Sunday, May 22, 2011

Booth Tarkington's Alice Adams

Katharine Hepburn as Alice Adams. Alice had to wear a made-over organdy dress and walked all over the city to gather violets for her bouquet to wear to a dance whose hostess was an upper-crust "friend."

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, but its tale is far sadder than the 1935 movie of the same name starring Katharine Hepburn.

Alice is a young woman of the middle class in her early twenties who seeks a husband of status, success, and wealth--at the behest of her mother. For most of the book, the most potent actor on the stage is Mrs. Adams, wife of Virgil Adams, a clerk in a city manufacturing firm, and mother to Alice and son Walter. Mrs. Adams is seems would sacrifice anything--including her life, if she had to--for her husband and her children. In reality, her primary concern is that her children achieve the wealth and status she desperately desires for herself and which she would believed she would acquire, but did not, with her marriage to Virgil Adams--a man she treats now with only disdain.

Hence, her life zeal is focused on enabling Alice to associate with the right circles--everything that Alice wears, how she behaves, her life in fact--is constrained by a mother whose only thought is that she must dress, walk, act, dance, and be seen with the right people so that "people will think..." and that, conversely, she must not dress, walk, act, dance, and be seen with her peers, so that "people do not think"...., "people" always being the right kind of people.

For the same reasons she upbraids her husband for not bringing in enough money so that her children enjoy all the "privileges that other people have"--defined as membership in a country club, fine clothes, the best schools, and so forth. Her attachment to such goals is so great that she proclaims, when forced to defend herself, that "Money is the family."

The effect of this manipulative mentality on Alice is to shape her into a narcissist. She sits before the mirror and realizes that the way she behaves with her erstwhile friends in the right set is a lie and has nothing to do with who she really is. But then, she realizes, to her profound dismay, she does not really know who she is. Tarkington implies that she is saved both by the humility of her father and her love for him. As inevitable misfortune descends upon the family, Alice stands up and points herself in a direction grounded in reality rather than in her mother's fantasies.

Booth Tarkington was an upper-cruster himself. His prize books--Alice Adams and the Magnificent Ambersons (second book of a trilogy)--examined the toll of industrial growth on American society.

The grave flaw of Alice Adams is that we never learn why Mrs. Adams is the way she is. Her character never deviates from its social-climbing pattern; she represents a type whose clamors drive the plot forward but whose human truth the author cared not to explore.

However, since Alice Adams won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, we have to assume that it touched an emotional nerve in America's self-perception at the time. Class stratification, with or without money, may have been far more significant than it is today, or rather its standards have changed.

One thing though must have been as obvious in 1922 as it is now: Mrs. Adams has no idea what is important in life, an ignorance that destroys her son and nearly destroys her daughter.


bookssnob said...

I really enjoyed The Magnificent Ambersons, and, as coincidence would have it, I picked up a lovely 1920's copy of Claire Ambler at The Strand Bookstore yesterday, which I can't wait to read. This sounds like another very interesting novel...not perhaps quite Pulitzer worthy from today's standards, but fascinating for its insight into the America of the time. Thank you for a thoughtful review!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the summation on Alice Adams, which I will admit now that I have not (yet) read.
I would like to suggest that Mrs. Adams' motivation, perhaps, need not be explained in that it was probably a very common approach taken by members of her class.

Anonymous said...

"Class stratification, with or without money, may have been far more significant than it is today, or rather its standards have changed."

While the delineation of each class layer may have blurred a bit, I do not see it as less significant. Those who are less affluent might think there is no difference, but those who are considered the upper crust are very aware.

Most people have no idea what is important in life. Believing what they see through mass media, they chase after things that, in the end, are meaningless, ignoring what is important. It is very sad indeed.