The Forgettable Alice Adams

In the pantheon of great American literature, Booth Tarkington stands alone as the most forgettable writer to ever win the Pulitzer not just once, but twice. He is one of three writers to accomplish the feat. At one time, he was one of the most celebrated writers in America. Today, he is wholly forgotten, except for the few segments of American society who decide to venture through the Pulitzer Prize Winners. In both cases of Tarkington’s Pulitzer wins, his novels attempt to portray the decline of the old gentry of the Midwest – railroad and mining money giving way to factories and automobiles. Also, in both cases of his novels, the film adaptations of Tarkington’s books greatly overshadow the novels (most notably, Orson Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons or Alice Adams starring Katherine Hepburn).

As has been said elsewhere, Tarkington simply believes in the grandioseness of his own writing too much. He sees himself as the heavy, tragic/epic-writer of the declining values in the Midwest. However, his novels are dull and seemingly endless. The characters are one-dimensional and end up, tragically facing the modern world. His aristocracy is unbelievable, in contrast to Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. To be fair, there are some amusing scenes and pleasant descriptions of summer days in an old Midwestern town, but, in all, the novels are nothing remarkable.

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 catches the eye of an older wealthier man who is new to town, Arthur Russell. He courts her gradually throughout the novel until the crescendo at the end – a dinner party at the home of the Adams family. Pitiably, pretty much everything goes wrong – from the weather to the subtle embarrassments of her family to the end of the dinner in which her father is confronted by his old business partner for their son’s theft (the Adams’s son, Walter, has skipped town and left their family with a huge lingering debt).

The novel ends tragically. Alice Adams and a quiet Arthur Russell, depart from the veranda, their favorite spot to spend time together, as he sees their class difference as too much to overcome, resulting from the evening’s events and comments he had overheard about the Adams family. They depart for the last time on the porch steps of her family home. Meanwhile, Alice’s father’s company has taken pity on him and helped him overcome his debts by purchasing his “glue factory” which prevents him from going to prison for his son’s crime. The book ends as Alice Adams is on her way to a local college to learn employable skills. Ironically on the way she bumps into Arthur Russell for a brief and awkward moment, he stammers but she confidently says hello and moves past him. She proceeds onward to face her “doom” in the labor market to help keep her family afloat.

In the end, Alice Adams is a more beautiful and simpler story than The Magnificent Ambersons, though they both have fallen short of their lofty ambitions.

Alice Adams was initially published in 1921 and the decision to grant the Pulitzer award 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 for The Magnificent Ambersons. 

My favorite passage in 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)

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