1931: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

Yes, that’s right.  After taking a year on the last novel, this one I drop in two weeks flat.  Says something about it, I reckon, and I’ll try to illuminate that a bit in the review below.

Literary Style:

I don’t want to savage Barnes.  This wasn’t a terrible novel.  It just never really gave me much reason to connect with it—it’s the novel I feared I was going to suffer through when I began The Age of Innocence, which remains the one true classic I’ve discovered on this quest thus far.  What I mean by that is this: I feared (with Wharton’s novel) that this high society narrative would feel really distant and unimportant.  Hundreds of pages of who might be dancing with who, and whether or not Grandfather would approve of, you know, a family from that side of 57th Street, and how likely it is that young Bryant is sneaking around behind his wife’s back, oh he wouldn’t, oh he might, oh dear well what will the bridge club think of his mother now?  There are people who can’t stand Wharton or Jane Austen for this very reason—they ask why on earth it matters.  And they’re wrong about Wharton and Austen because those two ladies, masters of craft and human foible, make the setting a mere structure on which to present real truths about who people really are.  They make the dances important whether or not we like ballgowns, because the characters are engaged in something serious that involves real feelings of love and anxiety and the desire for safety (and the desire for danger).

Barnes isn’t a craftswoman of their caliber, and for this reason the novel descended for me into a long slow trudge through a variety of social scenes and murmured disapprovals and generational misunderstandings that frankly didn’t resonate for me at all.  I can imagine how I or my friends would feel when facing things like this—the death of an aging parent, the possibility that my child is about to destroy a family, etc.—but the novel won’t let me feel it along with the characters.  I remain a bit baffled by them.  Barnes is too interested in plot (and there is a ton of it in this novel) to recognize that a plot about rich people having the problems that arise from behaving like petulant children…well, that plot is bound not to connect with a lot of folks.  It must have reached the Pulitzer Board in 1931, but it missed me by a country mile and I can’t imagine it would appeal to many folks in a modern audience.

The book attempts, to its credit, to try and handle the questions of marriage and fidelity on some kind of deeper level, but Barnes is so crazy with driving every plot forward that she doesn’t strike a good final chord on any of it.  We’re left believing that some people should stay with their husbands and some shouldn’t.  And that’s probably a reasonable sentiment, but it hardly warrants a 600 page novel.  Barnes tries to say more than this, but she keeps circling back around on herself, like someone who can see every side of the argument and really doesn’t know what to think.  It’s fine to be that person, but when that person joins the conversation mid-argument and talks in circles, all it does is frustrate everyone actually invested in getting to a resolution.  I don’t demand that every novel “say something”.  But if it’s not going to “say something”, I think it either needs to achieve artistic worth by being written artfully or by creating an open space into which I’m invited to speak artfully.  Barnes doesn’t have the skill for the former or, seemingly, any clue about what it would be like to achieve the latter.

So we’re left with a novel that drives through decades of plot, connecting us to a lot of families and situations and tense conversations, and introduces us to a great many characters (some of whom I’d like to know better, though not many).  It is less racist than you’d expect, and may be about the most progressive novel I’ve read yet in allowing women to be intelligent and independent and high-achieving: these are not small things, and I’m pleased they were present.  In the end, though, I couldn’t say why anyone not on a misguided personal Pulitzer quest should read it, particularly.  You could idle away a nice summer day or two reading it, and the pages would turn at a reasonable enough pace.  A month later, you’d be hard-pressed to name anyone or any event in it, particularly.  It attempts something grander—events that recur in each generation but which play out very differently, character arcs that intertwine in at least mildly unexpected ways—but it’s usually unsuccessful.  Barnes has sufficient skill to write a good plot-heavy pulp novel, and I hope she did.  She wasn’t ready in 1931 to create art, though, and I’m disappointed that a novel like this took home a prize.

Historical Insight:

This is where Barnes does a lot to redeem herself for me.  I think she does have a good eye for setting—at the very least, she chose some good settings to catch the interest of someone like me, and this skill (along with the plot) kept me going through an otherwise forgettable novel.  She is great with the city of Chicago: from 1890 to 1930, you see the city grow and change.  She’s meticulous in detailing how the Wards’ neighborhood transitions from little houses and yards to incredible skyscrapers (the quiet Pine Street on which Jane Ward grows up is widened and turned into Michigan Avenue, the city’s famous “Magnificent Mile”).  She does a lot to consider how the city changes, and the people change with it.  Barnes hits a lot on the differences between generations—especially between the young folks of the “Gay ’90s” and the young folks of the “Roaring Twenties”—and I think at least occasionally she’s giving some useful insights into how Americans saw themselves (and things like “duty” and “honor”) differently in only a couple of decades.  Certainly it’s the first novel I’ve had in a while that really made me conscious of how it would have felt to watch the country growing in those years.  I think this was a fairly minor purpose of Barnes’s, but the older this novel gets, the more important I think that perspective will be.  Certainly I was glad it was here, and learned a little (especially about Chicago’s history) that I’m glad to have encountered.


I hemmed and hawed over how to resolve my feelings about the novel, and have settled on the rating “I Can’t Quite Recommend This Book”.  If you picked it up, I have a feeling you could get into it, especially if you were interested in America at the turn of the 20th Century (or Chicago in particular).  You’d bob along, irritated at times that the novel wasn’t really exploring ideas very much, increasingly aware that you just weren’t that invested in these characters and their lives, gradually convinced that you were reading mostly just to get to the end and then set it down.  In the end you’d wonder why you spent a big chunk of hours on the novel…you could just as easily have gotten your plot fix from a mystery or romance novel in a third of the time, and used the rest to read a great non-fiction book about the time period or setting.  There’s something here, but given how limited reading time is for most of us, I can’t in good conscience suggest you spend some of it on this book.

The Last Word:

As usual, I give the novel’s author final say—in this case, feeling as I do about the novel, the choice is easy.  I ignore any attempt to explore these characters (cardboard, most of them), and focus instead on my city, and a passage where I think Barnes is really good at getting her arms around something about Chicago.  Jane Ward, in her late forties or early fifties, is driving through Chicago north of the Loop on her way from her old neighborhood back to her suburban home in the Skokie Valley, and as she looks out the window. the narrator gives us her thoughts:

[Jane] rolled through the southern entrance of the park and out onto the stream-like bend of the Lake Shore Drive.  It was a lovely street, she thought, edging that great, empty plane of blue and sparkling water.  One of the loveliest city streets in the world.  If it were in Paris, you would cross the ocean to see it.  If it were in London, you would have heard of it all your life.  If it were in Venice, the walls of the world’s art galleries would be hung with oils and water-colours and etchings of its felicities of tint and line.  But here, in Chicago, no one paid much attention to it.  The decorous row of Victorian houses, withdrawn in their lawns, were discreetly curtained against that dazzling wash of light and colour.  Only the new, bare, skyscraping apartments, rising here and there flush from the pavement, seemed aware of the view.  They cheapened it, they commercialized it, they exploited it, but at least they knew it was there.

The Oak Street Beach, as Jane rolled past it, looked like a Sorolla canvas in the mellow afternoon sunshine.  The golden sands were streaked and slashed and spotted with brilliant splashes of colour.  Bathers, in suits of every conceivable hue, were sunning themselves on the beach.  Men, incredibly brown, were breasting the blue waves.  Girls were shrieking with delight in the nearer breakers.  Children were paddling in the shallows.  Jane had known the end of Oak Street before the beach had been there.  The curve of filled-in land to the south had created it.  Oak Street used to end in a row of waterlogged pilings, held in place by blocks of white limestone.  Pilings on which ragged fishermen had sat, with tin cans of bait and strings of little silver fish at their side.  It seemed just a year or two to Jane since she had seen the end of Oak Street looking just like that.

‘Chicago,’ thought Jane solemnly, ‘makes you believe in Genesis. It makes you believe that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth.'”

“I have lived and accomplished the task that Destiny gave me, and now I shall pass beneath the earth no common shade.”

That quote is an excerpt from a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid—to be specific, it is a passage uttered by Carthage’s queen, Dido, just before she commits suicide by setting fire to herself, a method chosen (in part) so that the departing Aeneas (the cad!) will see the smoke rise from Carthage and know that, in choosing to leave her, he has chosen her death.  It’s a quotation that has been printed, verbatim, I think four times by now, half-way through Years of Grace…gee, you think maybe our author wants us to see it as significant?

If so, it just suits my increasingly high levels of dismay with the book.  The novel’s very readable—the plot (such as it is) bobs along very gaily and Barnes is good with setting.  As noted before, one of the advantages Barnes has is that her setting for much of the story is Chicago, a city whose features I’m growing to love, so I can stay interested in those portions of the novel.  But it’s odd to read a story where I’m less interested in what the heroine is doing than I am in what intersection she’s passing as she does it.  The figure of Dido is constantly invoked, I think, because Barnes (and/or her main character, Jane Ward Carver) sees her as inspirational—Dido, rather than finding a way to live without the man she has fallen in love with, sees her suicide as a really noble and elevated action that prove she’s a lot deeper and more important than the average bear.  Jane Carver already has one example to point to, and it’s pretty clear she considers that character’s suicide to be pretty cool/interesting/romantic.  I guess we can anticipate where the novel might be headed.

There’s more to the book, of course, than a steady countdown to suicide.  Every section of the book bears a different man’s name, as different men enter Jane’s life and convince her that, yes, maybe this rush of feeling is what love really is.  We’ve hit the “devoted high school boyfriend”, the “impetuous young fiance”, and the “dutiful and loyal husband” notes.  Now we’re engaged in discovering the charms of the rakish scoundrels who marry our best friends.  I’m sure there’s a feminist way to read the book and rehabilitate it—to say that these choices and this limited sphere explains the kind of circumscribed middle class lives that women of Jane’s era and station were forced to live.  But I think, to be honest, that that’s a load of dingo’s kidneys.  The book itself is full of more interesting and daring women than Jane shows any interest in being—the woman who serves as president of Bryn Mawr College (and an inspiration to Jane, briefly), Jane’s friend Agnes whose skill as a journalist and writer could have led her to stardom (and maybe still will, if she can solve the problem of her philandering spouse), Jane’s athletic sister-in-law who has never married and intends to take a house with another single woman friend of hers (leaving me to wonder if a novelist could get away with writing a clearly closeted lesbian character in 1931…and, if so, whether the sister-in-law is intended to be taken that way), and I could go on.  Jane, of all her friends, seems one of the most conventional—not because she likes convention, but because she’s frightened of taking the chance to be somebody.  Because trying to be somebody carries with it the real chance that you will fail and have to feel those consequences, at least for a while.  And yes, it is tragic—truly tragic—that her society makes those consequences more arduous and more lasting for women than it does for men.  But it doesn’t stop her friends and associates from being brave, and I wish it didn’t stop Jane either.  As it is, we have a “heroine” who is not heroic, despite the novel’s attempts to see her in that way.  I prefer enduring this ill-founded confidence to watching Tarkington condescend to a similar character in Alice Adams, but not by much.  I’m reading it in big gulps out of a desire to clear it out of the way and find what’s next—high hopes of having a review by Friday, but we’ll see if the work week allows that!  In the meantime, go out and read a book that isn’t Years of Grace, and enjoy the last of your long weekend.

“Little Jane Ward sat at her father’s left hand at the family breakfast table, her sleek, brown pigtailed head bent discreetly over her plate.”

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!