Jean Stafford was a novelist and short-story writer of considerable distinction. Born to John and Mary McKillop Stafford on July 1, 1915, in Covina, California, Jean was the youngest of four children in a family beset by poverty. Her father, who held many jobs, also wrote stories and opinionated essays which he regularly read aloud to his children. The Stafford family moved from Covina to San Diego, then to a succession of small towns in Colorado, finally settling in Boulder in 1925. At age six, Jean began to write poems and stories, and she completed her first novel by age eleven. She also began to read the dictionary simply for pleasure and, even as a child, displayed an incredible command of language. From 1925 to 1932, Stafford attended University Hill School and State Preparatory School in Boulder. In 1932 she enrolled in the University of Colorado, Boulder, financing her education by scholarships and part-time work; she graduated with both B.A. and M.A. degrees in 1936. After graduation, she studied philology at the University of Heidelberg on a one-year fellowship.
Shy and intellectual, Stafford was a misfit in both high school and college. Returning from Germany, she attended a writing school in Boulder and was introduced to poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977), a man with a very different background from her own, whom she would later marry. She spent one unhappy year as an instructor at Stephens College and in 1938 taught briefly at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa. There she decided to write, not teach, and left abruptly in midsemester for Boston, arriving with one-third of a manuscript under her arm. In Boston, Stafford renewed her acquaintance with Robert Lowell. One night, returning home from an evening of drinking at a Boston nightclub, Lowell lost control of the car in which they were driving and Stafford was seriously injured. Despite the accident and the lawsuit which followed, a courtship blossomed and the two were married on April 2, 1940, in New York City.
Stafford’s first novel, published in 1944, was a best-seller and was praised by reviewers for its traces of Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and Henry James (1843-1916). Boston Adventure deals with a young woman’s realization that discovery of self requires rejection of society’s limitations and introduces concerns that would reoccur in Stafford’s later work: human motivations, instincts, relationships, and the complexities and incongruities of being alive, especially of being alive as a woman. In 1945 Stafford received a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant. In that year, she also bought her first home in the small village of Damariscotta Mills, Maine, and she was at work on her second novel, The Mountain Lion.
Stafford and Lowell’s marriage had always been stormy, even violent, and they were separated in 1946. The subsequent months were difficult for Stafford. She traveled, spent a few days in a mental hospital, then stayed in a run-down Greenwich Village hotel. In 1947 she committed herself to the Payne Whitney Clinic in New York and spent a year there under treatment for hysteria and deep depression. Also in 1947 Stafford’s...
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