Alice Adams – One of my Favorite Writers of the 20th Century


Alice Adams

Born:  August 14, 1926                Died: May 27, 1999

A lot of my reading in the 1980s and 1990s centered around two Alices and an Anne – Alice Munro, Alice Adams, and Anne Tyler. They were probably my three favorite contemporary writers at the time, each of them brilliant and dependable in her own way. Anne Tyler was solely a writer of novels, Alice Munro wrote mainly long short stories, and Alice Adams wrote both novels and stories.

Whereas Alice Munro’s stories are expansive, Alice Adams’ stories are compact. Her long-time editor Victoria Wilson said of Alice Adams’ writing thus:

She was sort of a magician, she managed to give you a dimensional quality of people and place and situation in a very, very condensed amount of space. You’d be reading three simple sentences and have the whole resonance of a person.”

As I went about writing this article, I was quite gratified to find out that a 508-page biography of Alice Adams, ‘Alice Adams – Portrait of a Writer’ by Carol Sklenicka has just recently been published. Not many fiction writers warrant a 508-page biography, and Alice Adams is one. Thus I had no lack of material for this article.

What makes her writing special?

Adams got stuck in an unhappy marriage at a young age and was divorced in her early thirties. She had one son from the marriage and never remarried although she had a number of intimate relationships with men. One of her main themes in her fiction is women searching to find ways to live lives free of controlling relationships. Divorce is usually a positive event in her work. She was born in North Carolina but lived most of her adult life in San Francisco. From a young age she knew she would be a fiction writer, worked hard at her craft, and made a lot of friendships among other writers.

Her first novel was not published until she was forty.

I think I probably am a good example of life begins at forty – I’m forty-eight – [Those eight years after forty] have all been a vast improvement. I began to come together after a long period of floundering.”

In her work she explores ways that her characters can break free of those things that can deprive them of their individual freedom. A story of hers first got published in the New Yorker in 1969, and she ultimately had 26 stories published there.

No one wrote better about the tangled relations of men and women or about the enduring romance of friendship,” said Fran Kiernan, an editor, who edited her New Yorker stories for 10 years, beginning with ”Beautiful Girl” in 1977. ”She was a great romantic, with the highest expectations of life. As a writer, she was unfailingly wise.”

Where to start with the author Alice Adams?

For me, the first novel that I read of Alice Adams was ‘Listening to Billie’.  Several other novels by other writers have evocations of Billie Holiday singing live in her prime in the 1930s and 1940s, and ‘Listening to Billie’ probably outdoes them all. That novel got me started and I wound up reading quite a few of her novels including ‘Families and Survivors’ and ‘Caroline’s Daughters’ as well as several of her story collections. If you are more interested in stories than novels, read the collection ‘Beautiful Girl’ or ‘Return Trips’.

A Quote about her

What Adams accomplishes in a rather slim, two-hundred-page novel is a representation of the complicated story of a main character’s movement toward strength and independence over a thirty year period in which virtually all the details come together in a mosaic of contemporary American life.” – Bryant Mangum discussing Adams’ novel ‘Families and Survivors’

Quotes from Alice Adams herself

I really have no imagination at all, just a terrific memory.” She took real people and events from her own life and transformed them into fiction. This made for some interesting and strong, sometimes irate, reactions to her work.

But, Jack, you know I don’t care for plot at all!” Adams’ work is very much character-driven rather than plot-driven.






3 responses to this post.

  1. I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of this author… I will look for her now at the library.



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