(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 36)

According to Charlotte Margolis Goodman, Jean Stafford grew up feeling like an unwanted child. The last of the four Stafford children, she was born July 1, 1915, in Covina, California, to John and Ethel (nee McKillop) Stafford. Portrayed throughout this biography as misanthropic, misogynistic, and habitually self- pitying, John Stafford is implicated by Goodman as the primary and most profound cause for his daughter’s feeling unwanted, for her eventual estrangement from the family, as well as for the self-destructive choices she made in her personal life, especially where men and marriage were concerned. She was married three times, the first marriage lasting eight years, the second lasting less than two, and the third lasting approximately four—this latter the only one not torn asunder by ongoing verbal and physical fighting. Her parents’ relationship, apparently always a tumultuous one, worsened after John lost the family’s fortune (approximately $200,000) in the stock market in


Before that financial devastation, the family of six had lived comfortably, having moved from Covina to San Diego in 1920, but after the great loss John Stafford decided to move his family to Colorado in 1922—first to Colorado Springs and then to Boulder, where they settled even though he had no steady job and his wife was forced to make loaves of bread and baked beans to sell to her neighbors. Eventually Ethel would open a section of the family’s home to boarders, while her husband spent his days writing stories and an economic treatise (none of which he published) or exploring the outdoors. According to Goodman, Jean Stafford’s writing of stories when still a child was a defense against the pain she suffered in her home, the stories themselves—throughout her life—means of escaping unpleasant domestic situations in which she found herself Goodman also maintains that, beginning with Stafford’s earliest story, virtually all of her fiction was thinly disguised autobiography, the main characters versions of herself and her immediate or extended family.

Stafford was graduated from the State Preparatory School in Boulder, Colorado, in 1932, and four years later (1936) was graduated cum laude from the University of Colorado, Boulder, being the only student in her graduating class to receive both the B. A. and M. A. degrees at the same time. After spending a year at the University of Heidelberg studying on a fellowship, and the next year teaching composition at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, Stafford entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa, but she remained there only through the fall term, 1938, leaving in November. She had met Robert Lowell in 1937 at the Boulder Writers’ Conference, and he apparently became obsessively intent upon convincing her to marry him; she resisted his pursuit for three years, but in 1940 they were married. From the time of Stafford’s marriage to Lowell, according to this biography, her life consisted of frequent moves from one place to another, chronic alcoholism and heavy smoking, increasingly complicated mental and physical illnesses (such as insomnia, angina pectoris, and chronic lung disease), ceaseless and intense fighting between her and those with whom she became close, and a writing career that never garnered for her the recognition Goodman believes she deserved. Nevertheless, Stafford eventually became a frequent short-story contributor to The New Yorker, the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the winner of several 0. Henry Awards for her short stories. At the time of her death from cardiac arrest (March 26, 1979), Stafford had published three novels and forty-three short stories, having been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1969).

One of Goodman’s expressed intentions in this biography is to champion Stafford’s short stories and novels as deserving a larger audience and greater critical attention than they have had; unfortunately, the discussions herein of Stafford’s fiction seldom extend beyond perfunctory paraphrases of story lines or plots, and what analyses Goodman offers are always reductive, intent as she is upon illustrating the extent to which the stories are all autobiographical. According to Goodman’s readings, the central male characters in virtually all Stafford’s stories are fictional renditions of her father, her brother, or one of her husbands, and the central female...

(The entire section is 1814 words.)