ALICE ADAMS and Booth Tarkington’s other masterpiece of Americana, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, together present a surprisingly broad and perceptive picture of small-town life in the first decades of the twentieth century. Because he was writing of people and places he knew intimately, the author brought an unusual understanding and insight to his portrayals. Tarkington’s style, deceptively simple, actually is the perfect vehicle for his stories; his prose is clean and supple and does not distract from the vivid characterizations or well-thought-out plots. He was a superior craftsman, and ALICE ADAMS is an excellent example of his sensitivity and skill.
The novel hinges on the personality of Alice. Tarkington develops this young girl with amazing insight; her little dreams, her self-delusions, her battles with reality, all are portrayed with a touching honesty and affection. The scene in which Alice, dressed in simple but good taste, attends a party full of pushy, overdressed small-town “society belles” is a pointed commentary on American taste and social standards.
The reader cares deeply about Alice’s little humiliations and her attempts to rise beyond the limitations of her station. Her efforts to make her modest home nice and to provide a fine dinner when the young man comes to visit are painfully futile, however well-intentioned. Her little tragedies are the tragedies of everyday life for millions of people and are captured with a deft hand. Many readers will pause and think, “Yes, that’s true, that’s the way it is.” Because many of the efforts and emotions described in the novel are so true to human nature, they do not date any more than those of the Bennett sisters in Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.
ALICE ADAMS won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921, and there is no doubt that the novel will endure as an honest and touching picture of real people in genuine struggles with their world.