A Master of the Craft
“After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question
T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
“Allen’s terrifically intuitive,” explained Alexandra.
“Oh, I believe you!” A flash of teeth.
“Mostly I’m very observant.”
That would explain it very well, Alice Adams. But how did you manage to attain such a shrewd understanding of people? If you were just observant, you must have learned the secret of uncovering the often-concealed sources of human behaviour, which are hidden in history and the subconscious. Feelings and intimate thoughts have their place, and it is often not outside themselves. Or maybe, Alice, you have met people who were willing to tell you their stories. I can see you, sitting in a large paisley print armchair, having tea and chatting. Or taking little notes a notebook.
I do not know how Alice Adams came to master her craft. She died in 1999, and spent most of her life writing short stories that delved into the lives of everyday Americans. Adam’s speciality was work for periodicals and journals, and her stories appeared often in publications like the The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and even Cosmopolitan and Redbook. The Stories of Alice Adams is a collection released posthumously of fifty-three short stories written by the author throughout her career.
The Stories of Alice Adams could be read as an introduction to some of Adams’s best work. She writes in a very distinct style; a prose that is singularly American. Clean and crisp, with a dire twist. Unlike Fitzgerald and Auchincloss, who dabble in high society, and Salinger, who has more of an affinity for the down and out, Adams finds her inspiration in the little daily dramas that inflict the middle class.
Adams’s art lies in her ability to transform what is familiar and often deemed common, and tailor them into descriptive, insightful stories. She pieces them together with a language that is casual and easy on the eyes—resulting in a tale that takes on a gentle and feminine demeanour. This becomes apparent when taking account of Adams’s tendency to meld emotion with the landscape. One will find in her stories, descriptions of environments that reflection the characters’ intimate history, such as:
The great thing about the woods, from a child’s point of view, was that parents almost never came along; the woods were quite safe then, and there was a lot to doLater of course, the woods took on other meanings; they offered romantic shelter and privacy for kissing, touching—whatever forms early love took.
The room, with its seascape view, was almost identical to my parents’ bedroom, and their view. My parents slept in narrow, separate beds. They were silent at home except when they drank, which loosened them up a little, though it never made them anywhere near affectionate with each other.
What appeals most about collections of short stories is that there is no fixed point where you must begin or end. You can start anywhere. In The Stories of Alice Adams, each story will literally plummet you, right smack in the middle of the everyday lives of people just like you and me. Adams reintroduces you to feelings that you may have felt before, or to similar characters you have met, but have forgotten.
Adams takes us across America—in the cities with its urban persona and slightly more self-absorbed characters, to the South and the Midwest. She includes characters of all ages and races. The plots of her stories are simple, and yet the people are not. She writes of parents and children, siblings, husbands, wives, and lovers, friends and strangers in familiar landscapes—in the backyard, on the porch, by the pool or down the road. And for about, ten pages, you can be witness to their experience before moving on to another.
Adams is a master at revealing how people react and respond in relationships. Her collection covers love in all its forms. Reading her work, it is easy to see how human emotion is universal and extremely complex. One digs deep only to find that the basic emotions exist within all of us, only to manifest different facets of themselves with different people in different situations. One wonders how Adams was able to come across such a wealth of information because her characters are believably real people. They are a joy to know, as are all people who find it a challenge to understand what it means to be human.