“This is the day when no man living may ‘scape away.”
Whenever she tried out a new typewriter, Jean Stafford typed this oracular remark from Everyman, the medieval morality play in which, as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado in the early 1930s, she’d played the role of Good Deeds. Recalling the experience decades later, in the preface to the 1971 reprint of her novel The Mountain Lion, Stafford notes with characteristic irony: “I spoke [Good Deeds’s] lines because I had (and have) the voice of an undertaker.”
Of the distinguished short story writers of her era—one that includes Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, John Cheever, Katherine Anne Porter, and Flannery O’Connor—Jean Stafford (1915–1979) is perhaps the most versatile. Her writerly voice is very aptly described as an “undertaker” voice, never oracular or self-conscious but quite often jarringly jocular in its Doomsday revelations. A virtuoso of that demanding subgenre the “well-crafted short story,” Stafford is yet the author of several novels of which one, The Mountain Lion, remains a brilliant achievement, an exploration of adolescence to set beside Carson McCullers’s masterwork The Member of the Wedding.
Unlike Welty, Taylor, Cheever, and O’Connor, whose fiction is essentially regional in its settings, Stafford has written fiction set as convincingly in Europe (“The Innocents Abroad”) as in New England (“The Bostonians, and Other Manifestations of the American Scene”); in New York City and environs (“Manhattan Island”) as in the semifictitious town of Adams, Colorado (“Cowboys and Indians, and Magic Mountains”), that is an amalgam of Covina, California, where Stafford was born, and Boulder, Colorado, where she grew up and attended the University of Colorado.
Impatient with all pieties, not least the piety of familial cultural heritage, Stafford remarks in her preface to The Collected Stories that she could not wait to escape her “tamed-down native grounds”: “As soon as I could, I hotfooted it across the Rocky Mountains and across the Atlantic Ocean.” Though, into middle age and beyond, Stafford lived in the Hamptons on Long Island, the evidence of her fiction suggests an essential restlessness, or restiveness: “Most of the people in these stories are away from home, too, and while they are probably homesick, they won’t go back.”
Stafford’s versatility is perhaps most in evidence in the range of tone in her fiction: from the gently melancholic to the savagely comic, from a delicately nuanced mimicry of the waywardness of interior speech to sudden outbursts of shocked clarity (“But the fact is that there has been nothing in my life,” as the narrator of “I Love Someone” confides) and concise images that take us beyond mere speech (“The weather overhead was fair and bland, but the water was a mass of little wrathful whitecaps,” at the conclusion of “Beatrice Trueblood’s Story”). There are numerous animals in Stafford’s fiction, always individually noted no matter the smallness of their roles: the fat, comatose tabby cats of “A Country Love Story” who …
Copyright © 2005 by Joyce Carol Oates