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Stafford, Jean

STAFFORD, Jean

Nationality: American. Born: Covina, California, 1 July 1915. Education: University of Colorado, Boulder, B.A. 1936, M.A. 1936; University of Heidelberg, 1936-37. Family: Married 1) Robert Lowell in 1940 (divorced 1948); 2) Oliver Jensen in 1950 (divorced 1953); 3) the writer A. J. Liebling in 1959 (died 1963). Career: Instructor, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, 1937-38; secretary, Southern Review, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1940-41; lecturer, Queens College, Flushing, New York, Spring 1945; fellow, Center for Advanced Studies, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 1964-65; adjunct professor, Columbia University, New York, 1967-69. Awards: American Academy grant, 1945; Guggenheim fellowship, 1945, 1948; National Press Club award, 1948; O. Henry award, 1955; Ingram-Merrill grant, 1969; Chapelbrook grant, 1969; Pulitzer prize, 1970. Member: American Academy, 1970. Died: 26 March 1979.

Publications

Short Stories

Children Are Bored on Sunday. 1953.

New Short Novels, with others, edited by Mary Louise Aswell. 1954.

Stories, with others. 1956; as A Book of Stories, 1957.

Bad Characters. 1964.

Selected Stories. 1966.

The Collected Stories. 1969.

Novels

Boston Adventure. 1944.

The Mountain Lion. 1947.

The Catherine Wheel. 1952.

Other

Elephi: The Cat with the High I.Q. (for children). 1962.

The Lion and the Carpenter and Other Tales from the Arabian Nights Retold (for children). 1962.

A Mother in History (on Marguerite C. Oswald). 1966.

*

Bibliography:

Stafford: A Comprehensive Bibliography by Wanda Avila, 1983.

Critical Studies:

Stafford by Mary Ellen Williams Walsh, 1985; Innocence and Estrangement in the Fiction of Stafford by Maureen Ryan, 1987; Stafford: A Biography by David Roberts, 1988; Stafford: The Savage Heart by Charlotte Margolis Goodman, 1990; The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Stafford by Ann Hulbert, 1992; Jean Stafford: A Study of the Short Fiction by Mary Ann Wilson, 1996.

* * *

In some painful and laughable sense of the words, Jean Stafford was the daughter of a writer. Her ne'er-do-well father squandered the family money on bad investments and then installed himself in the basement to write pulp fiction for magazines that virtually never bought from him. The next writers to leave a direct imprint on her life were of a loftier stripe. While she was a student at the University of Colorado, at summer writers' conferences there, her work was read and admired by such visitors as Ford Madox Ford, John Crowe Ransom, Martha Foley, Whit Burnett, and Robert Penn Warren. There also she met the young poet Robert Lowell, who was to become her first husband. Her network of supporting friends and editors spun out from these introductions.

She had, to be sure, been preparing herself assiduously if erratically as a writer from childhood on. She once wrote that she had (figuratively) "left home at seven"—meaning she had distanced herself from a family she considered mundane in order to write all manner of prose pieces, many ironic and most of them rebellious in one fashion or another. Her college writings impressed the best of her instructors. By the time she was 23 years old she had completed the manuscripts of five novels (none of these ever published).

In spite of these fervid commitments to a career, it may well be that the best preparation was (as she wrote in a late essay) "taking her childhood seriously." In the masterpiece among her three novels, The Mountain Lion, and in a rich cluster of her short stories there is a central figure of a preadolescent girl, fiercely sardonic, painfully lonely by choice, timid and feisty by turns, and obsessively enthralled by literature and committed to fictionalizing the bumpkins she is obliged to live with. Surely this prototype must be the young Stafford as she saw herself from the vantage of her maturity. In "The Healthiest Girl in Town" we see this girl in her environment, a small town on the slopes of the Colorado mountains where her widowed mother cares for various tuberculars who have moved west for their health. A certain glamour attaches to the sick, and they are popularly thought to be rich as well. Our healthy narrator becomes ensnared and enchanted by the bullying friendship of two daughters of a sick family and only frees herself finally by a reflex of vanity and fear, reclaiming the merit of health even if "being healthy means being a cow." The narrator of "Bad Characters," the resentful loner Stafford gets involved with, is the most comic shoplifter in our literature, a girl her own age who works through dime stores caching her loot in the enormous hat that wobbles atop her head. In an excess of greed and confidence she overloads the hat. When the booty spills out the girls are apprehended, but our girl escapes with no more punishment than a lecture from a fusty judge. Now reformed, she joins the Campfire girls and repents the lone-wolf urges in her nature. "A Reading Problem" is in the same vein and equally good. One feels it might be another episode from the life of Molly, who is the center of The Mountain Lion.

All three of these stories are distinguished by their comic irony; but there is none of this at all in "The Philosophy Lesson," though it also comes from a situation with which Stafford had first-hand experience. A college girl, posing nude for a class of art students, watches the snow storm outside move in and blind the windows while she drifts in the grandiose melancholy peculiar to the boredom of modeling. Then the shocked rumor sweeps from the campus into this room that a wealthy and popular male student has committed suicide. No action follows from this dreadful news, but the posing girl's meditations are brought to a point. If someone who seemed to have so much to live for could kill himself, then why didn't she, "who was seldom happy, do it herself?" No answer to that except that the "benison" of the snow "forgave them all."

Up through the writing of her first published novel, Boston Adventure, Stafford cultivated a mandarin style, deliberately compounded of the manners of Proust and James. So Boston Adventure is a baffling hybrid, mixing her lofty and generally tedious style with a story that is essentially soap opera. Perhaps it was the suds and bubbles in it that made it a substantial best-seller. At any rate after its publication Stafford was able to buy a house in Maine and move there with her husband Robert Lowell. Lowell had already shattered her face in a car accident and was working up to breaking her nose again with his fist. Their residence in Maine was anguished. Nevertheless from it came two particularly noteworthy Stafford stories: "A Country Love Story" and "An Influx of Poets." The first is a complete triumph. A young wife and an older, ailing husband move up into the country to be away from the strains of urban living to help him regain his health. The farmhouse they occupy is utterly banal, but parked in the yard is an antique sleigh that somehow projects a spirit of dash and adventure. As the winter drifts hopelessly on with increments of alienation piling up on the married couple like the slow sift of snow, the wife begins to attach more and more of her fantasies of escape to the eye-catching sleigh in the yard. At last in a beautifully restrained climax the wife imagines an appropriate male driver for the sleigh. He is just as real and just as unreal as a figure of myth ought to be. Though he has no corporal reality, his ravishment and abduction of the wife are absolutely incredible. No need to ask where she has gone. "An Influx of Poets" on the other hand is crudely shaped. It is chiefly worth reading for the scornful picture it draws of Lowell and his poet buddies as they come scrounging and reciting their work into each other's faces while the summer lasts.

At her best Stafford always tempered her aesthetic intents with raw delight in the human scene. Her vision of grief is no less poignant for being ballasted with positive merriment. She never became a reporter in the conventional sense. When she was not rehearsing the pangs of childhood she went on projecting its awful wisdom onto the havoc of adult life, as in the many stories she published in The New Yorker.

One of her deservedly famous stories, "Children Are Bored on Sunday," makes a strict (though tender) accounting of the emotional cost and compensations of city life. A lonely and neurotic woman is spending the afternoon in New York's Metropolitan Museum, equally afraid of mingling and of lonely isolation, uncertain whether she belongs anywhere: "She was a bounty-jumper in the war between Great-uncle Graham's farm and New York City." She will not admit to being either a rube or an intellectual. She has seen a male acquaintance whom she wants at first to avoid, but when she leaves the museum with him it has dawned on her that the two of them are cousins-german "in the territory of despair." Then how does one distinguish such recognition from love? She does not, and though the terminal language of the story is both mocking and sprightly, somehow we know that in Manhattan this must pass for the real thing.

—R. V. Cassill

See the essays on "In the Zoo" and "The Interior Castle."

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