Jean Stafford is best remembered today as a writer of short stories. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1969) won a Pulitzer Prize, several of her stories have received O. Henry awards, and her short fiction has been frequently anthologized. Yet she had the ambition to become a great novelist, writing several unpublished novels before her twenty-sixth year and completing three that were published: Boston Adventure (1944), The Mountain Lion (1947), and The Catherine Wheel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 but wrote some first-rate journalism; even as her health deteriorated drastically, she was promising to deliver to publishers the great novel she seemed incapable of completing.
David Roberts speaks with affection of Stafford’s work in his preface—indeed, it seems to have been his reason for undertaking a biography. Yet his actual discussion of Stafford’s work is minimal. He cites a few passages from each of the novels to give the flavor of her style. He is an objective critic, acknowledging his subject’s strengths and weaknesses, but there is not enough in his description of the artist to excite interest in her work. Even more surprising is his stinting of Stafford’s short stories, which are considered her main contribution to American literature. Roberts identifies a list of the best ones, but it is not at all clear what makes Stafford a distinctive short-story writer or how she compares with her contemporaries.
Like most biographers, Roberts mines Stafford’s fiction (published and unpublished) for clues about her personality and background. He is scrupulous in his efforts to separate fiction from fact, admitting several times that he cannot be sure that events in the fiction are to be taken as biography. Occasionally he is tiresome in his fretting over whether a certain event actually happened. He quotes from many of her letters which conclusively demonstrate how capable she was of exaggerating and lying about the actual events of her life, but he does not spend enough time considering how all Stafford’s fiction represented the imaginative truth of her life.
Roberts is at his best in narrating the drama of Stafford’s life. If her work is not illuminated by his biography, the structure of her career is brilliantly established. Stafford’s father was a failed writer. Most of what he wrote was not published. His Western stories and novels were poorly conceived, and later in life he became something of a crank as he wrote and rewrote his treatise on the national debt. He had lost his wealth in stock-market speculation and spent his life trying to prove that it was the system, not his irresponsibility and bad luck, that was to blame.
Before John Stafford lost his money and before it was apparent that his writing career would never succeed, he served as a figure of some solace and inspiration for his youngest daughter, Jean. Although her older brother and two sisters never seem to have realized it, she was always the outsider—teased by them and made to feel inadequate. To them the family seemed happy, especially in the early days when they still had money. Jean, however, was a serious, highly intelligent, imaginative child who found little to interest her in an unintellectual mother and less than sympathetic siblings. Stafford needed her share of love, felt close to her father and brother at times, but in the end felt bitter about her isolation. She had a mind that quickly found fault with her pedestrian surroundings and with other minds that were conventional and stolid.
Without ever quite making it explicit, Roberts demonstrates Stafford’s extreme alienation. She would eventually find soulmates in a few young men and women who wanted to be writers, but even their company proved less than satisfying for a perfectionist whose correspondence was as well drafted as her fiction. She excelled in college, but doing well in courses meant almost nothing to her. By her early twenties she was writing autobiographical novels and traveling to Germany for postgraduate study. School, however, was just a way of biding her time until she found a style mature enough to match her imaginative insights.
(The entire section is 1743 words.)