So begins the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, recipient of the award in 1931. The story thus far—I have read Part 1 of the novel—fixates on Jane Ward’s youth, and frankly much of it can be encapsulated by the image presented in that opening sentence. Jane is smaller than the people and events that surround her, happy to be the girl not in the spotlight, deferential to the opinions and decisions made by others (especially her family). Part 1 is titled “Andre”, and much of it does concern Jane’s teenage feelings (very chaste) for a brooding artist, the son of an employee at the French consulate. Their friendship (and romance) is disapproved of in a very stereotypically upper-middle-class fashion by Jane’s mother and older sister—veterans of the blog will recognize some elements of Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams and Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn, and there are certainly echoes of both here. Frankly I’m growing a bit tired of the retreads on this storyline: I am certain that “young person growing up middle class, yearning for the luxuries possessed by their rich condescending friends but not quite able to escape their family’s gravity” was a story that resonated with a lot of young Americans back then (maybe still today? I somehow don’t think so), but man is it getting tiresome. Barnes may have the skill to pull this off, but so far it doesn’t seem like it. This won’t be as off-putting as Tarkington because Barnes seems to like Jane and want the best for her, but that’s not going to make the next 500+ pages much easier to bear.
The fundamental problem is that Jane is a young woman who lets everyone else define her. She’s the dutiful daughter to her parents, the devoted pining lover for Andre, the supportive friend to brilliant little Agnes, her buddy, but Jane isn’t really anything for herself. She has no skills to speak of—she cannot cook or sew, she has no interest in business or writing or teaching—and so she is returning home from Bryn Mawr College at the end of Part 1 to “debut”. She has no degree from Bryn Mawr and wouldn’t know what to do with one. Her family has a little money, but basically she’s entering the social scene with Elizabeth Bennet’s long-term prospects, but without either her wit or her ambition. The only young man she really wants to marry is a penniless French artist her family would never approve of. She feels a sort of enthusiasm for his art largely because she loves him, but she hasn’t really envisioned what it would be like to be Andre’s wife, and her blinkered American middle-class upbringing will make her painfully unable to cope with the kind of environments she’d enter as his wife. I have no idea if she’ll marry him or if she’ll be snapped up by some semi-wealthy young fellow in the Chicago social scene, but either way this is going to end badly….and very slowly. It’s hard to see what Barnes is trying to explore, though, and so I’m pessimistic at the outset.
The one really compelling thing about the book for me is the setting. It begins in Chicago in the 1890s, which was a surprise and delight for me. You may perhaps remember, long ago, in my very first post on my very first Pulitzer novel (His Family, 1918), I reflected on the novel’s New York setting, and wondered what it would be like to live in a city you read about in a novel. The answer is that it is both very distracting and adds a layer of depth I’d not really experienced while reading before. Jane’s world as a child is made up of streets I know well. I ate dinner last Tuesday about three blocks from the Wards’ house; I walked down Chicago Avenue the other day just about exactly along the route that Andre took when carrying Jane’s books to school for her. Add to that the fact that I recently read two books about Chicago in the 1890s (The Devil in the White City and City of the Century), and this is an environment I feel very at home in—Jane’s visit to the Columbian Exposition, her waiting under the Water Tower, her comments about riding streetcars and going to plays in the Auditorium, all very vivid for me. And distracting—at one point, I had to get out a map to see if Muriel and Flora live in the neighborhood I thought they did (and they do). I like it, though, and I’m hoping I get some more Chicago-set literature out of the Pulitzer quest. It makes me want to go back and re-read a couple of the novels, especially So Big which spends most of its second half in Chicago. Maybe someday I will (for now, Excelsior!).
As a result of all this (and other thoughts I’ve voiced here recently), the thing looming for me right now is class—as in, economic grouping. These early Pulitzers are often exceptionally class-conscious: characters are paralyzingly ashamed of their background, or hyper-aware of the lower status of someone else at the party. It’s my sense that Americans don’t feel this way anymore, and I wonder where the shift takes place. I want to emphasize—I am not arguing class no longer matters in the United States. To the contrary, I think we’re more deeply divided economically than ever. But I think our personal image, the rhetoric that we use about ourselves and our communities, masks this much more heavily than was true in the novel I’m reading, and others that preceded it. Is it the Great Depression that changes this dynamic? Is it a dynamic that’s more prevalent back East, and which I think is faded just because I grew up “out West” in Seattle? Is it maybe just something that most people feel and I don’t for some reason?
This intersects with my continued musings about the fact that I allegedly am now living in the “pocket of poverty” in my neighborhood. Is it clear to others in a way it’s not to me that these blocks are worse off than others nearby? Or is it an illusion—something people believe out of prejudice or fear or an inability to see how neighborhoods grow and change? I’ve been reading some blog posts recently about some really unpleasant racial profiling incidents, and more generally about the really disproportionate fear that whites have about violent/criminal behavior perpetrated by racial minorities. It seems like most white Americans tense up a little when walking past a group of young black or Latino teenage boys—most of us don’t call that “racism”. We call it “gang activity” or “why are all these kids on the streets” or whatever else lets us believe that our fears are well-founded. And we can always find an incident in the paper or on the local news that reassures us about how right we are. It troubles me.
This has gone a bit far afield from Years of Grace, but I’m sensing my posts on the novel may drift in this fashion—it’s simply too basic a plot, too plain and safe a book to really grab me and force me to think about important issues. So I’m going to feel a bit more free to spin off the book into some topics I’m pondering: mostly questions, I think, since answers are much harder to find, and I’d rather make you think than tell you to agree with me. Anyway, Barnes is writing about a woman growing up at the dawn of the 20th Century. A lot is ahead of her—wars and epidemics and suffrage movements and Prohibition and plenty more besides. I hope Barnes lets that world through to Jane Ward, and that Jane has enough backbone to engage with the world rather than be cowed by it. The evidence so far is not very encouraging, but an open mind will be maintained—in the meantime, have a great Labor Day weekend!