Mrs. Adams asks this unfortunate question of the man her daughter is—what, in love with? infatuated with? it’s hard to say—just as Russell has arrived for dinner and is waiting in the parlor for Alice’s arrival in the room. Prior to his arrival at the Adams home, he had just learned facts about Alice and Alice’s father that exposed all the things Alice was covering with her pathetic (and, frankly, unnecessary) lies, and Mrs. Adams is totally unaware that she is merely digging a deeper hole for her daughter to climb out of. The entire dinner, which takes place on an excruciatingly hot summer night, is an extended conversation so mind-searingly awkward that it imposes a level of reflected social pain on the reader roughly equivalent to getting one’s hand slammed in the door of a bank vault.
Now, awkward interactions can serve a purpose in fiction: even truly painful dinner parties can be critical to the development of the plot. But here it just seems spitefully mean, almost as though Tarkington wants to drag Alice through the mud for her sins, and bring us with her. It’s hard to construct another reasonable justification for his approach. What is worst about this, though, is the sense that Alice and her father’s true characters are not, in fact, as Russell perceives them to be. Alice is most herself when she is around Russell, and her dissembling and under-handed side is a facade she puts up because she mistakenly believes it necessary for survival in her social environment. Mr. Adams is truly a good and loyal man, who has only betrayed his employer’s trust and kindness because he was harried and intimidated (almost blackmailed) into a series of bad decisions by his wife, who has apparently no moral center whatsoever. For Alice and Mr. Adams to suffer as they do at the hands of Tarkington feels cheap—he’s made me care about characters only to show me that he doesn’t, that he sees them as comic figures who should be subjected to scorn for their pathetic attempts to rise above their station. I know there’s pages left in the story, and he’ll probably wrap everything up neatly and “happily”, but it will take a lot for me to forgive him.
And I know I’ve raised this six times already, but Tarkington’s appallingly casual racism is on full display again, and I can barely make it through some scenes as a result. The ugly stereotypes he imposes on the black cook and the black “waitress” hired to serve at the dinner party turn my stomach, and again, it’s not as though he’s bringing in real three-dimensional characters who are being mistreated by the Adams’ to show a side of the family’s character. He’s bringing in characters who behave exactly like stereotypes, and the only conclusion I can draw is that he thinks I’ll laugh along with him at how their laziness, indolence, etc., adds to the farce of this awful dinner. I know it was the early 1920s and some would argue I need to read it in context, to be understanding of Tarkington’s limited perspective. But when Claude McKay and James Weldon Johnson are writing (and publishing, and being acclaimed for) poetry that would put anything Tarkington wrote to shame, his treatment of African-Americans cannot be excused by ignorance, and I will not excuse it, myself.
How the Pulitzer board, which refused to issue a prize in two of the award’s first four years because they could find no novel worthy of such an honor, could have recognized Tarkington with a Pulitzer, not once, but twice, is utterly beyond me. A review comes soonish, but first I have to get up the energy to go on reading and get this book done with (and never another Tarkington shall I read).