‘Alice Adams’ by Booth Tarkington – The Reproach of Not Being Part of the Upper Class in an Indiana City

 

‘Alice Adams’ by Booth Tarkington (1921) – 288 pages

 

Booth Tarkington won two Pulitzer Prizes for best novel of the year early in his career, one for ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ and one for ‘Alice Adams’. In 1922, the Literary Digest announced Tarkington as America’s greatest living writer. This just goes to show how useless awards and polls can be. Among the writers living then, the following list of American authors writing during that same era have all gained more acclaim, I believe deservedly, than Tarkington: Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The New Yorker recently published a long, long article about Booth Tarkington entitled “The Gentleman from Indiana – The Rise and Fall of a Literary Reputation”. The main gist of this article is that although Tarkington was a highly respected writer in his day, he had only one novel, ‘Alice Adams’, which is still worth reading today. I had never read anything by Booth Tarkington, so I decided to read ‘Alice Adams’.

Except for its casual racism, calling black people “coons” or “darkies” and making fun of their speech and behavior, ‘Alice Adams’ is quite well written. I suppose these prejudiced attitudes were typical in Indiana at that time and could be justified as an accurate portrayal of white attitudes, but they did try my patience as a reader. You won’t find this kind of racist writing in any of the other authors I mentioned above. Tarkington wrote a children’s book titled ‘Penrod’ which was extremely popular back in the 1920s, but is embarrassing and virtually unreadable today due to its racist depictions. One of the reasons why Tarkington’s later books are no longer read is the hardening of his right-wing attitudes later in life.

Then there is the flip side to this racism. Alice Adams’ father works for the white owner of a company in town, and Tarkington’s and his characters’ attitude toward this old white guy business owner is almost worshipful.

What is the theme of ‘Alice Adams’? The Adams father and mother want the best for their twenty-two year old daughter Alice, and that means she must find a suitable husband. That proves difficult, because based on what the father makes, their family is only middle class, and the really respectable well-to-do people rather avoid those who don’t have an excess of money even if they are white. Thus the Adams come up with a scheme to get a lot of money by opening a glue factory based on a project the father worked on for his boss early in his career.

Due to her vivacity and good looks, Alice meets a suitable guy, but she doesn’t bring him into her house, instead staying on the porch swing, knowing that he would find their home rather dilapidated. However soon her mother decides it is time to have a formal dinner to introduce this suitor to the family. This dinner party winds up being the dinner party from Hell.

This story of class distinctions and antagonism between upper class white people and middle class white people rang true to me and held my interest throughout, although I did find some of the unprogressive opinions expressed by some of the characters annoying.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

6 responses to this post.

  1. It’s interesting to me that despite his fall from popularity, this is an author that I’ve heard of, though never read. I have no idea in what context I’ve heard of him, he’s not in 1001 Books, and I don’t follow the Pulitzer so that’s not it. Maybe it’s just his distinctive name…

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    • Hi Lisa
      Yes, Booth Tarkington sounds like the name of a writer you should have read but haven’t. 🙂 As it is, he is one of those once popular writers who fell by the wayside as time passed. Probably the writer I would most compare him to is Sinclair Lewis, but I’ve read several Sinclair Lewis novels including ‘Main Street’ and ‘Babbitt’ and found them to be excellent.

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      • Oh yes, me too, I really like Sinclair Lewis and have reviewed a couple of his, and still have The Job on the TBR.
        Over on mine, we’ve been pondering the rise and fall of Hugh Walpole, a bestseller in his day and now all but forgotten. I suppose it’s an unreasonable expectation for any author to imagine that his/her name will stand the test of time. I can’t imagine Jane Austen ever having thought that!

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        • Is there a particular novel for which Hugh Walpole is famous?
          I know you are from New Zealand but of Australian writers, I read a very old review from Kim at Reading Matters in which she says ‘”My Brother Jack” by George Johnston is her favorite novel ever. I must read that novel.

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          • Moi? From New Zealand????? I’m Australian!!!!!!!
            (Though technically an import, like most Australians are. In my case, from England, over half a century ago).
            I review NZ fiction too, but the focus of my blog is Australian Lit.
            And yes, My Brother Jack is my favourite Australian novel too. With Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire a very close second. Ironically, neither of them are reviewed on my blog because I read them too long ago.

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