In the pantheon of great American literature, Booth Tarkington stands alone as perhaps the most forgettable writer to ever win the Pulitzer on two separate occasions. Tarkington is one of three writers to accomplish the feat, the others are William Faulkner and John Updike (as of 2020 Colson Whitehead has also joined the exclusive club of two-time Pulitzer Prize winners). In his day, Tarkington was one of America’s most celebrated writers. Today, he is wholly forgotten, except for the few readers who decide to 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 old railroad and mining industries of the 1870s, and he laments the new 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, however, in a rare turn of events, both of the film adaptations greatly overshadow the original novels (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 attacked links).
As has been said elsewhere, Tarkington simply believes in the grandiosity of his own writing too much. He sees himself as the heavy, tragic/epic-writer of a declining Midwest. However, his novels are dull and seemingly endless. The characters are one-dimensional with premonitions of greatness but they inevitably fall short. In contrast to Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Booth Tarkington’s aristocracy is difficult to believe in. To be fair, scattered throughout Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons, there are some amusing scenes and pleasant descriptions of summer days in old Midwestern towns, but, in all, Tarkington’s novels are nothing 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 being 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 who 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 when Alice’s family invites him over for dinner. Unfortunately for Alice, pretty much everything goes wrong – from the unbearably warm weather, to embarrassing social graces. Midway through dinner, the meal is interrupted by financial troubles haunting the family. Alice’s father is confronted by his old business partner regarding certain unpaid debts. Unbeknownst to Alice’s father, their son Walter, robbed the business and skipped town, leaving the family with a huge lingering debt.
The novel ends tragically. Alice Adams and a somber Arthur Russell sit together for a moment on the veranda, and then he departs never to return. The story ends in their chosen place of courtship. Arthur Russell now sees their class differences for what they are: simply too great to overcome. Alice and Arthur depart one last time from the porch steps, knowing it will be their last. Meanwhile, Alice’s father’s company takes pity on him and they settle his large debt. 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. Her tragedy is to embrace being lower class. Ironically, on the way to school she bumps into Arthur Russell for one brief and awkward moment. He stammers when he sees Alice, but she simply says hello in confidence and 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.
In the end, Alice Adams is a more beautiful novel than The Magnificent Ambersons because it is a simpler story, though both novels ultimately fall short of their lofty ambitions.
Alice Adams was initially published in 1921 and the decision to grant the Pulitzer Prize to Booth Tarkington in 1922 was unanimous and uncontroversial, unlike in previous years. This was despite the fact that Tarkington had won the Pulitzer only a few years prior with The Magnificent Ambersons.
Here is my favorite 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.