Brown, Mary Ward 1917-
BROWN, Mary Ward 1917-
PERSONAL: Born June 18, 1917, in Hamburg, AL; daughter of Thomas Ira (a farmer) and Mary (Hubbard) Ward; married Charles Kirtley Brown (a publicity director), June 18, 1939 (deceased); children: Kirtley Ward. Education: Judson College, A.B., 1938; studied creative writing at University of Alabama and University of North Carolina during the 1950s. Religion: Episcopalian.
ADDRESSES: Home—Route No. 2, Box 172, Browns, AL 36759. Agent—Amanda Urban, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Judson College, Marion, AL, publicity director, 1938-39; writer. Worked as a secretary for a short time during the 1970s; affiliated with Office of Guidance and Counseling, Marion Military Institute.
AWARDS, HONORS: Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first fiction, PEN American Center, and Alabama Library Association award, both 1987, and Lillian Smith award, 1991, all for Tongues of Flame.
Tongues of Flame (short-story collection; includes "Beyond New Forks," "The Black Dog," and "Goodbye, Cliff"), Dutton (New York, NY), 1986.
It Wasn't All Dancing and Other Stories, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 2002.
Contributor to anthologies, including The Human Experience: Contemporary American and Soviet Fiction and Poetry, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989; New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, edited by Shannon Ravenel, Algonquin, 1989; Stories, edited by Donald Hays, University of Arkansas Press; and New Stories by Southern Women, edited by Mary Ellis Gibson, University of South Carolina Press. Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Grand Street, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and McCall's.
SIDELIGHTS: Mary Ward Brown, who won the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for first fiction with the short-story collection Tongues of Flame, has lived in the same house most of her life. Born in Alabama in 1917, Brown grew up on her father's three-thousand-acre plantation—complete with store, saw mill, and cotton gin—and studied at a small Baptist women's college a mere six miles up the road. In 1939 she married Charles Kirtley Brown, the publicity director for Auburn University, and lived in Auburn for seven years until the couple returned with their son to the land the author's father had left them. After spending her life raising a family, being a homemaker, and writing for a brief time during the 1950s, Brown, who claimed in People magazine that "to do good work takes the concentration of a lifetime," decided in 1970 that she wished to write again. Eight years later, when she was sixty-one, one of her short stories appeared in McCall's. The eight stories Brown has had published in literary magazines since 1980 form part of Tongues of Flame.
Tongues of Flame comprises eleven vignettes, illustrating the replacement of the archaic and decaying Old South with the modern New South. Brown, whom critics have likened to Southern authors Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner, writes about everyday characters—dirt farmers, preachers, widows, entrepreneurs, and outlanders—caught in ordinary dilemmas. These folks, rooted to the past and hardly equipped to deal with the complex changes wrought by the turn of generations, face a modern age which rejects many of their former customs and rules. The characters are so typically "Southern" that Brown often receives letters from readers who insist that they know her characters. "But they are no one I really know," the author told Peggy Brawley in People. "They are a little bit of everybody."
Included in the collection of stories that Alex Albright in the Raleigh News and Observer called "often bittersweet and sometimes funny" is "Goodbye, Cliff," the tale of an aged widow with four sons who struggles for years to pay off the debts left by her abusive farmer husband. Fifteen years later she is finally freed of her monetary worries and contemplates buying the long-overdue headstone for her husband's grave. When a neighbor reveals that the husband had been unfaithful for many years, the widow is devastated; yet she also finds comfort in the disclosure. She no longer fears meeting her husband in heaven.
Addressing the changing race relations of the new South is "The Black Dog," a story of a stray mongrel that adopts the home of a widow. At first, although she sympathizes with it, the woman wants nothing to do with the dog. Slowly her attitude changes as she realizes the pain of living a life full of rejection and abuse, and she begins to look at the dog not as a nuisance but as a survivor in a hostile world. Brown told CA: "I didn't have race in mind at all when I wrote 'The Black Dog.' Here in the country, people are always putting out unwanted dogs and cats (I had another black dog show up recently), and it's up to the ones in whose yards they show up to do something about them. I guess I did have in mind something about the limits of human responsibility as I wrote the story: Like, how many needs of any kind can a person take on in addition to his own. But I've been sorry my black dog in the story has had to carry the burden of race—and also that limitation."
Another Tongues of Flame story, "Beyond New Forks," focuses on the changing master/servant relationship. A white widow and her semiretired black cook join forces to persuade the cook's granddaughter to work for the white woman, assisting in the maintenance of her antebellum house. The granddaughter, however, has no intention of providing a second generation of servitude to the woman, preferring the fast life instead. The two women become united by their reliance on the past and their inability to cope with the new customs and lifestyles.
Although some critics noted that Brown's themes were occasionally unoriginal, Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review lauded Brown's "attentiveness to word and gesture" and asserted that her characters "are revealed, clutching tatters of pride, passion, disappointment and fortitude." Similarly, Kathryn Morton, in her New York Times Book Review critique, hailed the stories as "well written and delivered in a measured, caring voice." The critic added that "Brown writes like a woman offering warm homemade bread," which describes Brown's basic intent. "I try to be plain," the author insisted in People. "That's hard."
In 2002 Brown published her follow-up volume, It Wasn't All Dancing and Other Stories. Though there was a gap in time between Tongues of Flame and the new collection, the sixteen years "have been well worth the wait," according to Booklist's Brendan Dowling. Again the author drew upon Southern manners and mores, focusing on the ever-evolving black-white relations. In the title story, elderly, bedridden belle Rose Merriweather wonders whether asking her black nurse to use such phrases as "yes, ma'am" would "set back the whole Movement," as she says. The nurse, Etta, and her charge examine their societal attitudes and a strong friendship develops. But it is a warm bond that has come too late for the dying Rose, who recalls a long marriage set against a love for another man. But she had "stood by [her husband] and never faltered," as Brown wrote. And as he precedes her in death, she remembers how his eyes would light up when she entered their room: "It hadn't been all dancing." "Set in [Alabama's] Black Belt," wrote Alabama Public Radio's Don Noble of "Alabama Bound," "this story could have taken place in Dublin, Ireland and been in [James] Joyce's Dubliners. Brown generates emotion without sentimentality or melodrama. Great fiction is like that. Simple lines. Brown is indeed the Chekhov of Alabama."
"Social and emotional transitions act as the crux of several other stories" in It Wasn't All Dancing, noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. "A Meeting on the Road," for instance, follows a white attorney who increasingly finds himself on the outs with the growing African-American political majority in his town. A turning point in the lawyer's life—he is fired by the new black County Commissioner—leads the character to recall what was (for him) better times in the more segregated past. The Publishers Weekly reviewer, while acknowledging that these stories are "not striking," praised Brown's second collection as "an effective portrait of a time and a place in which broad change was felt through small, personal experiences."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Birmingham News, August 3, 1986.
Booklist, February 15, 2002, Brendan Dowling, review of It Wasn't All Dancing and Others Stories, p. 990.
Georgia Review, spring, 2003, Laura Smith, review of It Wasn't All Dancing and Others Stories, pp. 189-190.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 20, 1986, Richard Eder, review of Tongues of Flame.
News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), November 2, 1986, Alex Albright, review of Tongues of Flame.
New York Times Book Review, August 24, 1986, Kathryn Morton, review of Tongues of Flame.
People, September 7, 1987.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), August 24, 1986, review of Tongues of Flame.
Publishers Weekly, December 3, 2001, review of ItWasn't All Dancing and Others Stories, p. 39.
Washington Post Book World, July 9, 1986, review of Tongues of Flame.
Women's Review of Books, December, 2002, Valerie Miner, review of It Wasn't All Dancing and Others Stories, p. 18.
Alabama Public Radio,http://www.wual.ua.edu/ (September 18, 2002), Don Noble, review of It Wasn't All Dancing and Others Stories.*