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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