Writer Alice Adams earned accolades as the “American Colette,” as a maker of aching, Jamesian realism, and, essentially, as an unflinching witness to the infinitude of the female consciousness.
In more than 120 short stories and a dozen novels, Adams (1926-1999) unsparingly portrayed the inner and outer lives of American women — some strong and independent, some careless, clueless and manic.
The novels — including “Superior Women,” “Caroline’s Daughters” and “Second Chances” — illuminate the messy circumstances of family, friendships and failed affairs. The short stories — many are exquisite models of the craft — zero in on crucial, delicate moments that set the heart in motion. In an era of social upheaval, Adams gauged the centrifugal forces of sex and love and how they shape and disrupt our lives.
In her empathetic, revealing and brisk new biography, Carol Sklenicka frames Adams’ life and work within themes of escape, redemption and persistence. Adams struggled to suppress her North Carolina roots. And she forever sought to heal wounds inflicted by her parents’ toxic marriage and by the unresolved relationships she had with each of them.
Time and again, those threads can be found transformed in the tapestries of her fiction. In “Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer,” Sklenicka deftly deploys quoted bits to illustrate how the life and work are so intricately intertwined. The art of literary biography — Sklenicka previously explored Raymond Carver — thus resembles an enormous, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
Adams began writing early. A Radcliffe-Harvard education and postwar experiences in Europe led to literary friendships (Norman Mailer, Alison Lurie), though in trying to publish, she was largely on her own.
Adams also expressed her sexual being early and often. Her affairs were numerous, her flirtations a way of life. She might have been trying finally to earn her father’s love while also flaunting Southern proprieties. She married and divorced a Jewish poet. She carried on an interracial fling with jazz trombonist Trummy Young. She held onto a volatile, booze-battered relationship for 23 years to a man who might have had his own secret life in San Francisco’s gay demimonde.
All the while she filled notebooks, which Sklenicka also mines, and refashioned closely observed lives into fictions that proved to be both literary and popular. At her peak, she earned a million-dollar advance. In her frankness, Adams championed the sex lives of older adults. As Sklenicka puts it, “It’s one of the shocking charms of Adams’s later fiction that she wrote boldly about the needs of older women for sexual companionship and recognition.”
Twenty years after her death at 72 — perhaps ironically, of heart failure — Adams’ footprint has faded. Sklenicka’s portrait may well encourage new readers and justifiably revive her reputation.
Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched an American Legend” and is a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Kansas City, Mo.