Cover image for The stories of Alice Adams.
The stories of Alice Adams.
Adams, Alice, 1926-1999.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Short stories
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf, 2002.
Physical Description:
621 pages ; 25 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Library
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf

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Twenty-five of her stories appeared regularly in The New Yorker within a ten-year period. Others were published in The Paris Review, Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and McCall's. Her work was included in twenty-three O. Henry Award collections, and she received first prize six times; she was represented in numerous collections of Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories. Now the best of Alice Adams's short fiction is gathered in one volume-fifty-three stories that illumine the hidden workings of human relationships. In "Verlie I Say Unto You," the unexpected death of Verlie Jones's lover reveals the unsettling truth about her employers-that, though they "couldn't get along without" Verlie, their maid of ten years, she is nothing more than a stranger to them. In "Berkeley House," a disenfranchised daughter anguished over the sale of her childhood home finally succeeds in winning the house back, only to discover that it does not hold the key to her happiness, and perhaps never did. In "Greyhound People," a woman repeatedly, and purposely, takes the wrong bus home from work after meeting its warm and disarmingly candid cast of passengers, a refreshing and life-changing break from the coldly polite company she finds on the "right" bus-and at home. In story after story, insight joins with grace to show us the truth about the lives of people around us. A moving and elegant collection and the capstone to the brilliant career of one of the most beloved American writers of our time.

Author Notes

Alice Adams was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1926 and grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. After graduating from Radcliffe College, she married and had a son in 1951. Adams later recalled her late 20s and early 30s as the worst years of her life. After divorcing her husband in 1958, she worked at secretarial and clerical jobs to support herself and her son.

Adams published her first work of fiction when she was about thirty, and was more than forty-years-old by the time she began making a living solely as a writer. In 1982, in recognition of the twelfth consecutive appearance of her work in "Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards," Adams won a special award for continuing achievement. The only other previous winners were Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. A New York Times best-selling author, many of Adams's books, among them A Southern Exposure and Almost Perfect, focus on love and on women struggling to find their place in the world. Other works of Adams include the novels Medicine Men, a story that explores the relationship between doctors and their patients, and Superior Women, a compelling tale of five women who come of age during World War II.

Now a San Francisco resident, Adams's work has been compared for Southern flavor to that of Flannery O'Connor and for sophistication to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

(Bowker Author Biography) Alice Adams was born in Virginia and graduated from Radcliffe College. The author of eleven novels and dozens of prize-winning short stories, she was the recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She lived in San Francisco until her death in 1999.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Adams wrote piercingly of love's traumas and pleasures. Her novels are shrewd and provocative, including the posthumously published After the War (2000), but it is Adams' stories that shine, those complex, lustrously detailed, and utterly compelling tales of powerful women either embroiled in or witness to impossible relationships. Quintessentially American in her sensibility, Adams is nonetheless cosmopolitan in her worldview, writing with equal insight and conviction about the repressive mores of the South, the ambitiousness of San Francisco, and the often ludicrous, sometimes epiphanic adventures of Americans abroad. In the 53 assured and intriguing stories collected here, Adams conjures a memorable cast of women characters, including a painter, sculptor, art historian, marine biologist, and psychologist, as well as independent gals who love to cook, swim, make love, and read. Some are mothers; others stay free of family ties. Many drink too much, others are "big ladies" unapologetic about their size and appetites, and some are plain, even ugly (or so they believe), cynically navigating the chilly waters of an off-handedly judgmental world. Failed love affairs, obsessions, madness, jealousy, sexual ambivalence, material abundance and emotional bankruptcy--all are explored with avid fascination, frankness, and elan. Thanks to this definitive volume, Adams' place is secured beside such stellar sister short-story writers as Welty, Paley, Gilchrist, Gallant, and Beattie. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

In her long and prolific career, Adams produced five collections of stories (as well as 11 novels). Now, three years after her death, Knopf is republishing 53 of those deft and delicate stories in one volume, reprising Adams's career. Readers already in love with Adams will be pleased to re-encounter-and those new to her pleased to discover-the seemingly offhand openings that carry the reader deep into the story, the swift characterizations, the effortless shifts in point of view and, of course, the almost casual but dazzling sentences. Most often the protagonists are women, usually negotiating love. But Adams also wrote affectingly about mothers and daughters; the seeds for the many mother/daughter novels of the '80s and '90 must lie in her stories. Adams might have been the first to write about the hippie mother going from one abusive boyfriend to another ("By the Sea"); in the ravishing "Roses, Rhododendrons," a girl befriends the Farrs, a family with high-class pretensions, while her envious mother watches from afar. Adams often wrote about the privileged and famous, portraying actresses, concert pianists, even heiresses with deliciously messy lives. But she wrote with an awareness that privilege comes and goes and is often hard-won. Taken together, these stories betray the changing mores of the past half-century; taken in sequence, they trace the changes in the American short story over the past 40 years, some of those changes wrought by Adams herself. Adams could have been characterizing her own work when she described the Farrs' yard in "Roses, Rhododendrons": "The effect was rich and careless, generous and somewhat mysterious. I was deeply stirred." As will be her readers. (Nov. 12) Forecast: Most of Adams's story collections are out of print, so this volume is well-timed and will likely become a backlist standard. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Adams is gone, but her excellent short stories are still with us as this collection of 53 topnotch entries attests. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



VERLIE I SAY UNTO YOU Every morning of all the years of the thirties, at around seven, Verlie Jones begins her long and laborious walk to the Todds' house, two miles uphill. She works for the Todds--their maid. Her own house, where she lives with her four children, is a slatted floorless cabin, in a grove of enormous sheltering oaks. It is just down a gravelly road from the bending highway, and that steep small road is the first thing she has to climb, starting out early in the morning. Arrived at the highway she stops and sighs, and looks around and then starts out. Walking steadily but not in any hurry, beside the winding white concrete. First there are fields of broomstraw on either side of the road, stretching back to the woods, thick, clustered dark pines and cedars, trees whose lower limbs are cluttered with underbrush. Then the land gradually rises until on one side there is a steep red clay bank, going up to the woods; on the other side a wide cornfield, rich furrows dotted over in spring with tiny wild flowers, all colors--in the winter dry and rutted, sometimes frosted over, frost as shiny as splintered glass. Then the creek. Before she comes to the small concrete bridge, she can see the heavier growth at the edge of the fields, green, edging the water. On the creek's steep banks, below the bridge, are huge peeling poplars, ghostly, old. She stands there looking down at the water (the bridge is halfway to the Todds'). The water is thick and swollen, rushing, full of twigs and leaf trash and swirling logs in the spring. Trickling and almost dried out when summer is over, in the early fall. Past the bridge is the filling station, where they sell loaves of bread and cookies and soap, along with the gas and things for cars. Always there are men sitting around at the station, white men in overalls, dusty and dried out. Sometimes they nod to Verlie. "Morning, Verlie. Going to be any hot day?" Occasionally, maybe a couple of times a year, a chain gang will be along there, working on the road. The colored men chained together, in their dirty, wide-striped uniforms, working with their picks. And the thin, mean guard (a white man) with his rifle, watching them. Looking quickly, briefly at Verlie as she passes. She looks everywhere but there, as her heart falls down to her stomach and turns upside down. All kinds of fears grab at her, all together: she is afraid of the guard and of those men (their heavy eyes) and also a chain gang is one of the places where her deserting husband, Horace, might well be, and she never wants to see Horace again. Not anywhere. After the filling station some houses start. Small box houses, sitting up high on brick stilts. On the other side of the highway red clay roads lead back into the hills, to the woods. To the fields of country with no roads at all, where sometimes Mr. Todd goes to hunt rabbits, and where at other times, in summer, the children, Avery and Devlin Todd, take lunches and stay all day. From a certain bend in the highway Verlie can see the Todds' house, but she rarely bothers to look anymore. She sighs and shifts her weight before starting up the steep, white, graveled road, and then the road to the right that swings around to the back of the house, to the back door that leads into the kitchen. There on the back porch she has her own small bathroom that Mr. Todd put in for her. There is a mirror and some nails to hang her things on, and a flush toilet, ordered from Montgomery Ward, that still works. No washbasin, but she can wash her hands in the kitchen sink. She hangs up her cardigan sweater in her bathroom and takes an apron off a nail. She goes into the kitchen to start everyone's breakfast. They all eat separate. First Avery, who likes oatmeal and then soft-boiled eggs; then Mr. Todd (oatmeal and scrambled eggs and bacon and coffee); Devlin (toast and peanut butter and jam); and Mrs. Todd (tea and toast). Verlie sighs, and puts the water on. Verlie has always been with the Todds; that is how they put it to their friends. "Verlie has always been with us." Of course, that is not true. Actually she came to them about ten years before, when Avery was a baby. What they meant was that they did not know much about her life before them, and also (a more important meaning) they cannot imagine their life without her. They say, "We couldn't get along without Verlie," but it is unlikely that any of them (except possibly Jessica, with her mournful, exacerbated and extreme intelligence) realizes the full truth of the remark. And, laughingly, one of them will add, "No one else could put up with us." Another truth, or perhaps only a partial truth: in those days, there and then, most maids put up with a lot, and possibly Verlie suffers no more than most. She does get more money than most maids, thirteen dollars a week (most get along on ten or eleven). And she gets to go home before dinner, around six (she first leaves the meal all fixed for them), since they--since Mr. Todd likes to have a lot of drinks and then eat late. Every third Sunday she gets off to go to church. None of them is stupid enough to say that she is like a member of the family. Tom Todd, that handsome, guiltily faithless husband, troubled professor (the 10 percent salary cuts of the Depression; his history of abandoned projects--the book on Shelley, the innumerable articles)--Tom was the one who asked Verlie about her name. "You know, it's like in the Bible. Verlie I say unto you." Tom felt that he successfully concealed his amusement at that, and later it makes a marvelous story, especially in academic circles, in those days when funny-maid stories are standard social fare. In fact people (white people) are somewhat competitive as to who has heard or known the most comical colored person, comical meaning outrageously childishly ignorant. Tom's story always goes over well. In her summer sneakers, shorts and little shirt, Avery comes into the dining room, a small, dark-haired girl carrying a big book. Since she has learned to read (her mother taught her, when she was no bigger than a minute) she reads all the time, curled up in big chairs in the living room or in her own room, in the bed. At the breakfast table. "Good morning, Verlie." "Morning. How you?" "Fine, thank you. Going to be hot today?" "Well, I reckon so." Avery drinks her orange juice, and then Verlie takes out the glass and brings in her bowl of hot oatmeal. Avery reads the thick book while she eats. Verlie takes out the oatmeal bowl and brings in the soft-boiled eggs and a glass of milk. "You drink your milk, now, hear?" Verlie is about four times the size of Avery and more times than that her age. (But Verlie can't read.) Verlie is an exceptionally handsome woman, big and tall and strong, with big bright eyes and smooth yellow skin over high cheekbones. A wide curving mouth, and strong white teeth. Once there was a bad time between Avery and Verlie: Avery was playing with some children down the road, and it got to be suppertime. Jessica sent Verlie down to get Avery, who didn't want to come home. "Blah blah blah blah!" she yelled at Verlie--who, unaccountably, turned and walked away. The next person Avery saw was furious Jessica, arms akimbo. "How are you, how could you? Verlie, who's loved you all your life? How could you be so cruel, calling her black?" "I didn't--I said blah. I never said black. Where is she?" "Gone home. Very hurt." Jessica remained stiff and unforgiving (she had problems of her own); but the next morning Avery ran down into the kitchen at the first sound of Verlie. "Verlie, I said blah blah--I didn't say black." And Verlie smiled, and it was all over. For good. Tom Todd comes into the dining room, carrying the newspaper. "Good morning, Avery. Morning, Verlie. Well, it doesn't look like a day for getting out our umbrellas, does it now?" That is the way he talks. "Avery, please put your book away. Who knows, we might have an absolutely fascinating conversation." She gives him a small sad smile and closes her book. "Pass the cream?" "With the greatest of pleasure." "Thanks." But despite the intense and often painful complications of his character, Tom's relationship with Verlie is perhaps the simplest in that family. Within their rigidly defined roles they are even fond of each other. Verlie thinks he talks funny, but not much more so than most men--white men. He runs around with women (she knows that from his handkerchiefs, the lipstick stains that he couldn't have bothered to hide from her) but not as much as Horace did. He bosses his wife and children but he doesn't hit them. He acts as Verlie expects a man to act, and perhaps a little better. And from Tom's point of view Verlie behaves like a Negro maid. She is somewhat lazy; she does as little cleaning as she can. She laughs at his jokes. She sometimes sneaks drinks from his liquor closet. He does not, of course, think of Verlie as a woman--a woman in the sense of sexual possibility; in fact he once sincerely (astoundingly) remarked that he could not imagine a sexual impulse toward a colored person. Devlin comes in next. A small and frightened boy, afraid of Verlie. Once as he stood up in his bath she touched his tiny penis and laughed and said, "This here's going to grow to something nice and big." He was terrified: what would he do with something big, down there? He mutters good morning to his father and sister and to Verlie. Then Jessica. Mrs. Todd. "Good morning, everyone. Morning, Verlie. My, doesn't it look like a lovely spring day?" She sighs, as no one answers. The end of breakfast. Verlie clears the table, washes up, as those four people separate. There is a Negro man who also (sometimes) works for the Todds, named Clifton. Yard work: raking leaves in the fall, building a fence around the garbage cans, and then a dog kennel, then a playhouse for the children. When Verlie saw Clifton the first time he came into the yard (a man who had walked a long way, looking for work), what she thought was: Lord, I never saw no man so beautiful. Her second thought was: He sick. Clifton is bronze-colored. Reddish. Shining. Not brown like most colored (or yellow, as Verlie is). His eyes are big and brown, but dragged downward with his inside sickness. And his sadness: he is a lonesome man, almost out of luck. "Whatever do you suppose they talk about?" Tom Todd says to Jessica, who has come into his study to help him with the index of his book, an hour or so after breakfast. They can hear the slow, quiet sounds of Verlie's voice, with Clifton's, from the kitchen. "Us, maybe?" Jessica makes this light, attempting a joke, but she really wonders if in fact she and Tom are their subject. Her own communication with Verlie is so mystifyingly nonverbal that she sometimes suspects Verlie of secret (and accurate) appraisals, as though Verlie knows her in ways that no one else does, herself included. At other times she thinks that Verlie is just plain stubborn. From the window come spring breaths of blossom and grasses and leaves. Of spring earth. Aging plump Jessica deeply sighs. Tom says, "I very much doubt that, my dear. Incredibly fascinating though we be." In near total despair Jessica says, "Sometimes I think I just don't have the feeling for an index." The telephone rings. Tom and Jessica look at each other, and then Verlie's face comes to the study door. "It's for you, Mr. Todd. A long distance." Clifton has had a bad life; it almost seems cursed. The same sickness one spring down in Mississippi carried off his wife and three poor little children, and after that everything got even worse: every job that he got came apart like a bunch of sticks in his hands. Folks all said that they had no money to pay. He even made deliveries for a bootlegger, knocking on back doors at night, but the man got arrested and sent to jail before Clifton got any money. He likes working for the Todds, and at the few other jobs around town that Mrs. Todd finds for him. But he doesn't feel good. Sometimes he thinks he has some kind of sickness. He looks anxiously at Verlie as he says this last, as though he, like Jessica, believes that she can see inside him. "You nervous," Verlie says. "You be all right, come summertime." But she can't look at him as she says this. They are standing in the small apple orchard where Verlie's clotheslines are. She has been hanging out the sheets. They billow, shuddering in the lively restive air of early spring. Clifton suddenly takes hold of her face, and turns it around to his. He presses his mouth and his body to hers, standing there. Something deep inside Verlie heats up and makes her almost melt. "Verlie!" It is Avery, suddenly coming up on them, so that they cumbersomely step apart. "Verlie, my father wants you." Avery runs away almost before she has stopped speaking. Clifton asks, "You reckon we ought to tell her not to tell?" "No, she's not going to tell." Verlie is right, but it is a scene that Avery thinks about. Of course, she has seen other grown-ups kissing: her father and Irene McGinnis or someone after a party. But Verlie and Clifton looked different; for one thing they were more absorbed. It took them a long time to hear her voice. Tom is desperately questioning Jessica. "How in God's name will I tell her?" he asks. Verlie's husband, Horace, is dead. He died in a Memphis hospital, after a knife fight, having first told a doctor the name of the people and the town where his wife worked. "I could tell her," Jessica forces herself to say, and for a few minutes they look at each other, with this suggestion lying between them. But they both know, with some dark and intimate Southern knowledge, that Tom will have to be the one to tell her. And alone: it would not even "do" for Jessica to stay on in the room, although neither of them could have explained these certainties. Excerpted from The Stories of Alice Adams by Alice Adams All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.