When Jean Stafford published Boston Adventure in 1944, at the age of 29, Life magazine called her ‘the most brilliant of new fiction writers’. The novel sold an impressive 380,000 copies and she went on to publish two more, The Mountain Lion (1947) and The Catherine Wheel (1952). Throughout the 1950s, her short stories were a fixture in the New Yorker. She published nothing substantial in the 1960s, though her Collected Stories, which came out with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1969, was awarded a Pulitzer the following year. She died, aged 63, in 1979. Since her death, Stafford’s stories have (more or less) remained in circulation, but her three novels were out of print for decades. Now the Library of America has brought them together in a single volume, enshrining Stafford in the American tradition. It’s an opportunity to think again about her work, since she’s nowadays best remembered as the first wife of Robert Lowell, the one whom he drove, while drunk, into a brick wall. The crash necessitated months of excruciatingly painful surgery (recounted in her story ‘The Interior Castle’) and caused – as one male friend helpfully computed – a ‘25 per cent reduction of the aesthetic value of her face’.
Stafford’s writing has a strange, foreign flavour. It’s bitter and strong, dark, sometimes poisonous. Reading her work, three-quarters of a century on, I feel all the angsty strain of American literary culture in the 1940s and 1950s, and how different that world was from ours. There’s a paradox in how great fiction conveys its era; the best work naturalises what’s alien in other times and places, makes its readers feel at home. If you want to experience the otherness of the Victorians, don’t read George Eliot, read Charlotte Yonge. Stafford makes me taste the alienation and disenchantment of the mid-century zeitgeist as – for example – her contemporary Eudora Welty doesn’t, though Welty’s Mississippi ought to feel more remote than Stafford’s Boston. I’m stalled on the threshold of Boston Adventure by the self-consciousness of the highly wrought prose. By contrast, the first half of Stafford’s second novel, The Mountain Lion, is breathtakingly original and flies free of what feels mannered and dated elsewhere in her work. Some of her short stories are also very fine, though they seem locked too often inside the machinery of a punishing pessimism.
She was born in Covina, California, where the first part of The Mountain Lion is set, and where her father had a walnut farm. When she was five the family moved to Colorado, the scene of most of the rest of that novel. Like many American families of the era, they were sliding out of privilege – her paternal grandfather had made money as a rancher – into genteel hardship. Her father spent his life working on a cranky analysis of government deficit spending (never published), only taking time off to write Westerns; when they moved to Boulder, her mother took in female students as boarders. Stafford didn’t like her family much, though she was close, for a time, to her brother, Dick. She kept a notebook of her mother’s platitudes, and transcribed her letters with jeering annotations to send on to friends. Clever, twisted, unlikeable Molly, daughter of the family in The Mountain Lion, is surely a self-portrait.
In 1932 she won a scholarship to study at the University of Colorado, where she wrote her senior thesis on ‘Profane and Divine Love in English Literature of the 13th Century’. She spent a year in Heidelberg, where she studied Anglo-Saxon, and went on to a couple of teaching jobs in the US, which she didn’t enjoy. Before Boston Adventure, she wrote two novels which came close to being published: one was set in Heidelberg; the other satirised a school where Stafford had briefly worked – the publishers feared it might be libellous. The school, whose aim it was ‘to turn out the wives and mothers of tomorrow’, would later become the subject of a short story, ‘Caveat Emptor’, in which the headmaster boasts about his curriculum: ‘Marriage and the Family, Childcare, Home Ec, Ballet for grace, French for elegance’.
Meanwhile, Stafford was finding a life outside her family. The crowd of young people to whom she became attached were ferociously superior and highly educated, unmoored by economic upheaval, by their reading of Freud and, soon, by the war. They burned with contempt for their parents’ hidebound, stuffy generation, and were determined to live differently; they drank hard and lived chaotically. One university friend, Lucy McKee, shot and killed herself while Stafford was phoning for help. In 1937 she met Lowell: an unpublished young poet of infinite promise, lanky and good-looking, he was from a Boston family with an old name. It was in Cambridge, in 1938, that he drove her into the wall; they were married nonetheless in 1940. Lowell’s mother called her a ‘hick’, but they made quite a pair. There was talk of a Pulitzer for Boston Adventure; then Lowell won one for his second collection, Lord Weary’s Castle (1947). The book was dedicated to ‘Jean’.
The very last story she published in the New Yorker, in 1978, ‘An Influx of Poets’, was cut down by her publisher Robert Giroux from a novel – to be called A Parliament of Women – which she had been working on for twenty years and would never finish. It’s impossible not to read it as a fascinating and no doubt one-sided portrait of her marriage and milieu, set somewhere not unlike Damariscotta Mills in Maine, where Stafford bought a house on the proceeds of Boston Adventure. In the story, the poet’s long-suffering wife is called Cora Savage, though any savagery is all but dissimulated in the light tone of Stafford’s prose, its ironic poise. Cora’s role is to support her genius husband. She sits up late at night, typing out his poems as he revises them. She entertains, cooks for and ministers to the stream of agonised rival poets (and supportive wives) who come to stay. Then the inevitable unaccompanied woman turns up. Younger than Cora, and more attractive, she flatters and seduces the poet. Through it all, everyone’s drinking. They drink and drink and drink.
The story’s domestic comedy undermines the poet’s absurd performance of his own all-importance. In an age-old contrivance of the ironic female perspective, Cora collaborates in making the household revolve around the needs of the male genius and yet finds a private vantage point from which this genius can be belittled and mocked. Yet the reality of the genius remains a constant. In a way, this is useful for Cora too: it covers for, or at least postpones, her own status anxiety. She doesn’t need to ask herself, as the male writer painfully asks himself, whether she’s any good. Her value is wrapped up safely inside his. She doesn’t need to risk being a writer because she’s the wife of one. It’s only when the poet proposes to end their arrangement – he has found another female to fill the role! – that it stops working for her.
And yet the story boils over, despite its poise, with something unresolved. Stafford can’t include the importance of her own writing – in this very story about herself that she’s actually writing – because that would unbalance its fragile but functional compromise, between male art-importance and female domestic long-suffering. There’s no suggestion that Cora Savage has literary aspirations of her own – though the story is told in the first person, in her words. If we thought that she too was a writer, we’d have to ask why the household doesn’t equally revolve around her writing, if the importance of art-work cuts across all other responsibilities and claims on the writer’s time. Stafford avoids asking this question and wasn’t sympathetic to the feminism of the generation that came after her. (She was memorably fierce in reviewing Susan Brownmiller’s book on rape: ‘She is not a lady and she is a very bad writer.’) Her relationship with Lowell, and with his work and her own, embodies something paradoxical in that mid-century moment, for a certain kind of intellectual woman. On the one hand, she expresses contempt for the conventions of femininity, their inhibiting silliness and smallness – all that gossiping, and fussing over one’s appearance and clothes. The portraits of Molly’s mother and sisters in The Mountain Lion are scathing. In reaction to such silliness, she has a huge ambition for her own intellectual development. On the other hand, she shows, at every turn, a deeply internalised abjection faced with men’s work, men’s qualities, men’s achievements.
She wrote a terrible letter to Lowell after their break-up:
I know this, Cal, and the knowledge eats me like an inward animal: there is nothing worse for a woman than to be deprived of her womanliness. For me, there is nothing worse than the knowledge that my life holds nothing more for me than being a writer … In your letter you say that you hope I will be recognised as the best novelist of my generation. I want you to know now and know completely that that would mean to me absolutely nothing.
It was a bad moment; one can hope Stafford didn’t always weigh up her happiness like this. Things are further complicated by the fact that Lowell, at his best, was a very good poet whose works have endured, whereas Stafford’s haven’t worn as well. But if there’s something broken inside her novels and stories, then it isn’t stupid to wonder whether it’s connected to something broken, because she’s a woman, inside her valuation of herself, and of her own talent and its relation to her world. It’s dangerous, of course, to generalise too far. There were other women caught up in painful proximity to male genius who nonetheless wrote brilliantly, out of their whole autonomy: Lowell’s second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, for example. Jean Rhys made her genius out of her abjection.
Stafford’s marriage to Lowell lasted eight years. Throughout the relationship, he was unpredictable and violent, already manifesting the mental instability which would necessitate frequent stays in psychiatric hospitals. He punched Stafford in the face at least once, and strangled her, and she wrote to a friend that she feared his ‘pathological’ nature, though ‘he does what I have always needed to have done to me and that is that he dominates me.’ Stafford drank heavily, they both drank, with all the crazy excess of that era; publication of The Mountain Lion took place while Stafford was drying out at the Payne Whitney Clinic on the Upper East Side. There weren’t any children – Stafford never had any – and they were divorced in 1948. Stafford was married twice more, briefly to a staff writer for Life magazine, Oliver Jensen, and then, more happily, to the New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, who died after they’d been together only four years. But the relationship with Lowell, in the years of their youthful formation, was crucial to her life and thought. Giroux described visiting her in the last year of her life, after a stroke had left her confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak or write – though she was still smoking. When, somehow, the subject of Lord Weary’s Castle came up, Stafford communicated with heroic insistence that she understood better than anyone where each line of the book came from.
Boston Adventure, I think, reads as an apprentice work, and I’m not convinced it deserved to be republished. It’s narrated by Sonie Marburg, the daughter of poor, mad, bad and violent Russian and German immigrants, and the first part is a gothic inventory of their disasters – epilepsy, madness, marital discord, sordid death. Sonie works alongside her mother as a chambermaid in the local hotel, where Miss Pride, an elderly lady of the Bostonian inner circle, spends her summers. In the second part of the novel, Sonie is taken up by Miss Pride, and goes to live with her in Pinckney Street, to help her write her memoirs; she tries to find a place for herself inside a privileged world of tea parties and musical soirées. But there’s not nearly enough treatment of class in the novel. The fact that Sonie gets on as well as she does seems deeply implausible, and it isn’t clear that Stafford knew much more about Boston’s high society than she did about poor immigrants. Sonie falls unconvincingly in love with a stiff young doctor – literally stiff, from a back injury – but he marries the beautiful Hopestill from his own set. Hopestill dies in a darkly melodramatic conclusion, but it comes too late to redeem the dreary nothingness of the plot.
It’s difficult to reconstruct what readers must have liked about the novel at the time. Perhaps they told themselves they’d found an American Proust, and that it was supposed to be hard to read. Or perhaps they were hungrier, in those days, for secrets about the sealed world of the Boston Brahmins. The novel is interminably long, its sentences arid and uncomfortable:
I began to muse upon my father. How immediate before me were his crude bones, refined by the sunburned flesh! How directly did the wintry eyes advance! The face retired, and instead, I saw myself kneeling in the road to tie my bootlace. My loneliness was spatial and atmospheric, implanting in my heart a sadness which had not been there when the fact of his leaving stood alone.
I winced at the firm set of her jaw and the suspicious, narrowed eyes. Though what I said was true, I did not feel that I had been absolved of my guilt, but that she was reading my mind in which my sporadic infatuation with the doctor was trying in vain to flutter out of reach of her superhuman intuition.
It’s difficult to believe that the same writer produced the vivid prose of The Mountain Lion. Molly and Ralph are an odd, sickly brother and sister whose eccentricities are set in opposition to their otherwise ordinary family. To begin with they are intuitively close, though Ralph is already beginning to feel the weight of Molly’s hero worship. The landscape – first in California and then in Colorado – is described with exquisite exactness, and with what feels like an authentically childish perception:
On their right was an orange grove from which, at all seasons of the year, came a heavy fragrance and where they sometimes saw flocks of such bright, unusual birds that they thought they must have flown up from the South Seas or westward from Japan. Some of the little pyramidal trees were always in bloom and some were always bearing fruit. There was a man on a ladder in the grove today and he turned when he heard them coming. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his black shirt and called, ‘Hello, you kiddoes,’ but as he was a Mexican, they did not reply and scuttered on, terrified, until they no longer heard his derisive laugh.
The children suffer from the genteel femininity of their mother and sisters, and the false bonhomie of the society around them. There’s a wonderful portrait of an unctuous literary cleric, Mr Follansbee, whose bullying confrontations with Molly and Ralph vibrate with the same violence as when Jane Eyre talks back to Mr Brocklehurst:
‘What’s this? Why do you wish I were a fairy, young lady?’
And Molly whispered, with deadly hatred, ‘So you’d vanish.’ … Mrs Fawcett slapped her face, not hard, but so that it made a sound.
The children go to live for a year with their Uncle Claude on his ranch in Colorado, where everything is different:
Ralph thought of the house in Covina with all its flurry of little objects, little vases and boxes on little gilt tables and whatnots hanging in the corners; and then thought of the big, bare rooms of the ranch where the furniture was heavy and solid as if it were nailed to the floor and the only small things were catalogues from L.L. Bean and Montgomery Ward, boxes of buckshot, fly-books, odd bits of leather and metal.
He decides to become more manly and leave off his glasses, although his eyesight’s bad. And he sets his heart on killing a mountain lion – a glorious female glimpsed only once or twice – in some sort of perfect consummation. Mixed up with his pure longing for the lioness is a ravaging guilt at his awakening sexuality; he even fantasises about one of his silly, pretty, older sisters. And this shame is tangled up with his rage at still bespectacled Molly, who is increasingly awkward and impossible and unhappy and, what’s worse, sees through to his dreadful desires. Molly is doomed because she can’t grow up into a man like Ralph, but nor can she become like her mother and sisters – or even want to become like them.
All the sensual, intelligent lightness of the writing in the childhood part of the novel is dragged down in the second half by its fatalistic misery-machinery. The downturn pivots on a moment on a train – going into a tunnel, no less – when Ralph asks Molly, in a whisper, which dirty words she knows. And as soon as the lion comes into the story, it’s clear that for structural reasons Ralph will either have to kill it, or kill Molly: in fact, he manages to kill both of them at once. Dead cats mount up, incidentally, in Stafford’s work. At the end of ‘An Influx of Poets’ the genius drowns the cat, called Pretty Baby. And a cat bites off the head of its own kitten in Stafford’s third novel, The Catherine Wheel, a portentous fable set one summer in Maine: a boy longs for another boy to die, and is punished instead with the death of his beloved cousin in a fire.
It isn’t the failure of optimism that the reader objects to, when a novel or a story winds down to its doom through some determining apparatus of plot and symbolism. Pessimism’s fine. But the fatalism in The Mountain Lion, and elsewhere in Stafford’s work, just feels too contrived, too literary: the objection is aesthetic as much as moral. There was every good reason for writing with jaded disenchantment in the 1940s: depending on a writer’s sensibility, there always is every good reason. It’s not the disenchantment that’s problematic, but the feeling of a closed machinery at work in the writing, a lack of fresh air. Life’s cruelty should feel arbitrary in art, not well designed. We feel in the best fiction that whatever happens there is free – like the stray bullet that kills Petya Rostov in War and Peace, say, or Easter’s jump from the high-dive board in Welty’s ‘Moon Lake’. Something else could have happened on the page instead, something different.