Ward, Mary Jane

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WARD, Mary Jane

Born 27 August 1905, Fairmont, Indiana; died February 1981

Daughter of Claude A. and Marion Lockridge Ward; married Edward Quayle, 1928

Mary Jane Ward lived most of her life in Evanston, Illinois, where she attended Evanston High School and Northwestern University. She studied art and piano and won a year's scholarship at the Chicago Lyceum of Arts Conservatory. She began writing after her marriage to a statistician and published stories in such magazines as Woman's Home Companion and Good Housekeeping. The Snake Pit (1946), her best known book, is based on her experiences in a state mental institution, where she spent nine months after a nervous breakdown in 1941. Ward became an advocate for mental health, speaking and writing regularly on behalf of more progressive treatment of the mentally ill. In 1949, she was given the Women's National Press Club Achievement Award.

The Tree Has Roots (1937) deals with the lives of people without whom a university could not function: grounds crews, a night watchmen, a commons waitress, a stenographer. Ward is sympathetic to the everyday frustrations of lower class life during the Depression. In this first novel, she shows herself to be a fine craftsman, especially skillful with dialogue.

The Wax Apple (1938) treats the lives of two families living on the wrong side of Chicago during the Depression. Less touching than The Tree Has Roots, this is still a strong chronicle of the ultimate frustrations of life. The Professor's Umbrella (1948) is a slight work about the attempt of a Jewish college professor to find a new career after he is dismissed from his teaching position on a trumped-up charge of moral turpitude, which masks the college administration's anti-Semitism. Ward moves away from ordinary lives and takes up the politics of religion; in doing so, she unfortunately weakens the novel, creating flat types rather than characters. Less dogmatic and more diffuse is It's Different for a Woman (1952), Ward's closest approach to a feminist novel. Sally Cutter faces middle age, a roaming husband, a daughter's shaky romance, and the prospect of 40 uneventful and changeless years in an expensive suburb.

The Snake Pit is generally considered one of the most accurate and moving fictional accounts of insanity. The book follows the life in an asylum of Virginia Stuart Cunningham, writer and wife, who has had a nervous breakdown. One sign of her returning sanity is her increasing attention to the events of the asylum as "material for a story." Although Ward at the end applauds the ministrations of doctors, the story makes it clear that Virginia's recovery was born, shaped, and realized within her own mind.

Counterclockwise (1969) depicts a relapse that returns its heroine, the author of a bestselling novel about mental illness, to an expensive private hospital. The book effectively contrasts with The Snake Pit, for the heroine receives the kind of care that should have been available to Virginia Cunningham. Ward attempts to show that, properly treated, the mental patient can be fully cured and, above all, need not be feared nor rejected by society.

Neither as intense nor as focused as The Snake Pit, The Other Caroline (1970) is yet another treatment of a woman's return from insanity. In this novel, a woman is convinced her brain has been transplanted into the body of Caroline Kincaid, "the other Caroline" of the novel's title. As part of her therapy, she writes a fictionalized account of "the other Caroline's" life. By this structural device, Ward shows both the cause and the cure of the mental illness.

Ward presents in her early novels a world now unfashionable, but so concrete that her works could serve as social history. Although decidedly not a feminist, she possesses "sensitive and compassionate insight into feminine psychology." Her work, always meticulously crafted and skillfully organized, makes the subject of nervous breakdowns acceptable and even engaging; it thus creates a wide and receptive audience for her mental health crusades. Ward is an example of a single-subject writer who produces one great book and several minor gems.

Other Works:

A Little Night Music (1951).


Reference works:

American Novelists of Today (1951). CB (June 1946). TCA.

Other references

NYTBR (25 April 1937, 16 Jan. 1938, 7 April 1946, 14 April 1946, 11 Jan. 1948, 24 Feb. 1951, 9 Nov. 1952, 12 Oct. 1969, 23 Aug. 1970).