If there is one thing that David Roberts’s new biography of the novelist and short-story writer Jean Stafford makes abundantly clear, it is that any essay about her should probably begin with her parents, her family, and her strangely tormenting childhood.[1] She was born in Covina, California, in 1915, the youngest of four children. Her father, John Stafford, was himself a writer of sorts—a genuine obsessive whose career peaked early with the publication of an obscure hack Western novel, When Cattle Kingdom Fell. From there it was straight downhill: selling his Covina walnut ranch in 1921, he promptly lost the proceeds in the stock market and moved his family to Colorado, where he spent the last forty years of his life writing and rewriting a bizarre magnum opus designed, in Roberts’s words, to “set the world straight” on the perils of the American economy. His wife, Ethel, was the practical-minded one, a pleasant former schoolteacher whom Jean resented for her conventional domestic preoccupations, and who, once the increasingly destitute family had found its way to the city of Boulder, earned her daughter’s resentment for taking in her sorority-girl classmates as boarders.

Stafford’s life with this hapless couple— and with her beloved brother, Dick, and her remoter sisters, Marjorie and Mary Lee— had deep and lasting effects. As Roberts observes, after the move to Colorado “Stafford would never again know a day free of the fear of poverty and of social inferiority.” Forever after, her feelings about both her parents would be a heady compound of love and shame, pity and resentment; and many of her actions, during her undergraduate years at the University of Colorado and thereafter, strike one primarily as desperate attempts to remove herself from the world of her parents, and to forge a distinctive identity. For instance, the young Stafford— universally described as fragile, shy, and sexually naive—shocked her fellow students by becoming the nude model for a life-drawing class, and by idolizing, befriending, and moving in with Lucy and Andrew Cooke, a notorious artsy couple. The Cookes seem to have symbolized sex and freedom to Stafford, but their wild, bohemian demimonde was shattered when Lucy committed suicide during Jean’s senior year; long afterward, a still-devastated Stafford remarked of Lucy’s suicide that “I am almost ready to write about it, although I have really written about nothing else ever.” Indeed, though she never published anything explicitly based on her life with the Cookes, Stafford did give the names Lucy and Andrew to major characters in two of her novels, and dealt with her friends’' memory in various subtler ways throughout her fiction.

Lucy’s death did not put an end to Stafford’s search for a separate identity. After her graduation from college, she studied philology for a year at Heidelberg, and had barely returned home before she began writing bitterly condescending letters about her parents and country. “I can’t stay in America next year,” she wrote a friend, “until I completely repudiate the whole past and live in some foreign quarter.” She didn’t belong here, she insisted: “I have realized suddenly to my horror that I’m an artist + have to be with my fellow beings.” Roberts describes how Stafford transcribed an affectionate letter from her mother, “underlined what she considered the more egregious Americanisms, and mailed it to her friends in Paris, moralizing, ‘Well, all I can say is, it shore is a pity that Pa ever got hitched up with those fat McKillop girls.’” That Stafford would commit such a heartless act—an act so offensive that it’s pathetic—points to a profound insecurity about her own independent identity; so little sense did she have of herself apart from her family—even after college, the Cookes, and Heidelberg—that she felt it necessary to insist, in this brutal manner, upon her distinction from her mother.

Roberts’s book is replete with evidence of the young Stafford’s deficient sense of self (though Roberts himself seems mostly not to notice). During her time in Heidelberg, for instance, Stafford was mesmerized by the Nazis: “I was swept along on the tide of this well-organized collective conniption fit .... If a recruiter had come by and asked me to pledge myself for the rest of my life to the [Nazi Party], in all likelihood I would have done so.” A psychology professor at Boulder noted that Stafford was the most “suggestible” hypnotic subject he’d ever had. The principal reason why she didn’t want to marry, she explained to an early beau, was that marriage would turn her into a conventional wife, a philistine: “eventually we would be Mother and Dad.” So unsure was she, in short, of her identity as Jean Stafford, writer, that the only consequence of marriage she was able to envision was a gradual metamorphosis into a version of Ethel McKillop Stafford, housewife.

And yet when Stafford did take a husband, in 1940, she assumed the role of thankless helpmeet almost immediately. Of the man in question—Robert Lowell—she wrote that he “does what I have always needed to have done to me and that is that he dominates me.” Lowell, of course, was not just any domineering man; the prep-school educated scion of a distinguished Boston family, he was the very personification of wealth, breeding, and Easternness, all of which intimidated her. He was also, alas, spoiled, irresponsible, and mentally unbalanced. In the spring of 1938, with Stafford in the passenger seat of his car and a quantity of alcohol in his blood, Lowell plowed into a wall at the end of a road in Cambridge, Massachusetts; while he escaped unscathed, Stafford’s face suffered extraordinary damage. By all accounts, Lowell was less than remorseful over the incident; according to a friend, he regarded it as “just an accident, and he didn’t feel responsible particularly. He looked up, there was a dead end. It was not his fault.” Yet the accident was a crucial event in Stafford’s life; though surgeons managed to restore her to relatively normal appearance, the accident had done permanent damage to both her looks and her health, and the fact of it hovered tragically over the eight-year marriage to Lowell.

That marriage was, from the start, an ambiguous enterprise. Once Stafford and Lowell had set up house together—first in Baton Rouge (where Lowell attended graduate school at LSU), then in New York, Tennessee, and Maine—she apparently lost no time in becoming, like her mother, the subservient spouse of an obsessive artist. While Lowell wrote poems, Stafford performed secretarial work and housekeeping chores; a fanatical convert to Catholicism, Lowell insisted, during their stay in New York, that she also do “Catholic work,” and so she spent much of her free rime folding papers at the offices of the Catholic Worker. (Lowell himself had a job—as a copy editor at Sheed and Ward—for a total of nine months during the marriage.) Even when she did find a few moments to sit at her typewriter, she often had to spend it typing Lowell’s work rather than writing her own. “Lowell expected his wife to type up his poems as soon as he had written them,” notes Roberts. “If on rereading he changed a single word, she had to type the poem over again.”

In sum, Stafford seems to have given a great deal in her marriage and received very little in return. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, in marrying such a man as Lowell and in maintaining so self-abnegating a spousal role, she was essentially forsaking, for the time being at least, the hope of an independent identity, and capitulating to her own seemingly unshakable inner sense of identity with her much-despised mother.

It was in 1944 that Stafford—who before that year had published only one short story—became a best-selling novelist. Boston Adventure was not her first attempt at a novel; over the years she had worked on several different manuscripts, some of which she had abandoned, and some of which had been turned down by various editors. To any reader familiar with Stafford’s later, superior fiction, her graceful, charming, but thoroughly stylized first novel reads like an out-and-out capitulation to the demands of the marketplace. It reads, as a matter of fact, like the work of someone with a weak sense of authorial identity, someone afraid to reveal a distinctive sensibility. Roberts suggests interesting parallels with Proust, James, and “the great Russian novels” (one might also mention Wharton). But to mention such names without qualification is ultimately misleading. In essence, Boston Adventure is one of those capacious, old-fashioned, atmosphere-heavy affairs, mostly decorous but with perhaps a touch of the risqué, that used to be written for respectable middlebrow ladies by such authors as Anya Seton, Margaret Goudge, Daphne du Maurier, and Nancy Hale; the chief difference is that Stafford is a far more stylish and intelligent writer than most of these women.

Like many novels of its kind, Boston Adventure concerns the dramatically improving fortunes, over a period of years, of an attractive young female—in this case, Sonie Marburg. The smart, well-read, endlessly put-upon daughter of a poor Chichester, Massachusetts, immigrant couple, Sonie spends her childhood and early youth working in a hotel and entertaining a secret pipe dream—that she might one day live with Miss Lucy Pride, a wealthy Boston lady who summers at the hotel and who, to Sonie, is the very embodiment of breeding and culture. Miraculously, Sonie’s dream comes to pass: she becomes Miss Pride’s secretary, and takes her place among the fashionable young folk of Boston society. Yet life on Beacon Hill proves to have its own sorrows, and by novel’s end Sonie is dreaming of liberation from Miss Pride as fervently as she once dreamed of escape from her parents.

To read Boston Adventure is, among other things, to be reminded of Oscar Wilde’s remark that one would have to have a heart of stone to contemplate the fate of Little Nell without laughing. Sonie is no Little Nell, to be sure, but she is almost ridiculously long-suffering, and the travails she must endure before the nearly five-hundred-page opus winds to a close are legion: her father abandons the family, her younger brother dies, her mother goes insane. Through all this, Sonie seems never to stop worrying, to stop working, to enjoy so much as an hour of her life; even once she arrives in Boston there seems to be astonishingly little light or beauty in her grim world. Nor does she really do much of anything; instead, she lets things happen to her. If she is to be compared to the protagonists of great novels, it is not to anyone from James or Proust but rather to such figures as Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Hardy’s Tess, and Dickens’s rags-to-riches boy heroes; for in many ways, Sonie Marburg is an English Victorian heroine in modern American dress.

She is also, in a sense, her author in disguise. Like the young Stafford, Sonie longs for a world more sophisticated than that of her parents. If Stafford’s authorial ambitions seem to have been fueled, in part, by her pained awareness of her father’s thwarted hopes for literary glory, so Sonie’s attraction to life on Beacon Hill seems to be related to her own father’s frustrated hopes for success in America as a shoemaker. If Stafford’s father was an author of Zane Gray-style Western stories who spent his last forty years endlessly rewriting the same book, so Sonie’s father is a perpetual re-reader of The Riders of the Purple Sage; and if Stafford thought she had found a new family in Lucy Cooke, and later in her blue-blooded Bostonian husband, so Sonie thinks she has found a new family in the person of the blue-blooded Bostonian Lucy Pride. Read in purely biographical terms, Boston Adventure comes across both as a plea for pity by an author who is intent upon mythifying her childhood troubles, and as an unsettling fantasy of childhood liberation—for after her brother’s death, her father’s departure, and the onset of her mother’s insanity, Sonie is to all intents and purposes an orphan. And, as Eileen Simpson once observed, Stafford, in her childhood, “had desperately wanted to be an orphan.”

Remarkably, however, for all the autobiographical parallels, Boston Adventure has an extremely fabricated quality. It is, one might say, a masterpiece of false emotion. For a reader in search of something escapist, to be sure, it’s a good read—an engaging, well-bred novel that is almost never rude enough to confront one with the shock of recognition. There are moments of wit, insight, and realistic dialogue, but nothing, really, that would offend or challenge a Saturday Evening Post subscriber. The characters, sentiments, and plot turns ate all familiar—not from life, but from other books. The tone is lofty—sometimes almost absurdly so, as when Sonie {who serves double duty as protagonist and narrator) describes a dog-and-cat fight: “I saw the dreadful slaughter: the dog’s eyes popping as he rent and strangled the creature, spittle mingled with blood, and I heard the cat’s single wail of entreaty.” When a neighbor remarks that Sonie seems pleased with her newborn brother, we are told that “immediately the words were out, a leaven commenced to resolve my wonder into the emotion the woman had assumed in me and my pity became protective.” The Jean Stafford of Boston Adventure, in short, is an author who doesn’t write “was ill” when she can write “ailed.” Still, the novel does contain a handful of real-seeming episodes, most of which involve children; Stafford’s insight into the sensibilities of the young, and her superb ear for their conversation, are evinced in a number of small, seemingly incidental touches:

Betty Brunson, who rarely addressed me, was embracing a young elm tree near the door and swinging round it, her head appearing now on one side, now on another. “Hi, Sonie Marburg, whatcha going to do this aft?”

Stafford never again wrote anything as long or as popular as Boston Adventure (which was one of the three best-selling novels of 1944). Yet her second novel, The Mountain Lion (1947), marked an advance in every important way. Like its predecessor, The Mountain Lion is a story of childhood— specifically, of Ralph Fawcett (ten years old when the novel begins) and his sister Molly (age eight), who after a bout of scarlet fever have health problems that draw them extremely close to each other and set them apart from their schoolmates. (Like other characters in Stafford’s fiction, Ralph and Molly feel superior to others on account of their delicate health.) They live in California with their mother and two stuck-up older sisters, all of whom revere the memory of Grandfather Bonney, a stuffed shirt who peppered his conversation with Latin epigrams and (as he continually reminded everyone) had once met Grover Cleveland; Ralph and Molly, for their part, prefer their mother’s stepfather, the down-to-earth rancher Grandfather Kenyon. (As in Boston Adventure, then, there is an emphatic contrast between high-toned types and simple folk.) But it is not till after Grandfather Kenyon’s death, early in the novel, that Ralph and Molly meet Kenyon’s son Claude and begin to spend summers at the family’s Colorado ranch; it is there, during their pubescence, that Ralph’s health improves and he and Molly grow apart, the boy becoming attached to his uncle and learning to shoot, the girl—an aspiring author— withdrawing into her writing and developing an icy hatred for virtually everyone around her.

The novel’s turning point comes when Ralph and Molly are on a train which is, not incidentally, passing through a tunnel. Ralph, who has recently experienced a disturbing sexual attraction toward his sister Leah, takes a seat beside Molly, who despite her intelligence and curiosity retains a childlike innocence that he feels slipping away from him:

Partly he did not wish her to read any further in his face and partly he wanted to feel her near by. He thought of her as if she were the last foothold beneath which the world fell away in a chasm: it would be so easy to lose his footing, relax his fingerholds, and plunge downward to wedge his bones in a socket of rocks. Vile fogs baffled him and vileness was below him. Molly, alone, he thought, did not urge him to corruption.

And yet something—namely, the hormonal urge that accompanies the onset of manhood—compels him to despoil the purity that Molly represents. Aware that he is “weakening and ready to fall,” Ralph whispers to his sister: “Molly, tell me all the dirry words you know.” Before she can respond, the train emerges into the light of day, and the chapter concludes:

Ralph’s childhood and his sister’s expired at that moment of the train’s entrance into the surcharged valley. It was a paradox, for now they should be going into a tunnel with no end, now that they had heard the devil speak.

It is only a matter of time before the division between Ralph and Molly reaches its tragic apotheosis. Ralph, who has been eager to kill a mountain lion rumored to be in the vicinity of the Kenyon ranch, sees and fires at the Hon one day in the underbrush—but, instead, accidentally kills Molly.

Here, as in Boston Adventure, the parallels to Stafford’s own life appear meaningful. Molly and Ralph are clearly based on Stafford and her brother, Dick, to whom she felt very close (and who had died in an automobile accident soon after the publication of Boston Adventure); the children’s older sisters are based on Stafford’s sisters. Like Sonie Marburg’s mother, moreover, Mrs. Fawcett reflects, to a considerable degree, Stafford’s view of her own mother: she is a foolish, vain, and superficial woman whose dearest wish is that her son become a “gentleman” like Grandfather Bonney and that her daughters be proper “ladies.” As for the father, if in Boston Adventure Stafford removed Mr. Marburg from the scene after a few chapters, in The Mountain Lion she kills off the children’s father before the novel even begins. Though the bulk of the novel is told from Ralph’s point of view, it is Molly with whom the author plainly identifies, and who gradually becomes the center of interest. The girl is bright, introverted, obnoxious, and frighteningly eccentric; but the principal fact about her is that, as she approaches adulthood, she is—by virtue of her identity as an aspiring artist, a budding intellectual, and a sickly girl whose innocence refuses to die—increasingly alienated from the robust, physical, masculine environment of the ranch, and even from Ralph, who is fast growing into an altogether average young man. Plainly, Stafford’s second novel can be read as a symbolic rendering of the author’s own sense of isolation from her family—and, indeed, from the world—and its ending can be understood as a means of sacrificing her own life, in fiction, to save her brother’s.

But of course it is not the novel’s autobiographical subtext that makes it valuable; to overemphasize such matters, in fact, is to divert attention from the book’s aesthetic import. And the fact is that The Mountain Lion is one of the most admirable short novels of its time—elegantly structured, deftly composed, and sensitively imagined. It is as taut and well constructed as a short novel by Henry James, as free of superfluities as Boston Adventure was swimming in them; its prose, furthermore, is as lean and temperate as that of Stafford’s first novel was mannered. All of the characters are artfully drawn, but it is the portrayal of the children that qualifies the novel as a tour de force. For Stafford captures the world of childhood in masterly fashion, rendering details, dialogue, and thoughts for pages on end without a noticeable misstep. To recapture the way one’s own mind worked at the age of eight or ten or twelve is among the most difficult of challenges for a writer, and in The Mountain Lion Stafford accomplishes this feat magnificently. Like Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (which would appear a year later), The Mountain Lion is an emblematic account of the death of childhood, the end of innocence. If it has a failing, it is that the ending feels more than a bit contrived; yet there is, at the same time, a symbolic appropriateness and inevitability about it that makes it work.

The last of Stafford’s three published novels, The Catherine Wheel (1953), presents us with yet another child. Twelve-year-old Andrew Shipley is spending the summer at the New England country house of his cousin Katharine Congreve, a beautiful, charming Boston spinster in her early forties whose intimate tie with Andrew’s parents is regarded as “the most winning friendship in Boston.” Andrew’s story—which takes place entirely during this one summer—is reminiscent in many ways of The Mountain Lion. Like Molly, Andrew is a sensitive, imaginative isolato. Just as Molly comes to feel rejected by her brother, so Andrew feels abandoned by his only friend in the world, Victor Smithwick, the son of his cousin’s seamstress; just as Molly’s brother is busy hero-worshipping his uncle, so Andrew’s friend is preoccupied with his older brother, a Navy man whom he idolizes, and who is at home with a serious illness. Like Molly, too, Andrew has a pair of silly, conventional sisters and a mother who is much closer to them than to him; and just as Molly’s mother leaves her at the family ranch while she circles the globe with her older daughters, so Andrew’s parents leave him at Katharine’s country house while they spend their summer in Europe.

Andrew is not, strictly speaking, the only protagonist of The Catherine Wheel. Chapter by chapter, Stafford alternately focuses on Andrew, who secretly pines for Victor and hopes that the boy’s brother will either die or recover and leave, and Cousin Katharine, who has her own secret preoccupation: she’s been conducting a clandestine romance with Andrew’s father, whom she has loved for twenty years, and is waiting to hear whether he will divorce his wife. Neither Andrew nor Katharine is aware of the other’s hidden torment; each nervously interprets the other’s occasional show of anxiety as evidence that his own deepest thoughts have been perceived. Together they agonize alone, neither receiving an ounce of comfort from the other. This situation persists until the end of the summer—and of the novel—when Katharine is burned to death in a fireworks accident.

The Catherine Wheel is an unusual novel— and, in many ways, a satisfying one. The principal characters are vividly imagined, and the prose is as finely crafted as in The Mountain Lion; the central dramatic situation, moreover, is skillfully and often wittily managed, and Stafford’s central point— namely, that we all live in individual worlds, obsessed, in spite of our best intentions, with our private dilemmas—certainly comes through clearly. Ultimately, though, the novel is less effective than Stafford must have hoped it would be. A large part of the reason is the ending. Like The Mountain Lion, The Catherine Wheel concludes in a burst of symbolism. Significantly, the fireworks device that kills Katharine is a Catherine wheel—a rapidly spinning wheel of colored fire, also known as a pinwheel, which is typically nailed to a tree; this, the novel’s main symbol, serves much the same function as the mountain lion in Stafford’s second book. We are told that when Katharine first fell in love with Andrew’s father—who on that same night fell in love with his wife-to-be—there was a Catherine wheel spinning; we are reminded that the wheel is the symbol of the martyr Catherine (“They tied her to a thing like that and set it spinning, but it broke before it killed her and then they chopped off her head”); and we are informed that Katharine has ordered an image of the wheel carved into her own gravestone.

A comparison of the endings of this novel and The Mountain Lion is highly instructive. The Mountain Lion ends with the appearance of the eponymous feline and the death of Molly; The Catherine Wheel concludes with the appearance of the eponymous wheel and the death of Katharine. As critics have noted, both endings involve a deus ex machina and are thus less than completely pleasing; but there is a clear difference between them. For, despite its artificiality, the conclusion of The Mountain Lion manages to be quite affecting, and indeed feels somehow right—partly because the story is so symbolic in tone to begin with, and perhaps also in part because the conclusion represents an expert tapping into the reader’s unconscious storehouse of myths and emotions relating to childhood, family, and growing up. Besides, whereas it is the fire from the Catherine wheel that kills Katharine, it is not the lion but her brother who kills Molly. And the act is a direct—if hardly an inevitable—consequence of the changes that both children in The Mountain Lion have undergone: Molly has increasingly kept to her own company, prowling quietly around the ranch and examining the local fauna (which would explain her sudden appearance in the brush); her brother has become more of a “man,” incautiously gun-happy. Hence the killing of Molly has both credibility and import. The conclusion of The Catherine Wheel, by contrast—for all of Stafford’s skilled foreshadowing—has a facile, phony quality; Katharine’s death comes off as a freak accident, and the image of the Catherine wheel has no more resonance than a naughty limerick.

By the time The Catherine Wheel was published, Stafford’s life had changed enormously. As her marriage to Lowell disintegrated, Stafford’s life fell into a grim routine of insomnia, heavy drinking, and nervous breakdowns; after Lowell left her in 1946 she broke down completely and spent most of the following year as a patient at the Payne Whitney Clinic of New York Hospital. Eileen Simpson’s observation that Stafford seemed “relieved” and “comfortable” to be at Payne Whitney is not surprising; indeed, it is consistent with Stafford’s lifelong preoccupation with characters, Sonie Marburg among them, who long for refuge with strangers, for a home away from home. Best-sellerdom, surely, provided no such refuge. When, some time after their estrangement, Lowell expressed the hope that she would be recognized as the best novelist of her generation, she replied that such a turn of events “would mean to me absolutely nothing. It could not happen and even if it could, it would not make the days here less long nor would my loss of you be made up for.” The truth seems to be that without the dominating figure of Lowell in her life Stafford was lost, directionless; that his rejection of her was so destructive of her mental stability seems to have been a measure not only of her love for him but of her continued insecurity, her inadequate sense of self—which, even after the financial success of Boston Adventure and the artistic triumph of The Mountain Lion, seems not to have been altered substantially.

Stafford’s second and third experiments with wedlock were more conservative than her first. Following a brief marriage, in the early Fifties, to Oliver Jensen—a Time magazine writer who would later co-found American Heritage—Stafford wed New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling, to whom she remained married until his death in 1963. Both of these men provided a measure of stability (and Liebling, by her own testimony, brought her considerable happiness), but Stafford’s life continued, for the most part, to be an emotional roller coaster. Though she lived until 1979, passing her last fifteen years in relative seclusion on Long Island— as much of an isolato as Molly Fawcett or Andrew Shipley—she never completed another novel after The Catherine Wheel. Why? Perhaps part of the explanation is that once she had satisfied herself that she’d made it— in other words, that she had accomplished what her father had never done—her driving motivation to write was gone. For Stafford seems oddly to have been driven, at once, to show up her father, to vindicate him, and to duplicate his long, pathetic, unproductive decline. In fact, in a manner eerily reminiscent of her father’s decades of work on his economic manifesto, Stafford spent many of her last years laboring over a novel, entitled The Parliament of Women, that would never be published. And, as her father had once made a habit of mailing off cranky, never-to-be-published pieces to famous magazines, so Stafford devoted the final years of her career largely to intemperate articles ridiculing the use of the honorific “Ms.,” noting the ruinous effects of television on the English language, and complaining about houseguests. (One of these pieces—a 1966 profile of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother—was published the next year in expanded form as A Mother in History.)

More importantly, Stafford continued to write short stories well into the mid-Sixties. Indeed, as her novels faded in the reading public’s memory, she began to be known primarily for her work in that field, and, in particular, as one of the most celebrated practitioners of the controversial genre known as the New Yorker story. Stafford’s short fiction, most of which was assembled in various volumes during the Fifties and Sixties and brought together in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Collected Stories (1969), represents one of the finest moments of the American short story. Witty, luminous, and impeccably crafted, her contributions to the genre are crowded with people named Otis and Meriwether and Fairweather, with troubled children and snobby society women, and with garden-party conversations reported word for word. Extremely long sentences abound, and the vocabulary is unusually rich: a single page of the story “A Modest Proposal” contains the words concupiscently, nares, sybarite, mufti, and cereus. Yet Stafford succeeds in fashioning a lucid, well-upholstered style into which such words fit very gracefully.

To read The Collected Stories is to note the recurrence of certain themes, many of which recall the preoccupations of Stafford’s life as well as the plots of her novels. The book abounds in protagonists who are, to some extent, Sonie Marburgs—unsatisfied with their lot and eager to be taken into someone else’s world. In “The Bleeding Heart,” for instance, “a Mexican girl from the West” named Rose Fabrizio longs to be adopted by a mysterious elderly man who visits the New England library where she works; but her illusions about the man are soon shattered. The most prominent of Stafford’s themes, indeed, may well be the shattering of illusions—the illusions of Americans about Europe, of Westerners about the Eastern seaboard, of poor people about the rich, of naïve young people about the beau monde. One story after another seems to derive in some way from the young Stafford’s encounter with Lucy Cooke’s bohemia, with the Kultur of Heidelberg, or with Robert Lowell’s Boston. In “Maggie Meriwether’s Rich Experience,” a girl from Nashville on her first trip abroad is intimidated into silence by a host of rich and titled folk at a garden party in France; in “The Echo and the Nemesis,” Sue Ledbetter, an American student in Heidelberg, feels painfully inferior to the more worldly Ramona Dunn; in “The Healthiest Girl in Town,” a girl named Jessie is made to feel déclassé by two well-to-do schoolmates who regard their delicate health as a sign of privilege. (Like Ralph and Molly Fawcett, they’re proud of their illness.) Time and again, however, sophistication is revealed to be a mask for vulnerability, for failure, for loneliness, for a history of personal tragedy. And tragedy is certainly plentiful in these stories. Just as Stafford lost her brother immediately prior to the appearance of her first novel, so some of her characters are struck by tragedy on the threshold of their greatest joy. In the deeply haunting story “The Liberation,” for instance, Polly Bay—who has been saved from a life of eternal spinsterhood in her aunt and uncle’s tomblike Colorado house by a proposal of marriage from a wonderful young Harvard professor—learns just before her would-be triumphal departure that her fiancé has died.

Naturally, some of Stafford’s stories are more impressive than others. Aside from the ones I have named, Stafford’s strongest stories include “A Country Love Story,” “The Interior Castle,” and “An Influx of Poets.” But even her weakest stories are a joy to read, if only because their prose is so lovely. The deficiencies that they do manifest are, for the most part, those which are notoriously characteristic of New Yorker short stories in general. For instance, like many a fiction writer associated with that illustrious magazine, Stafford places a good deal less emphasis on plot than on character. This is, to be sure, not always a weakness, but it is hard to read the Collected Stones in sequence without eventually becoming irritated by their mostly ambiguous, well-nigh pretentious endings; one has the feeling that the author doesn’t want to push too far, doesn’t want to face the difficult choices attendant upon reaching the conclusion of a story, doesn’t want to risk sentimentality or conventionality or melodrama. The contrast with the emphatic sense of closure achieved in The Mountain Lion and The Catherine Wheel is striking; and the result is too often a denouement that feels dry to the point of heartlessness and pat to the point of meaninglessness. Another New Yorkerish problem is that the stories tend to be cluttered up with gratuitous details—inventories of clothes, furnishings, meals, and the like, with a frequent emphasis on the hoity-toity.

A failing more specific to Stafford’s stories is that her sarcasm toward a character sometimes overwhelms her sympathy. This is true, for instance, of “A Polite Conversation,” in which a recently married young woman is forced to endure a visit to her new home by a rich lady who lives nearby. The only apparent point of the story is to make fun of the lady, who in her fatuity, condescension, and bigotry is rather too easy a target—not to mention a very familiar one, whose like (in male and female form) may be found throughout Stafford’s fiction. These stories, then, are not without serious flaws; to compare them to the short fiction of John Cheever—and especially to that of Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor—is to notice, on Stafford’s part, a relative want of sympathy and narrowness of range. Cheever’s stories are more inventive than hers, Welty’s more playful and abundant, Taylor’s more thoughtful; Welty’s and Taylor’s stories, moreover, seem markedly realer than Stafford’s, more significant, more profoundly human. Yet the very fact that one is compelled to speak of Stafford in the company of such masters is to acknowledge that her achievement in the genre is of a very high order indeed.

Which, unfortunately, is more than one can say for David Roberts’s biography. For despite the occasional insight, Roberts generally acts as if the biographer’s chief obligation is to accumulate pointless and intimate facts about his subject: whom she slept with, what they did or didn’t do in bed. To be sure, such details, handled with tact and sensitivity, can provide vital insights into a writer’s character, and can even be humanizing; even the most clinical details will usually strike a sensitive reader as permissible, so long as they seem integral to a carefully executed, full-figure portrait of the subject. But the sleaze-to-insight ratio of this book is inexcusably high, the portrait of Stafford lacks technique and proportion, and the portraitist himself has all the delicacy of a rhinoceros. Really, what can one say about a serious literary biography that contains such a passage as this: “It is thanks to Hightower that we have the only objective testimony, sketchy though it may be, about how Stafford lost her virginity.” (Gee, thanks, Hightower.) Or this: “It is entirely possible that this half-secret romance [with one Jamie Caffery] involved no sex. If it is true that Stafford and Lowell were never lovers, as she later claimed to Eve Auchincloss, then it is also possible that by 1948 it had been almost ten years since Stafford had made love with anyone (the last time having been her one-night stand with Hightower in November 1938).” Paging Leon Edel!

To be sure, in a brief passage toward the end of Chapter Ten, Roberts does speculate intelligently about the reasons for the asexuality that Stafford seemed to manifest after 1940, and sensibly associates this asexuality with the minuscule role played by sex in her fiction; but there is nothing in the biography to justify the inclusion of some of the grubbier anecdotes that he retails in its pages. Central to this book is the assertion that Stafford spent most of her adult life suffering from syphilis, and that she never told anybody about it. What to say about this theory? Yes, some of the evidence that Roberts marshals in its defense is compelling; yes, he has a point when he suggests that such a medical problem might help to explain Stafford’s mid-life antipathy toward sex and motherhood; and, yes, if Richard Ellmann had come across such information about James Joyce he might have made use of it, too. The difference is that a Richard Ellmann would have provided a respectable and intelligent context for such a revelation, and would have found an appropriate tone in which to treat the subject; Roberts’s blunt, insensitive approach, by contrast, reminds one of an article in a supermarket tabloid about the Sex Secrets of the Rich and Famous. In a great literary biography, every newly introduced detail helps to sharpen a steadily developing portrait of an artist’s character in action; in the present book, however, the indiscriminate tossing out of every new fact and hypothesis only compounds the chaos. If an Ellmann, in other words, discusses a subject’s medical history in a way that makes one think; Roberts discusses it in a way that makes one want to wash one’s hands.

Roberts organizes his book as if it were not a biography at all but simply a rough sketch for one. He lumps together quotations about diverse topics for no other reason than that he picked them up at the same interview; he repeats information about a pamphlet that John Stafford published late in life, and about the inclusion of Stafford’s first story in a magazine called American Prefaces. On one page he quotes a single telegram in two different ways. As for his prose, it is alternately workmanlike and terrible. He writes, for instance, that in her later years Stafford “still carried an ambivalent torch for Robert Lowell.” In a sentence about Stafford and Liebling, he manages to be both tacky and clumsy: “It is not clear how physically amorous the relationship was.” Roberts claims that he was first attracted to Stafford by the beauty of her prose; but how could any writer who respected beautiful prose permit a book of first-draft quality to be published under his name?

The inclusion of some materials in this biography is downright baffling. Roberts quotes a rejection slip from the Atlantic Monthly, indulges in dopey chatter about his eagerness to know “what went on inside the mind and heart of this enigmatic ‘coed,’” and puts unnecessary quotation marks around words like coed. He specializes in the self-evident: “Had Jean Stafford never become a writer, her family would have passed into oblivion unprobed.” A Coloradan himself, he breaks into gratuitous anthems of praise for the state whenever he has a chance, describing the University of Colorado’s summer writers’ conference as “an illustrious event,” referring to the state’s “renowned” World Affairs Conference, mentioning (twice) that Thomas Wolfe once gave a talk at the university (and Stafford wasn’t even there!), and writing that the university’s 1932 faculty “included a number of scholars with national reputations and as a whole was significantly more liberal than any other body of intellectuals in Colorado.” (The Denver Broncos, for example.) He devotes much of his epilogue to a series of “if onlys”: “If only Stafford had married Robert Hightower instead of Robert Lowell; if only she had stopped drinking once and for all; if only she had exorcised the demons that her father, her sisters, and—at the end—her best friends came to resemble.” Amen—but what’s the point? If only Scott Fitzgerald hadn’t met Zelda, if only Keats had been born after the discovery of antibiotics, if only Sappho had kept carbons! It simply makes no sense to speak of a literary talent as if it could be extricated from the soul in which it is embedded, isolated from the life experiences that have helped to shape it. The unwise choices of Jean Stafford’s life and her finest writings are equally part of who she was.

And who, in the final analysis, was she? One cannot disagree with Roberts’s valedictory description of her as “perhaps her generation’s outstanding investigator of abandonment, voluntary exile, and self-estrangement.” To read through her fiction is to be overwhelmed by a sense of the overwhelming distances between people; the typical Stafford protagonist is at a considerable remove simultaneously from those who have abandoned her, from those she has left behind, and from those with whom she aspires to associate. And Stafford, admirably enough—though her fiction draws extensively upon her personal life—keeps at a distance as well; that so emotionally fragile a woman, in fact, could transfigure the anguish of her childhood into a series of splendidly objective fictions would seem to be little short of remarkable. Indeed, if there is any value in the grimly detailed closing chapters of Roberts’s book, it resides in the way that the darkness of Stafford’s final years underlines the brilliance of her fiction. But the drama of this antithesis hardly justifies Roberts’s emphasis upon such material. Patently, his chief purpose is to lend support to his conclusion that “Jean Stafford’s career was a tragic one.” It is of course fashionable nowadays for literary biographers to speak pityingly of their distinguished subjects, and to refer to those subjects’ lives as “tragedies”; but no life that yielded a novel as fine as The Mountain Lion, and a body of short fiction that has few equals in the postwar American canon, can properly be called a tragedy.

 

  1. Jean Stafford: A Biography, by David Roberts; Little, Brown, 494. pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.