The Interior Castle
Jean Stafford (1915-1979) is best known as a writer of short stories. Yet she struggled to become a great novelist, writing several unpublished novels before her twenty-sixth year and completing three that were published: BOSTON ADVENTURE (1944), THE MOUNTAIN LION (1947), THE CATHERINE WHEEL (1952). In the last twenty years of her life, Stafford wrote little fiction and some journalism, promising to deliver to publishers the great novel she seemed incapable of completing even as her health deteriorated drastically.
Hulbert narrates with great economy and sensitivity Stafford’s progress from fledgling writer to best-seller (for her first novel) to the mature achievement of her short stories to her final days of decline. Rejecting her domestic and complacent mother, Stafford was drawn to her flamboyant but hapless father with his pipe dreams of becoming a great writer and provider for his family. Stafford never overcame the link established before her college years between the literary life and isolation, between writing and a certain inhumanity in the writer’s sensibility.
Because Hulbert concentrates on Stafford’s writing, the characters of others in her life are sketched but never deeply explored. Her three husbands—Robert Lowell, Oliver Jensen, and A. J. Liebling—are given less than their due. What is missing is the drama, the sense of Stafford living with these men.
Would Stafford have felt honored by so much attention to her work, or would she have reacted—as she did to the very literary Lowell—with the objection that there was more to her life than literature, and that by subordinating as many events as possible to their representation in literature, the biographer has ironically resolved the dilemma that bedeviled Stafford and that Yeats memorably put in his musings on his poetic vocation: Which was it to be, perfection of the life or of the work? Stafford could not choose. Has this biographer, in a strange way, chosen for her?
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXIX, June, 1992, p. 123.
Chicago Tribune. May 24, 1992, XIV, p. 1.
The Christian Science Monitor. June 2, 1992, p. 13.
Commonweal. CXIX, August 14, 1992, p. 31.
Library Journal. CXVII, May 15, 1992, p. 94.
The Nation. CCLIV, April 27, 1992, p. 563.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, June 21, 1992, p. 11.
The Times Literary Supplement. July 3, 1992, p. 40.
The Washington Post Book World. XXII, May 17, 1992, p. 3.