The American Academy of Arts and Letters was established in 1898. There are 250 members in the organization, never more or less. To be inducted into the Academy, one of its members must die. In other words, it is very selective. It is also rather mind-boggling to think of the backlog of talent to choose from when an opening does arise.
In May Martha’s Vineyard’s own Ward Just will be inducted into the Academy. Mr. Just is the author of 17 novels, two works of nonfiction, four short story collections and a play. He began his career as a journalist in Illinois, then became a correspondent for Newsweek and The Washington Post before turning to fiction writing full time.
Consider the opening to his novel An Unfinished Season written in 2004 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “The winter of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest in Chicago.” Consider also the opening to Echo House written in 1997 and nominated for the National Book Award. “The stone mansion called Echo House had been owned by the Behl family since 1916, the last year of the first Wilson administration, a purchase made at the insistence of Constance Behl, who saw for herself a brilliant future in the nation’s capital.” And because this is so much fun, consider also the opening to A Dangerous Friend written in 1999. “I will insist at the beginning that this is not a war story. There have been plenty of those and will be many more, appalling stories of nineteen-year-olds breaking down, frightened out of their wits, or engaging in acts of unimaginable gallantry; and often all three at the same time.”
Mr. Just writes with a blend of clarity and expansiveness. His books often take place in Washington D.C. or Illinois, but no matter the setting, his characters grapple with not just their own destinies but also the complexities of the particular time period in which they exist. To read Echo House is to become immersed in the expanse of 20th century Washington, D.C. while also standing at a remove, the better to witness both the lure and mercurial nature of power.
Mr. Just’s books are by no means history lessons, though. Each one reveals the confusion and, in the end, the solitary existence every human faces no matter the ambitions thwarted or achieved.
Case in point: An Unfinished Season ends with the following description. “I watched light play upon the surface of the water, the light fracturing as the water moved, slack tide. Inside the café, men were shouting at one another, some backgammon argument. And then the shouts subsided and once again I heard the rattle of the dice up. In a little while the lights went out one by one and I was alone in the silence of the port at Famagusta.”
Well said and well done, Mr. Just.