“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 mimic their mistress’s gradual descent into emotional torpor over the course of a long New England winter; the pet capuchin monkeys of “In the Zoo” observed as unnervingly humanized, “so small and sad and sweet, and so religious-looking with their tonsured heads that it was impossible not to think their gibberish was really an ordered language with a grammar that some day some philologist would understand”; and the foundling German shepherd Laddy, also of “In the Zoo,” who plays a principal, tragic role in the story:
He grew like a weed; he lost his spherical softness, and his coat, which had been sooty fluff, came in stiff and rusty black; his nose grew aristocratically long, and his clever, pointed ears stood at attention. He was all bronzy, lustrous black except for an Elizabethan ruff of white and a tip of white at the end of his perky tail…. He escorted Daisy and me to school in the morning, laughing interiorly out of the enormous pleasure of his life….
In “An Influx of Poets,” Cora Savage observes her pet cat Pretty Baby, whose blissful pride in motherhood is an ironic, in time bitterly ironic expression of the vulnerability of Cora’s emotional state:
[The kittens] were still blind and [Pretty Baby] was still proud, cosseting them with her milk and her bright, abrasive tongue and the constant purr into which, now and then, she interjected a little yelp of self-esteem. When she nestled down, relaxed among her produce, I knelt and strongly ran the knuckle of my thumb down the black stripes that began just above her nose and terminated in the wider, blacker bands around her neck, and then I left her to her rapturous business of grooming her kittens, nursing in their blindness and their sleep.
A gambling casino in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, a grubby downscale version of Monte Carlo, nonetheless exerts an almost preternatural spell on a young woman named Abby in “The Children’s Game” who succumbs to the hypnotic frenzy of roulette:
She was still ahead when the wheel was spun for the last time; and when everything was finished she was giddy as she struggled out of her cocoonlike trance. The croupiers’ fatigue humanized them; they rubbed their eyes and stretched their legs and their agile hands went limp. Abby was a little dashed and melancholy, let down and drained; she was, even though she had won, inconsolable because now the table, stripped of its seduction, was only a table. And the croupiers were only exhausted workingmen going to bed.
So appalled is Abby by the “monstrous” Belgium town that her fascination inspires Stafford to a tour de force of description as charged with kinetic energy as Dickens’s most animated city scenes:
[Knokke-le-Zoute] possessed houses that looked like buses threatening to run them down and houses that looked like faces with bulbous noses and brutish eyes…. The principal building material seemed to be cobblestones, but they discovered a number of houses that appeared to be made of cast iron. In gardens there were topiary trees in the shape of Morris chairs and some that seemed to represent washing machines. The hotels along the sea were bedizened with every whimsy on earth, with derby-shaped domes and kidney-shaped balconies, with crenellations that looked like vertebrae, and machicolations that looked like teeth, with turrets, bow-windows, dormers and gables, with fenestrations hemstitched in brick or bordered with granite point lace. Some of the chimneys were like church steeples and some were like Happy Hooligan’s hat. The cabañas, in the hot, dark haze, appeared to be public telephone booths. Even the flowers dissembled and the hydrangeas looked like utensils that belonged in the kitchen…. The plazas were treeless plains of concrete where big babies sunned…. There was an enormous smell of fish.
And Stafford’s characters are a wonderfully motley lot, outsized and garrulous as cartoon bullies; as meekly repressed and virginal as the hapless observers in Henry James; adolescent girls and women who struggle to define themselves against their adversaries, and deeply conflicted, self-lacerating women who seem to have succumbed to sexist stereotypes despite their high intelligence. Here, as intelligent as any of Stafford’s characters, yet utterly miserable, is Ramona Dunn of “The Echo and the Nemesis,” an American graduate student who has come to postwar Heidelberg to study philology:
Ramona Dunn was fat to the point of parody. Her obesity fitted her badly, like extra clothing put on in the wintertime, for her embedded bones were very small and she was very short, and she had a foolish gait, which, however, was swift, as if she were a mechanical doll whose engine raced. Her face was rather pretty, but its features were so small that it was all but lost in its billowing surroundings, and it was covered by a thin, fair skin that was subject to disfiguring afflictions, now hives, now eczema, now impetigo, and the whole was framed by fine, pale hair that was abused once a week by a Friseur who baked it with an iron into dozens of horrid little snails.
Of Stafford’s three novels, her first, Boston Adventure (1944), published when she was twenty-eight, became a surprise best-seller and launched her public career (“The most brilliant of the new fiction writers,” Life proclaimed, in tandem with a photograph of the strikingly attractive young woman). Subsequent novels The Mountain Lion (1947) and The Catherine Wheel (1952) were critically well-received but not as commercially successful as Boston Adventure; Stafford’s energies came to be channeled into her short fiction, which was prominently published in The New Yorker and collected in Children Are Bored on Sundays (1954) and Bad Characters (1965). Though Stafford wrote books for children and the remarkable A Mother in History (1966), a portrait of the mother of the presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the culmination of her career was The Collected Stories (1969), nominated for a National Book Award and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1970.
Throughout her career, Stafford drew upon her personal life in her most engaging and fully realized work, but there is virtually nothing in her writing that is self-indulgent, self-pitying, or self-aggrandizing. Her most powerfully sustained single work, The Mountain Lion, a tragic coming-of-age story set in Stafford’s childhood California and Colorado, has elements to sug-gest autobiography (“what, other than books, could there be for that scrawny, round-shouldered, tall thing [Molly], misanthropic at the age of twelve?”) but is narrated with an Olympian detachment that eases in, and out, of its principal characters’ minds to stunning effect. Similarly, Stafford’s most frequently anthologized stories, “The Interior Castle,” “A Country Love Story,” and “In the Zoo,” bring us into painful intimacy with their female characters only to draw back at climactic moments, like a coolly deployed camera. Indeed, Cast a Cold Eye, the title of a collection of pointedly autobiographical stories by Stafford’s controversial, slightly older contemporary Mary McCarthy, would have been an ideal title for Stafford’s collected stories.
Stafford seems to have defiantly reversed the westward migration of her family, leaving Colorado for Europe soon after graduation from college, with the grandiose and surely quixotic plan of studying philosophy in Heidelberg. She was known to boast to friends that she’d left home at the age of seven; friends commented on her “desperate” wish to have been an orphan. Like the doomed Molly of The Mountain Lion, Stafford was bookish and inclined to writing at a young age. Her early literary heroes were as disparate as Charles Dickens and Proust, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Thomas Wolfe, icons of masculine literary success.
Like Willa Cather before her, though without Cather’s wish to invent her writing self as male, and like Sylvia Plath to come, Stafford nursed a lifelong contempt for feminine pieties and “nice” behavior; her fierce dislike of her mother’s clichéd optimism is very like Plath’s for her self-sacrificing mother, Aurelia. Where Plath gritted her teeth and wrote determinedly upbeat letters home to Aurelia from England, after Plath’s death to be gathered in Letters Home in an attempt to correct “cruel and false caricatures” of the mother–daughter relationship in Plath’s poetry, Stafford transcribed her mother’s letters to her with jeering annotations, to be sent to her friends for their amusement.
Copyright © 2005 by Joyce Carol Oates