Writer Alice Adams embraced the contradictions of being a woman.
Carol Sklenicka writes that Adams’s work reflects her “interest in the existential elements of women’s lives,” and in Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer, Sklenicka notes that Adams’s writing career and her love life were the two pillars that provided her structure and meaning. It’s no surprise when Sklenicka describes one of Adams’s notebooks as exhibiting side-by-side columns, one listing her published works and the other naming her lovers.
Adams’s devotion to love—and to writing—started early. She was shaped by her childhood in Chapel Hill, NC, and her privileged upbringing with well-educated and connected parents. Adams’s early life lacked the parental love she craved, which influenced but didn’t deter her desire to foster affectionate and caring relationships throughout her life.
A young Adams, though, Sklenicka writes, “underestimated the difficulties that her independent spirit would feel” being tied in marriage to Mark Linenthal, her first and only husband. Through a series of affairs and the stories she wrote reflecting such times, Adams explored her relationship with love and monogamous devotion and later, with divorce and heartbreak. Even before she identified with feminist movements, Adams rejected notions of a monolithic female identity as she explored the multitudes women possess.
Sklenicka, however, makes a more explicit connection to how women’s liberation affected Adams as Sklenicka weaves in feminist theories, using lines from Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, among others, to analyze both Adams’s work and her life. Sklenicka denies any ambiguity in the association between daily life and theory by intersecting the two in a way that would be meaningful even to those who are not well-versed in literary analysis. Her ability to prove the practical applications of such conceptual ideas to both literature and life is enviable.
While she easily analyzes the tribulations of gender for Adams and women more broadly, Sklenicka’s conceptions of race are less explicit. While there are multiple conversations about rampant anti-Semitism during World War II and Adams’s own comments on racism during the war and throughout her life, Sklenicka’s language surrounding Adams’s family history, particularly her mother’s, lacks that same critical consideration and admonishment she applies to gender. At times, Sklenicka comes off as somewhat sympathetic toward white southerners who felt shame and guilt for the crimes committed against black people during slavery, while failing to account adequately for the black experience. In a text that otherwise thoughtfully accounts for various oppressions, these passages don’t meet the mark.
But Sklenicka is clearly a skilled biographer. Her writing is engaging yet simple and lacks the pretense and gentility Adams seemingly would have hated. No detail, story, or analysis feels unnecessary, an accomplishment for a work totaling more than 500 pages. She also proves her depth of research as she includes the political and cultural contexts surrounding the events that impacted Adams and later appeared in her fiction, from her love affair with the Portuguese consul-general that started just before 1960 in San Francisco to her annual visits to Zihuatanejo and others parts of Mexico. Plus, Sklenicka incorporates the publishing industry’s evolution through her descriptions of Adams’s struggles to place her short stories in magazines like The New Yorker and Redbook and to secure book contracts and hefty advances.
The cover of Sklenicka’s work mimics that of the trade paperback of Adams’s own Superior Women, which is perhaps a gesture toward the utopian novel. Although Adams’s life wasn’t utopic—she met adversity when she was denied inheritance after her parents’ deaths and when receiving numerous rejections from publications, to name a few incidents—she certainly did have her share of success as both a writer and lover. One of Sklenicka’s most memorable points is that Adams improved with age, and maybe that’s where the nod to the utopian vision appears: what are the possibilities for a woman who grows into her role as a financially independent, intellectual leader who’s unwaveringly devoted in love?
Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer
By Carol Sklenicka
Simon & Schuster
Published December 3, 2019
Grace Ebert is a Chicago-based writer and editor. Her most recent work is with Colossal. Find more at graceebert.com.