Sometimes, older works of literature provide a good starting point for reflections that strike at the root of current events. These classics show that there is nothing new under the sun.
Take, for example, Amazon’s decision to build a second headquarters campus and the resultant bidding frenzy among metro areas. “HQ2” would be an equal to Amazon’s massive Seattle campus and involve a five-billion-dollar capital investment for the chosen city, and “create,” in the parlance of the day, 50,000 high-paying jobs in the area. Cities worked hard not only to get their comprehensive responses turned in by a very tight deadline of Oct. 19, but to find creative ways of pitching themselves. Most egregious, perhaps? The city of Stonecrest, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, would de-annex a parcel to create a new city, to be called Amazon.
I thought of this when I re-read The Magnificent Ambersons, a nearly 100-year-old novel by Booth Tarkington that won him the first of two Pulitzer prizes for fiction, though you may know it more from the 1942 film adaptation directed by Orson Welles. Somewhat ironically, I read the book on my Amazon Kindle reader, downloaded free from the new Standard Ebooks service.
Ambersons tells the story of George Amberson Minafer, a spoiled young man coming of age at a time of upheaval in his fictional Midwest hometown (modeled on Tarkington’s Indianapolis), and headed for a “comeuppance” as the world changes and his Gilded Age lifestyle collapses. The theme of comeuppance runs through the book, as characters observe one outlandish act after another and assure themselves that George will be paid back. (Back then they didn’t use the word karma, but the idea is similar.) In the end, George gets his comeuppance in the form of poverty and humiliation, and learns his lesson.
Tarkington, who saw the effects of the industrial revolution in his neck of the woods in the late nineteenth century, used the novel to talk about the rise of new technology—in this case, the automobile—and the impact it would have on an idyllic life.
Another lead character, Eugene Morgan, an inventor building cars in the days before Henry Ford, suggests that there may be a problem looming. He acknowledges the likely effects of autos to the horse-loving George: “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization—that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls.”
This is the state of things in Chapter 19. By the time Chapter 28 rolls around, we are seeing profound changes. Tarkington describes the city’s sprawl and evolution: “It was heaving up in the middle incredibly; it was spreading incredibly; and as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened its sky. Its boundary was mere shapelessness on the run.” A few lines later, Tarkington remarks on the city’s ambitious denizens:
They had one supreme theory: that the perfect beauty and happiness of cities and of human life was to be brought about by more factories; they had a mania for factories; there was nothing they would not do to cajole a factory away from another city; and they were never more piteously embittered than when another city cajoled one away from them.
Now, a century later, we are seeing the Amazon competition. When the process is over, no doubt, millions of taxpayer dollars will be spent, as they so often are on boondoggles such as this is likely to be.
Writing in The New York Times, Ross Douthat urges Amazon to think outside the box and select a city not on the basis of empty promises and publicity, but on the basis of what’s good for the region and the country. He mentions my adopted hometown, St. Louis, which is setting forth a unified regional proposal that puts Amazon HQ2 on the banks of another major river, the Mississippi, straddling both sides of the river just north of the Gateway Arch. In a mention the St. Louis business crowd may appreciate only half-heartedly, Douthat writes: “A particularly compelling pick, according to my extremely nonscientific ‘what’s good for America’ metric, might be St. Louis — a once-great metropolis fallen on hard times, the major urban center for a large spread of Trump country, the geographic center of the country and the historic bridge between East and West.”
The Magnificent Ambersons was written and released in 1918, at a time when the destruction attendant on modernization was shaping the artistic imagination. C. S. Lewis wrote in a 1939 sermon: “If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned.” Tarkington’s concerns about industrialization and the growth of cities surface in works by Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, as in the latter’s portrayal of the factories of Saruman in Isengard.
A new Amazon campus will not be a “factory” in the traditional sense, but the information age requires factories for devices and mines for “rare earth” minerals. In our global economy, these factories and mines can be far distant from the not-in-my-backyard attitudes of Americans. We don’t care about environmental degradation—nor about degrading working conditions—in the Third World, as long as we get our iPhone 8s delivered promptly.
And like Eugene Morgan looking at the future of his beloved automobiles, we have already begun to see how dangerous the new digital age can be, both to the world and to the human soul. Our “mania for factories” has been replaced by a mania for business and an always growing economy focused on entertainment and consumerism.
Like George Amberson Minafer, we are awaiting our comeuppance. In Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 dystopian classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, in a scene set far in the future, a scientist asks a monsignor, “How can a great and wise civilization have destroyed itself completely?” “Perhaps,” comes the reply, “by being materially great and materially wise, and nothing else.”
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.