1931 Pulitzer Prize Review: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes


Reading through these early Pulitzer-Prize winners offers a fascinating glimpse into the novels that critics considered to be the peak of American literary excellence in their day. Margaret Ayer Barnes’s Years of Grace is a delightful novel –it is surprisingly whimsical for a 600-page book, yet it is unfortunately lacking in substance. Barnes spends a great deal of time describing the world of her protagonist, little Jane Ward –the books she reads, her friends, family, and dreams– but to what point and purpose? The novel takes place at the end of the 19th century, an age where midwestern towns were growing into prominent centers of commerce. There are four parts in Years of Grace, and each covers a unique timeframe in the main character’s life. We begin with her childhood: Jane Ward is an innocent girl raised in a well-to-do Chicago family. As a young girl, she and a French boy named André fall in love. He proposes marriage but the Ward family prevents their engagement because Jane is a mere “child.” Jane is so distraught that her charming father secures Jane entry into Bryn Mawr, a wonderful school for girls where she reads French and Greek and becomes briefly ensconced in the suffragette movement. Consider the following passage about Jane’s trip home for Christmas from college, espousing her newfangled academic ideas:

“At home, in the Christmas holidays, however, listening once more to her mother and Isabel, going out to parties where she tried not to be shy, missing André so dreadfully at every turn that nothing else seemed really to count at all, Jane had realized, of course, that she was all on Miss Thomas’s side. Life must be more important than this, she thought. There must be things for even a woman to o that would be interesting and significant. She had only to look at Flora and Muriel, comparing their dance programs in a dressing-room door, to feel just a little smug and condescending. But back at Bryn Mawr, among the people who had definite plans for concrete accomplishment, she felt again very trivial and purposeless. She didn’t really worry a bit as to whether or no[t] she ever voted and she didn’t want to work for her living really, she only cared about pleasing André and growing up into the kind of girl he’d like to be with and talk and love and marry. It was very confusing. At home she felt an infant Susan B. Anthony. She had aired her views on women’s rights with unaccustomed vigor, at the breakfast table, Isabel had derided her.

‘I hope you’re satisfied, John,’ her mother had said. ‘She’s a dreadful little blue-stocking already.’

But her father only laughed. 

‘The blue will come out in the wash,’ he had prophesied cheerfully. ‘I doubt if it’s a fast colour’” (99-100).

However, Jane’s infatuation with progressive feminism is short-lived. When she returns home from Bryn Mawr, now a slightly older woman in her 20s, Jane finds renewed love for her family’s upper-middle class standards and traditions, and she quickly loses her desire to enter the labor market and ‘make something of herself’ as Bryn Mawr had instructed. Jane attends parties and cotillons (Note: a cotillon is a French word for a courtly dance. It refers to parties in which young women, in effect, present themselves to suitors for courtship and eventually marriage). Gradually, Jane is courted by a handsome but slightly aloof man named Stephen Carver. At first she claims not to love him, but as time passes with no other fetching prospects (as well as a surprising letter from André announcing his intent remain in France after all these years) Jane, somewhat reluctantly, decides to marry Stephen.

Next, we encounter Jane many years later with children, struggling to be graceful and honorable in the eyes of her mother-in-law. Amidst this malaise, Jane reconnects with her old college friend, Agnes, who now lives in an apartment in New York alongside her excitable and romantic husband, Jimmy. Agnes is now a playwright and Jimmy is a musician. We take note that Agnes and Jane lead very different lives, but Agnes is happy in her lower class situation and she has one young daughter. As time goes by, Jimmy, Agnes’s husband, falls in love with Jane. He travels frequently to visit her in Chicago, and the crescendo of the novel comes when Jimmy and Jane embrace in her garden under an apple tree. Jane finally professes her love and they make plans to travel the world together, but by morning Jane realizes she cannot be indecent to her husband, Stephen, nor to her good friend, Agnes. Jimmy tries several more times to persuade Jane, but she remains obstinate, so Jimmy runs away sending scant letters here and there. Months later, Jane receives a letter from Jimmy announcing that he has joined the ‘Prussian’ military forces in the war in Europe –a shock! The Prussian/German forces were the enemies of the Western alliance in World War I, the scars of which were only all-too recent at the time of this novel’s publication. Jimmy continues to profess his love for Jane in his letters, even from the war. Jane is dismayed and she breaks down in tears at one point when she receives another letter shortly thereafter: Agnes writes that Jimmy has run away to join the enemy German forces, and he has been killed at the Battle of the Marne (September 1914, the battle characterized by the advancing German army into France which left the French forces retreating back to Paris). Upon learning the news, an emotional Jane travels to New York City to comfort Agnes, who is also distraught, but she is wholly aloof to Jane’s brief affair with her late husband.

Time goes by and the war in Europe drags on. Agnes has found success with her theatrical plays in New York. Jane’s daughter announces an engagement, much like a youthful Jane once did many years prior with her first love, André. Jane’s family now lives in North Chicago in Lakewood, on the cusp of the Skokie Valley. Jane’s father sadly dies in his seventies, and then Stephen’s father dies leaving behind a large inheritance for the family, meanwhile Jane’s daughter becomes embroiled in a torrid affair causing scandal and divorce. She remarries in Paris where, in the end, Jane finally reconnects with her first love, André. He is now an artist and Jane visits his studio, but he seems to have grown into disillusioned man according to Jane. She quickly leaves and returns with Stephen to the United States. Perhaps the old patrician customs of her mother’s generation are, indeed, superior after all.

While I enjoyed the simplicity and surprising pleasantness of Years of Grace, it cannot be denied that Barnes’s characters are wholly wooden and, in the end, nothing really happens in the novel. The one saving grace is Barnes’s carefully crafted prose. Years of Grace is simply a series of glimpses into the life of one woman as she follows the well-tread path from a young romantic, to a college feminist, and finally to a married woman: settled with an acceptable husband, though she strays when she dabbles in a brief but intense affair with her best friend’s husband, and lives to watch her children experience the changing tastes of a new generation. The novel is conservative in tone, albeit envious of the nomadic and adventurous life, yet it neither advocates nor dismisses the life of Jane. She is simply presented to the reader for consideration, or perhaps merely offered up for posterity. Jane exists like a fading glimmer of old Chicago, a time before the war and before the city’s notorious political corruption and crime-spree throughout much of the 20th century. Chock this novel up to more moralism from the Pulitzer Prize.

To conclude on a high note, it is remarkable to note the transformative changes in Chicago during Jane’s lifetime. For example, the Ward family lives on Pine Street, then a humble neighborhood that is gradually expanding and is eventually renamed “Michigan Avenue,” a soon-to-be mecca for skyscrapers, shopping malls, and fine-dining –today it is known as the “Magnificent Mile.” These changes remind me of Booth Tarkington’s descriptions of Indianapolis in The Magnificent Ambersons during the late 19th century with the advent of the automobile and the decline of the Gilded Age aristocracy.

Consider Jane’s darkly amusing forecast to her sister, Isabel, about how they will die together in remembrance of the glory days of old Chicago, and their livelihood on Pine Street (before it became Michigan Avenue):

“‘We’ll jump off the Michigan Boulevard bridge together.’ The thought had really caught Jane’s fancy. ‘Some early Spring afternoon, I think, Isabel, when the ice is just out of the river and the first sea-gulls have come and the water’s running very clear and green. We’ll climb upon the parapet together – which will be difficult as we’ll both be a little infirm – and take a last look down the boulevard, thinking of how it was once just Pine Street. We’ll shut our eyes and remember the old square houses and the wide green yards and the elm trees, meeting over the cedar-block pavement. We’ll remember the yellow ice wagons, Isabel, and the Furnesses’ four-in-hand, and the bicycles, and the hurdy-gurdies and our front steps on summer evenings. And then we’ll take hands and say ‘Out, brief candle!’ and jump!'” (458)

About The 1931 Pulitzer Prize Decision
1931 was apparently the first year that the Pulitzer Board considered revising the language of the Pulitzer Prize from the controversial “wholesome” criteria to grant the award “for the best novel published during the year by an American author.” In 1931, the jury selected three novels for finalists: Margaret Ayer Barnes’s Years of Grace, Elizabeth Maddox Robert’s The Great Meadow, and Dorothy Canfield’s The Deepening Stream. The recommendation letter placed Barnes’s Years of Grace in “first place because of its vivid and interesting presentation of the change in character and mores throughout three generations of an American family.” The Pulitzer committee accepted their recommendation and awarded the prize to Years of Grace while also praising both finalists, as well.

The 1931 Novel Jury was composed of: Jefferson B. Fletcher (Chair), Robert M. Lovett, and Albert B. Paine.

  • Jefferson Butler Fletcher (1865-1946) was born in Chicago, served in the American Field Ambulance Services during World War I, and educated at Harvard and Bowdoin College. He was a long-serving professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University (from 1904-1939). He was considered a foremost expert on the Italian Renaissance and Dante, and in his obituary in The New York Times, it was noted that he served on the Pulitzer Novel Jury for “several years.” Sadly, his son died in an automobile accident in 1926, and Fletcher also had a daughter.
  • Robert Morss Lovett (1870-1956) was a Bostonian who studied at Harvard. He taught literature at the University of Chicago for many years, he was associate editor of The New Republic, served as governor secretary of the Virgin Islands, and was a political activist –he was accused of being a communist by the Dies Committee which forced him out of his secretary position. He was often on the frontlines of left-leaning picket lines, and helped launch the careers of several young writers, including John Dos Passos. In later years, his wife became a close friend and associate of Jane Addams and the couple lived at Hull House for a spell.
  • Albert Bigelow Paine (1861-1937) was born in Bedford, Massachusetts and grew up throughout the Midwest. He worked as a photographer and became a full-time writer living in New York and abroad in Europe. He became friends with Mark Twain and served as Twain’s biographer and also wrote travel books, novels, and children’s stories. In France, he wrote two books abut Joan of Arc which earned him the title of Chevalier from the Legion of Honour.

Who Is Margaret Ayer Barnes?
Margaret Ayer Barnes (1886-1967) lived a life much like the main character of Years of Grace, Jane Ward. She attended Bryn Mawr College, married a prominent Chicago attorney named Cecil Barnes, and they had three sons together. She worked for several years as the Director of Alumnae at Bryn Mawr, organizing a college program focused on women workers in industry. She began her writing career after a traffic accident in 1926. She was vacationing in France when her limousine was involved in a head-on crash, breaking her skull, ribs, and back. During recovery and afterward she became the author of two notable novels: Years of Grace, which won the Pulitzer, and also Dishonored Lady, which was turned into a successful Hollywood film, but it was then promptly sued out of existence by Barnes and her friend and co-author, Edward Sheldon. In 1936, Barnes was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA. She spent her later years in Cambridge, MA where she died in 1967.

Barnes, Margaret Ayer. Years of Grace. New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

1 thought on “1931 Pulitzer Prize Review: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

  1. hi, I am doing my PhD research on Pulitzer Prize Winner texts. as you have studied and have done some research on them, your guidence would provide me an insight.
    please mail me so I can discuss further.



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