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.


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!


Books I Read in November

Right on par with the rest of the year, I read six books in November: two nonfiction, one memoir, and three fiction books. In chronological order, the books I read in November were:

the new jim crow

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow – This book should be recommended reading for everyone in the United States. I bought the book after a friend mentioned that she was reading it for her book club. I put off reading it for a good half year because I was scared that it would be too depressing for me to read. While it was extremely disheartening and made me furious at times, I think I am a better citizen and human being having read the book. I have recommended it to everyone in my law school classes, and I would sincerely urge you to read this too.


the magnificent ambersons

Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons – I already wrote about this pretty extensively because it is one of the Pulitzer winners on my list. As I’ve started reading the next winner on the list (Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence) I have noticed a similar obsession with automobiles and the changing urban social hierarchy. I’m really enjoying reading the Pulitzer winners in chronological order, because I think it’s helped me see similar trends and concerns during the 1920s. I’m interested to see if Booth Tarkington has new concerns in his next Pulitzer winner, Alice Adams.


4:50 from Paddington

Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington – is part of her famous Miss Marple’s series. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster and amateur detective. In this book, Miss Marple’s friend witnesses a murder on a train that happens to pass the train that she is on. Miss Marple uses some deductive reasoning and tries to solve a crime based on very few facts. I was surprised to see that while she is the brains behind the operations, she isn’t really one of the main characters of the book. Is this how all Miss Marple books are? I may have to read another one to find out for myself!



Oliver Sack’s Musicophilia – This is the book for our next book club meeting in December. While it’s not something that I may have picked to read myself, isn’t that the whole point of a book club? Oliver Sacks is a world renowned neurologist and in this book he examines how the brain and music are connected. The opening chapter is about a man who, after being struck by lightning, finds himself obsessed with Chopin and composing music, even though he had never showed an interest in or talent for music before his accident. Some chapters were absolutely brilliant, and I’ll be writing about them separately soon!


right ho jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves – I will admit I was supposed to read this book in high school, but I never got around to it. If Agatha Christie is the queen of mystery cozies, then I’d argue that P.G. Wodehouse is the king of comedy cozies. The book is like a 230 page sitcom with witty banter and ridiculous situations and miscommunications. This was the first book by P.G. Wodehouse, and while I may not agree with Hugh Laurie that Wodehouse is the funniest writer in the world, I did enjoy the book and found it a lighthearted break in a month where I read some very serious things.


h is for hawkHelen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk – I’ve seen this book all over the news and Internet this year. The NYTimes recently named it one of the 100 Notable books in 2015. After Helen’s father unexpectedly dies, Helen turns to raising a goshawk as a coping mechanism. She also examines famed writer T. H. White and his experiences in raising a goshawk. Despite all the hype around the book, this is one of the few books I’ve read that absolutely exceeded all of the hype. Words can’t describe how incredible the books is – her writing is clear, lyrical, and an absolute kick in the teeth. I devoured the book and plan on rereading it in the near future.


Of the books I read this month, I am begging you to read The New Jim Crow and H is for Hawk. These are books that will absolutely change your life.

I can’t believe it’s almost December – there are still so many books that I want to read! I’m currently reading The Age of Innocence, and I hope to get through I am Malala and Alice Adams. What about you? What did you read in November? What are the books you’re trying to read before the end of the year?


The Pulitzer Project: The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington (1919)

Pulitzer Project

I’m reading my way through the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists! I’ve just recently finished reading The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington, the recipient of the second Pulitzer Prize for the Novel.


A Brief Summary*: The book follows the rise and fall of the Amberson family, one of the most prosperous and well-known families of Woodruff Place, Indiana at the turn of the 20th century. Young George Amberson Minafer, the patriarch’s grandson, is spoiled terribly by his mother Isabel. Growing up arrogant, sure of his own worth and position, and totally oblivious to the lives of others, George falls in love with Lucy Morgan, a young though sensible debutante. As the town grows into a city, industry thrives, the Ambersons’ prestige and wealth wanes, and the Morgans, thanks to Lucy’s prescient father, grow prosperous. The decline of the Ambersons is contrasted with the rising fortunes of industrial tycoons and other new-money families, who derived power not from family names but by “doing things”.

Fun Fact: Woodruff Place is known as the first suburb of Indianapolis.

Setting: Indiana

Time Period: 1873 – 1910s

Review: I found it interesting to compare this to His Family, which won the Pulitzer the year before. Both books follow the rise of automobiles and its impacts on society. Where Poole writes odes to speed and modern machinery, Tarkington abhors the soot and smog of industrialization. I found the setting and writing quite compelling, but I thought the actual plot was cliched and trite. This is a book that uses words like “parvenu” earnestly and devotes pages to explaining George’s routine of changing into dinner clothes every evening. The last few chapters of the book seemed so bizarre to me; without giving any spoilers, I thought the events came out of left field and seemed like an overly dramatic way to end the novel. If you can be patient, I would suggest reading the book more for the writing than the story. I think you would find the book more enjoyable if you simply view the characters and storyline as a backdrop for Tarkington’s wit and observations.

I’d recommend this book to people who appreciate reading about details of clothing and fashion, who like to read about the turn of the 20th century, or are trying to read all of the Pulitzers.


Additional Resources:

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?

The Magnificent Ambersons – Vocabulary

the magnificent ambersons

I’m finally reading The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, the 1919 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. I’m about four chapters in so far and am finding it hilarious, sharp, and a pretty easy read. The best part of reading on a Kindle is the built-in dictionary. I thought I’d share the vocabulary words I’ve learned so far:

porte cochere

  • Porte-cochère: porte co·chère (noun) – a covered entrance large enough for vehicles to pass through, typically opening into a courtyard

It was a house of arches and turrets and girdling stone porches: it had the first porte-cochère seen in that town.

  • Argot: ar·got (noun) – the jargon or slang of a particular group or class.
  • Badinage: bad·i·nage (noun) – humorous or witty conversation

This was stock and stencil: the accustomed argot of street badinage of the period; and in such matters Georgie was an expert.