Although success did not come until she was in her sixties, Mary Ward Brown (1917-2013) achieved major standing as a writer of modern short fiction. Her 1986 story collection, Tongues of Flame, brought her to a wide audience and was the first step in cementing her status as a writer. In particular, her work is noted for exploring the theme of the persistence of racism in the South.
Born on June 18, 1917, in Hamburg, a small community in Perry County, to farmer Thomas Ward and his wife Mary (Hubbard) Ward, young Mary Ward grew up on her family's large plantation. She took an early interest in writing and was the editor of the student newspaper at Perry County High School. She went on to Judson College, a Baptist women's college in Marion, Perry County, to study English and journalism and also was the editor of the school's newspaper. After graduating from Judson in 1938, she stayed on as the college's publicity director for a short time.
In 1939, Mary Ward married Kirtley Brown, who at the time worked in public relations at Auburn University, and the couple settled in Auburn. They had one child, Kirtley Ward Brown, while in Auburn, but the family moved back to the Ward family farm in the mid-1940s after her father died. Back on the farm, the hard work of being a wife and mother took Mary Ward Brown away from writing for much of her adult life, although she published a handful of short stories in literary magazines, the first being "The Flesh, The Spirit, and Willie Mae" in the University of Kansas City Review in 1955.
After her husband's death in 1970, Mary Ward Brown resumed her writing and began publishing stories in short-story collections and respected periodicals. Her story "Amaryllis," about a retired judge's fascination with a flower he received as a gift and his efforts to bring others to see it bloom, was published in McCall' s magazine in 1978. Her work was also included in the Best American Short Stories collections of 1983 and 1984. Brown's first collection of short stories, Tongues of Flame, was published in 1986 by New York's E. P. Dutton to almost immediate acclaim. The collection earned her a PEN/Hemingway Award from PEN New England and an Alabama Author Award from the Alabama Library Association (ALA), both in 1987. Reviewers praised the universality of her themes and the precision and smoothness of her writing. Perhaps the best-known story from this collection is "The Barbecue," about a conflict between a small-town store owner and a wealthy good-for-nothing who reaches his credit limit at the time he is trying to buy food for a big party.
In the years that followed the release of Tongues of Flames, Mary Ward Brown gained increasing prominence in southern and national literary circles. "The Barbecue" appeared in New Stories by Southern Women, and others were included in New Stories from the South in 1989 and in 1992. Critical supplements on her work appeared in The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction, which contains an introduction, the story "A New Life," and an interview with the author, and in Contemporary Southern Women Fiction Writers: An Annotated Bibliography, which places her alongside other great female southern writers.
In 2002, the University of Alabama Press published Brown's second collection of short stories, It Wasn't All Dancing, in its Deep South Books series. In the wake of the book's release, the author received the Harper Lee Award from the Alabama Writers Forum and another Alabama Author Award from the ALA, both in 2002. A year later, in 2003, the Fellowship of Southern Writers presented her with the prestigious Hillsdale Fiction Prize.
Among Mary Ward Brown's topics, which typically center on conflicts within southern culture, the subtleties of southern racial problems appear frequently. In the documentary film Coat of Many Colors, Brown remarks that racial issues remain in the South, despite the progress of the civil rights era. In her story "Fruit of the Season," the reader witnesses the tension as three black children spit in the dewberries that they have collected for the white woman for whom their mother works. In "It Wasn't All Dancing," Brown presents the complicated relationships between white women and their African American employees in the home. Brown's attention to this persistent southern problem did not go unnoticed; in 1991, Tongues of Flame earned a Lillian Smith Book Award from the Southern Regional Council, which recognizes writing that promotes a progressive understanding of racial and social inequality.
Another theme in Mary Ward Brown's short fiction is religion in the South. For example, the title story in It Wasn't All Dancing evidences the almost inexplicable nuances in two brief bits of dialogue. In the story, a wealthy, elderly white woman, Rose Merriweather, has a new, young African American nurse, Etta. In one conversation between the two, Etta asks Merriweather about her Bible, and the old woman replies, "Where do you want it? Out by my bed for show?" In a later conversation, when Rose asks Etta what she wants for herself, Etta responds that her mother taught her not to want anything, just to be satisfied with what God gives.
Mary Ward Brown's contributions to Alabama culture have come through her stories, which weave in and out of the intricate patterns of life in the South. Her obvious connections to the culture of Alabama shine in her characters and storytelling. In the modern era, when racial and class struggles take on more subtle forms than in past days, Mary Ward Brown's fiction reaches into the everyday lives of southerners—black and white, rich and poor—to show them to themselves.
Brown died on May 14, 2013, in Marion.
Works by Mary Ward Brown
Tongues of Flame (1986)
It Wasn't All Dancing and Other Stories (2002)
Fanning the Spark: A Memoir (2009)
Booker T. Washington Magnet High School, Montgomery
Published July 29, 2008
Last updated May 20, 2013