections of the Gas Buggy” in The Saturday Review. The author was
James Thurber, the Midwestern wit who sprang out of the earnest soil of Columbus, OH and then ventured as a young adult to New York (as did the centathlete’s wife, albeit 80 years later).

The centathlete partakes in the “magnificent ignorance” of things automotive. For example, he never learned to drive a standard. This lacuna in his development was remarked upon (typically with one eyebrow or one side of the mouth raised) over the years by friends who seemed to savor this chink in his otherwise impregnable, blinding armor.

One of these very chums once had to pick up his parents at LaGuardia Airport, so the centathlete rode along in his manually shifted Saab. After idling in the pick-up zone, the driver was forced to exit in order to locate said parents at the baggage claim, leaving the centathlete alone, sitting shotgun. In moments a traffic cop was looming at the driver’s window, stridently directing the centathlete to move the car.

He couldn’t do it, he explained, because he couldn’t drive a stick—he was just a passenger. The cop balked and repeated her instruction with a sneer. She thought he was full of it. The centathlete repeated his defense and then blankly watched the harpy write a ticket and slap it under the windshield wiper. In moments after her departure, the chum and parents arrived, and received their municipal paperwork.

The fine was nominal to them but the humor was not. Can’t drive a stick! Hearty laughter ensued at the expense of the centathlete, whose dominant emotion at the time was chagrin. Two decades would pass before this lapse in his unquestionable virility resurfaced and provoked a different response.

Newly married, the urban-dwelling, car-less centathlete had moved to the suburbs and was required to learn to drive his bride’s Honda Civic, a standard. He did so awkwardly and profanely. Stalling dozens of times, grinding gears and enduring horns, and navigating futilely among the jughandles and reverse jughandles of central New Jersey—all prompted such a vituperative state of mind that the centathlete very nearly questioned whether he had chosen the right mate.

At this fraught philosophical moment he resembled Billy Brown, the hero of the 1998 movie,
Buffalo 66, played by the inimitable writer/director/lothario Vincent Gallo, when he kidnaps Layla and gets in her car, to find that he can’t drive it:
“Is this a shifter car? I cannot drive a shifter car, alright, so we got a little situation here. I can’t drive these kinda cars! What the f--- is goin’ on! You think that's funny? Would you like to know, smartass? Would you like to know why I can’t drive this kinda car? I’ll tell you why, I’m used to luxury cars. Have you ever heard of a luxury car? You know what luxury means? Ever heard of Cadillac, Cadillac Eldorado? That's what I drive. I drive cars that shift themselves.”
Cars can make you shift from the ridiculous to the sublime, as evidenced by Roland Barthes’ discourse in 1957 on the Citroën DS. The French semiotician and contrarian likened the DS to a goddess and modern automobiles to the gothic cathedral because they represent the “supreme creation” of their era. Barthes’ perspective is both serious and mischievous as he swings like a manic trapeze artist between the religious, sensual, linguistic, historical, novelistic and cinematic. He comments on the DS’s exterior:
“It is well known that smoothness is always an attribute of perfection because its opposite reveals a technical and typically human operation of assembling: Christ's robe was seamless, just as the airships of science-fiction are made of unbroken metal.”
The seamless garment, referenced in
John 19:23, was expounded on by Saint Cyprian, the third century Christian bishop of Carthage. In opposing schismatics he considered the robe a “sacrament of unity” and a “bond of a concord inseparably cohering.”

According to the Original Catholic Encyclopedia,
Cyprian, in middle age, abandoned the Roman ruling class and its vice, decay, and “hollowness of political success” for a “chaste, prayerful” life. He lived during war and plague and was ultimately beheaded by order of the Emperor Valerian, who himself met a humiliating end at the hands of his Persian conqueror, Sapor.

During wartime not everyone lives or dies by the sword; some daydream, doodle and type far from the frontlines. For two middle-aged Midwesterners, Ohio’s Thurber and Indiana’s Booth Tarkington, the automobile figured centrally in their public reveries that nudged, delighted and preoccupied the American home front during respective world wars.

September 25, 1943 the Soviet army retook the Russian city of Smolensk and German forces retreated behind the Dneiper River. On that day Thurber’s “Gas Buggy” piece appeared. Rather than consider the Eastern Front, Thurber reflected (again with a Freudian vocabulary) on the advent of cars circa 1903, when they puzzled the folks of Columbus: “What is that thing, Mamma? Mamma, what is that thing, huh, Mamma?” Since those days the automotive industry had become a behemoth and inserted itself as a “miracle-worker” into World War II, as Time Magazine observed in February 1942.

More than a generation before, in
1918, after bloody offensives and counteroffensives, World War I ended in November. Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons was published that year. Preceding Thurber, Tarkington chose to reminisce about the good old days in the country when the car was a curiosity or, to some like George Minafer, the bitter protagonist of The Magnificent Ambersons, a monstrosity.

Each Midwestern author’s retrospective is in a sense a “car dream.” Oddly, at least to this Northeasterner, racial insensitivity rears up in each. Ambersons includes several cursory references to “darkies” and “Gas Buggy” features a patronizing treatment of the “colored washerwoman.” Today we want to hear their perspectives as well, but only the driver/author sees out of the rear view mirror.

“Automobiles are a useless nuisance… They had no business to be invented,” snorted George Minafer at his family estate in the Midland town that represented Indianapolis. That invention arguably was realized on July 4, 1894, on
Pumpkinvine Pike in Kokomo, IN, when Elwood Haynes and the Apperson brothers tested their gas buggy.

In the immediately following years, likeminded inventors and manufacturers proliferated in Indiana, where “automobiles were produced in more than 40 cities,”
according to the Northern Indiana Center for History. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, built in 1909, brought publicity and excitement to the industry. However, in a generation, Ford Motor Company, General Motors and other manufacturers from Michigan superseded the likes of Indiana’s Studebaker, Stutz, Cole, and Haynes-Apperson.

Even a simple history of the early cars, not to mention the superb photos, is inescapably quaint to today’s driver, as can be sensed
“By 1898 the Haynes-Apperson Automobile Company was producing one car every two-three weeks… Soon they were turning out three different models (for 2, 4 & 6 passengers) at a rate of 2-3 cars per week! This production rate also meant the factory was open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, two shifts per day... Haynes-Apperson production numbers increased steadily: five in 1898, 30 in 1899, 192 in 1900 and 240 in 1901. Later that year, the Appersons and Haynes dissolved their business partnership and began two individual companies.” picks up the story of Edgar and Elmer Apperson and their new venture, The Apperson Brothers Motor Car Company:
“The company employed its peak year in 1919, employing about 600 people and producing 3,000 units at the two plants. In the early 1920's, business began to decrease. The Appersons, like many others, were not competitive with the larger manufacturers. Production ceased in 1925, thus ending the pioneering saga…”
This story and others like it, and in fact the birth and childhood of the transformative automotive industry, played out right before Booth Tarkington, who was born in 1869 and grew up in Indianapolis. He would likely have been familiar with the Appersons, as he was actively engaged in Indiana culture and politics—from 1902-1903 he served as a State Assemblyman and he later wrote “In the Arena” about the experience (making him unlike the anti-political Saint Cyprian). Did Tarkington think of “Apperson” when he named his family “Amberson?”

Nephew of a California governor, Tarkington was privileged but not rich growing up in Indiana. He was a popular bon vivant at Purdue and at Princeton, where he was a
founder of the Triangle Club, “the oldest collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the nation.” He no doubt drew on this background in creating Minafer, who shared a fine pedigree but none of his maker’s good humor.

Tarkington made his own fortune as an author, globetrotted in style, and “eventually built an estate, Seawood, in
Kennebunkport, Maine, where he and his second wife, Susannah Robinson, lived from May through December each year..."

One wishes Classic Books Library had used this
photo of Seawood, with its glorious white façade and elegantly aged walkway, for its reissue of Ambersons. It speaks to a defiant magnificence that is completely lacking in the dreary cover of the book.

In Kennebunkport, Tarkington was neighbors with George Herbert Walker, President George W. Bush’s great-grandfather, and
Francis Noble, the editor for many newspapers owned and published by William Randolph Hearst. (Hearst, incidentally, was a cousin of Elmer and Edgar Apperson; his mother was Phoebe Apperson.)

Hearst of course inspired another Midwesterner,
Orson Welles of Kenosha, Wisconsin, to create Citizen Kane, “the greatest movie of all-time” according to the American Film Institute. Released in 1941, Citizen Kane was Welles’s first movie; he followed it up in 1942 with The Magnificent Ambersons.

We can’t see this movie today, due to a toxic
struggle between Welles and RKO Studio. So we have to be content with snippets and commentary at
what a tribute it is!

One Welles fan, Jeffrey M. Anderson, in his
piece on Ambersons, helps us understand why the director was drawn to the story, and how cinema can complement literature:
“One of Welles’ favorite themes is aging—looking back on the past with nostalgia, and noting how things change as one gets older. He opens The Magnificent Ambersons with a sequence showing the fashions and the wisdoms of the times. Everything moves slower, he tells us in his famous baritone narration. These sequences are all framed with a sort of discolored edge, like the brown edge of a faded photograph. (In one scene, Welles even manages to use an “iris-fade,” in which the image fades to black around a circle that grows smaller and smaller, an effect that D.W. Griffith used in the silent days.) From that nostalgic starting point, everything slowly collapses. This is due to the invention of automobiles, with which Eugene is making his fortune.”
The centathlete was not familiar with the term “iris-fade” but his mind’s eye seems to be increasingly prone to the human form of the process. Memories (riding a brown Columbia bicycle over a sewer cover, spilling, and getting a fat lip) collapse into a black hole…so we run the centathlon to keep at least books alive.

The “debacle” of
Ambersons nearly killed Welles’s career: “He was never entrusted with a major Hollywood production again. Welles himself said, ‘They [RKO] destroyed Ambersons and it destroyed me.’” reports that the movie “really spelled the end of Welles’s golden period and the beginning of his slow decline.” We might say that Welles resembled in part the tragic hero of his own movie, George Minafer, the bearer of his family’s decline. Life imitated cinema imitated literature.

And then cinema imitated cinema. In 2000 A&E produced a remake of The Magnificent Ambersons, purporting to be more faithful to Welles’s script. The result was a snoozer and a flop. The centathlete is disinclined to agree with the perpetually smug Peter Bogdanovich, but the former Welles
confidante was correct when he said, “It would be charitable to say that the Ambersons remake was “poor.”

The TV movie, filmed in Dublin, Ireland (not Dublin, Ohio) featured the creepy
but spunky Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Minafer and the waxen but spunky Madeleine Stowe as his mother. The fact that the official web site has been taken down is apt.

Dead links aside, we can credit the efforts of studios and accomplished directors and actors to do Tarkington’s tale justice. George Minafer would not have participated in such collective endeavors; they were beneath him.

Driving home now (in an automatic), we acknowledge that the automobile is the symbolic and actual instrument of George Minafer’s downfall. After years of scoffing at the nascent car industry and industrial progress, Minafer is struck by a car and gravely injured at the novel’s close.

Similarly, the questioner of symbols such as the magnificent Goddess Automobile, Roland Barthes, was struck by a laundry van (perhaps transporting seamless robes). But while George Minafer was left in a hospital bed by Tarkington with chances for recovery, redemption and love, Barthes was not so fortunate. He
died a month later.