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