Barnes, Margaret Ayer

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BARNES, Margaret Ayer

Born 8 April 1886, Chicago, Illinois; died 26 October 1967, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Daughter of Benjamin F. and Janet Hopkins Ayer; married CecilBarnes, 1910; children: three sons.

Descended on both sides from colonial English families who settled in America in the middle 1600s, Margaret Ayer Barnes attended the University School for Girls in Chicago and majored in English and philosophy at Bryn Mawr College, where she was influenced by the feminist president, M. Carey Thomas. While raising three sons, she appeared in performances of the Aldis Players in Lake Forest, Illinois, and of the North Shore Theater in Winnetka, Illinois. Her stories, published by the Pictorial Review, were later collected and published in book form as Prevailing Winds (1928). Barnes wrote three plays (two in collaboration with Edward Sheldon, a dramatist and personal friend) and five novels, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for Years of Grace (1930). After the publication of her last novel, Wisdom's Gate (1938), Barnes returned to writing occasional short stories and lecturing.

Prevailing Winds shows evidence of the skills that would bring her critical acclaim, but the narrow focus that would cause her ultimate neglect by most literary critics can also be seen. From her theatrical experience she had learned to define character through conversations; her careful observations of character, however, were limited to the upper-middle-class society of Chicago in the first third of the 20th century.

Distracted by the element of social history in Barnes's fiction, many critics overlooked important underlying themes. Feminism, a major theme which grew out of her education at Bryn Mawr, appeared in early short stories through the portrayals of Martha Cavendish in "The Dinner Party" and of Kate Dalton in "Perpetual Care." Both are women prominent in Chicago society who have chosen marriage and socially conventional lives, but each is confronted with a situation that leads her to question those choices and seek an opportunity to break with convention. Each resolves that the choice has come too late: Martha has learned to live in her thoughts and let the world go as it will; Kate in the end settles for memories to avoid upsetting her children by changing her life.

Most of the women in Barnes's novels follow the examples of these two women, but in each succeeding novel they seem less satisfied with the choice. In Years of Grace, which traces the life of Jane Ward Carver to the eve of the Great Depression, Jane abandons early adherence to the feminist principles instilled in her at Bryn Mawr and elects to fill the traditional roles of wife and mother. Already before her marriage, she had admitted she lacked the courage of her convictions: "She who thinks and runs away, lives to think another day…. I don't act at all…. I just drift." When she is offered an opportunity to defy convention and marry Jimmy Trent, she chooses to remain with her responsibilities. Only when her daughter Cicily breaks the pattern by divorcing her husband to marry Albert Lancaster, does Jane wonder if her "struggle to live with dignity and decency and decorum" had been a worthy goal.

Olivia Van Tyne Ottendorf in Westward Passage (1931) temporarily accepts her second chance at an artistic life with Nick Allen, but soon returns gratefully to her husband and the limited society she had known. She has been educated only for such a role, and the reader recognizes her, as the critic Lloyd C. Taylor, Jr., points out, as "a victim of an intricately structured social system that securely, if deceptively, deprives the woman of any training that does not contribute to the creation of the lady and the socialite."

In Within This Present (1933), Barnes explores Chicago society once again, this time through the character of Sally Sewall. From World War I through the Depression years, Sally struggles to maintain a failing marriage just as those around her struggle to preserve a disintegrating social structure.

Barnes resolves her interest in feminist themes in her final novel, Wisdom's Gate. She returns to the Carver family from Years of Grace and chronicles Cicily's life after her marriage to Albert Lancaster. Cicily has broken the pattern of her past, and although she does not achieve greater fulfillment, she gains uncompromising clarity. The topics of divorce and adultery are examined objectively and honestly. While lacking the unity and scope of Barnes's earlier novels, Wisdom's Gate portrays a marriage based on the honesty of a woman who has the courage of her convictions.

Other Works:

Age of Innocence (1928). Jenny (with E. Shelton,1929). Dishonored Lady (with E. Shelton, 1930). Edna His Wife (1935).


Barnes, E. W., The Man Who Lived Twice: The Biography of Edward Sheldon (1956). Lawrence, M., The School of Femininity (1936). Stuckey, W. J., The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look (1966). Taylor, L. C., Jr., Margaret Ayer Barnes (1974). Wagenknecht, E. C., Chicago (1964).

Other reference:

North American Review (Jan. 1934).


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Barnes, Margaret Ayer

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