It would gratify Jean Stafford, the author of three ambitious midcentury novels, a Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of short stories, and at least one piece of outstanding journalism, to know that her work remains as difficult to pigeonhole as she herself was. It would appeal to Stafford’s hard-won sense of irony that she is now best remembered as the headstrong girl whom a drunk Robert Lowell—he was twenty-one, two years her junior—disfigured and nearly killed when he drove his parents’ car into a wall in 1938, after her brisk rejection of his proposal of marriage.
Yet Stafford did marry Lowell fifteen months later and remained in affectionate contact with him from their divorce in 1948 until his death in 1977, a year and a half before her own, which speaks to the intensity of their complicated and volatile relationship. Compulsively annotating her copy of Lowell’s “The Mills of the Kavanaughs,” a 1951 poem that evokes a secluded white clapboard house the couple had once shared in Maine, the dying Stafford lamented that her former husband “saw nothing of the natural world—nothing!!” before commenting that here was “the kind of writing that reminds me why I married him.”
Stafford’s became a name to conjure with in 1944, when her first novel, Boston Adventure, while garnering numerous literary accolades, proved an unexpected wartime best seller. (Lowell’s first poems, published that same year in a limited edition of 250 copies, received more modest reviews.) Boston Adventure has not aged well, but the Library of America’s elegant two-volume reissue of Stafford’s published work reminds us why this meticulous, witty, and proudly traditional author won seven prestigious O. Henry Awards for her short stories. It doesn’t explain why the most memorable of them, together with Stafford’s remarkable second novel, The Mountain Lion (1947), and the better parts of her less satisfactory third, The Catherine Wheel (1952), view the world through the eyes of intelligent and hypercritical children of around ten or eleven.
Stafford was an avid and disciplined reader of Henry James, another childless author with an uncanny ability to interpret the world from a preadolescent’s perspective. But her fiercely endearing little misfits feel closer to J.D. Salinger’s swaggeringly vulnerable Holden Caulfield and his loyal but anxious sibling, Phoebe, than to James’s embattled and unwittingly corrupted Maisie Farange. Stafford’s small girls, while superficially confident and dismissive, have a nonchalant worldliness that is often deliberately undercut by their peculiar brand of innocence. In “A Reading Problem” (1956), the proudly bookish Emily Vanderpool is hunting for a refuge in which to relish “whatever fun thing I had brought along.” Venturing into the women’s smoking room of her hometown’s college library, she jeers at the ineptitude of the summer-school smokers:
They asked me a lot of solemn questions, raising their voices as if I were deaf. Besides, it was embarrassing to watch them smoke; they were furtive and affected, and they coughed a good deal. I could smoke better than that and I was only ten; I mean the one time I had smoked I did it better.
A dearth of family correspondence has obliged Stafford’s biographers to rely on her fictional versions of her early life: five years in California and then—after her Irish father’s loss in 1921 of an inherited fortune through reckless speculations—the family’s move to Colorado. Money remained short; in Boulder Stafford’s mother, Ethel, took in student boarders while Jean, her youngest child, trained a sharp eye on the foibles of the wealthy tubercular invalids whose need for mountain air brought them to the town. The sick and the dying would later provide richly inappropriate comic subject matter for Stafford’s stories. Newcomers to her work might want to start with one of her finest, the joyously unpredictable “The Healthiest Girl in Town” (1951), in which Jessie, the child narrator, both envies and ridicules the tiny, rich, and “dauntlessly opinionated” invalid daughters of her mother’s New England–born employers. We see the pathos of “these sophisticated valetudinarians,” aged nine and ten; Jessie does not.
Always ambivalent about Boulder (it is invariably named “Adams” in her fiction), Stafford seems to have loved the spacious West Coast ranch house in which she was born in 1915. An idealized version of it appears in “The Lippia Lawn” (1944), an early story that describes the view from the house across a sea of lippia, growing “thick and close to the ground as clover”:
I used to sit waiting for the school bus bringing my sisters and my brothers and pretend that the lawn was the ocean at Redondo Beach, and that I could see them coming through the breakers after a long swim. Once, as I ran toward them, the springy earth cool to my feet, I was stung on the ankle by a bee at work in the brilliant sunlight.
Bee sting aside, the story expresses a state of bliss that Stafford herself would rarely enjoy. Privately, she rated personal happiness far above the literary success that Lowell had predicted when he told her in 1946 that he hoped she would be recognized as the best novelist of their generation. Publicly, her best fiction revisited the “turbulence and misery” from which—as Joyce Bartholomew’s troubled father pompously instructs his child in Stafford’s uncompleted autobiographical novel of the late 1940s, In the Snowfall—great literature must find its inspiration. Anguish, provoked almost entirely by her acute, enduring sense of physical and social inadequacy, was essential for Stafford’s talent to flourish. It’s something of a miracle how gracefully—given a lifetime of illness, breakdowns, and alcoholism—she continued to delineate that perpetual and self-conscious agony within her work.
Even a casual slight could fester and, magnified by time and bitter memory, engender a masterpiece. A tactless sister informed her at some early stage in life that her adored older brother, Dick, given the glad tidings of the newly delivered baby Jean, had expressed despair: Why a girl and not a dog?! Decades later, recalling how a dog had once been rated above her own small self, Stafford would arrange for the poisoning of Laddy, a gentle hound, after it unexpectedly morphed into a killer in the short story “In the Zoo” (1953).
John Stafford, his daughter’s evident model for the fictional Mr. Bartholomew, seems to have caused more turbulence and misery than this thick-skinned and self-appointed genius had comprehended. (Acknowledging only in his ninetieth year that he had been a “Laughing Jackass” for most of his life, John sheepishly confessed that until very recently, “I couldn’t even suspect it.”) Stafford’s relationship with her strange, obsessive father is hard to decipher. “Seeing him again, I am amazed that all of us did not commit suicide in our cradles,” she told her second husband, Oliver Jensen, a former editor at Life, after a rare visit home in 1951.
As a child, however, she idolized him. While John—before his self-inflicted financial ruin inspired him to pontificate on global economics—hammered out unsalable westerns under noms de plume like Jack Wonder and Ben Delight, young Jean tapped out cowboy tales on her junior typewriter. As a bold twelve- or thirteen-year-old she swaggered into her father’s basement den flourishing his prized blackthorn walking stick and wearing one of his winter suits. John Stafford’s claim to Jensen in 1950 that Jean had been attempting to encourage him by impersonating a literary agent sounds pitifully like an old man’s fantasy. More likely his precocious daughter was masquerading as the literary-minded son she sensed her father had always craved. (Dick Stafford became a forest ranger before dying in an ambulance accident during World War II.)
What, then, caused Stafford to avoid her father in later life, despite his somewhat pathetic attempts at reconciliation? Had he been abusive, as In the Snowfall intimates in a strange episode when Joyce Bartholomew’s naked older sister is savagely beaten by their father? Or was he, as Joyce’s bizarre envy of her sister’s sufferings suggests, an unwitting collaborator in his daughter’s dark fantasies? “She wanted him to kill her,” Stafford wrote in In the Snowfall before explaining that only then would young Joyce “be free of this sickness of the heart that sometimes crept into her flesh so that she could not eat and could not rest.” Biographical speculation is always risky. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to see the specter of Stafford’s father looming up when she wrote to a former lover, Robert Hightower, on the eve of her first marriage in 1940 that only Lowell could do “what I have always needed to have done to me and that is that he dominates me.”
Stafford knew what she was in for. By the time of that letter to Hightower, Lowell’s notorious car “accident” (the exact circumstances remain unclear) had resulted in two excruciating facial operations on his future wife. Stafford remembered her sense of physical outrage with shocking precision in one of her most admired stories, “The Interior Castle” (1946): “The brain trembled for its life, hearing the knives hunting like wolves outside, sniffing and snapping. Mercy! Mercy! cried the scalped nerves.” A year into their marriage, in the presence of their friends, a furious Lowell smashed his fist into Stafford’s disfigured face and broke her rebuilt nose. “I fell in love with Caligula,” she commented afterward, adding with characteristically sardonic wit that “Cal” Lowell’s ardent embrace in 1941 of a masochistically austere form of Roman Catholicism—which he also imposed upon her—had transformed Caligula into Calvin.
Talking about her father and her husband to a close friend in the last months of 1946, the newly solitary Stafford confided that they had both been “violent men in every way.”* But the possibility that a warped father had actually fostered a taste for physical abuse is undermined by Stafford’s anxiously expressed hope, just before her short-lived second marriage to the amiable and—in increasingly trying circumstances—tolerant Jensen in 1950, that he was not violent, “because I don’t like to be an invalid.” No damage, physical or emotional, marred her improbably happy third marriage to A.J. Liebling, the author of, among other superb works, The Sweet Science, an exquisitely written account of the art of boxing.
Whatever his defects, John Stafford strove tirelessly to shape his daughter’s budding ambitions to be a writer. Jean’s early introduction to the jauntily deflating style of his beloved Mark Twain helped provide a voice for the stories of childhood that she later set against a Colorado landscape of snow-topped mountains and coursing rivers. By coaching her in Latin, her father laid the foundations for her impeccable marshaling of language to express the unexpected. Lady Caroline, in “The Children’s Game” (1958), is not elegantly but “eloquently” attired for her ceremonious evening repast: a single small onion, served on a Sèvres plate. Back in Paris, a borrowed black cat humiliates Lady Caroline’s nervously self-critical guest by being “scornful, chic and French, hugely self-respecting.”
Her father’s passion for writing inspired Stafford’s lifetime habit of dedication to craft. A clever, studious girl, she won a statewide prize for a school essay about the experience of leaving California for Colorado. At college in Boulder, she honed her style as a fiction writer while earning a bit of much-needed cash by posing nude for art school students. (A surviving sketch discloses a body both slender and plump; years later, a female friend admiringly compared Stafford’s voluptuous shape to one of Fragonard’s enticing young flirts.)
Following a year in Heidelberg (the setting for one of her most tender and least ironic late stories, 1957’s “My Blithe, Sad Bird”), Stafford’s first chance to promote her chosen career came in 1937, when she showed up at a grand literary conference in Boulder armed with poems, a story, excerpts from a journal of her time in Germany, and part of an early, subsequently abandoned novel. John Crowe Ransom, commending the financially strapped Stafford to his friend Allen Tate as an employable college teacher—one who also showed signs of “a considerable creative talent”—recalled her in 1938 as having been the “most promising girl” at the Boulder conference. Evelyn Scott, at that time a highly regarded southern novelist, drew the gifted and shamelessly ingratiating young writer under her wing. Ford Madox Ford, well past his prime but still revered by both Stafford and Lowell (another eager attendee of the conference), warned her to stop striving for strict authenticity:
One time, in appraising a character he found disproportionately unsympathetic, [Ford] asked me how closely I had drawn the portrait from life, and when I replied that I had been as sedulous as I knew how, he said, “That’s impolite and it’s not fiction.” He went on to observe then that the better one knows one’s characters in life, the harder it is to limn them in fiction because one has too much material.
It took Stafford a while to make the wisest use of Ford’s advice. Boston Adventure, the dark extravaganza of a novel that propelled her to improbable fame and enormous sales, suffered from a conscientious determination to disguise her real-life sources. As a result, the portrait of Ethel Stafford as Sonie Marburg’s insanely vindictive mother is risibly unconvincing. Matching it is Stafford’s distorted presentation of Lowell’s snobbish mother, Charlotte, as Lucy Pride, the eccentric doyenne of restrictive Boston society within whose frigidly correct abode young Sonie, a socially aspirational fugitive from a North Shore village, finds herself imprisoned for life, much as she had once been a captive in the home of a frighteningly unpredictable mother. (Urging Sonie to come back indoors in the novel’s closing words, Miss Pride ominously tells her through “meager” lips that she will never “get to be an old lady if you don’t take care of yourself.”)
Embarking on Boston Adventure’s rightly admired successor, The Mountain Lion, Stafford put Ford’s shrewd counsel to better use. “The most interesting lives of all,” she later said, “are our own.” In her second novel, she divided aspects of her own conflicted self between Molly and Ralph Fawcett, awkward, precocious siblings whose uneasily intense relationship ends with a shocking tragedy. Writing to Lowell about the novel she always considered her best, Stafford identified with clever, self-harming, and fiercely ambitious Molly. But she was equally present in Ralph, the observant, often acidly funny small boy who dreads Molly’s covert faculty to do him harm: she might “ruin him, blow up his world if she chose…. He must guard himself against her weapon.”
Stafford successfully employed the same device of distributing distinct facets of her inner self within discreetly twinned characters in many of the flood of short stories that first appeared in Harold Ross’s New Yorker during the late 1940s. High-minded friends at Partisan Review—Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, and his protégé John Berryman—vehemently disapproved of her appearing alongside James Thurber and E.B. White in a mere humor magazine (albeit one that also published Salinger, John Cheever, and Vladimir Nabokov). Stafford ignored their vociferous disdain. Her collected stories—the great majority of which were commissioned and edited by Katharine White, the fiction editor for The New Yorker—ultimately won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1970.
Rich in their range, the best of Stafford’s stories display a subtle irony that was most effectively deployed to deflate carefully prepared expectations—a trick she learned from Twain and refined to suit her own more measured style. In “Maggie Meriwether’s Rich Experience” (1955), poor Maggie, miserably out of her social depth among a group of Europeans who were “managing marvelously to rise above her presence,” is eventually granted the dubious compliment of still being “the most sophisticated, the most cosmopolitan, the prettiest raconteur of middle Tennessee.” When intellectual Alfred Eisenburg offers a drink to Emma, the out-of-town acquaintance he bumps into at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in “Children Are Bored on Sunday” (1948), Stafford conjures up a mirage of romance before the belligerent eyes of self-conscious Emma: an image of their two names prettily entwined on a heart carved in the bark of an apple tree. And then, with feline elegance, she slashes into the fantasy:
To [Emma’s] own heart, which was shaped exactly like a valentine, there came a winglike palpitation, a delicate exigency, and all the fragrance of all the flowery springtime love affairs that ever were seemed waiting for them in the whisky bottle. To mingle their pain, their handshake had promised them, was to produce a separate entity, like a child that could shift for itself, and they scrambled hastily toward this profound and pastoral experience.
Stafford’s practice of dividing traits of her own personality among different characters is displayed at its weakest in her third novel, the last that she published. The Catherine Wheel presents a dual study of a twelve-year-old boy and his revered aunt, Katharine Congreve. Each is convinced that the other has discovered his or her own dark secret. Ralph prays for the death of a rival, his best friend’s older and more popular brother, while jealous Katharine plots to destroy the marriage of her widely liked younger sister. Well-placed moments of black humor (“Tombstones are my forte,” announces the stone carver whom the perfectly healthy Katharine has ostentatiously summoned to embellish her gravestone) cannot rescue it from being long-winded and eventually unconvincing. Stafford, a perfectionist, remained dissatisfied with the book; few readers are likely to shed tears when Katharine is set alight by a burning Catherine wheel at her elaborately planned birthday ball.
The Catherine Wheel was published to mixed reviews at the height of Stafford’s thriving connection to The New Yorker and toward the end of her marriage to Jensen, whom she divorced in 1953. Stafford’s alcohol-induced truculence, while unconducive to marital bliss with a relatively abstemious husband, seldom impaired her ability to write; some of her finest stories, including the Heidelberg-based “A Winter’s Tale” and the funny and beautifully observed “Bad Characters,” were published in the mid-1950s, when she was alone, drinking hard, and struggling, once again, to complete an autobiographical novel.
An intriguing change of direction followed Stafford’s third and most successful marriage. She and Joe Liebling were already firm fans of each other’s work when they met in 1956 in London. (Katharine White had plotted and arranged the introduction.) While Stafford encouraged Liebling to write what many regard as his finest work of extended reportage, The Earl of Louisiana, he persuaded her to try her hand at journalism. A quick learner and a passionate admirer of her husband’s witty, almost inimitable mandarin style, Stafford soon became sought after.
Horizon commissioned an interview with Isak Dinesen (whom she revered too much to write about with objectivity). Mindful of Lillian Ross’s closely observed Picture (1950), first published in The New Yorker as five on-the-scene articles about John Huston’s ill-fated attempt to film Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Harper’s Bazaar dispatched Stafford to Reno to report on Huston’s subsequent—and doomed—filming of Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, written by her husband, Arthur Miller. Redbook asked Stafford to write about Colorado at Christmas; Holiday wanted a follow-up (“New England Summer”) to a 1954 essay on winter. Horizon, evidently pleased by Stafford’s swooning Dinesen feature, decided to appoint her as its movie critic. She didn’t last long, perhaps because Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave proved not to be her strong suits.
These were the burgeoning years of the New Journalism in the US, and Stafford’s marriage to Liebling placed her at the center of it all. Joseph Mitchell, the revered New Yorker writer, was present at the Lieblings’ low-key wedding in 1959; Mitchell’s protégée, the young Janet Malcolm, paid regular visits to the couple’s home.
Stafford’s uncommon talent as a magazine writer is best displayed in the three long interviews she conducted with the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, in preparation for a commissioned profile that appeared in McCall’s in 1965 and that she expanded and published as a book in 1966. A Mother in History has been given a rough ride by Stafford’s three biographers, dismissed as a snobbish put-down of a deluded but harmless woman. Scolding Stafford for making occasional references to herself, they overlook a fine writer’s sharp eye for revealing detail. (The glass over Marguerite Oswald’s proudly displayed print of Whistler’s Mother is “spotless,” while its brass identification plate is “smartly burnished…. Clearly, it was cherished.”) None of her biographers appears to wonder why Stafford mentions her impatience with a tape recorder (thoughtfully provided by McCall’s to assist the amateur journalist) that neither she nor Mrs. Oswald knows how to operate.
Eventually, the machine is mastered: smoothly the tape begins to revolve. But the precision with which Mrs. Oswald’s aspirations and confidences are captured in the recorded sections of Stafford’s book differs in no way from that of the previous, unrecorded section: one third of the whole. The machine—as her declared contempt for it indicates—is superfluous.
Written late in life, when her energy was failing, A Mother in History is a testament to Stafford’s exceptional ear for the spoken word and to the delicate irony of her style. “I think he’s coming out in history as a very fine person,” the defensive Mrs. Oswald remarks about her son. Visiting his grave during Stafford’s final interview with her, she goes further still: “Let’s have a little defense of Lee Harvey Oswald! On Mother’s Day, let’s come out and say that he died in the service of his country.” Liebling, who died a month after Oswald shot Kennedy and Jack Ruby murdered Oswald, had taught his wife the value of reporting without comment. Stafford proved his faith in her when she produced this underrated masterpiece of journalism.
Increasingly lonely, hard-drinking, and insecure, Stafford did not go into her widowed old age with grace. Writing a piece for Esquire from a final home in East Hampton (after spending most of her writing life in New York City and Boston), she confessed that “I stay in the house with the doors locked and the blinds drawn, snarling.” “Henrietta Stackpole,” a secretarial alter ego purloined from Stafford’s beloved Henry James, wrote ornate rejections in response to a diminishing flood of invitations to social events. (Waning enthusiasm for her presence was due to Stafford’s ostentatious misbehavior whenever she did condescend to show up.) The last of a succession of pet cats became her favorite companion.
While Stafford’s final and never-to-be-completed novel, The Parliament of Women, progressed at a painful plod during the last several years of an increasingly reclusive life, her gift for satire remained tart and self-deriding. In the essay “Miss McKeehan’s Pocketbook” (1976), written shortly before she suffered a debilitating stroke, Stafford presented a teasing division of herself into two personas who inhabit a single home. Downstairs, she represented herself as the journalist, a dowdy, hardworking hack who churns out book reviews in order to raise some cash. (Stafford worried about money throughout her life.) Up in her tower, sleekly subsidized by the prolific reviewer’s industry, sits the great author, exquisitely arrayed in skirt, smock, and flowing “Windsor” tie, seeming all ready for the Muse to descend. That impeccably dressed figure is a deliberate giveaway of Stafford’s enduring gift for self-mockery: she knew herself to be a notoriously messy and eccentric dresser.
A crowd of six hundred gathered to pay their final respects when Robert Lowell died in 1978. Fewer than twenty-five mourners assembled for Stafford’s funeral the following year. Unpredictable to the end, Stafford omitted her two older sisters from her will, naming her loyal cleaning lady as her principal heir. Like Katharine Congreve in The Catherine Wheel, she had already taken care to order a tombstone. Matching it to her adored Joe Liebling’s simple granite slab, she asked for the additional decorative detail of a single snowflake. “The snow was a benison,” Stafford had written at the conclusion of “The Philosophy Lesson” (1968), one of her last stories. “It forgave them all.”
Stafford and Lowell had separated shortly after a disastrous episode described in “An Influx of Poets” (1978), one of Stafford’s late and most autobiographical fictions. The story, extracted by the editor Robert Giroux from the manuscript of The Parliament of Women, recreated the hectic summer of 1946, during which Lowell brutally contemplated leaving Stafford for Gertrude Buckman, the estranged wife of their friend Delmore Schwartz. ↩