Stafford, Jean 1915–1979
An American novelist and short story writer, Jean Stafford is respected for her insightful, carefully styled fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3.)
[Jean Stafford] combines an intellectuality somewhat similar to that of Mary McCarthy with a sensitivity and a style reminiscent of Katherine Anne Porter. She has published three very good novels—Boston Adventure (1944), The Mountain Lion (1947), and The Catherine Wheel (1952)—all of which deal with the theme of the adjustment of children or young people to the adult world, as well as [several volumes of short stories]. (pp. 312-13)
Miss Stafford's critics have noted that her stories often portray cruelty and suffering, both mental and physical, and that they reveal a preoccupation with characters whose idiosyncrasies, personal misfortunes, or physical afflictions turn them into lonely, isolated people, and even, in some instances, into freaks or grotesques. The queerest, as well as one of the most vividly drawn, of these characters is Ramona Dunn, the terribly obese girl, at once both contemptible and pathetic, in "The Echo and the Nemesis," who compensates for or rationalizes her gluttony by identifying with the beautiful twin sister she has invented, the image of her former thin self….
The loneliness and suffering of some of Miss Stafford's characters results when they are unable or refuse to adjust themselves after being removed from a familiar environment into an alien one. In "A Summer Day" an orphan Indian boy, sent from his home in Missouri to an Indian reservation school in Oklahoma, can think only of how he can assert his independence and escape. (p. 313)
But these stories are hardly profound and perhaps even a little contrived. Much more characteristic of Miss Stafford's work are the stories of alienation and loss. If they seem sometimes overly depressing, they have truth, and they are the work of a highly talented and disciplined artist. (p. 315)
Arthur Voss, "The Short Story since 1940: Eudora Welty, Mary McCarthy, Jean Stafford, J. F. Powers, J. D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud, and Flannery O'Connor," in his The American Short Story: A Critical Survey (copyright 1973 by the University of Oklahoma Press), University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp. 302-43.∗
Certainly the stories [of Jean Stafford] 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…. The finest of Jean Stafford's stories possess an eerily elegiac tone, though they are never morbid or self-pitying. "In the Zoo" tells a frightful tale, the narrator confesses that "my pain becomes intolerable," but the story concludes with an extravagant outburst of paranoia that manages to be comic as well as distressing…. (p. 61)
This is an art that curves inward toward the meditative, the reminiscent, given life not by bold gestures or strokes but by a patient accumulation of sharply-observed impressions: the wealth of a poet's eye, or a painter's....
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What strikes one first in a Stafford story is the language—exact (though sometimes unusual), correct, extremely controlled. The tone is correspondingly cool, no matter how disturbing or impassioned the story. Stafford avoids dialogue, much preferring interior monologue or indirect discourse. Consequently, a good many stories are set in a past remembered by the central narrator. Her range is, however, hardly narrow; she can create an idyllic college love story in "Caveat Emptor," describe in searing detail the mental state of a woman about to undergo facial surgery ("The Interior Castle"), and capture the dull ache of being lonely in New York ("Children are Bored on Sunday"). Perhaps her finest story, "In the Zoo," relives the horrifying past of two young girls prey to their vicious guardian, and yet ends in laughter.
"New in Paperback: 'The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), April 6, 1980, p. 9.
What makes [Jean Stafford's] work so rewarding is in part her flair for the particular, the vivid detail…. Stafford's dialogue often shows a quirky perfection, like the student at Harrow who announces, "I'm a fauna man, not a flora man." Yet her greatest gift, and what made her a nonpareil of sorts, was her complex yet seemingly effortless use of language. Her language was an odd, unpromisingly heterogeneous mix: homespun colloquialisms ("chockablock," "spang in the middle," "flibbertigibbet"), long and sometimes obscure latinisms ("logorrhea," "machicolations"), sprinklings of French and German, unadorned monosyllables (a wailing child's mouth as "a rent of woe"), and clichés, which she somehow re-burnished as if newly minted…. She had a poet's love of musical sound. The stories abound in rhymes …, [homonyms], and dozens of near-rhymes and near homonyms….
I have one tentative complaint, or doubt, about [The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, which includes stories published between World War II and the late 1960s]…. It would be a shame if whatever short fiction she wrote or published in the last decade of her life were to go ungathered [such as a 1978 story in the New Yorker which brimmed with her characteristic gifts]. A future reissuance of her collected stories would be, one hopes, a slightly fatter volume. Until that time, however, the stories of this collection will have to speak for her—which they do splendidly, in a voice at once graceful, tart, wise, and winsome.
Brad Leithauser, "Brief Reviews: 'The Collected Short Stories of Jean Stafford'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 22, May 31, 1980, p. 40.
A sense of life's disappointments is everywhere felt in [the Collected Stories of Jean Stafford], which often have autobiographical overtones.
Although they suffer kindred sorrows, Stafford's people do not excessively resemble either her or each other because every story, plotted with mischievous skill, differs in vivid details.
Stafford inflicts multiple indignities on characters she cherishes, and refuses sympathy to its most likely recipients…. But if the old, the infirm, the "helpless," are often as not the victimizers, Stafford is not wholly unforgiving. When the octogenarian remarks that "most people are dead by now," it is clear that the author pities her. And many of the best stories—"Bad Characters," "Caveat Emptor"—are quite high-spirited. It is fortunate to have these stories … available, for Stafford's wit, craftsmanship, and humanity are reminders of the worlds that this genre can create.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Life & Letters: 'Collected Stories of Jean Stafford'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1980, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 246, No. 1, July, 1980, p. 86.