Stafford, Jean 1915-1979
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, and author of children's books.
Stafford incorporates vivid characterization, detailed descriptions, well-crafted prose, and complex irony to examine such themes as identity, alienation, and the loss of innocence in her fiction. Frequently centering on children, adolescents, and women, her works portray the mental and physical suffering of society's most vulnerable, powerless, and marginalized members. Much of her short fiction was first published in the New Yorker magazine in the 1950s and 1960s and later collected in such volumes as Children Are Bored on Sunday (1953), Bad Characters (1964), and The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1969), the latter of which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970. Although Stafford began her writing career as a novelist, her short fiction has achieved greater critical acclaim, with many scholars praising her mastery of the genre. Bruce Bawer, for example, has stated that "Stafford's short fiction . . . represents one of the finest moments of the American short story."
Stafford was born in Covina, California, the youngest of four children. Her father owned a successful walnut farm but was forced to move his family in 1921 after he went bankrupt playing the stock market. The family never knew financial security after leaving California and relocating to Boulder, Colorado. Stafford's father wrote a pulp Western novel and spent the rest of his life writing and revising manuscripts that were never published; her mother supported the family by taking in sorority girls as boarders. Stafford won a scholarship to the University of Colorado and, after graduating in 1936, traveled to Germany to study philology on a yearlong fellowship at the University of Heidelberg. Returning to Boulder the following summer for a writer's workshop, Stafford met her future husband, twenty-two-year-old aspiring poet Robert Lowell. Determined to become a writer but also desperately in need of a job, Stafford applied for numerous teaching positions throughout the country. She accepted her only offer from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, but was soon disappointed with the institution, which was more of a finishing school than a university. She quit after a year and moved to New York City in 1938. After being offered a contract with the Boston publishing firm Atlantic Monthly, Stafford moved to Concord, Massachusetts, and began writing a novel. Lowell was in Boston, on vacation from Kenyon College, where he was an undergraduate. During this time, the couple was involved in a serious automobile accident. Lowell, who had poor vision and was driving while intoxicated, was unhurt, but Stafford suffered massive head injuries, including a crushed nose and a fractured jaw and skull. The painful surgery and months of hospitalization she endured became the basis of her acclaimed story "The Interior Castle." Stafford married Lowell two years after the accident and went to live with him in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The relationship was stressful from the start, punctuated by clashing creative temperaments, professional jealousy, and Lowell's zealous practice of Catholicism, to which he had recently converted. He took a vow of celibacy soon after he and Stafford were married; she later told friends that the marriage was never consummated. After six years, the couple separated, and Stafford spent much of 1947 recovering from a nervous breakdown. She married two more times, briefly to Time magazine writer Oliver Jensen, and later to New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling, who died in 1963. Although Stafford's later years were spent in relative seclusion on Long Island, New York, she continued to write stories well into her sixties. Stafford died of complications following a stroke in 1979 and left her entire estate to her cleaning woman.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Many of Stafford's best known and most highly regarded short stories center on individuals who struggle to maintain a sense of identity in unpleasant situations and to cope with a variety of mental and physical traumas. For example, "In the Zoo," first collected in Children Are Bored on Sunday, tells the story of two grown sisters who recall their past as orphaned children dependent on their foster mother, a mean-spirited boardinghouse landlady. As the two recollect their childhood experiences while sitting in the Denver Zoo, they watch a caged polar bear forced to endure the summer heat: "Patient and despairing, he sits on his yellowed haunches on the central rock of his pool, his huge toy paws wearing short boots of mud." "A Modest Proposal," also in the collection, is a reworking of Irish writer Jonathan Swift's darkly satirical essay of the same name. In this story, a group of American women on a Caribbean island waiting to be divorced are forced to listen to a man describe how he has prepared a black child, found in a fire-gutted house, as dinner for his friend. In "The Philosophy Lesson," included in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, college student Cora Savage rebels against convention by posing nude for a Life Drawing class. During one sitting, she listens to the class gossip about a fellow student's suicide and realizes it was a boy with whom she was infatuated. While remaining completely silent and immobile, Cora comes to terms with her grief, confusion, and feelings of loss. In another story in the volume, "The Liberation," Polly Bay endures her life in a similarly steadfast manner. Although she is an adult—and a college instructor—Polly lives as a veritable prisoner in the home of her aunt and uncle. Her impending marriage promises an escape, but her fiancé, a young Harvard professor, is tragically killed on the eve of her wedding. Polly still leaves, but in panic and trepidation rather than in triumph. Stafford's last story to appear in the New Yorker, "An Influx of Poets," published only a few months before her death, is a thinly disguised chronicle of her years with Lowell and a sarcastic attack on his religious affectations. This work later won an O. Henry Award for best short story.
While critical reaction to Stafford's fiction has been generally positive, scholars have lamented that her work has not yet received the widespread attention it deserves. Although most critics have praised Stafford's precise and controlled prose, complex characterization, realistic dialogue, and the psychological horror inherent in many of her works, others have faulted what they consider her overemphasis on technique, describing her style as contrived, self-conscious, and lacking in emotional intimacy. Some have also suggested that although Stafford addressed the role of women in American society, many of her female characters ultimately succumb to the restrictions and expectations of patriarchal society. Nevertheless, Stafford's short stories have been consistently lauded for their realism, powerful themes, and sometimes disturbing subject matter; they have also been compared to the works of such notable writers as Anton Chekhov, Henry James, Jane Austen, Fedor Dostoevksy, Thomas Mann, and Eudora Welty. Morris Dickstein has noted that Stafford's stories "do not primarily focus on men and events; instead an atmosphere is created, a situation explored; we are granted not a conclusive action or denouement but only the significant word, the telltale gesture. . . . She lays hold of her characters like an antique-hunter, scrutinizes them from every angle, exhibits their subtle defects and beauties." Jeanette Mann has also praised Stafford's short fiction, stating that "in each story [Stafford] creates a moment of experience, through the use of realistic settings, characters, and dialogues, so as to present, often through the device of dramatic irony, the sudden illumination or understanding, the symbolic crisis, or the unresolved glimpse into the heart of the situation."
Children Are Bored on Sunday 1953
Stories [with John Cheever, Daniel Fuchs, and William Maxwell] 1956
Bad Characters 1964
Selected Stories of Jean Stafford 1966
The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford 1969
Other Major Works
Boston Adventure (novel) 1944
The Mountain Lion (novel) 1947
The Catherine Wheel (novel) 1952
*The Interior Castle (collected works) 1953
Arabian Nights: The Lion and the Carpenter and Other Tales from the Arabian Nights, Retold (children's book) 1962
Elephi, the Cat with a High I.Q. (children's book) 1962 A Mother in History (nonfiction) 1966
*This volume includes the novels Boston Adventure and The Mountain Lion as well as the short story collection Children Are Bored on Sunday.
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SOURCE: "Memories of Metaphysics," in Saturday Review, May 9, 1953, p. 19.
[In the following review, Jones finds the stories in Children Are Bored on Sunday masterfully written, but sometimes to a fault ]
Of the extraordinary ability of Jean Stafford as an imaginative writer there can be no doubt, but the quality of that ability is difficult to define. Her new collection of sketches and short stories, Children Are Bored on Sunday, raises the whole problem of the nature of her talent, its strength, and its weakness.
It is, of course, an extraordinarily perceptive talent; it is also a talent having masterly control over language as an instrument. There is no sentence in the volume which does not have its clean, precise line. Difficult ideas are stated with effortless ease, the difficulty of the idea not being a metaphysical difficulty but a difficulty of conveying to the reader the impression made upon some problematical personality by a particular human situation. The visible world exists. The visibility of the world is a double visibility—the world is visible alike to the writer and to the character under scrutiny, and yet the duple quality of the vision is everywhere scrupulously conveyed.
And yet, despite all this remarkable ability, Children Are Bored on Sunday leaves upon this reader, at least, a mixed and somewhat disturbing impression....
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SOURCE: "A Bleak, Sad World," in The New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1953, p. 5.
[Peden is an American writer, critic, and educator. In this review of Children Are Bored on Sunday, he finds the stories beautiful, sad, and complex.]
To paraphrase a comment once made by James Branch Cabell, Jean Stafford seems to have dedicated herself to writing beautifully about unbeautiful matters. The smell of the sickroom hovers like an incubus over these sad and unforgettable short stories [in Children Are Bored on Sunday]. Maladies or misfortunes of one sort or other cause Miss Stafford's characters to retreat from the world of customary urges and responses into a never-never land of dreams and unfulfilled desires, a land where sickness is king and despair his consort. Within its boundaries, Miss Stafford writes with certainty, understanding and beauty. Like her three novels, these stories, within their impeccable framework, are meaningful and complex. They remind me of children's Japanese flower-shells which when submerged in water open silently to disgorge a phantasmagoria of paper flowers, richly colored, varied and vaguely grotesque in contrast to the bland, unrevealing walls of their temporary habitations.
Most of Miss Stafford's stories center around an individual who is struggling to maintain his identity and self-respect in the face of some abnormality or accident of fate which...
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SOURCE: "Jean Stafford and the Ironic Vision," in SAQ: South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LXI, No. 4, Autumn, 1962, pp. 484-91.
[In the following essay, which focuses on three of Stafford's novels and many of her short stories, Vickery examines how Stafford's integration of psychological, humanistic, and Christian concepts contributes to her ironic vision of the world.]
Among contemporary writers Jean Stafford has merited considerable critical attention and received surprisingly little. . . . Reviewers have pointed out her affinities with Proust, James, Austen, and Dostoevski and solemnly agreed that she is not their equal. But since not many novelists are, it is perhaps fairer and certainly more instructive to think of her in relation to such authors as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, both of whom have commanded far greater attention than Miss Stafford, if only by virtue of their connection with the currently fashionable South. All three are fascinated by the image of childhood and adolescence; by the misfit or freak who dramatizes isolation, loneliness, and inversion; and by the poignant quest of the individual for understanding and love. The Member of the Wedding echoes in mood, theme, and character The Mountain Lion The Golden Apples and Boston Adventure both focus on the exclusiveness of a group, whether familiar or societal; and the tormented creatures of The Ballad of the...
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SOURCE: "Who Remembers That Fine Fellow, What's-His-Name?" in New York Herald Tribune Book Week, Vol. 2, No. 5, October 11, 1964, pp. 6, 21.
[In this review of Bad Characters, Perry finds Stafford's villains enthralling but notes that a "nagging, sometimes boring, similarity surrounds her 'good' characters." ]
Jean Stafford, one of the finest writers publishing today, is a genius at creating "bad" characters.
Consider Persis Galt, a Boston lady living in Heidelberg just before the outbreak of the war, in her middle forties, "rich and ripe like an autumn fruit" with a "stalwart Massachusetts jaw." She is fascinating whether masquerading in tweeds or dressed in low-cut black velvet, an ebony cross on her white bosom, surrounded by sycophantic monks. In spite of the fact that she is a fanatical convert to Catholicism, she regularly violates the sixth commandment with a young Nazi officer named Max. Max is pretty bad, too, since, it turns out, he is a Jew. These two dominate "A Winter's Tale," a beautifully constructed novella and the best piece in this new collection.
Consider Henry Medley, a vastly insensitive leech who descends bag and baggage upon a retired philosophy professor in "A Reasonable Facsimile." He is endlessly articulate, enthusiastic and active but as Miss Stafford puts it, "there was somewhere in him a lack—a lack of quality an imp did not need...
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SOURCE: "Jean Stafford's Human Zoo," in The New Republic, Vol. 151, No. 18, October 31, 1964, pp. 22-3.
[In the following review of Bad Characters, Tracy calls Stafford a "brilliant writer" but finds some of the stories in the volume too contrived. ]
There was a day when story-tellers could be roughly divided into two species, the writers and the confectioners. The distinction often was one of purpose rather than of talent. Confectioners could write as well as or better than their serious colleagues: it was merely that they wrote to order or with a cool eye for the public taste, a cat that invariably slips out of the bag as time goes by. And some real writers happened to triumph, for the wrong reasons, in the confectionery market as well: whatever highbrow may disparage Mr. P. G. Wodehouse, for example, it is unlikely to be a fellow craftsman, and along with the commonplace mind of Mr. Somerset Maugham goes artistry of a very high order.
Then certain glossies began to aspire to higher things. They took to publishing what they described as "quality fiction," much as rising tradesmen take to "gracious living," and with not dissimilar results. Now they wished to carry the authors they saw published in the little reviews or acclaimed by critical opinion, at the same time adhering sturdily to the faith of their fathers that he who pays the piper calls the tune. It became known that...
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SOURCE: A review of Bad Characters, in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXI, No. 21, February 19, 1965, p. 673.
[In this favorable review of Bad Characters, Curley praises Stafford's characterization and narrative technique. ]
I don't intend faint praise by saying that it's always a pleasure to read Jean Stafford but a distinction, since it is a pleasure, and neither instruction nor enthusiasm, that is Miss Stafford's gift. It is, however, somewhat qualified praise to say that it is a long while since I have simply enjoyed a new book so much. (Seven of the ten stories [in Bad Characters] appeared in the New Yorker, but they are all new to me.) Qualified, because Miss Stafford so manages her characters that you always like and dislike the ones she likes and dislikes.
Her intelligence is acute, her heart is in the right place and she writes well: it is rather like going through a museum with somebody who knows the paintings so much better than you that it is impossible not to agree and very difficult not to be persuaded. It seems to me she is better when she stands off from her characters omnisciently than when she adopts the voice, let us say, of Emily Vanderpool. As Miss Stafford says in a note, Emily is not a bad character; her troubles stem from the low company she kept. That's true enough, but I was rather glad that Emily's control of the story was not extended...
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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, in The New York Times Book Review, February 16, 1969, pp. 1, 40.
[In the review below, Davenport discusses the major themes in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, focusing on her portrayal of American women. ]
By all rights, Jean Stafford says in her introduction to these 30 brilliant stories [The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford] selected from her work of the past 25 years, she might have been expected to become a regional writer. She grew up in Colorado, her father wrote cowboy stories, and her cousin Margaret Lynn was the author of A Stepdaughter of the Prairie, a memoir of frontier days in Kansas.
Miss Stafford's career took a different turn. "As soon as I could," she says, "I hotfooted it across the Rocky Mountains and across the Atlantic Ocean." She has written stories set in France and Germany, Boston and Manhattan and the Caribbean, as well as the West she left behind. Yet Jean Stafford is indeed a regional author, thank goodness, for it is her sense of place that gives such authenticity to her work. To develop her richest strains of meaning she needed the long, silent American summer afternoons which she can render with such magic. And she needed American objects. Like Flaubert and Eudora Welty, Miss Stafford is a master of making the objects in a room exhibit a dumb and eloquent...
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SOURCE: "Domesticated Modernism," in The New Republic, Vol. 160, No. 10, March 8, 1969, pp. 25-7.
[In the following review of The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, Dickstein compares Stafford's style and themes to those of American writer Henry James.]
To do justice to the stories of Jean Stafford, even to her recent ones; we need a degree of historical sympathy. They take us back to a time in the 1940's when Henry James was an insurgent influence among American writers, when ethnic writers had not yet transmitted the brooding vitality of their subcultures into the center of our imaginative awareness. Miss Stafford's elegant and sad Wasp Manhattan is closer to Washington Square than to Seize the Day. Her lonely Americans abroad match their gauche innocence against European civility and corruption. She writes Jamesian social comedies and Jamesian horror-stories and tales as monitory and symbolic as his artist-fables, part observation, part parable. Her stories are not exactly derivative—she has a special if fragile vision of her own—but they can be readily atomized into the influences that shaped them: besides James, Dickens, Mark Twain, Mann, a touch of E. M. Forster.
To the genre itself she contributes little that is new. Though never less than competent, she has none of the exuberant formal inventiveness through which original perception usually expresses...
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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, in Commonweal, Vol. XC, No. 6, April 25, 1969, pp. 174-75.
[Below, Malin examines three of Stafford's short stories, noting that her "poised, beautiful style" is a "perfect frame . . . for the hideous withdrawals, self-deceptions, and perversions of her heroines. "]
Perhaps the clue to Miss Stafford's obsessive themes and images can be found in the last line of "I Love Someone": "My friends and I have managed my life with the best of taste and all that is lacking at this banquet where the appointments are so elegant is something to eat."
Her thirty stories deal with the warped "management" of life. They are arranged in four sections—"The Innocents Abroad"; "The Bostonians, and Other Manifestations of the American Scene"; "Cowboys and Indians, and Magic Mountains"; and "Manhattan Island"—but they tend to return to (or begin with) an isolated heroine who is afraid to leave her troubled self. She is hungry, withdrawn, and frail. She constantly tortures herself. It is only when she escapes from consciousness that she is relatively comfortable and "satisfied."
My favorite stories are "The Echo and the Nemesis," "A Country Love Story," "The Bleeding Heart," "The Interior Castle," "In the Zoo," "Cops and Robbers," and "The End of a Career." These give us the typical motivations, I have...
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SOURCE: "The Interior Castle: The Art of Jean Stafford's Short Fiction," in Shenandoah, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1979, pp. 61-4.
[In the following essay, Oates finds Stafford's style conventional but concedes that many of her short stories are powerful and terrifying.]
Certainly [Stafford's] stories are exquisitely wrought, sensitively imagined, like glass flowers, or arabesques, or the 'interior castle' of Pansy Vanneman's brain ("Not only the brain as the seat of consciousness, but the physical organ itself which she envisioned, romantically, now as a jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy vellum containing other envelopes, one within the other, diminishing infinitely"). Dramatic tension is subdued, in a sense forced underground, so that while narrative conflict between individuals is rare, an extraordinary pressure is built up within the protagonists, who appear trapped inside their own heads, inside their lives (or the social roles their 'lives' have become), and despair of striking free. Intelligence and self-consciousness and even a measure of audacity are not quite enough to assure freedom, as the heroines of the late stories "Beatrice Trueblood's Story" and "The End of a Career" discover painfully even "the liberation" of Polly Bay (in the story with that title) will strike the sympathetic reader as desperate, an adolescent's gesture. The finest of Jean Stafford's...
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SOURCE: "The Young Girl in the West: Disenchantment in Jean Stafford's Short Fiction," in Women and Western American Literature, The Whitston Publishing Company, 1982, pp. 230-43.
[In this essay, Walsh examines the role of women and girls in the western stories in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.]
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, Stafford groups ten stories under the heading, "Cowboys and Indians, and Magic Mountains." The heading, which suggests a romantic, mythic West of the past filled with red men and white men in conflict, ironically comments on the contemporary, restricted lives of the characters in Stafford's stories who grow up overshadowed by that myth. For Stafford's central characters are girls and young women and a small Indian boy. They live in a modern West, most of them in one small town, a vantage point from which they get only occasional glimpses of the glorious West that was. They are, for the most part, separated both by time and by sex from the expansive Western tradition which provides a sharp contrast to their cramped and painful lives.
Seven of the stories are set in Adams, Colorado. In the "Author's Note" to The Collected Stories, Stafford writes that her "roots remain" in this semi-fictitious town. Adams, Colorado, is in an important sense Stafford's Yoknapatawpha. The stories she sets there strongly...
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SOURCE: "Through Caverns Measureless to Man: Jean Stafford's 'The Interior Castle,'" in Shenandoah, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1983, pp. 79-95.
[In this essay, Leary relates Stafford's personal experiences, particularly her tempestuous relationship with husband Robert Lowell, to the short story "The Interior Castle, " stating the story "may be viewed as a metaphor of Stafford's own battle for survival."]
Anyone seeking an appropriate title for a book that would do justice to the more colorful episodes in Jean Stafford's own life might feel compelled to come up with something like "Profiles in Pain," for many of the experiences she endured were as harrowing as those of her suffering characters. But the kind of hyperbolic titles we have had thrust upon us by contemporary writers and their publishers was not to Stafford's taste, whether applied to her literary creations or to herself. Schooled in stoicism, she cultivated an ironic view of life and of her own role in it. And while exercising great care in the selection of titles for her novels and short stories (on at least six occasions she changed the titles of stories that were appearing for a second time in collections), she scrupulously avoided the sensational and the declamatory in favor of the comic, the understated, or the cryptic. It is not surprising, therefore, that her pitiless fictional account of the operation needed to remake her nose, after a near-fatal...
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SOURCE: "Maturity and Old Age," in Jean Stafford, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 61-76.
[In the following excerpt, Walsh examines Stafford's depiction of older, mature women in her short fiction.]
The fiction that portrays maturing women, women married, widowed, divorced, or alone by choice, women in their last years, develops characters who are generally more active in controlling the circumstances of their lives than are the girls and younger women that Stafford creates. Nevertheless, some of the characters are portrayed as victims, some as a result of their own detachment from or arrogance toward the world. Images of illness become prominent in this work. The real orphans in Stafford's other fiction give way mainly to the imagery of the orphan used to describe the lonely conditions of the older women. The apparent impossibility of a sustained and loving marriage relationship becomes an important theme. As with those about girls and young women, several of the stories reflect very closely Stafford's own personal history, her marriage to Robert Lowell, her divorces, her multiple illnesses. They also reveal her continuing sense of rejection by the Bostonian elite, which she turns into savage satire. Additionally, they reveal Stafford's own continuing sense of dislocation. All of the work is set east of the Rocky Mountains, in the places where Stafford lived out her own later life.
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SOURCE: "Checkmate: Jean Stafford's 'A Slight Maneuver,'" in Western American Literature, Vol. XXI, No. 2, August, 1986, pp. 99-109.
[In this essay, Leary relates the story "A Slight Maneuver" to the break-up of Stafford's marriage to Robert Lowell.]
During the waning days of 1946, Jean Stafford's life must have appeared to her to be waning, too. Her six-year marriage to Robert Lowell lay in ruins. Her self-esteem was dangerously diminished, her psyche badly disordered, and her body ravaged by the drink and drugs she had turned to as anodynes for her pain. At this critical moment she sequestered herself in the Payne Whitney Clinic of New York City Hospital where she consented to undergo a "psycho-alcoholic cure."
She could not have made a wiser move. The combined medical and psychiatric help she received there produced in good time a pleasant transformation in both her attitude and her appearance. She learned how to eat and sleep normally again. She took a renewed interest in her grooming and dress. She began to knit up the raveled sleeve of all those cares that had made her grow desperate shortly before. With Jean Stafford it is not necessary to add that she also recovered her sense of humor because she had never lost it. From her unhappy childhood to her stricken last days Stafford's comic gift seems never to have failed her. If her body was confined behind the locked doors of the...
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SOURCE: "Orphans in Solitary Confinement: The Short Stories," in Innocence and Estrangement in the Fiction of Jean Stafford, Louisiana State University Press, 1987, pp. 129-42.
[In the following essay, Ryan discusses Stafford's depiction of women and children in her short fiction. ]
As her novels and stories indicate, in technique as well as theme, Jean Stafford is interested in discovery, in the revelatory moment, in the burgeoning of awareness. Appropriately, of all her characters, her children most vividly and cogently present her world view. Handicapped by their youthful inefficacy and their limited knowledge and understanding, these young people are frequently put further at a disadvantage by less common circumstances: some are orphaned and unwanted; some (like Molly Fawcett) are precocious and misunderstood; and nearly all bear the double burden of being both young and female. As the titles of some of her stories about adult female protagonists indicate ("Children Are Bored on Sunday," "The Children's Game"), Stafford metaphorically associates women and children, who, as minority members of a maledominated society, often share the bleak recognition that life is inequitable.
Yet, despite the intrinsic affinity between women and children in Stafford's world, ironically, her female protagonists rarely have children of their own. Angelica Early, Mary Heath, Cora Maybank, Mary Rand,...
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SOURCE: "Jean Stafford's Triumph," in The New Criterion, Vol. 7, No. 3, November, 1988, pp. 61-72.
[In this excerpt, Bawer places Stafford's short fiction in a genre he calls "New Yorker stories. "]
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,...
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SOURCE: "The Lion in Winter: Jean Stafford's Heart of Darkness," in Village Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1992, pp. 31-2.
[In the following essay, D'Erasmo gives an overview of Stafford's career, providing insights into why she stopped writing .]
In one of Jean Stafford's most famous stories, "The Interior Castle," a young woman named Pansy Vannemann lies immobilized in a hospital bed after a disfiguring car accident. Retreating from her terrible pain, she imagines her own brain in voluptuous detail: "She envisaged [it], romantically, now as a jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy vellum containing other envelopes, one within the other, diminishing infinitely. It was always pink and always fragile, always deeply interior and invaluable." Stafford's model was St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, an account of the soul's progress through pain to enlightenment. Pansy, however, is no saint. Slowly but surely, her sacred retreat is ravaged by the surgeon, who probes farther and farther into her face until her interior becomes as spiritually disfigured and empty as her exterior is physically despoiled. By the end, the operation finished, Pansy is utterly leveled, "shut . . . up within her own treasureless head."
This strange, sad story is emblematic of Stafford's work, which at its best illuminates the vulnerable interior space between...
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Avila, Wanda. Jean Stafford, A Comprehensive Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1983, 195 p.
Goodman, Charlotte Margolis. Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990, 394 p.
Interweaves criticism of Stafford's work with details about her life.
Hulbert, Ann. The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford. New York: Knopf, 1992, 427 p.
Psychological portrait of the writer that pursues "the mystery of Stafford's literary personality."
Roberts, David. Jean Stafford: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988, 494 p.
Includes critical commentary of Stafford's writings, personal reminiscences of her life, numerous photographs, and an extensive bibliography.
Sheed, Wilfrid. "Miss Jean Stafford." In Essays in Disguise, pp. 65-75. New York: Knopf, 1990.
Bittersweet portrait of Stafford in her last days by a good friend and fellow writer.
Leary, William. "Grafting onto Her Roots: Jean Stafford's 'Woden's Day.'" Western American Literature (August 1988): 129-39.
Distinguishes between fact and fiction in the story "Woden's Day."
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