American Literature Alice Adams
Carol Sklenicka
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0233


Alice Boyd Adams (b. 1926–d. 1999) published five collections of short stories, eleven novels, a travel memoir, and many uncollected stories, essays, and reviews during a four-decade career that began slowly when she was in her thirties. The O. Henry Memorial Award series gave her a Special Award for Continuing Achievement as a short-story writer in 1982, citing “her clear, sometimes poignant, sometimes ironic, but always deeply sympathetic view of the complexities of contemporary life.” She is one of only four writers (the others: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and Alice Munro) to have been so honored. As a White child growing up in segregated Chapel Hill, Adams resisted the racist values of the South. After spending her summers in Maine and a school year in Wisconsin, she idealized the North, a view that hardened while she finished high school in Richmond, Virginia. She attended Radcliffe College during World War II, graduating at age nineteen, and worked briefly in publishing before marrying Boston-native Mark Linenthal Jr. The couple lived in Europe, where he taught at the Salzburg Seminars and studied at the Sorbonne. In 1948, she followed Linenthal to California and worked as an office clerk while he attended Stanford. Their only child, Peter Adams Linenthal, arrived in 1951. The family settled in San Francisco, where Adams continued to live after she divorced Linenthal in 1958 and began to publish short stories. Her first novel, Careless Love (1966), led to more story sales, including her first New Yorker acceptance in 1969. Eventually, Adams would publish twenty-two stories in that magazine. Though she was categorized as “a New Yorker writer,” some of her most important work appeared in literary quarterlies. A young editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Victoria Wilson, purchased Families and Survivors, beginning her long relationship with both Wilson and Knopf. While Adams’s short stories are her greatest artistic achievement and deserve serious critical attention, the full span of her fiction offers social commentary on 20th-century American lives, especially regarding the challenges of feminism to romantic ideals and conventional gender roles, women’s friendships, political upheaval that disrupts personal morality and expectations, racial relations in the Jim Crow South and American civil rights era, the impact of geographical and economic displacement on individual lives, and the role of artists in the United States.

General Overviews

Adams scholarship to date has been sparse, leaving ample room for further critical studies with theoretical grounding in feminist and historical theory. Mangum 2019, the essential and only book-length critical introduction to Alice Adams’s large body of short fiction and novels, outlines the evolution of an “Alice Adams woman” character during the four decades of her career. Ferguson 2001 offers a more condensed overview that also touches on all of Adams’s published work and notes some reviewers’ sexist responses to Adams’s work. Sklenicka 2019, a full-length biography, includes critical commentary on many of the short stories and all the novels.

  • Ferguson, Christine C. “Alice (Boyd) Adams.” In American Short-Story Writers since World War II: Third Series. Edited by Patrick Meanor and Richard E. Lee, 3–15. Detroit: Gale, 2001.

    Analyzes Adams’s contribution to American fiction by tracing the arc of her career with emphasis on her resistance to conventional images of women: “Love, and the devastation that it can produce, acts not to define women’s experience, but as a vehicle through which to expose their resilience” (p. 7).

  • Mangum, Bryant. Understanding Alice Adams. Columbia: Columbia University of South Carolina Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv6mtf2v

    Indispensable introduction that argues that Adams’s fiction offers a social history of women in American society for the post–World War II and post-Vietnam era, much as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s did for the post–World War I era. Astute, comprehensive, but highly condensed monograph discusses all of Adams’s published fiction and demonstrates how her narrative style permits her to achieve character-focused fiction with expansive time frames.

  • Sklenicka, Carol. Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer. New York: Scribner, 2019.

    Full-length literary biography of Adams, unauthorized but written with cooperation from her estate; the authoritative source on her life and the evolution of her work. Based on close reading of Adams’s work as well as on interviews with her colleagues, friends, and family and on archival materials, and serves both as a key to her literary texts and as a guide to further research.

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