In the pantheon of great American literature, Booth Tarkington stands alone as perhaps the most forgettable writer to ever win the Pulitzer Prize on two separate occasions. Tarkington is one of three writers to accomplish the feat, the others being William Faulkner and John Updike (as of 2020 Colson Whitehead has also joined this exclusive club of two-time Pulitzer Prize winners). However in his day, Tarkington was one of America’s most celebrated writers, a patrician of the highest order whose novels were praised by academics and critics alike. Today, he is wholly forgotten, except for the few lone pilgrims who venture through the Pulitzer Prize winners. In both of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, Tarkington attempts to portray the decline of the old Midwestern gentry. His books hearken back to the railroad and mining industries of the 1870s, and he laments the rise of new industries, namely the growth of factories and automobiles. Tarkington has a particular nostalgia for America’s Gilded Age past. Additionally, both of Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novels were made into memorable Hollywood films. Indeed, in a rare turn of events, both film adaptations greatly overshadow their original novels in my view (most notably, Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons but also Alice Adams starring Katherine Hepburn. Feel free to read my reviews of both films at the attached links).
Part of the problem is that Tarkington simply believes in his own grandiosity and the moral weight of his project. He sees himself as a heavy, epic-tragic laureate of the declining Midwest. However, his novels are dull and endless. The characters are one-dimensional with premonitions of greatness but they inevitably fall short of their hopes. In contrast to Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Booth Tarkington’s aristocracy is difficult to find believable. To be fair, scattered throughout Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons, there are some amusing scenes and pleasant passages of summer days in old Midwestern towns, but, in all, Tarkington’s novels are hardly remarkable (read my reflections on reading Booth Tarkington’s other Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons).
In Alice Adams, Tarkington introduces us to a struggling lower-class family, presumably in Indianapolis, whose daughter, Alice Adams, dreams of becoming a wealthy “well-to-do” lady. She attends a ball in town with her embarrassingly blue-collar brother, and she catches the eye of an older, wealthier man. He is new to town. His name is Arthur Russell. He courts her gradually throughout the novel until a crescendo of chaos throws their future into question. He is invited to the humble Adams family home for dinner. Unfortunately for Alice, everything goes wrong from the start –unbearably warm weather, working-class foibles, and her family’s mortifying lack of social graces. Midway through dinner, the meal is interrupted by financial troubles haunting the family. Alice’s father, Virgil, is confronted by his old business partner, old Mr. Lamb (“probably the last great merchant in America to wear the chin beard”) who interrogates Virgil regarding unpaid debts. Mr. Lamb once employed Virgil out of pity, but Virgil stole the company glue-making recipe and opened a factory of his own. Unbeknownst to Alice’s father, their son, Walter, has robbed the business and skipped town, leaving the family with a huge lingering debt.
The novel ends tragically as Alice Adams and a somber Arthur Russell sit together for a moment on the veranda of her family home. They exchange pleasantries but Arthur is clearly perturbed by what he has seen. The story ends in their chosen place of courtship –Alice’s front porch. Arthur sees their class differences for what they are: simply too great to overcome. Arthur solemnly departs one last time from the porch steps, knowing it will be the last. Meanwhile, Mr. Lamb takes pity on Mr. Adams and his large debt is settled. The company purchases Mr. Adams’s “glue factory” which prevents him from going to prison for his son’s crime. The book ends with an epilogue of sorts: Alice Adams is en route to a local college to learn employable skills. She has learned to accept her lower class status. Ironically, on the way to school she bumps into Arthur Russell for a brief, awkward moment. Surprised, he stammers when he sees Alice, but she simply says “hello” and proudly moves along. She is pleased by her own confidence, even though she is forced to confront her own “doom” in the labor market to keep her family afloat.
About The 1922 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The decision to grant the Pulitzer Prize to Booth Tarkington again in 1922 was unanimous and uncontroversial (unanimity was not always the case with respect to the Pulitzer Prizes). This was in spite of the fact that Tarkington had won the Pulitzer only a few years prior with The Magnificent Ambersons. Stuart P. Sherman was apparently the only member of the three person Novel Jury in 1922 to return from the previous year. Thus he was made Chairman of the Jury. He was apparently something of a noisemaker having been party to the controversies in prior years. In response to the question of why select Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams rather than John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers, Sherman apparently said Three Soldiers “has no great power in characterization or structure but has considerable interest as a commentary.” The 1922 Novel Jury was the last time Stuart P. Sherman served on a Jury.
- Stuart Pratt Sherman (1881-1926) was a prominent literary critic. Distantly related to William Tecumseh Sherman, he was born in Anita, Iowa, studied at Williams College and received his PhD from Harvard University. He taught at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois before becoming a literary critic –he was known for a public feud with H.L. Mencken. He became literary editor of the New York-Herald Tribe (a pro-Republican paper that ran from 1924-1966). He was initially a defender of Nativism and a critic of Theodore Dreiser, but later refined his opinions. Tragically, Sherman died at the age of 44 in 1926 –while on vacation at Lake Michigan his canoe suddenly flipped over and he suffered a heart attack. He was survived by his wife, Ruth Bartlett Mears, and only daughter. Upon Sherman’s death, Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia, praised the legacy of Stuart P. Sherman.
Thus far, I have been unable to locate the other two Novel Jury members for 1922.
Below is a memorable passage from Alice Adams:
“Something like this always happened, it seemed; she was continually making these illuminations, all gay with gildings and colourings; and then as soon as anybody else so much as glanced at them—even her father, who loved her—the pretty designs were stricken with a desolating pallor. “Is this LIFE?” Alice wondered, not doubting that the question was original and all her own. “Is it life to spend your time imagining things that aren’t so, and never will be? Beautiful things happen to other people; why should I be the only one they never CAN happen to?” (Chapter IX)
For this reading I used an online edition of Alice Adams. Click the link below to Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons for a brief biography of the writer.
Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.
Click here to read my review of Booth Tarkington’s other Pulitzer Prize winner: The Magnificent Ambersons.
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