The Pulitzer Project: Alice Adams, Booth Tarkington (1922)

the pulitzer project

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.

alice adams

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.

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Additional Resources:

  • 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!

 

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Books I Read in December

Hi Friends, it’s been quiet here the past few weeks, because I was travelling in China for the holidays! I’ll be sharing some photos soon, but all of the time on planes, trains, and boats made for some quality reading time! I read 13 books in December, bringing the final 2015 number of books read to: 74. I’ll be posting soon with some reflections on 2015, but for now, in no particular order, the books I read in December were:

the-age-of-innocenceEdith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence – I read this as part of my quest to read all of the Pulitzer winners. This was my second attempt at reading Edith Wharton, and I found it much more enjoyable than Ethan Frome. Did you know this book was adapted into a film directed by Martin Scorsese, who said that this was the most violent film he’s ever made? Of course, he’s referring to an emotional-violence instead of physical brutality. I’m currently sick with a cold, so I will be watching this movie under a layer of blankets this weekend. Have you seen it?

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straightjamesJames Franco’s Straight James / Gay James – While I’ve already reviewed this book, I just want to add that it’s stuck with me a little more than I expected it to. I have never taken James Franco very seriously as a writer, but I think there is something very brave about putting your poetry out there, especially for people who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves a poet. While I’d still rather see him in a movie than on paper, I will have to think twice before rolling my eyes at his next publication.

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missoula

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town – this book was a well-written and provocative look into such a grim and violent subject – acquaintance rape, date rape, whatever you want to call it. Jon Krakauer follows the personal stories of a few rape cases that occurred within a few weeks of each other in Missoula, Montana. I think the most terrifying thing is that Missoula is not an anomaly, and these stories are happening much more frequently than we’d like to think. This should be required reading on every college campus.

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fox 8.jpgGeorge Saunders’ Fox 8 – This novella is exclusively available as an eBook (it’s only 99 cents! Go buy it!) and I borrowed it from the New York Public Library. In true Saunders’ form, this story is hilarious, violent, and depressing all at once. The story is told by a Fox who learns how to Yuman – “So came bak nite upon nite, seeted upon that window, trying to lern. And in time, so many werds came threw my ears and into my brane, that, if I thought upon them, cud understand Yuman pretty gud, if I heer it!”

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gap of timeJeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time – I don’t think my admittedly rushed-before-going-to-China review did this book justice, so I might revisit and rework my post later this year. This is Winterson’s “cover” of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, of which Winterson says, “All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around. I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years.”  For some reason, this book reminded me of Station Eleven, maybe because of the post-crisis emphasis on Shakespeare?

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alice adamsBooth Tarkington’s Alice Adams – This was the 1922 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, notably Tarkington’s second Pulitzer (and in a span of four years!) I found it much more enjoyable than his previous winner, The Magnificent Ambersons. I’m not sure if I would have awarded this book any sort of award, but then again, maybe there were slimmer pickings in the 1920s, what do you think? This was made into a movie starring Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s, so we know the book was popular for quite a while! I’ll have to add this to the list of movie adaptations to watch (and write about!)

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one of oursWilla Cather’s One of Ours – This was the 1923 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. I was really on a Pulitzer roll this month! It is a sprawling epic story that follows Claude Wheeler from a child in Nebraska to a soldier in France during World War II. Claude is a shy dreamer with big ideas about what he wants from life and love. I found him sweetly relatable. I’ve read online that this was one of Willa Cather’s weaker works, but as I’ve never read anything else of hers, I can’t make that call (yet). I’ll be writing more about this later, and would definitely consider reading more by Willa.

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rashomon

Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon – I picked this book up at the Strand’s Central Park location on  a whim, because I’ve seen Akira Kurasawa’s 1950 film Rashomon. This book is a collection of 6 short stories, between 8 – 15 pages long each. I really loved the writing style (but can never tell how much is attributable to the translator versus the writer) and the stories were all incredibly human, magical, and touching. Fun fact: the film was actually based on a combination of two of the short stories in this collection: In a Grove and Rashomon.

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the winter's taleWilliam Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

My favorite passage:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?

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the reason i jumpNaoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump – This book is incredible – it was written by a thirteen year old Japanese autistic boy who often has trouble with verbal communication. I first heard about the book when I saw Jon Stewart interview Naoki on The Daily Show a few years ago. When I was in high school, I volunteered as an art teacher to autistic students, but I must admit that I still had no idea about their capacity for emotional depth and understanding. Reading this book really challenged a lot of my biases and made me feel ashamed (in the best possible positive way.)

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we should all be feministsChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists – This book is based on a Ted talk that Chimamanda gave (online here), which you will most likely recognize from Beyonce’s Flawless. While I didn’t need convincing from Chimamanda to be a feminist, it is always refreshing to hear the arguments from such an articulate and compassionate person. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying the book, you should definitely watch the video if you haven’t yet.

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teen spiritFrancesca Lia Block’s Teen Spirit – I do not think I’ll ever be too old to read Francesca Lia Block. This book is perfect to read around Halloween! Spoiler Alert – this is the story of a girl who is trying to communicate with her dead grandmother and a boy who is possibly possessed by his angry dead twin. Although the ending is a little cliched, I don’t think anyone reads Block for the plot, but more for her rich language and imagery, the smell of the flowers leap off the page.

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the chronology of water.jpgLidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water – I read this book because Cheryl Strayed said it was her favorite book. This memoir is not for the faint-hearted. Lidia Yuknavitch has lived so many lives and tackles everything head-on, from losing a child to being molested by her father, struggling to write to S&M parties and her fascination with being whipped. Her writing style is self-described as “weird” and it’s no wonder that Chuck Palahniuk introduced her to his writing group. This book pushed me out of my comfort zone and was an emotional and gripping read from start to finish.

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I can’t believe that concludes 2015! Of these books, I would most highly recommend Fox 8 and Missoula. What did you read in December? What’s on your list for 2016? How many books did you read in 2015, and does that number even matter or mean anything to you? I’m a believer in quality over quantity, but it’s definitely satisfying to tackle a long to-read list.

Whatever Happened to Booth Tarkington?

booth tarkingtonHave you ever heard of Booth Tarkington? Born in Indianapolis in 1869, Newton Booth Tarkington was a playwright, politician, and novelist. He may be most famous for being one of three people to have ever won the Pulitzer more than once. (The other two writers who hold this honor are William Faulkner and John Updike.) In 1922, Literary Digest proclaimed Booth Tarkington as “America’s greatest living writer” – he sold over five million copies of his books before paperback books were available.

Tarkington loved his home state of Indiana – he set most of his works there, served on the Indiana House of Representatives, and was a generous supporter of Purdue University. There is even a dorm named after him – Tarkington Hall. His “Penrod” novels (three in all) have been compared to Huckleberry Finn, both in terms of style/plot and popularity. So why have I never heard of Booth Tarkington until I decided to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners?

Tarkington seems to have fallen out of popularity with the literary world shortly after his death in 1946. His writing has since been deemed to be uneven, inconsistent, and overly nostalgic.

To be caught with Tarkington in one’s hands is to be suspected of nostalgia, a willingness to endure the second-rate for the sake of some moonlight on the Wabash, which must still be flowing somewhere through the heartland.

alice adamsMany of Tarkington’s books are about very young people, coming of age in a time of rapid industrialization and change. He was obsessed with the “soul-killing effects of smoke and asphalt and speed” and writes about how cars are ruining society and quality of life. I noted in His Family that Ernest Poole had a similar (but positive) obsession with cars. I suppose this was akin to the environmental crisis of the early 20th Century. The Atlantic suggests that this obsession made his peers think he was a cranky old man, instead of a sensitive soul greatly affected by the changes surrounding him and his characters.

In 1942, Orson Welles adapted The Magnificent Ambersons into a feature film, which seems to have stood the test of time a little better than its novel counterpart. However, the book was recently added to Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels (it was #100 on the list), so maybe we will see Booth Tarkington make a comeback in the next few decades, what do you think?