Alice Adams: Book Review

Recently, I took part in the Massachusetts Center for the Book Challenge and read Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington. In June, the theme was to read a book that inspired a movie.

I thought of reading Alice Adams because I remembered the 1935 film with Katherine Hepburn and Fred McMurray. The movie provided an interesting analysis of America’s class system.

The book also delves into the concepts of class and status in early 20th century America. Alice Adams, published in 1921 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, contains highly offensive portrayals of African Americans. It is fascinating how Tarkington casually usse racist terms. Many books written by well-known authors during that period contain casual racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Most white Americans held similar opinions.

Despite the book’s outdated and racist language, I still believe it illustrates the narrowness of middle-class society in middle America. Alice is desperate for acceptance among the upper middle class. Her ambition to climb the social ladder causes her to deceive others about the reality of her shabby home and life. She is boldest in her attempts to convince Arthur Russell that she is worthy of his affections.

Her father is stuck in a clerical position at the largest employer in the town. Alice’s mother, determined to see her succeed, pushes her husband to pursue his own business venture. Walter, the family’s son, rejects their pretensions and instead enjoys socializing with musicians, gamblers, and people of color.

Alice’s deceit and her mother’s search for improved financial opportunities end up being in vain. In order to cover debts, Walter steals money from his father’s former company. The owner of the company, a benevolent capitalist, is willing to overlook Walter’s transgression if Mr. Adams sells his nascent glue factory to him.

Ultimately, in the book, Alice doesn’t get the man, and the family has no choice but to take in boarders in order to make ends meet. The movie, hoping to provide a happy ending for viewers during the Great Depression, has Arthur Russell (Fred McMurray) disregard Alice’s pretensions and Walter’s questionable behavior. Instead, he openly declares his love for Alice (Katherine Hepburn).

For the first half of the 20th century, América had a tiny middle class and there was a good amount of income inequality. The professors and their wives that I discuss in Dames, Dishes, and Degrees grappled with the same narrow range of economic opportunities that Alice and her family faced. It was hard for young people to experience upward economic mobility. Alice Adams tells this story very well.

My next regularly scheduled post will be July 14. Happy Summer!