Born 14 August 1926, Fredericksburg, Virginia; died 27 May 1999
Daughter of Nicholson Barney and Agatha Erskine Boyd Adams; married Mark Linenthal, Jr., 1946 (divorced 1958); children: Peter Adams Linenthal
The only child of Nicholson, a Spanish professor, and Agatha Adams, a "failed" writer, Alice Adams wrote poetry as a child hoping that if she were a writer, her mother would "like" her. Raised in a "semi-intellectual atmosphere" that was "materially comfortable but emotionally unsatisfying," Adams graduated from high school at the age of fifteen and from Radcliffe College in 1946. Her recurring themes of change, economic independence, and survival, which can often be paralleled to events in her life, earn her both praise and criticism.
At the end of a writing course at Radcliffe, Adams' professor advised her to "get married and forget" writing. Following his prescription, she married within a year, spending the next 12 years in the expected 1950s domestic role. For the first year she lived in Paris where her husband studied at the Sorbonne (the setting of her first published story, "Winter Rain," 1959). In 1948 the couple moved to California and after the birth of her son, Adams found little time for writing.
Adams' first novel, Careless Love, appeared in 1966. It satirizes the 1960s San Francisco dating scene in a remotely autobiographical tale about a newly divorced woman. Often widowed or divorced, Adams' characters not only survive changes but transcend them, ultimately gaining economic independence and experiencing growth—and this gain becomes an integral part of Adams' plots. Having been disinherited by her father when he left their family home to her stepmother, and having spent the years following her divorce in constant struggle with "part-time secretarial jobs" Adams has had firsthand knowledge of the importance of economic independence.
In the novels following Careless Love, Adams' maturity and focus as a writer become increasingly evident in the complexity of her female protagonists. Usually well-educated, upper-middle class female visual artists who are enacting a journey to womanhood, the characters are often developed through the use of parenthetical comments by an omniscient narrator. In Adams' second novel, Families and Survivors (1975), Louisa Calloway undergoes many changes before finding happiness in a second marriage and realizing her talent as a painter. In Listening to Billie (1978) Eliza Quarles attains a sense of freedom as a poet; in Rich Rewards (1980) Daphne Matthiesen earns respect as a self-supporting interior decorator; in Superior Women (1985) Megan Greene, a financially successful publisher, cosponsors a temporary haven for Atlanta's homeless women. Second Chances (1988) again explores Adams' trademark themes while examining "people's changing expectations of aging." In Caroline's Daughters (1991) the vicissitudes of the five daughters' lives "intrude" into Caroline's long-awaited contented space, but Caroline endures and survives.
Adams' stories appeared in numerous periodicals, including the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Paris Review, and she published several short-story collections. Beautiful Girl (1979) contains her first O. Henry award-winning story "A Gift of Grass." The women in the stories in To See You Again (1982) abide by an Adams' "code": "She behaves well, even under emotional stress. She does not make scenes, does not cry in public, rarely cries alone." In Return Trips (1985) as women recall or revisit people who "shaped their lives" they recognize the irreversible and continuing effects of past events. The stories in After You've Gone (1989) are about loss: some characters are devastated by it; most recover from it, and some are even freed by it.
Seeing marriage as "primarily concerned with propers," Adams lived in San Francisco with interior designer Robert McNie beginning in 1964, and she taught at the University of California at Davis as well as at Berkeley and Stanford. The 1982 recipient of the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement, Adams has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and in all but one edition of Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards from 1971 to 1989.
In the 1990s Adams continued her prolific output, producing a book approximately every two years. In A Southern Exposure (1995) Adams travels back to her native South and back in time—1939—to create one of her characteristic group novels. A Connecticut family, the Bairds, flee their former lives, settling in North Carolina. How they change as a result of their move is somewhat secondary to the social satire Adams has set up, as the Yankees, the outsiders, observe the mores of the prewar, pre-Civil Rights South.
Almost Perfect (1993) and Medicine Men (1997) are set on more familiar ground. Novels of manners, they continue Adams' examination of the affluent, well-educated milieu of San Francisco, focusing on the negotiation of power between men and women. Almost Perfect's Stella Blake initially believes she's found a dream relationship, her instability and going-nowhere career buoyed by her alliance with the successful, charismatic Richard Fallon. The balance shifts dramatically, however, as Richard experiences a precipitous descent and Stella's fortunes rise both professionally and emotionally; she not only survives her relationship with him, but heals old emotional wounds.
The cards are initially stacked in favor of the men of Medicine Men as well. When Molly Bonner, the protagonist, is diagnosed as having a brain tumor she feels compelled to rely on the expertise of her arrogant physicians and her bossy new doctor—lover. The novel portrays the passivity, infantalization, and entrapment of a patient overwhelmed by the medical establishment. It also reveals that the conduct expected of a good patient—well-behaved, uncomplaining, compliant—is not much different from that expected of a well woman in Adams' world.
Adams remained devoted to the short story. She edited the Best American Short Stories in 1991 and continued to write and publish widely in this form. Another collection, The Last Lovely City appeared in 1999. Though her characters continue in large part to be from a privileged, protected class, her stories edged into a darker, melancholy realm as the characters are made vulnerable by age, dealing with the disquieting inevitabilities of loss, diminished beauty, illness, and death. In light of these changes and the precariousness of romantic attachments, friendships are portrayed with increasing significance; the old friend especially is someone to be treasured.
Mexico: Some Travels and Some Travelers There (1990). "A Very Nice Dog," in Southwest Review (Spring 1997). After the War (2000).
Buffington, R., "Comedy, Human; Variety, Southern," in Sewanee Review (Summer 1996). Karamcheti, I., "Troubled in Paradise," in WRB (1 Sept.1997).
BL (19 Aug.1995). CA 81-84 (1979). CANR 26 (1989). CBY (1989). CLC 46 (1988). DLBY (1986). KR (15 Dec. 1988). MTCW (1991). NYT 27 May 1999. NYTBR (May 1988, Apr. 1991, Oct. 1995, Apr. 1997). Time (27 May 1999). World Literature Today (Spring 1994).
—PHYLLIS S. GLEASON
UPDATED BY VALERIE VOGRIN