1922: Alice Adams, by Booth Tarkington

Reminder: Booth Tarkington is one of only three authors to win the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel/for Fiction on two separate occasions.

Literary Merit:

It’s clear to me, having now read two of Tarkington’s novels, that the man was not capable of as much as he wanted to be.  He believed he was writing powerful novels, works that pierced the country’s soul and exposed the realities of life in America.  But in actuality, he is an underwhelming social critic, both because he is blinkered by his personal class and status to an excessive degree, and because his writing has very little subtlety to it.

This book, for example, in the end seems to be a message to the middle class—a sort of warning against excessive ambition, perhaps a shot fired especially at the nagging wives who do not truly understand the unwritten laws their husbands (men of sound business sense) must observe.  It also serves to chastise the young, who chase after pipedreams rather than accepting the quieter consolations of knowing that a somewhat drudge-like job has been well done (and doesn’t that sound straight out of the McGuffey’s Reader, which was old-fashioned even then).  It is exactly the kind of condescending, oppressively avuncular tone that Tarkington struck in The Magnificent Ambersons, a scathing review of which may be found elsewhere on this site.  Tarkington’s advantage here (and the reason I’d rank this book higher than Ambersons, purely as a “read”) is simply that he hitches the plot to a reasonably likable and interesting character, Alice Adams, which carried me through scenes that would have been unbearable if I was still following Georgie Minafer around.

But in the end, the book strikes a balance between comedy and tragedy that is thoroughly unsuccessful.  We end up seeing characters “learn their lessons” when it’s not at all clear that was necessary.  The worst human being in the book (Alice’s mother—one of the few characters I’ve read recently who I can honestly claim to hate) never learns a thing.  There is something to be said for Alice having gotten a more realistic view of the world, but the book drags her through an awful lot to get her there.  I felt, as I said in an earlier reflection, almost punished by Tarkington in the latter portions of the book: it’s hard to describe the feeling, other than to say that it seemed like he enjoyed being mean to the characters.  I don’t think you can ask me to empathize with a character as a realistic human being while simultaneously treating their very real pain as a punchline (this, incidentally, is what’s wrong with most modern sitcoms, in my opinion).  Tarkington’s occasional talents for dialogue and characterization (which are real, let’s face it: I cared about Alice because he was capable of writing her in a way that made me care) are wasted on a story that tries for more than it can accomplish, and which never really delivers the message he clearly wanted to send.

Historical Insight:

In retrospect, I was too hard on The Age of Innocence in this portion of the review—Alice Adams is a novel about essentially the same social tensions of the American elite, but AoI helped me see that world as real (even though Wharton was describing something 50 years in the past), while AA never really came alive (even though Tarkington was describing his contemporary society).  This is 1922…the year that the events of The Great Gatsby were set in.  Alice Adams does almost nothing to put me into the realities of that post-war generation of young people, probably because Tarkington neither understood them nor realized that he didn’t.  The book probably tells me more about late 19th Century moralizing in Midwestern small towns, but it’s too hard to tell…in the end, the book doesn’t hold up well here either.


I give this “Acceptable as a last resort when snowed in”.  There are enough enjoyable scenes and characters here that, were you to be stranded in some mountain cabin, and of the nine abandoned books on the shelves, you spot this title, I’ll argue you might get more out of this than some generic pulp paperback.  But I would look those other eight books over carefully before deciding to give your time to Booth Tarkington: he’ll probably just make you frustrated.

Last Word:

Even Booth Tarkington will get the courtesy of the last word from me—after all, he was once thought one of the country’s greatest novelists.  Perhaps my inability to appreciate him is an indication of some great deficiency in my taste or intellect.  But I doubt it.

In this scene, very close to the end of the book, Alice’s mother is trying to convince her to dress up when she goes out of the house, to show the upper-class girls that Alice is still walking with her head held high.  And this is Alice’s response:

“Not I!” Alice laughed shortly, shaking her head.  “I’ve quit dressing at them, and if they saw me, they wouldn’t think what you want ’em to.  It’s funny; but we don’t often make people think what we want ’em to, mama.  You do thus and so; and you tell yourself, ‘Now, seeing me do thus and so, people will naturally think this and that’; but they don’t.  They think something else—usually just what you don’t want ’em to.  I suppose about the only good in pretending is the fun we get out of fooling ourselves that we fool somebody.”

9 comments on “1922: Alice Adams, by Booth Tarkington

  1. Bonnie Hood says:

    I’m not sure if I’m saying this correctly, but maybe the problem is that you and Tarkington look at characters as serving different purposes.
    You seem to truly care about the characters, and want good to happen to them, whereas Tarkington seems to use them, in a way, to prove a point, without that emotional attachment.

    It is natural for a reader to become attached to the character, but do you think you would have like Tarkington’s books better if you had not?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I can see your point, and I’d agree that good art can be made with unappealing characters. For example, I cannot appreciate Michael Mann’s film “Heat” because of how unsympathetic the character treatments are, but I can recognize why others would like it.

      Tarkington, honestly, doesn’t fit that bill, in my opinion. Tarkington is not good with big ideas–he doesn’t sell them well, he doesn’t make bold statements about them. The message of this book, if we detach ourselves completely from any feelings about the characters, is that young women whose families don’t have much money will almost certainly lie to catch a man, but in the end, they need to realize that they should get a menial job to make a living. And that a man will therefore not fall in love with them, but that’s their lot in life. Its secondary message would be that people who have worked as loyal employees for a big corporation should not cross their employers, as a rich and powerful man will certainly have the resources to crush them if he feels like it. But that the rich and powerful men are usually good, kind people, thank goodness, who will allow their formerly loyal employee to return to their job, which will allow them to survive…as long as they take in boarders and live frugally.

      See, without liking the characters, I don’t understand how this book is anything other than a giant pat on the back for the rich, and a giant warning to uppity middle-class folks who should know better than to try to rise above their station. I don’t see how that can possibly be good art.

      In case this is coming out wrong, I’m not blaming you for the suggestion at all–it’s a very good point to raise! And if I’m wrong about Tarkington, I can only imagine that what’s right is what you say–that I’m looking for the wrong things in his novels. I probably am. But if I look at the novels the way he saw them, I feel unpleasant: his view of the world seems very cruel and very fawning in its praise of the status quo. Maybe someday you’ll read him and tell me if you agree….though I can’t say I’d recommend it!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      And though I think you’re generally right about my attitude towards characters, I think I should point out that I’m not sure Newland Archer was a terribly good person, and that I’m not sure at all that I wanted good things to happen to him. I can enjoy a really sad ending…in fact, that’s usually where Betsy and I part ways on a novel or film (she is much less accepting of an unhappy ending than I am, though that’s changed a bit recently). But I think Tarkington’s doing something different….I just may not be expressing it well.

  2. Bonnie Hood says:

    Well, I was curious enough to look him up on Wikipedia, and I can better understand his good feelings for the rich, and lack of understanding for the non-upper-crust to want to raise their position.

    He was from a rich Patrician family who lost a ton in the ‘great panic’ but quickly got most of it back. He was related to a mayor and governor, went to an East Coast boarding school, on to Princeton, where he never graduated, but his family donated a wad of cash, so they named a building after him, and gave him an honorary degree. He was a republican state representative, travelled the world, and lived in Kennebunkport Maine. Divorced his first wife, never had any kids, and ended up going blind soon after Alice Adams was written.

    I am no longer surprised he wrote what he wrote, since he wrote what he knew, but now I do, along with you, wonder what the Pulitzer people saw in him.

    Oh, I also ran across The Magnificent Ambersons on PBS tonight. It was filmed by Orson Welles. I caught it in the middle, and didn’t know what was going on, so I didn’t watch it.

  3. […] aspersion on American literature.  After agreeing unanimously on recognizing Tarkington’s Alice Adams (a mediocrity: how the man won two of the first four Pulitzers awarded is a mystery to me), in 1923 […]

  4. […] That kind of condescension angered me when it was Tarkington looking down on the title character in Alice Adams, but Scarlett’s such a nasty piece of work sometimes that I feel this uneasy kinship with […]

  5. Amy says:

    Goodness, this is rather shocking. 🙂 I read Alice Adams 30 or so years ago as a teenager, and loved it. I completely missed the author’s condescension, although I don’t doubt that it’s there if many are seeing it. I remember it as a girl’s discovery of her own worth–she stops desperately trying to climb the social ladder and takes responsibility for her own destiny. I think I need to reread this.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Amy, maybe I’m wrong about Tarkington! I don’t think I am, but I’m interested in hearing more of your side (especially if you re-read it). To me, Amy wasn’t authentically portrayed enough for it to work as self-discovery, and although I definitely liked her, I felt like the story didn’t really deliver on the arc it tried to give her. But, again, I’d love to talk this one out….it’s been a couple of years by now, and my memories of the novel are bad but not as well articulated as they might have been. It’ll be interesting to me to see how your impressions match or differ from mine.

      • Amy says:

        I actually looked for it on Amazon, but there aren’t any affordable (read: cheap) copies. I will look for it at the library, I think, though. Coincidentally, just before reading your review I had recommended it to my 14-year-old daughter, who’s interested in the time period, and your take on Tarkington makes me want to look at it again before she gets to it!

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