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...
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In her fiction, Stafford shows how the world looks from the perspective of those who feel alienated from it. Although her works range in tone from rollicking comedy and social satire to profound tragedy, they all move toward a revelation, knowledge that may bring new hope to the protagonist, who is usually female, but that more often destroys her peace of mind or even her life.
The rediscovery of Stafford’s work is due in part to her insight into the inner lives of girls and young women. However, critics have also taken a new interest in her status as a woman writer from the American West, a section that has characteristically been thought of as a male domain, producing fiction in which women’s interpretations of life there were not especially important. The fact that Stafford’s fiction can sustain intense analysis from a number of different perspectives is an indication of her profound insight into the human condition.
Although born in California, where she spent part of her childhood, Jean Stafford grew up in Colorado, attended the University of Colorado (A.M., 1936), and did postgraduate work at the University of Heidelberg. Her father, at one time a reporter, had written a number of Western stories. After a year teaching at Stephens College in Missouri and then briefly at the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa, Stafford decided to focus on her own writing and moved to Boston. There she married poet Robert Lowell in 1940; they were divorced in 1948. After a short marriage to Oliver Jensen in 1950, Stafford married again in 1959—to A. J. Liebling, critic and columnist for The New Yorker. After Liebling’s death in 1963, Stafford withdrew...
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