“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.
“Nothing can more totally subdue the passions than familial piety,” it’s observed with a shudder in the Colorado-set story “The Liberation.” Here, a desperate young woman barely manages to escape from her smothering older relatives, who want to appropriate, like genteel vampires, her imminent marriage. On the train headed east, Polly Bay thinks, “How lonely I have been.” And then, “I am not lonely now.”
Stafford seems to have both despised and feared her father, by her account an obsessive, brutal, bigoted man from whom escape was imperative; in the preface to The Collected Stories she speaks glibly of him as the author of a western novel called When Cattle Kingdom Fell, which she never troubled to read. (Nor did Stafford read A Stepdaughter of the Prairie, a memoir of a Kansas girlhood by a cousin.) Yet, ironically, as John Stafford toiled for thirty years on a crank analysis of government deficit spending, so Stafford herself would toil for more than twenty years on a novel unfinished at the time of her death, titled A Parliament of Women.
Ironically also, though perhaps unsurprisingly, Stafford was drawn to the volatile, domineering, manic-depressive poet Robert Lowell, who wreaked havoc in her life even before she married him; she remarked in a letter to a friend that, though she sometimes hated Lowell, “he does what I have always needed to have done to me and that is that he dominates me.” (This domination included even such alleged physical abuse as attempted strangulation.)
One of Stafford’s most famous stories is “The Interior Castle,” an eerie, hallucinatory account of the ordeal of a young woman named Pansy Vanneman who has suffered a terrible injury to her face and head following a traffic accident in a taxi; like Stafford, whose face was disfigured in an accident caused by Robert Lowell’s drunken driving, Pansy must undergo facial surgery that involves extreme pain:
[The surgeon] had now to penetrate regions that were not anesthetized and this he told her frankly…. The knives ground and carved and curried and scoured the wounds they made; the scissors clipped hard gristle and the scalpels chipped off bone. It was as if a tangle of tiny nerves were being cut dextrously, one by one; the pain writhed spirally…. The pain was a pyramid made of a diamond; it was an intense light; it was the hottest fire, the coldest chill, the highest peak….
In this ecstasy of pain, Stafford’s normally restrained prose soars to astonishing heights as if the subject were not pain but an unspeakable violation of the self: “[Pansy’s] brain trembled for its life, hearing the knives hunting like wolves….” It’s significant that in Stafford’s story, the driver of the crashed car has died, while in life, Robert Lowell survived relatively uninjured, and prevailed upon Stafford to marry him against her better judgment. Their eight-year marriage, far more tempestuous than that of May and Daniel in “A Country Love Story,” would end in a painful divorce in 1948 from which Stafford seems never to have fully recovered: she would marry and divorce again, twice; during the final twenty years of her life she would make herself and everyone who knew her miserable with her alcoholism, ill health, and highly vocal misanthropy.
Narrated in the cool, detached tone of a fairy tale, “A Country Love Story” evokes the experience of living with a brilliant man who has become mentally ill. Daniel isn’t a celebrated confessional poet but rather a professor given to “private musings” and obsessive work on a research project “of which he never spoke except to say that it would bore [his wife, May.]” To insulate herself from Daniel’s unpredictable mood swings and from the loneliness of their lives in a beautiful but isolated old farmhouse in Maine, May fantasizes a lover who appears in an antique sleigh in the front yard of the house. The lover exudes a ghostly seductiveness:
…There was a delicate pallor on his high, intelligent forehead and there was an invalid’s languor in his whole attitude. He wore a white blazer and gray flannels and there was a yellow rosebud in his lapel. Young as he was, he did not, even so, seem to belong to her generation; rather, he seemed to be the reincarnation of someone’s uncle as he had been fifty years before.
Through the long winter in their close quarters, as Daniel becomes increasingly deranged, suspecting May of infidelity, so May becomes increasingly enthralled by her phantom lover: “She took in the fact that she not only believed in this lover but loved him and depended wholly on his companionship….” When Daniel demands of her, “Why do you stay here?” May has no answer, as if a spiritual paralysis has overcome her. At the story’s end, Daniel has survived the winter and seems to be recovering his sanity while May, exhausted and broken by her ordeal, is “confounded utterly.” In a daze she goes outside to sit in the antique sleigh from which her phantom lover has now departed, “rapidly wondering over and over again how she would live the rest of her life.”
“A Country Love Story” is reminiscent of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” (1899) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), similar tales of seclusion, sexual repression, and psychological disintegration. Stafford would certainly have known James’s famous ghost story but isn’t likely to have known “The Yellow Wallpaper,” long forgotten in Stafford’s time but subsequently rediscovered by feminist scholars and now frequently reprinted. Stafford’s story strikes the contemporary reader as a missive from a bygone prefeminist era when marital loyalty, not running for one’s life, was the married woman’s ideal. Stafford’s vision of woman’s fate at the hands of men is a dark one, passivity to the point of masochism.
Set in Adams, Colorado, and narrated in the forthright tone of a middle-aged western woman very different from the fatally sensitive May, “In the Zoo” is another of Stafford’s tales of what might be called domestic Gothicism. Again, a tyrannical, mentally unbalanced person dominates a household; Mrs. Placer, or, as she wishes to be called by her charges, “Gran,” becomes a foster mother to two orphaned sisters after their parents’ deaths. Mocked and bullied by Gran, treated like servants, the girls grow up “like worms” in an unrelenting atmosphere of “woe and bereavement and humiliation.” The story erupts into physical violence rare in Stafford’s fiction, when a vicious watchdog trained by Gran kills a pet monkey owned by an elderly friend of the sisters. It’s a traumatic memory both women bear throughout their lives, as if the sinister influence of Gran has permanently altered their personalities.
Stafford’s last published story, the corrosively memoirist “An Influx of Poets” (1978), is a cold eye cast upon that postwar era in our cultural history when (male) poets exuded a Heathcliffian glamour as remote to us now as the smugly self-congratulatory Norman Rockwell covers of The Saturday Evening Post:
There was an influx of poets this summer in the state of Maine and ours was only one of many houses where they clustered: farther down the coast and inland all the way to Campobello, singly, in couples, trios, tribes, they were circulating among rich patronesses in ancestral summer shacks of twenty rooms, critics on vacation from universities who roughed it with Coleman lamps and outhouses but sumptuously dined on lobster and blueberry gems, and a couple of novelists who, although they wrote like dogs (according to the poets), had made packets, which, because they were decently (and properly) humble, they were complimented to share with the rarer breed.
No more glamorous poet-figure than Theron Maybank, who attracts women with his “brilliant talk and dark good looks somehow reminiscent of the young Nathaniel Hawthorne”; a casual anti-Semite (“I would never have a Jew as a close friend”) who nonetheless betrays his desperately vulnerable wife with a zaftig Jewish beauty, encourages her incipient alcoholism, and hurtles her “off the brink on which [she] had hovered for so long into a chasm.” This late story of Stafford’s reads like recklessly disguised memoir, giving off sparks of raw, pained vitality in counterpoint to the more detached rhythms of “A Country Love Story,” its obvious predecessor, concluding with the most poignant of ritual deaths:
We had killed Pretty Baby and killed her kittens. Theron himself had put them in a gunnysack and weighted it with stones and had rowed halfway out to Loon Islet and dropped them among the perch and the pickerel.
Stafford is at her brilliant and tragic best in the unnerving mode of domestic Gothicism, but elsewhere, she’s enormously funny, capable of withering satiric portraits as pitiless as those by Mary McCarthy, with whom she shares a zestful disdain for hypocrisy, pretension, and feminine “niceness.” The Manhattan-based stories “Children are Bored on Sundays,” “Beatrice Trueblood’s Story,” and “The End of a Career” portray social types who verge upon caricature, while the obese, gluttonous egotist Ramona Dunn of “The Echo and the Nemesis” is a clownish type who shocks us with her sudden humanity. There is the most subtle hint of incest. At the story’s end, Ramona tells her friend of her father coming into her room—but the monologue is broken and incoherent, and her friend doesn’t want to hear any more.
Lottie Jump, the aptly named shoplifter friend of eleven-year-old Emily Vanderpool of “Bad Characters,” is a bold, brash daughter of Oklahoma migrant workers whose humanity registers upon us belatedly; so too, we come to sympathize with “the most beautiful of living women,” Angelica Early of “The End of a Career,” who is blinded by the world’s admiring yet condescending attention, fails to develop a personality, and is defeated by the first ravages of aging: “…Her heart, past mending, had stopped.” (A virtually word-for-word replication of the ending of James’s The Turn of the Screw.) Several of Stafford’s memorable stories elude definition, striking a chord somewhere between comedy and horror: in “Cops and Robbers,” the drunken, bullying father of five-year-old Hannah takes her to a barber to have her beautiful long hair shorn, as a way of punishing her mother with whom he has had a quarrel; in “The Captain’s Gift,” the elderly, genteel widow of an army general receives from her grandson, an army captain stationed in Germany in the early 1940s, an unexplained, alarming gift: “a braid of golden hair…cut off cleanly at the nape of the neck, and so long it must have hung below her waist.”
In her wittily ironic view of humanity, Jean Stafford is reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, for whom humankind was divided about evenly between “fools” and “knaves”—naive victims, evil aggressors. Stafford’s indignation is hardly less savage than Swift’s, though the terms of her moral satire are likely to be realistic. Her most mordant story, “A Modest Proposal,” takes its title from Swift’s infamous satirical piece, providing, in a milieu of cocktail-swilling rich white tourists in the Caribbean, the most startling image in all of Stafford’s fiction: the “perfectly cooked baby”—a native, black baby victim of a house fire—offered to the racist Captain Sundstrom by a jovial friend:
It was charred on the outside, naturally, but I knew it was bound to be sweet and tender inside. So I took him home…and told [Sundstrom] to come along for dinner. I heated the toddler up and put him on a platter and garnished him with parsley…and you never saw a tastier dish in your life…. And what do you think he did after all the trouble I’d gone to? Refused to eat any of it, the sentimentalist! And he called me a cannibal!
Is the story authentic? Is it a grotesque tall tale, meant to tease Captain Sundstrom’s genteel guests? In the shocked aftermath of the narration, one of the guests throws a glass onto the stone floor of the terrace where it “exploded like a shot”—an enigmatic response that, ironically, summons the native kitchen boy to the scene. Stafford’s contempt for the gathering, as for the privileged white class to which they belong, is perfectly evoked: “[The kitchen boy] ran, cringing, sidewise like a land crab, and the Captain, seeing him, hollered, ‘Now, damn you, what do you want? Have you been eavesdropping?’”
Copyright © 2005 by Joyce Carol Oates