Jean Wilson Stafford was born in Covina, California, on July 1, 1915, to Ethel McKillop Stafford and John Richard Stafford, a writer of Westerns who had three years before moved out from Missouri. In 1920, John sold his Covina ranch, moved to San Diego, and began to play the stock exchange. Within a year, he had lost his life savings as well as a substantial inheritance from his wealthy father. John next took his family to Colorado, first settling in Colorado Springs, then in Boulder, only to find that the frontier he had imagined, with its limitless opportunities, was gone forever. Although John did occasionally sell a story, he was never again able to support his family. As she saw her beloved father retreating further and further into bitterness and eccentricity, and her mother seemingly becoming indifferent to everything except her money-making ventures, Jean Stafford developed the sense of alienation that permeates her work.
Although the small university town of “Adams,” or Boulder, is shown in Stafford’s fiction as a dull, provincial, and intellectually stifling place, it did at least provide Ethel with the economic opportunity she had so desperately sought. She kept the family afloat by running a boardinghouse for students, and though the family was poor, the children could live at home, work, and get college educations.
After she entered the University of Colorado in 1932, the beautiful and brilliant Jean Stafford found friends both among the professors and the student “barbarians,” a group of intellectuals who, like Stafford, were too impoverished to join Greek-letter organizations. She also won her first recognition as a writer when her play about the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven won first place in a contest and was performed on campus. Nevertheless, Stafford’s college years were not untroubled. A medical student broke off his engagement to her, saying he needed a wife with better social credentials. More important, when her flamboyant friend Lucy McKee committed suicide, Stafford was suspected of being somehow responsible. The resulting scandal probably cost her a Phi Beta Kappa key and caused her parents to leave Boulder for Oregon.
In 1936, after she was awarded both her bachelor’s and her master’s degrees, Stafford spent a fellowship year at the University of Heidelberg. When she returned to the United States, she went to a writers’ conference in Boulder, where she met the young poet Robert Lowell, a member of the famous and wealthy Massachusetts family, who was obviously attracted to her. After a miserable year teaching at a girls’ school, Stephens College in Missouri, which she satirized effectively in “Caveat Emptor” (1956), Stafford went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be near James Robert Hightower, a longtime friend to whom she had become engaged.
Lowell, however, continued to pursue her, and Stafford found him fascinating. In several ways, their relationship was to prove disastrous. In December, 1938, Lowell, who was drunk, caused a car crash in which Stafford was badly injured. Despite a long hospital stay and excruciatingly painful operations like the one graphically described in her short story “The Interior Castle” (1946), Stafford was never to look or feel the same again. During her recuperation, she formed the habit of drinking alcohol to alleviate her suffering; eventually, of course, this addiction would further damage her health and imperil her relationships. The marriage of Lowell and Stafford in 1940 produced still more problems. Stafford submitted to Lowell’s religious obsessions and to his emotional and physical abuse; she also remained loyal to him when he was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the armed forces.
Stafford must have been annoyed by the fact that in the academic circles they frequented, she was expected to take a subordinate role because of her gender. Moreover, from the first, the poor girl from the West, who had her own distinguished ancestors,...
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