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.

Rating:

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.”

“I think character’s the most important thing in the world, after all, don’t you, Mr. Russell?”

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).

“Who in the world are you?”

Alice Adams poses this question to herself in the mirror, and understandably so.  She’s a hard character to figure–an appealing one, I’m increasingly finding, but also one that’s hard to take seriously.  Her combination of pathological lying (almost all of which is aimed at the apparently eligible and infatuated Mr. Russell) with remarkably blunt honesty (again, directed primarily at a young man seemingly bewitched by her) is fun to read, but not easy to combine into a real young woman.  There’s some good stuff in this novel, mostly Alice’s increasing ability to open the eyes of Arthur Russell to the realities of life in town while simultaneously flirting in expert fashion.  It’s enjoyable to read their dialogues, although trouble is surely coming—she can’t keep lying to him without getting caught, and I don’t see this ending well.  Still, I give Tarkington credit: this is a much more believable relationship than Georgie Minafer had with Lucy.  He’s a capable enough writer in short bursts.  It’s the long haul that reveals his weaknesses in keeping the whole story together.

And while there’s more depth to Alice’s parents than I’d first seen, they really are a sort of second-rate Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (from Austen’s P&P).  Mr. Adams has all of Mr. Bennet’s long-suffering aggravation but with none of the wit and edge that makes Austen’s character clever and amusing.  And Mrs. Adams has all of Mrs. Bennet’s wheedling and passive-aggressive bullying, but with a total detachment from reality (and, frankly, a nearly-unhinged emotional life that overwhelms conversations) that makes her impossible to conduct a conversation with.  Every chat these two have starts out as a promising tactical combat of words, but quickly degenerates to a grating and unbearable weep-fest.

Overall, this is far better than I’d feared, given my earlier experiences with Tarkington, but still not so strong that I can see how a Pulitzer committee that chose Wharton the previous year managed to select this as a follow-up.  There just doesn’t seem to be much depth to the story.  I’m only half-way through, though, so we’ll see if things take a turn downstream.

“She had now to practise an art that affords but a limited variety of methods, even to the expert: the art of seeming to have an escort or partner when there is none.”

I’m having trouble deciding how I feel about Alice Adams.  She isn’t Georgie Minafer….but not for lack of trying.  She has all the ability to be condescending, to value style over substance.  But because she is from a middle-class family, yet she wants to (and tries to) move in upper class circles, all her pretensions become pathetic.  She cannot remain full of herself for long, since the reality of how badly she is snubbed, how often she is laughed at, how out of place she often is, breaks through that facade and she feels something.

I’m not sure how I feel about this, in large part because I don’t know if I can trust Tarkington.  I worry that perhaps I’m supposed to root against Alice, and I don’t particularly want to find joy and humor in her being knocked down a peg by people (like her “most intimate friend”, the snobbish Mildred) who have it better than her to begin with.  But it’s also hard to hope that she triumphs in the end, since she has a personality that would use greater influence and prestige in the wrong way, I think.  So I’m left to feel vague sympathy with Alice, and wonder what the point of the story is.

Tarkington’s racism, which I’d mentioned being bothered by while reading Ambersons, is even more prevalent here.  If I knew better what to make of Walter, Alice’s unpleasant but probably wise brother, I’d know how to react to his simultaneously bashing Alice for never talking with African-Americans while describing those same African-Americans with some really unpleasant slurs.  I don’t know how these words were taken in 1922, but it’s hard for me to get comfortable with the conversation, mostly because I feel sure that Tarkington won’t really engage with race, won’t really try and alter the perceptions of his characters (or his readers) about race, but instead will use occasional stereotypical “colored people” to liven up the plot, and will otherwise ignore them.

Alice is desperate for a man, but the man who wants her, she doesn’t want.  Alice treasures her close friendships, though as her brother points out, none of them are friends of hers, and all of them look down on her.  Alice constantly berates her mother for causing stress to her father, and then stresses her father out.  I don’t know what to make of her, and I fear I’m in another “redemption” plot-line that I will scarcely be able to believe.  I hope I’m wrong.  We’ll see.

“The patient, an old-fashioned man, thought the nurse made a mistake in keeping both of the windows open, and her sprightly disregard of his protests added something to his hatred of her. …”

So begins Alice Adams, by Booth Tarkington, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1922.  Tarkington, as has already been mentioned, is one of only three authors to receive the Pulitzer for the Novel/Fiction on two occasions.  In my opinion, his first Pulitzer for The Magnificent Ambersons could hardly have been deserved–the book was thoroughly mediocre.  I wish I could say Alice Adams showed signs of marked improvement, but events so far are leaving me wary.

The unpleasant old man in that first sentence is Virgil Adams, who at the age of 55 has come down with some lingering malady that confines him to his bed under the care of a nurse (Miss Perry) whose attentions to him are accepted as gracelessly as he can manage.  His wife seems hopeless in her attempts to steer him back to health.  His son, Walter, is the walking definition of a ne’er-do-well.  And his daughter, Alice, possesses some disturbingly familiar traits–she talks condescendingly to essentially everyone in her life, particularly her mother, while feeling a sense of entitlement that doesn’t (as yet) seem warranted.  I know that, if I’m constantly looking for reminders of the Ambersons, I’ll spoil any chance I have of enjoying this book, but Alice’s resemblance to Georgie Minafer seems pretty evident at the moment.  I hope I’m reading her wrong, or that Tarkington has a lighter, more measured touch with this story that will avoid the problems I saw in his last book.  We’ll see.

I could go on–the weird casual racism is back (already, only a couple dozen pages in), and the dialogue is no better than I remembered.  But I really do want to withhold judgment for now, if I possibly can, and see if I can revive my opinion of Tarkington.  If not, I have a real conundrum to face down–how did the board that picked two clunkers by Booth Tarkington manage to put Wharton’s masterpiece in the same list between them?  What did they see in Tarkington at the beginning of the 1920s that is not evident to me now?  I’m not content to say that they were uncultured or unsophisticated simply because it was a long time ago.  There must be something they valued that I have difficulty seeing, but trying to see it is part of this whole journey I’m trying to take.  What can Tarkington, who I’m really learning to dislike, tell me about America, or at least American literature?