Sunday, 15 March 2015

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington

When did American novels start to get bloated? Contrary to life on the physical plane they took to jogging, it may have been in the 50‘s and the narrative energy was dissipated. The English episodic novels are also long yet the need for a hook at the end of each instalment keeps the thing moving forward. Alice Adams published in 1921 and Pulitzer Winner in 1922 has a plot that could be written on the back of an envelope but is not without its strange deeps. Booth Tarkington wrote against his own moneyed class, their assumptions and their modes of control and exclusion. Alice Adams daughter of a chief clerk in the firm of Lamb and Sons is an outsider but is refusing to accept her fate. I see the key to her predicament in the concluding paragraph to Chapter VII which sums up the debacle of a dance at the house of Mildred Palmer:

She had learned it during the last two years; she was twenty when for the first time she had the shock of finding herself without an applicant for one of her dances. When she was sixteen "all the nice boys in town," as her mother said, crowded the Adamses' small veranda and steps, or sat near by, cross-legged on the lawn, on summer evenings; and at eighteen she had replaced the boys with "the older men." By this time most of "the other girls," her contemporaries, were away at school or college, and when they came home to stay, they "came out"—that feeble revival of an ancient custom offering the maiden to the ceremonial inspection of the tribe. Alice neither went away nor "came out," and, in contrast with those who did, she may have seemed to lack freshness of lustre—jewels are richest when revealed all new in a white velvet box. And Alice may have been too eager to secure new retainers, too kind in her efforts to keep the old ones. She had been a belle too soon.

Alice in her teens being vivacious and pretty was popular enough to overcome the deficiencies of her place on the social ladder but later, help me Margaret Mead, the rules of association turned her into a hanger on. Mildred Palmer and Henrietta Lamb are 'snippy’ with her. Great word that for verbal cutting off and dismissal. Alice’s mother is a social realist who realises that their relative lack of means puts a brilliant match out of reach even with long arms. She has a plan for the enrichment of the family. Virgil the Daddy years before under the direction of old Lamb researched and developed a glue. His associate in this venture was a chemist that died without issue and therefore the unpatented secret formula can she thinks be produced in a factory of Virgil’s own to enrich them. Come unstuck, sticky end - we don’t wish to know that, kindly leave the stage. At this point Mr. Adams is sick at home, unspecified man vapours, but that does not prevent Mrs. from bringing on the glue plan to harry him, poor devil. He knows that using the secret formula without clearance from Lamb is sharp practice. He has misgivings but the rationalisation occurs to him that after all he has improved the formula since then and anyway Lamb is not very interested in doing anything with the process. Lamb is introduced to us when he calls on the Adamses to see how Virgil is getting over his illness.

The fine old gentleman revealed when she opened the door was probably the last great merchant in America to wear the chin beard. White as white frost, it was trimmed short with exquisite precision, while his upper lip and the lower expanses of his cheeks were clean and rosy from fresh shaving. With this trim white chin beard, the white waistcoat, the white tie, the suit of fine gray cloth, the broad and brilliantly polished black shoes, and the wide-brimmed gray felt hat, here was a man who had found his style in the seventies of the last century, and thenceforth kept it. Files of old magazines of that period might show him, in woodcut, as, "Type of Boston Merchant"; Nast might have drawn him as an honest statesman. He was eighty, hale and sturdy, not aged; and his quick blue eyes, still unflecked, and as brisk as a boy's, saw everything.
I believe we are in the presence of that sort of flinty benign despot that we met in The Last Puritan by George Santayana. Hard but fair and a twinkler not to be bested.

A newcomer in town, a rich young man, Arthur Russell, who danced with Alice at Mildred’s house has become fascinated with her and there begins a courtship which is on the verge of an engagement to marry. A coarse analysis of the novel would place our heroine as a social climber which I believe is harsh and not the central intent of the author. Alice knows that her brilliant years are over but a good match with a man that she likes is about to happen. Then it all comes apart and here I think the assurance of the authorial voice may be misplaced.

After any stroke of events, whether a happy one or a catastrophe, we see that the materials for it were a long time gathering, and the only marvel is that the stroke was not prophesied. What bore the air of fatal coincidence may remain fatal indeed, to this later view; but, with the haphazard aspect dispelled, there is left for scrutiny the same ancient hint from the Infinite to the effect that since events have never yet failed to be law-abiding, perhaps it were well for us to deduce that they will continue to be so until further notice.

Russell is dining at the house of Mildred Palmer who fancies him and to her chagrin has discovered that Alice is winning him over. The way in which the conversation comes round to Virgil Adams and the glue factory he is setting up could be egregious leverage or authorial misprision as it were. Arthur hasn’t been in their house for a long time. They know that their daughter would marry him if asked, he is a suitable victim. How would they know about Alice and her manouvers? The Irish answer, they’d know less is apposite.

Mr. Palmer, mildly amused by what he was telling his wife, had just spoken the words, "this Virgil Adams." What he had said was, "this Virgil Adams—that's the man's name. Queer case."

"Who told you?" Mrs. Palmer inquired, not much interested.

"Alfred Lamb," her husband answered. "He was laughing about his father, at the club. You see the old gentleman takes a great pride in his judgment of men, and always boasted to his sons that he'd never in his life made a mistake in trusting the wrong man. Now Alfred and James Albert, Junior, think they have a great joke on him; and they've twitted him so much about it he'll scarcely speak to them. From the first, Alfred says, the old chap's only repartee was, 'You wait and you'll see!' And they've asked him so often to show them what they're going to see that he won't say anything at all!"

"He's a funny old fellow," Mrs. Palmer observed. "But he's so shrewd I can't imagine his being deceived for such a long time. Twenty years, you said?"

"Yes, longer than that, I understand. It appears when this man—this Adams—was a young clerk, the old gentleman trusted him with one of his business secrets, a glue process that Mr. Lamb had spent some money to get hold of. The old chap thought this Adams was going to have quite a future with the Lamb concern, and of course never dreamed he was dishonest. Alfred says this Adams hasn't been of any real use for years, and they should have let him go as dead wood, but the old gentleman wouldn't hear of it and insisted on his being kept on the payroll; so they just decided to look on it as a sort of pension. Well, one morning last March the man had an attack of some sort down there, and Mr. Lamb got his own car out and went home with him, himself, and worried about him and went to see him no end, all the time he was ill."

"He would," Mrs. Palmer said, approvingly. "He's a kind-hearted creature, that old man."

Her husband laughed. "Alfred says he thinks his kind-heartedness is about cured! It seems that as soon as the man got well again he deliberately walked off with the old gentleman's glue secret. Just calmly stole it! Alfred says he believes that if he had a stroke in the office now, himself, his father wouldn't lift a finger to help him!"

Mrs. Palmer repeated the name to herself thoughtfully. "'Adams'—'Virgil Adams.' You said his name was Virgil Adams?"


She looked at her daughter. "Why, you know who that is, Mildred," she said, casually. "It's that Alice Adams's father, isn't it? Wasn't his name Virgil Adams?"

"I think it is," Mildred said.

Mrs. Palmer turned toward her husband. "You've seen this Alice Adams here. Mr. Lamb's pet swindler must be her father."

Mr. Palmer passed a smooth hand over his neat gray hair, which was not disturbed by this effort to stimulate recollection. "Oh, yes," he said. "Of course—certainly. Quite a good-looking girl—one of Mildred's friends. How queer!"

They know their Arthur. Good book. What Alice does next shows her mettle.

No comments: