In The Show Piece (1947), one of Tarkington's posthumously published works, he explains what he means by an "investigatory novel." It is "intended to investigate human beings and if possible to reveal something about them." In Alice Adams he seems to have succeeded more than he himself realized. He regarded the book as secondary in importance to the Growth trilogy which he considered his most significant work up to that point. He frankly doubted that the story of such ordinary people would be of much interest to the public. Yet the book is the finest "investigatory novel" he would ever write. In it objectivity triumphed over both his optimism and his usual conformity to what he felt his readers wanted. Plot and character are both worked out with such control that even critics who had panned his other works had to admit that here he had written a masterpiece.
A recent critic, Adam J. Sorkin, observes that Tarkington's low opinion of what he was writing (he seems to have written it as a diversion while on vacation at Kennebunkport) enabled him to write it in relative detachment and to give his comic talents full scope, unhindered by sentimentality. The writer had the talent to produce excellent comedies of manners when he chose, and in this novel he caught the natural voices of several representatives of society from the socially prominent Mrs. Palmer and her friends to Walter Adams and his street slang. Two scenes — both disastrous...
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A servant or lower-class person posing as a member of the upper class is a stock character in farces, or in contemporary situation comedies. One example is the libretto of Johann Strauss' most famous operetta Die Fledermaus in which a maid, Adele, enacts such a role at a nobleman's ball. Liza Doolittle, a former flower seller, thanks to the expert vocal coaching of Professor Henry Higgins, passes herself off as a great lady at a high society gathering in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1913) and its musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, 1956. Alice Adams, because she simply wants to escape from an impossible family situation, is a more sympathetic character than most such pretenders.
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Excerpts from Alice Adams were anthologized, and the book was translated into several foreign languages. It was twice made into a movie. The first film was made in the 1920s and starred Florence Vidor. Katherine Hepburn played Alice in the second movie made by RKO in 1935. Fred MacMurray was Arthur Russell; Fred Stone was Mr. Adams; Frank Albertson played Walter; and Anne Shoemaker played Mrs. Adams. Tarkington wrote a number of screenplays in the course of his career, but never adapted any of his major books for the movies.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Fennimore, Keith J. Booth Tarkington. New York: Twayne, 1974. An excellent introduction to the author’s life and work.
Mayberry, Susanah. My Amiable Uncle: Recollections About Booth Tarkington. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1983. An important contribution to Tarkington’s biography.
Sorkin, Adam J. “ She Doesn’t Last, Apparently’: A Reconsideration of Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams.” American Literature 46 (1974): 182-199. A sympathetic and reasoned analysis of Alice Adams. Sorkin argues for greater critical attention to Tarkington generally and to Alice Adams in particular.
Woodress, James. Booth Tarkington, Gentleman from Indiana. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1955. An important biography, this volume offers some analysis of the novels.
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