The Great American Novel candidate #37: The Magnificent Ambersons

As you may know, I’m always interested in discussing the Great American Novel. One reason for this is that I think two of the oft-mentioned contenders — Huck Finn and The Great Gatsby — stink.

Thus I’m inclined to say “Confederacy of Dunces” or to go kidlit and say “Little House on the Prarie,” “Lizard Music” or  “Ramona the Brave.”

But I’ve just finished The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington which I think is a leading contender. In fact I was up late last night racing toward the ending. One of my longest reading sessions in a while. But not one of my happiest…

The Great American Novel needs to be more than a great novel written in America, it needs to tell the American story. And T.M.A. does that in a disturbing way.

T.M.A. follows the rise of the automobile and the way it  changed a town into a city and then into a sprawling mess. (Whichever city Tarkington used as his model is likely 1000 times sprawlier than it was during his lifetime.)

Sitting here on the precipice of a major recession/possible depression/fall of the American auto, the book rang true, true, true. Here’s everything that we threw away for the sake of the auto and now the Big 3 are about to collapse. The misery of it all was almost too much to bear.

There was really just one thing to console me, but it’s a big thing: the beginning of the Obama era.

So hopefully, this book is NOT the great American Novel, because it’s a tragic tale and our future need not be tragic. Especially if we can behave better that George Amberson and have a little compassion and empathy for our fellow Americans.

Note: Another strike against this book being The Great American Novel are the outrageous portrayals of African-Americans. Good grief, Booth, get a grip!

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One Response

  1. I’ll put this on my reading list for 2009, and then weigh in on whether it’s a strong candidate. Thanks for the recommendation, anyway.

    I have to agree, though … “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Great Gatsby” aren’t really good candidates for Great American Novel because they’re both terrible.

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