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.

Laptops in the classroom? A reasoned response.

Short answer: yes, if it works for your teaching, and no, if it doesn’t. Used selectively, they can really help. But “selectively” has proven to be the key, at least in the classes I teach.

I’ve been teaching with technology for a long time and have adopted new technologies as they emerged.  When laptops started being common in classrooms circa 2004, I took a wait-and-see approach.

“Wait” is a lot of what I did, actually.

Me: “Student, what did you see in this passage?”
Student: [Looks up from laptop and stares blankly at me.]
Me, repeating the question: “Student, what does X mean by this phrase?”
Student: “What? Where are we? I didn’t hear the question.”

Buoyed by the hype surrounding laptops in classrooms–because at heart I’m a tech enthusiast–I waited. I watched this process unfold for seven years before addressing it.

I watched student participation slow down. I wanted to believe the hype, but I wasn’t seeing the benefits emerge. It’s not the students’ faults; everyone has trouble staying focused with a ready source of distraction available.

(And no, doodling on paper or looking out the window isn’t the same thing. These are students communing with their own brains, not someone else’s, and I have no problem with that. There’s research to show that this may actually heighten the listener’s awareness.)

Then I limited the use of laptops in classrooms except under certain circumstances. I explained why, and I said that three hours a week was not too much for all of us to devote to talking to each other about literature. We still use laptops, but on selected days.

Here’s the principal result: More engaged students and better class discussion. Better retention on quizzes. Better analysis in papers.

TL; DR: I wanted to believe that the experience would be enhanced with laptops, but the opposite proved true over 7 years. Your mileage may vary, but that’s why I limited laptop use in my classes.

“The speed with brains behind it” –Royal Typewriter Ad, 1920

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 9.09.57 AMFrom The Outlook, vol. 126 (1920)

When I was reading through The Outlook the other day, this ad caught my eye. As ad copy, it hits the features as well as the benefits (thank you, Don Draper, for teaching us the difference) but it’s also fascinating for where it positions the women who did the typing.

It’s 5 o’clock. The woman in the picture is between the office boy (I’m guessing, due to his wearing knickerbockers, which a businessman wouldn’t have worn) and the desk where she’s putting down the built-in cover over her typewriter. She’s at the center of things, not the typewriter; although it’s displayed prominently below, it’s not actually shown in the narrative part of the picture, instead being linked by the gray background.

The machine is fast, certainly–the ad mentions “speed” eight times in this short amount of copy–but “the speed that counts” is “errorless speed.”

The typist herself makes this errorless speed happen, with her “sensitive fingers.” She creates “the speed with brains behind it.” It’s her brains and sensitive fingers as she operates the typewriter that create “the big steady pulse of modern business.”

There’s a delicate balance here as the ad elevates her from being just part of the machine of modern business to being a vital part of the brains (and, to judge by “big steady pulse,” its heart) that make the giant beast work.

I’ve been working recently on this rhetoric of connections between women and machines, and this is an ad that constructs the relationship in a sophisticated way. Don Draper would be proud.

Happy 152nd Birthday to Edith Wharton

ImageOn January 24, 1862, a daughter was born to Mr. and Mrs. George Frederic Jones of New York City.  Christened Edith Newbold Jones, she would grow up to be a great novelist and short story writer, not to mention poet, dramatist, social satirist, essayist, letter writer, gardener, interior designer, tireless director of French charities and reporter of conditions at the front during WWI, loyal friend, and a great if formidably intimidating hostess.

You can read more about her in the many books and articles that have been written about her since her death (head over to the Edith Wharton Society for some lists), but I just wanted to give her a shout-out here. (And to recognize that the term “shout-out” would have dismayed and amused her, and that she’d have given it to a vulgar character like Elmer Moffatt of The Custom of the Country or Lita of Twilight Sleep to show just how trashy they were.)

The short version of this post?  Go read Edith Wharton.  You won’t be disappointed.

Constance Fenimore Woolson (March 5, 1840-January 24, 1894)

One hundred and twenty years ago this week, on January 24, 1894, an ailing Constance Fenimore Woolson fell to her death from a window in Casa Semeticolo, Venice. Lyndall Gordon’s A Private Life of Henry James contends that this was suicide, but I’m waiting for the publication of  Anne Boyd Rioux‘s new biography of Woolson to settle the matter.

In reading Gordon’s book at breakfast this morning, what struck me was not the manner of her death but Henry James’s reaction to it.  Distraught, he canceled his trip to attend the funeral (arranged by John Hay), yet some months later he moved to Venice, and, abandoning his usual rooms, rented hers for a few months.  Gordon reports that James felt comforted by Woolson’s strong presence there but also suggests that he had both wanted to avoid the publicity of his connection with her (hence not attending the funeral) and to court publicity through his extensive network, something that led to a “his heart is in the grave” piece in a newspaper about him.

MLA Rankings of American Authors

At Commentary, a list of American writers ranked by numbers of publications devoted to them, with rankings from 1947 and apparently 1987. The author notes that “The reputations of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Twain, Fitzgerald, and Frost have slipped badly. Poor William Dean Howells has fallen out of the top 25 altogether (to be replaced by Richard Wright).”

( 1.) Henry James (3,188 items) [+1]
( 2.) William Faulkner (2,955) [-1]
( 3.) T. S. Eliot (2,659) [+1]
( 4.) Herman Melville (2,579) [-1]
( 5.) Vladimir Nabokov (2,290) [+5]
( 6.) Ernest Hemingway (2,220) [-0-]
( 7.) Edgar Allan Poe (1,958) [-2]
( 8.) Toni Morrison (1,950) [+9]
( 9.) Nathaniel Hawthorne (1,751) [-4]
(10.) Walt Whitman (1,647) [-2]
(11.) Emily Dickinson (1,623) [+2]
(12.) Ezra Pound (1,620) [-3]
(13.) Willa Cather (1,482) [+5]
(14.) Ralph Waldo Emerson (1,326) [-3]
(15.) Wallace Stevens (1,122) [-1]
(16.) Edith Wharton (1,087) [+5]
(17.) Henry David Thoreau (1,076) [-5]
(18.) F. Scott Fitzgerald (1,002) [-3]
(19.) Flannery O’Connor (935) [+3]
(20.) Mark Twain (882) [-4]
(21.) John Steinbeck (823) [+2]
(22.) William Carlos Williams (772) [-0-]
(23.) Saul Bellow (706) [+2]
(24.) Richard Wright (670) [+2]
(25.) Robert Frost (661) [-5]

It’s an interesting relative measure, although it’s a little like ranking movies by opening weekend grosses or like those perpetual “Top 100” books/movies/songs lists that proliferate around the end of the year.

I’m a little unsure about the methodology: this morning’s MLA count of Edith Wharton references totaled 1557, only 10 of which were before 1947, so maybe dissertations and other pieces weren’t counted. But only five women writers and two writers of color made the list, which is a little surprising.  I wonder what a decade-by-decade count of these 25 authors would look like.

Dorothy Parker a plagiarist? Say it isn’t so!

A recent article on Vulture.com makes a case for a little “creative borrowing,” otherwise known as plagiarism, on Dorothy Parker’s part as an attempt to revive her fading career.  It argues that Parker saw the book well before she reviewed it (favorably) for Esquire, when it was being handed around in literary circles by a careless Edmund Wilson:

Had this, in fact, been her second look at the book? The trail, it seems, leads to Edmund Wilson. In 1954 and 1955, Parker was a regular guest at his gatherings at the Algonquin when he was in New York, though his other friends objected to her habit of coming “an hour late” and offering odd excuses, like having to walk her sister’s dog. She is more than likely to have visited him in Talcottville as well, where Wilson had been indiscreet with the manuscript. He would have been very likely to also impress on her his major points about Lolita: that the novel was “repulsive,” that it would never be published in the United States, and that Nabokov was vehement about people not knowing that he was the author. Uninspired, a little desperate, and nearly broke, Parker may have been susceptible to an intriguing prompt. Being Dorothy Parker, she also probably could not resist the opportunity to sting the current “golden boy” of The New Yorker by letting him know that she was aware of his secret.

I had read once that Nabokov got the name from Lilliita McMurray, the 16-year-old bride of Charlie Chaplin back in the mid-1920s, who was expensively divorced from him a few years later.

But Nabokov did not need to go that far to get the name, nor did he invent it, as Google’s handy ngram viewer shows:

Image

“Lolita” is used as a name as early as 1851, although it clearly takes a huge leap once Nabokov’s book comes out. Among others, it appeared in a Bret Harte story of 1899, Charles Lummis’s Out West magazine in 1907, and as the protagonist’s name in Owen Wister’s “La Tinaga Bonita” in Harper’s  in 1895.

But those are old usages, you say? How about Bill Johnson’s Ghost Road (1950) or, yes, a Nancy Drew mystery, Carolyn Keene’s 1954 The Ringmaster’s Secret? 

Nabokov may have reinvented the name, and Parker may have borrowed it, but the story doesn’t show any parallels.  Yes, as the article says, there’s a drive in a car, not exactly uncommon in American literature.  But I had always read Parker’s story as being about a theme she’d discussed with Robert Benchley back in the 1920s: what if a man left his beautiful, fascinating wife to take up with a mousy, ordinary mistress?

Parker’s “Lolita” is a story on a familiar theme in her works: the frustratingly obtuse and domineering person (often a mother), who can’t understand why people respond to her the way that they do.  In the story, which is narrated from a third person limited omniscient point of view, Mrs. Ewing, Lolita’s mother, is another familiar Parker character, the flirtatious and feminine Southern(ish) belle who can’t understand what the handsome John Marble sees in her daughter.

There’s more than a hint of sexual competition with her daughter in Mrs. Ewing’s every move: why isn’t he paying attention to her? She undercuts her daughter at every turn, destroying their evenings together as she natters on about nothing and believing that Ewing will eventually leave Lolita: “I say, ‘That’s right, honey, you go ahead and be happy just as long as you can'” (391). As she says to a friend at the end of the story, ”

“A man like John Marble married to a girl like Lolita! But she knows she can always come back here. This house is her home. She can always come back to her mother.”

For Mrs. Ewing was not a woman who easily abandoned hope.

So far, this doesn’t bear much resemblance to Lolita, but it bears a great deal of resemblance to other Parker stories where deluded (and horrible) women wait in hope to destroy someone they are supposed to love. Exhibit A for this would be “The Banquet of Crow” (Esquire, 1957–another late story), but there are others, too.

So did Parker borrow the name from Nabokov?  Maybe.  Judging by the 1950s uses, it might have been one of those names that crops up in cycles, like Jason and Jennifer or Owen and Emily.

Would she have done it to get a little extra publicity, knowing that Nabokov’s book might be published or at the very least that the name would garner a little attention from literary circles? Probably.

Is there a hint of Nabokov’s tale in the story of a harridan mother competing with her daughter for the same man, only to lose out to the daughter’s superior if inexplicable charms? Uncomfortably, yes.

But did she steal the plot from Nabokov, and is this character  an anomaly in the Parker canon? Absolutely not.

[Edited to add: Would Parker really have gone to Talcottville, which is a very small town on SR 12D? Parker, of whom it might be said, “There is no city but New York, and Parker is its prophet”?]