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Mon April 27, 2009
"Fanning the Spark: A Memoir," by Mary Ward Brown
Brown's many devoted fans will take in this book avidly, wanting to know every detail of her life, even though it is a life spent mainly rooted in middle Alabama, on a farm, without global travel except for one trip to Russia, or politics or scandal, or rich, famous, important friends and acquaintances.
By Don Noble
In 1986 Mary Ward Brown burst upon the literary scene with her first book, "Tongues of Flame," which won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award for first volume of fiction. She has also won the Alabama Library Award for Fiction and The Lillian Smith Award for a book that contributes to racial understanding in America, even though she has said "the primary concerns of a fiction writer are not ideas or causes but people... in what they say and do." She has won The University of Alabama Society for the Fine Arts Distinguished Career Award, the Governor's Award for the Arts, and the Harper Lee Award.
When Ms. Brown accepted the PEN/Hemingway prize she was 69 years old. In 2001, at 84, she published a second volume of stories, "It Wasn't All Dancing." Ms. Brown is now 92, and has written her memoirs, "Fanning the Spark."
Mary Thomas Ward Brown has lived what almost anyone would consider a quiet, regular life, lots of cattle-raising, no bull-fighting. She was born in 1917, in Hamburg, Alabama, and has lived there all her life except for seven years at Auburn where her husband, Kirtley Brown, was Director of Publicity and Publications and then Dean of Men. When her father died, in 1942, she inherited 1,500 acres of the property, and the Browns moved back to the farm in Hamburg.
Ms. Brown had a successful marriage, raised a son, Kirtley, called KW, now an attorney, and after becoming a widow at 53, managed the family business.
Brown's writing career has been sporadic. As a child she fell in love with reading and writing. She graduated from Judson, class of 1938, having edited the school newspaper.
Through the 1950's she wrote, with little success. When her son became a teenager, she felt the needs of her family outweighed her creative needs and she put writing "on hold."
In the early 70s, after becoming a widow, Brown picked up story writing again, with real intensity, and the results have been, as noted, spectacular. The stories came, slowly?Ms. Brown writes painfully slowly, sometimes working on a story for a year, and satisfied with a good paragraph as a day's work?but steadily, throughout the 80s and 90s.
Her fiction is almost entirely what one might call "domestic." Brown writes of family matters, husband-wife relations, mother and daughter-in-law relations, loss, death and grief, universal human transitions. Her settings are the home, the church and the store. Almost everything in her fiction is set in her home place.
But that place, while seemingly permanent, in many ways, is not static. As the civil rights movement came to the Black Belt, changes occurred, and while Brown happily acknowledges the progress towards equity, she also laments the loss of what she depicts as a warmer, more human relationship between the races.
Since her teen years, Brown has been fascinated by the possibilities of the short story. She read, indeed studied, Hemingway, Faulkner, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Anne Porter, Isaac Dinesen, and Flannery O'Connor. Brown has an extensive and interesting personal library, and reads as widely as she has time for. Recently, she has discovered the work of Cormac McCarthy and declares him "one of the few, if not the only, American writer now working whose work will endure." Not a bad choice, actually.
This memoir is in no way confessional, there being no peccadilloes to confess, but it is candid. As a young bride, she tells us, she suffered from debilitating panic attacks, acute anxiety neurosis, actually undergoing five electric shock treatments in the New Orleans Touro Infirmary. In retrospect, she believes the panic attacks were really frustration, the tension of being unable to put to good use her talents and powers, as a woman and a writer. The business, the farm, her son, and best of all, writing fiction, served to reduce and eliminate them.
On the whole, however, this volume is short on spectacle because Ms Brown's entire life has been spent, one might say, quietly. This is not to say it was without strong emotion. Brown was proud but concerned when her son attended UA and includes many of her letters of advice. For example: "Since you are going to be around drinking from now on, there's something you may not know?enough alcohol will?kill you dead as a hammer."
When KW was serving in Vietnam, her letters to him are, understandably, even more intense. The mother's worries for her only son at war are emotionally powerful, and her relief at his safe return is a relief to the reader, too.
Brown also includes the texts of several acceptance speeches and these are surprisingly informative about her artistic aims, composition habits, and theories of fiction.
Modestly she has said that few writers are geniuses, and that most writers, herself included, will succeed by dint of long dedicated effort. She is also poignantly aware of the writer's chances for achieving real immortality. Few do. But she is content if her writing captures some small truth, lights up a dark corner of the human condition or, as in a story she cites from Isaac Dinesen, serves to ease someone's pain, if only for a little while.
Brown's many devoted fans will take in this book avidly, wanting to know every detail of her life, even though it is a life spent mainly rooted in middle Alabama, on a farm, without global travel except for one trip to Russia, or politics or scandal, or rich, famous, important friends and acquaintances. Reading this book, I was reminded of another southern writer of the same generation, Eudora Welty, who wrote, in her memoir, "One Writer's Beginnings," "a sheltered life can also be a daring life. For all serious daring starts from within."
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."