“Is this life?’Alice wondered, not doubting that the question was original and all her own. ‘Is it life to spend your time imagining things that aren’t so, and never will be? Beautiful things happen to other people; why should I be the only one they never can happen to?”
When, to my well-documented horror, I read Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, only the second Pulitzer Prize to be awarded for fiction, I decided I was going to put off reading his second Pulitzer-winning novel, Alice Adams, as long as I possibly could. In fact, I was really hoping I could just forgo it entirely and merely pretending that I had read it, the way I did so often with some of the books I was assigned at university. One of my subscribers had written to me following my review of Ambersons and told me that while she hadn’t read that particular novel, she rather liked Alice Adams—in fact, she really liked it. I almost didn’t believe her. I was entirely sure that Booth Tarkington was, quite possibly, the worst writer I have ever read—I was hoping I was wrong, but I very much doubted it.
Now, of course, that I have successfully finished reading Alice Adams, I’m afraid I have to eat my words. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually really enjoyed this novel, and that Tarkington did a wonderful job of writing this story. This discovery, therefore, makes me wonder why I hated The Magnificent Ambersons so much. There is no one in this whole wide world that could ever convince me that it was a well-written novel, let alone a good story. His symbolism was overt, the story was entirely predictable, some of the events in the story were outlandish… It was just an all-around bad novel. I was under the impression that it was because Tarkington just wasn’t a very good writer. Alice Adams, on the other hand, left me believing the opposite is true—that Tarkington was a good writer, and that maybe, just maybe, he knew exactly what he was doing in Ambersons.
Perhaps Tarkington intentionally wrote Ambersons the way he did to make a point (God only knows what that point could have possibly been)… Or, perhaps Tarkington got really, really lucky with the Pulitzer committee that particular year… Or, perhaps the Pulitzer committee begrudgingly awarded him the Prize, then awarded him again when Alice Adams was so much better of a novel… Or, perhaps I’m missing something entirely and I’m not nearly the literary connoisseur I thought I was.
Now that we’ve both read both of Tarkington’s Pulitzer-winners and both of us have extremely conflicted opinions of his writing, Joshua and I have decided that the only way to truly determine what kind of writer Tarkington was is to read a third novel by him. That novel, which will be named later and after this Pulitzer journey is over, will be the tie-breaker as it were.
I’m sensing a theme in the early Pulitzer novels (though I have yet to complete all of the first decade’s worth, I have a feeling I know the central conflict of these novels is)—social status. Tarkington, especially, seems to really relish in writing about this particular theme; as do Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Louis Bromfield. The same is true of other Jazz Age writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, or Sinclair Lewis. So far, though, amongst Pulitzer-winning authors, it seems to be Tarkington that is championing the trend.
In The Magnificent Ambersons, for instance, the central conflict of the book is that of Georgie Minafer’s slow decline into cultural insignificance. At the beginning of the novel, the Ambersons are truly “magnificent”—they own a lot of property, they own business ventures, they have old money, their home is decadent, they throw outlandish parties; but over time, their social status as the elite upper crust begins to fade away and the town they live in begins to change, thus changing the people that live in it. Alice Adams, similarly, chronicles the struggle of the Adams family, a family of middle class social outsiders, to fit in with their upper class peers.
As much as I was surprised to discover that I didn’t hate Alice Adams, but in fact really liked it, I wasn’t surprised at all when, midway through the novel, I “discovered” the theme of acting that Tarkington was working into the story. Now, there are two reasons I say that I wasn’t surprised to find this theme: 1) I’m a trained reader and I’m adept to picking up literary themes, and 2) Tarkington was slapping me in the face with it throughout the novel. That sort of writing drives me absolutely crazy. I can appreciate when an author is trying to work with themes or symbolism or irony and drops little hints here and there that are sort of obvious, but still take some digging to really understand—that sort of writing makes reading fun, almost an adventure or a challenge. But when an author thinks that his or her audience is comprised of complete nincompoops and feels the urge to highlight these moments with flashing lights, I almost get a little offended!
Of the 434 pages that my edition of Alice Adams is, I’m estimating that Tarkington dedicated ten entire pages to “acting.” Alice talks about wanting to be an actress on three different occasions; Mrs. Adams talks about the times when she was younger and wanted to be an actress and still, sometimes, even in her older age, thinks about acting; Alice explains to Mr. Russell her desire to act and how every girl secretly (or outwardly) wants to be an actress; Alice acts a scene from Romeo and Juliet; films and plays and the theater are discussed in several different scenes; Tarkington makes comparisons of his characters to fictional stage and film characters—when this theme is brought up every couple or so pages, it’s hard to miss! It almost insults my literary intelligence!
And here’s the kicker about this whole “acting” business—I believe the only reason Tarkington is so adamant about bringing it up over and over and over is because he doesn’t think his readership could guess on their own that, when different members of the Adams family go to formal, upper-class dinners, or attempt to host their own versions of them, or dress the way that their upper-class peers dress, they are merely acting the part! Thank you, Mr. Tarkington—without your constantly drilling acting into my head, I would have never guessed that the Adams were merely role playing.
Furthermore, Tarkington is so clearly heavily influenced by Victorian literature that it’s almost distracting—Alice Adams was so Austenian in language and subject matter
that I almost forgot that it was written in the heart of the Modernist movement. And the ending—oh, Lord; the ending was so Dickensian, so happily wrapped up in pretty paper and a bow on top, I wanted to puke. It was so much like A Christmas Carol that I was half expecting old Ebeneezer himself to waltz into the Adams’ home and jovially declare, “Behold! A goose! A Christmas goose!” All of the characters in the book would then gather ’round Mr. Adams sick-bed and embrace each other and Mr. Adams would quip, “God bless us, every one.”
Literary Snob Vent: over.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t hate Booth Tarkington because of this little grievance of mine. The truth is, a lot of writers are guilty of being obvious. It’s just that Tarkington was guilty this time. Despite it’s obviousness, the novel was really, really enjoyable. I thought the story was well developed and well told, I really liked the way Tarkington created a tension between loyalty to family and desire to be something greater that all of the main characters faced, and I particularly liked the characters that he created.
The titled character, Alice, and I got off to a rocky start—in the first three chapters, I really thought she was just a snobby, snotty (if I may be entirely candid) bitch. I know that’s harsh, but I really did not like her at all in those first three chapters. Now, it could have been that I was reading the novel through a negative lens because I was so sure I was going to hate it—maybe my own prejudice just prevented me from liking her right away. But over the course of the next 22 chapters, I absolutely fell in love with Alice. She’s funny, she’s quirky, she’s perceptive, she’s silly, she’s flirty, she’s beautiful, she’s loyal; she’s every woman that I’ve ever known and she’s quite the catch.
As I mentioned before, it’s plain to see that Tarkington was pretty influenced by Victorian literature—his characterization of Alice, especially, is almost something out of a Jane Austen novel. I would daresay that Alice Adams is almost a reincarnation of Elizabeth, from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The only difference between the two is that Alice, unlike Elizabeth, wants to be part of the aristocracy that surrounds her, but only to a certain point. Inasmuch as she wants to be part of that scene, she refuses to betray her family, or put them through the wringer in order to do it. She’s loyal to them. Therein lies the central conflict of the novel—Alice’s internal struggle: the tension between desiring to be “somebody” and knowing the importance of being who you are; striving to be something extraordinary while still trying to be fruitful and functional in her ordinariness.
I have to give credit where credit is due—Tarkington masterfully developed that tension. When dealing with that sort of subject matter, it is incredibly easy to go either too far with it, or not far enough. If Tarkington were any less of an author (i.e., the author I thought he was before I read this novel), he could have either created a whiny, selfish, bratty, unlikeable Alice or an Alice that his readers could care less about one way or the other. However, Tarkington toed this line miraculously and created one of the most endearing characters I’ve ever had the good pleasure to read. In fact, I almost didn’t want the novel to end—I was that in love with her character.
I also really liked Mr. Adams—an incredibly emotionally complicated character. Again, Tarkington had a thin line to toe with this character. Mr. Adams is an ill man that isn’t upset about not earning what he’s worth, but indifferent about it in not doing with his life what he’s capable of. When he finally decides to take matters into his own hands and start generating some more money for his family, the whole venture blows up in his face and he is forced to deal with the futility of it. Again, Tarkington could have gone too far with this character or not far enough: he could have created an angry, bitter, cynical old man that the reader just despises, or he could have created just some guy that has some nondescript problems that he feels indifferent to that the reader doesn’t really care about.
Then, of course, there’s Mrs. Adams… Boy, did I hate this woman. I really dreaded every single time she opened her mouth. I found her to be pushy, arrogant, self-involved, and just altogether loathsome. I hated how she pushed her husband to be a man he clearly wasn’t ready to be; I hated how she pushed her daughter into being the woman that she always wanted to be but never was; I hated how uncomfortable she made Mr. Russell; I hated how she treated her hired staff; I hated her melodrama, her overreactions, her snottiness, her attitude of entitlement. I absolutely hated everything she represented. Much like Tarkington’s other loathsome character, Georgie Minafer, I really wanted her to get her (as Tarkington would say) “come-uppance.”
So now that I have finished yet another Pulitzer novel, I have a dilemma—I don’t know how to feel about Booth Tarkington anymore. Whereas I would advise everyone I know to never, ever, ever read The Magnificent Ambersons, I would advise every young woman out there to read Alice Adams rather than anything Jane Austen ever wrote. In fact, I’d advise men to read it too—I was that impressed with it.
With this novel behind me, I am eager to read the other two authors who have won two Pulitzers—William Faulkner and John Updike. Why did these three men win two Pulitzers? More specifically, why did the novels they won for win? How are their two books similar? How are they different? Tarkington, in my mind anyway, certainly improved in storytelling and writing from one win to the other—is the same true of Faulkner and Updike?
Time will tell.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.