The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford Analysis

Ann Hulbert

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 Yet she struggled to become a great novelist, writing several unpublished novels before her twenty-sixth year and completing three that were published: BOSTON ADVENTURE (1944), THE MOUNTAIN LION (1947), THE CATHERINE WHEEL (1952).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.

The Interior Castle

Jean Stafford is best known as a writer of short stories. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1969) won a Pulitzer Prize, several of her stories received O. Henry awards, and her short fiction is frequently anthologized. 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), and The Catherine Wheel (1952). In the last twenty years of her life, Stafford published little fiction and some journalism, promising to deliver to publishers the great novel she seemed incapable of completing even as her health deteriorated.

Ann Hulbert relates no more of Stafford’s personal life and her day-to-day existence than is necessary in order to understand the bases of her work and to evaluate the nature of her achievement. This biography has received high praise for its evocation of Stafford’s literary personality, and for Hulbert’s refusal to engage in what Joyce Carol Oates called “pathography” in her review of David Roberts’ biography, Jean Stafford (1988). Oates accused Roberts of dwelling on Stafford’s debilitating illnesses and indulging in a demeaning dissection of the writer’s private life and final years of sickness. Roberts opened himself up to this charge by not putting enough emphasis on Stafford’s work, even though in his introduction he claimed to have been drawn to her by the strength of her writing. Yet what he had to say about Stafford’s illnesses was not irrelevant and not out of proportion to the way she spent her life; it was merely offensive to literary sensibilities that object to biographers who insist that all aspects of their subjects’ lives should be covered.

Certainly the balance between the life and the work is managed much more skillfully in Hulbert’s biography. Even readers who do not know Stafford’s work should be able to follow the biographer’s sophisticated sense of the way in which literature and life inform each other. Hulbert has disciplined her material, retelling Stafford’s stories and novels not as plot summaries but as examples of how the writer struggles to objectify life in fiction, sometimes drawing directly on personal experience, sometimes inverting it, sometimes using it only as inspiration, a jumping-off point for the creation of a world that shakes itself free from the clutches of biography. Hulbert finds various interesting ways of showing that there is never a simple one-to-one relationship between what Stafford experienced and what she wrote about. Indeed, the biographer conclusively demonstrates that the main reason why Stafford could not complete her last novel and why she wrote so little in her last twenty years is that she could not maintain the distance necessary for her to put her experience of life into aesthetic shape.

Stafford’s most important stories—such as “The Interior Castle” and “An Influx of Poets”—are discussed several times, for they represent the basic themes of Stafford’s literary and extraliterary life. Never repetitious, Hulbert is ingenious in finding ways of using these stories and others to unify her approach to Stafford, revealing that Stafford had ambivalent feelings about literature itself—about the extent to which it could free her from her neuroses. Would going to a psychiatrist ruin her imagination, giving her too much insight into the sources of her stories? Stafford wondered even as she engaged in years of therapy. Similarly, was it a good idea to surround herself with a circle of writers—as she and her first husband, Robert Lowell, did in accepting the help of Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, John Crowe Ransom, Philip Rahv, and others? Stafford found support but also back-stabbing and harsh competitiveness in literary circles. When she and Lowell separated, she rejected his encouraging letters reminding her what a good writer she was. In her view, a literary reputation was not a life, it would not help her to overcome her frailties, and it was often a way of avoiding recognition of personal failings.

Hulbert narrates with great economy and sensitivity the story of Stafford’s progress from fledgling writer—working as a typist and in the shadow of her New England husband whom everyone thought was destined to be great—to best-seller (for her first novel, Boston Adventure), to the mature achievement of her short stories, to her final days of decline. Stafford’s father looms over and over again in the narrative as her inspiration and nemesis....

(The entire section is 1882 words.)