Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons

ambersonsnovelBooth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons is a book I used to read and reread years ago, so much so that when I heard there was a movie with Orson Welles, I assumed immediately that he was perfect casting for George Minafer. I didn’t know at the time that it was a brilliant film by Welles much altered in the editing room, or that Tim Holt played the part. Holt was good, but I still think that the young Welles could and should have played it.

Put rather too simplistically, it’s the story of a declining family, the Ambersons, in a gradually industrializing town that’s passing them by. The protagonist is George Amberson Minafer, as insufferable a character as you’ll ever meet in fiction: proud, pig-headed, wielding class privilege like a whip–sometimes literally. His adoring mother, Isabel, had married George’s father, Wilbur Minafer, out of pique when her suitor, Eugene, showed up drunk one night and serenaded her. Isabel spoils George outrageously, as the town predicts she will.

When Eugene, now a widower, and his daughter, Lucy, return to their “Midland town,” Eugene falls in love with the now-widowed Isabel, and George courts Lucy, who loves him but is exasperated by his behavior. George forbids Isabel (his mother, remember) to see Eugene, and she dies without having had a chance to say goodbye to him.

On one occasion, Lucy tries to explain to Eugene, by using a supposedly Native American legend,  why she’s so attracted to George, even though he’s a character that the reader mostly wants to strangle:

“Vendonah [Rides-Down-Everything] was an unspeakable case,” Lucy continued. “He was so proud that he wore iron shoes and he walked over people’s faces with them. He was always killing people that way, and so at last the tribe decided that it wasn’t a good enough excuse for him that he was young and inexperienced—he’d have to go. They took him down to the river, and put him in a canoe, and pushed him out from shore; and then they ran along the bank and wouldn’t let him land, until at last the current carried the canoe out into the middle, and then on down to the ocean, and he never got back. They didn’t want him back, of course, and if he’d been able to manage it, they’d have put him in another canoe and shoved him out into the river again. But still, they didn’t elect another chief in his place. Other tribes thought that was curious, and wondered about it a lot, but finally they came to the conclusion that the beech grove people were afraid a new chief might turn out to be a bad Indian, too, and wear iron shoes like Vendonah. But they were wrong, because the real reason was that the tribe had led such an exciting life under Vendonah that they couldn’t settle down to anything tamer. He was awful, but he always kept things happening—terrible things, of course. They hated him, but they weren’t able to discover any other warrior that they wanted to make chief in his place. I suppose it was a little like drinking a glass of too strong wine and then trying to take the taste out of your mouth with barley water. They couldn’t help feeling that way.”

George eventually gets his come-uppance, as everyone in the town hopes he will, but virtually no one is there to see, or care, or remember the Ambersons.

ambersonsmovieOne of the things that Tarkington gets a lot right in the psychology of a small town is this idea of the figure that a town–or a media cycle in an election year, come to think of it– love to hate but can’t resist talking or writing about. The town doesn’t love George, or even like him, but as he does for Lucy, he makes life exciting for the town. There’s a sizable shelf of critical books on why protagonists don’t have to be likable (hello, Modernism!), but Tarkington hits on one idea–excitement–that’s often missing from these accounts.

Marginalia in James Lane Allen’s Summer in Arcady: A Tale of Nature

2016-02-23 12.54.59Today I’ve been rereading James Lane Allen’s Summer in Arcady: A Tale of Nature (New York: Macmillan and Co., London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1896) and noticed something that I hadn’t remembered, something not covered in the yellow Post-Its that mark the content–marginalia.

These pictures appear only in the Prelude, not elsewhere in this volume, but as the bookseller noted, “Someone has added skillful watercolor illustrations to pages 1, 2, & 4.”

The illustrations match the text, too; they’re not random doodles.

Here they are:

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Previously Unknown Source of The Scarlet Letter Discovered

Via Rob Velella on Twitter, Professor Richard Kopley’s discovery of an unknown source for The Scarlet Letter: 

DUBOIS, Pa. — An indispensable masterwork in American literature, “The Scarlet Letter,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, has been a staple in literary studies and English courses for generations. Now, thanks to the work of Penn State DuBois Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus Richard Kopley, more is known about how this novel came to exist.

Kopley has edited and re-released “The Salem Belle: A Tale of 1692” (Penn State Press), a novel first published, anonymously, in 1842. The unidentified author was Ebenezer Wheelwright. Kopley considers the book as a major source for the 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter.” However, Wheelwright’s book had fallen into obscurity and was nearly lost to history. Kopley’s research shows that Hawthorne drew inspiration for his classic from this previously little-known work. The new edition includes an introduction and notes by Kopley, which detail his research into the two novels and their connection.

[Read more at the link]

Did Jack London set fire to Wolf House?

Jack London Ranch 2010 033In this month’s Valley of the Moon Magazine, Jonah Raskin says, well, maybe he did.

http://www.vommag.com/january-2016/

Background for this excerpt: Wolf House, the ruins of which still stand in Jack London State Park, was London’s dream home, designed with his input and built from California materials. After citing a 1995 forensic investigation that found oily rags and spontaneous combustion to be the cause, Raskin continues:

Still, not everyone was convinced, including Greg Hayes [Jack London State Park Ranger and London expert]. Even Robert Anderson [forensic investigator] wasn’t entirely convinced of his own argument, especially when I pointed out to him that Jack had written in an essay published before the fire, “It will be a happy house–or else I’ll burn it down.” Just what did Jack mean when he made that provocative remark? Just how unhappy was he in 1913 when his doctors told him that if he didn’t stop drinking, alcohol would kill him.

There was no investigation of the fire that year, not by London’s insurance company, not by law enforcement and not by the fire department, since there was no fire department in Sonoma County in 1913. . . .

Whatever the cause, one thing seems clear. It wasn’t one big happy family on Beauty Ranch. Jack’s second wife, Charmian Kittridge, whom he had married in 1905, typed his manuscripts, followed him most everywhere he went and put up with his philandering. Often depressed, he drove her crazy, and she continued to love him.
According to a witness who overheard an argument in Wolf House shortly before it burned, Charmian told Jack, “You’ll never live here.”

Raskin goes on to discuss other suspects, including jealous neighbors.

What to make of this evidence? A few thoughts:

  1. London’s “or else I’ll burn it down” sounds a lot like London being London to me. That melodramatic note is a fairly characteristic pattern in some of his writing, and holding him to it as a threat, which may work in a police procedural drama, probably means less than you’d think.
  2. “How unhappy was he in 1913”–London’s legion of biographers can sort that one out. He was devastated when Wolf House burned down, as numerous witnesses attest. A brutal letter to his daughter Joan upbraids her for not writing to him to sympathize with its loss.
  3. “You’ll never live here”–Again, in the heat of an argument, the participants say things for effect rather than as actual threats. 1913 was a fraught year for the Londons (see The Little Lady of the Big House), but the two months spent in New York City in 1912 rather than the events of 1913 were a low point in their relationship. If Charmian had to “put up with” a lot from London and his depressions, would she be inclined to burn down a house, knowing that it would send him into a further depth of despair and that, since she’d be there, she’d have to bear the brunt of it?

You can read the article on pp. 46-47 of the issue, which is online at the link above.

Naturalism Panels at ALA 2016

Stephen Crane Society  http://stephencranesociety.wordpress.com

Chair: Paul Sorrentino

  1.     “Falling Stories: Disability and Cinematic Naturalism in Stephen Crane’s City Sketches,” Donna Campbell, Washington State University
  1. “‘In this awkward situation he was simply perfect’: Awkwardly Unsettling Minstrel Humor and Lynching Apologetics in Crane’s “The Monster,” Ambar Meneses-Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  1. “’‘Well, now, yer a hell of a t’ing, ain’ yeh?’: Collective Shaming and Individual Punishment in the Sexual Economy of the Bowery in Stephen Crane’sMaggie: A Girl of the Streets,” Eliza Wilcox, Winthrop University

Theodore Dreiser Society http://www.dreisersociety.org/

Panel 1: Theodore Dreiser, Open Topic
Chair: Linda Kornasky, Angelo State University
1. “The Science of Crime in Dreiser’s Fiction,” John Dudley, University of South Dakota
2. “Dreiser Weaving: Patterns, Designs, and Female Labor,” Craig Carey, University of Southern Mississippi
3. “Economic Colonization in An American Tragedy,” Andrew Spencer, Virginia Commonwealth University
4. “Cityscape as Literary Space: Representing Turn-of-the-Century American Cities in Theodore Dreiser’s Novels,” Heather Yuping Wang, Nanjing University of Science and Technology

Panel 2: Global Dreiser
Chair: Linda Kornasky, Angelo State University
1. “Local Color and the Picturesque in Dreiser Looks at Russia” Gary Totten, North Dakota State University
2. “Russia Looks at Dreiser,” Katerina Kozhevnikova, University of Copenhagen
3. “‘Not dead and scholastic but living like the smell of violets’: Literary Criticism and Social Change in the Correspondence between Theodore Dreiser and Sergei Dinamov, 1926-37,” Jude Davies, University of Winchester

Frank Norris Society http://franknorrissociety.org/

Panel Title: Frank Norris and American Literary Naturalism

Chair: Eric Carl Link, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

  1. “’It Faces Every Child of Man’: Readers, Imagined Violence, and Culpability in American Literary Naturalism,” Adam Wood, Salisbury University
  2. “’Erotic Economy’: Domesticity, Desire, and the Women of McTeague,” Nicole de Fee, Louisiana Tech University
  3. “Foodways & Nation-Building: The Domestic Decline of The Octopus,” Lauren Navarro, LaGuardia Community College
  4. “Frank Norris and the Legacy of Higher Biblical Criticism,” Steven Bembridge, University of East Anglia