I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! The 1922 Pulitzer was awarded to Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, making Tarkington the first author to receive multiple Pulitzers. The 1922 award was unanimous and uncontroversial, and no one seemed to care or discuss the fact that Tarkington had won the award just three years prior.
A Brief Summary: Alice Adams is a lower middle class girl with big dreams of living in high society. Alice has her eyes set on a newcomer in town, a wealthy eligible-bachelor, Arthur Russell. Alice spends the summer scheming with her mother, begging her brother to chaperone her to dances, and tending to her convalescing father.
Fun Fact: The 1935 movie adaptation was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Setting: An unnamed town in the Midwest: I would guess in Indiana, where most of Booth Tarkington’s stories take place.
Time Period: Post WWI: I would guess that the book was supposed to be contemporaneous to its publication, so around 1921.
Review: This is a book about social circles and Tarkington seems to look down on those who want to be what we would call “social-climbers.” Tarkington portrays Alice’s mother as a shrill, nagging, and completely clueless woman who pushes her husband to try to make more money. Alice herself is less scheming than, say, Scarlett O’Hara, but she definitely has big dreams for herself. To me, the character of Alice Adams was much more bearable than George Amberson of The Magnificent Ambersons, but that’s not saying much. Tarkington doesn’t seem to like his own characters very much, and he creates such caricatures of these people that you feel like Tarkington is lashing out at the entire lower-middle class. How dare they aspire to have more than they do? Don’t they know their place?
I liked the book much more overall than The Magnificent Ambersons, and I think this was because it tackled a relatively smaller story – a girl’s summer love affair within the constraints of society instead of the rise and fall of the magnificent Amberson family as a metaphor for industrialization and change. The climax of the story is a dinner that Alice and her mother throw for Arthur Russell, Alice’s potential suitor. The dinner happens to fall on the hottest day of the summer, and everyone is sweating through their clothes while eating a decadent multi-course meal that the Adams can’t afford. It’s a complete disaster, and I was grimacing throughout the entire parade of courses. I was on the verge of laughing, until Tarkington refers to the disastrous dinner as a tragicomedy. Maybe I’m being unreasonable, but this absolutely outraged me! Shouldn’t this be a faux-pas, much like a comedian laughing at his own jokes? I don’t think Tarkington has the writing skill to create a successful tragicomedy, which to me should be subtle or tongue-in-cheek. Or maybe Tarkington doesn’t think his readers are smart enough to “get the joke.” Either way, I wasn’t impressed.
Ultimately, if you want to read a book about the constraints of society in the 1920s, please pick up The Age of Innocence, instead of this condescending “tragicomedy.” Or maybe just watch the Katharine Hepburn movie.
Honestly, I haven’t been impressed with the first six years of Pulitzer history, so I hope Willa Cather’s One of Ours (the 1923 winner) helps restore my faith in this prize.
- Explore the Pulitzer Project
- Don’t take my word for this book, you can get this free eBook through Project Gutenberg.
- Watch the trailer for the 1935 movie adaptation, starring Katharine Hepburn here
- Next up is Willa Cather’s One of Ours, get a copy here and read along with me!