Ward Just Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Michigan City, Indiana, 1935. Education: Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, 1953-57. Career: Reporter, Newsweek, Chicago and Washington, 1959-62; The Reporter Magazine, Washington, 1962-63; Newsweek, London and Washington, 1963-65; The Washington Post, Washington and Saigon. Awards: Overseas Press Club award, 1968; National Magazine award, 1970, for non-fiction, and 1980, for fiction; Chicago Tribune Heartland award for fiction, 1989, for "Jack Gance"; O. Henry Award, 1985, 1986, 1993.
A Soldier of the Revolution. New York, Knopf, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.
Stringer. Boston, Atlantic, 1974.
Nicholson at Large. Boston, Atlantic, 1975.
A Family Trust. Boston, Atlantic, and London, Secker, 1978.
Honor, Power, Riches, Fame and the Love of Women. New York, Dutton, 1979.
In the City of Fear. New York, Viking, 1982.
The American Blues. New York, Viking, 1984.
American Ambassador. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Serpent's Tail, 1987.
Jack Gance. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Hale, 1989.
The Translator. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Ambition and Love. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Echo House. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
A Dangerous Friend. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert: 21 Stories and Novellas. Boston, Atlantic, and London, Little Brown, 1973.
Twenty-One: Selected Stories. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
To What End: Report from Vietnam. New York, Knopf, 1968; NewYork, Public Affairs, 1968.
Military Men. New York, Knopf, 1970.
Cranbrook School Archives, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
"Just Deserts" by Tad Friend, GQ, June 1990; "Just So: The Odyssey of a Quintessentially American Novelist" by Dinitia Smith, New York Magazine, 19 August 1991.
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Though Ward Just has distinguished himself as a journalist, he has also produced an impressive body of fiction. As a novelist, he has been compared favorably with Ernest Hemingway and Henry James. Much of his work centers around war—portrayed by the keen eye of a newsman—as is often true of Hemingway; however, his characters and their settings seem more Jamesian in their affluence and jaded sophistication. It is as if Just has felt the pulse of America for the past fifty years and produced "our story," one that is frighteningly familiar. The primary criticism of Just's work is that his action is slow and plodding. Although his characters are articulate and witty, they often do just sit and talk, especially in his fine piece on Washington during Vietnam, In the City of Fear.
Stringer, published in 1974 during the era of disillusion that followed Watergate, received mixed reviews. The general response was that this was a small book with flaws but a powerful look at the Vietnam War and the society that lived through it. In the opening scene, when Stringer savors the taste of chocolate and limeade through a high that captures his readers with the physical surroundings, he might well be a Hemingway character discovering watercress except that this war is different for the individual soldier who feels more alienated than heroic. The main character does not feel connected to the war anymore than he does to his education, his career as a journalist, or to his family.
In his next novel, Nicholson at Large, Just captures the spirit of Washington as it reflects whatever else is going on in the nation. Many readers, however, felt that the work revealed flaws of an early novelist who, nonetheless, showed promise. Other reviewers insisted that this novel was more than promising—that it had, in fact, established Just as a serious writer to be watched. In 1978, A Family Trust was widely praised for its insightful treatment of family conflict. The word "promising" was less audible but still heard in response to Ward Just.
With In the City of Fear, the promise came to fruition almost without dispute. Just was praised for the convincing character of Colonel Sam Joyce and for his satirical look at some of Washington's key figures, including the presidents (even if he does not name them). One of the most stirring scenes in the book helps to illustrate the realization of Just's ability to portray strong female characters. Sheila has disrupted the chatter of a Washington dinner party (attended by military men, politicians, newspaper men, and their wives) by producing a poignant photo of her young son, who is in Vietnam. The photo quiets even the most enthusiastic war conversationalists, and Marina muses:
Watching Sheila now, Marina was surprised at her—forbearance. At the general forbearance of women—Sheila's, Jo's, her own. It would not last, they concealed so much. She knew the tempo of the dance was increasing. … They would all go to pieces, men would leave their wives and women their families. Children would disappear. There would be heart attacks and suicides and breakdowns and no one would be as he or she had been. The thin would grow fat, and the fat would grow fatter. They were all fighting the same war, in this murderous twilight of the American century. Now she was drawn to Sheila, tired and distraught, her grief worn like a black badge of courage.
She goes on to say they were all beguiled in the way that Henry James once described "women traveling in exotic Italy." The echo of James is significant in the middle of this musing, but even more so is the echo of Stephen Crane's badge of courage. No wonder this book brought Just praise as a sensitive, distinguished writer of our time.
The American Blues, a first-person narrative, is disarming, given the close relationship of journalism and fiction that readers of Just already grapple with. His work often reads more like a factual account than a novel, particularly here.
The theme of father and son pitted against one another recurs in The American Ambassador, when William and Bill Jr., a diplomat and a terrorist respectively, struggle in the exciting backdrop of international intrigue. Not surprisingly, The Translator, which appeared in 1991, covers the historic lifting of the Iron Curtain. An American woman in Paris marries a refugee who has become a linguist—a skill that leads to international intrigue again. Critics found this a gloomy portrayal of humanity as it nears the twenty-first century, but none of them were arguing that a more hopeful picture is deserved.
With Ambition and Love Just moved away from the political scene and gives the reader a delightful "tour" of Paris through the eyes of an artist, who may well be Just's strongest female character, and her lover, who is a writer. Echo House, the name for the Washington, D.C., mansion occupied by the prestigious Behl family, offers a sort of family history of postwar America, and presents insights into the intelligence community and the operations of government. In A Dangerous Friend, Just pictured America on the brink of full commitment to the Vietnam War in 1965. Through the eyes of a misguided civil servant, the book compellingly depicts the nation's descent down the slippery slope to folly.
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