It is clear from a brief preface she wrote for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford that Jean Stafford did not wish to be considered a regional writer. Her father and her mother’s cousin had both written books about the West, but she had read neither before she began writing. Moreover, as soon as she could, she “hotfooted it across the Rocky Mountains and across the Atlantic Ocean” and came back to the West only for short periods. Her roots might therefore remain in Colorado, but the rest of her abided “in the South or the Midwest or New England or New York.” The short stories in this collection, which span twenty-five years of her productive life, she grouped under headings that both insisted on the national and international character of her art and echoed universally known writers with whom she clearly wished to associate herself: Henry James, Mark Twain, Thomas Mann.
It is true, as one discovers from the stories themselves, Stafford’s fiction is not limited geographically but is set in such widely separated places as Colorado, Heidelberg, France, New York, and Boston; if, therefore, one thinks of these stories as the result of social observation they do indeed have the broad national and international scope their author claimed for them. Her stories, however—and this may have been as apparent to Stafford as it has been to some of her critics—are not so much the result of observation and intellectual response as they are expressions of Stafford’s personal view of life, a reflection of her own feeling of having been betrayed by family and friends. Her protagonists are often girls or young women, pitted against persons who feel themselves superior but are revealed to be morally, emotionally, or even physically corrupt. Although Stafford’s fiction was all but forgotten at the time of her death, it has been rediscovered by a new generation of readers, mainly through the work of feminist scholars. This is ironic because Stafford herself did not embrace feminist views and, in fact, spoke harshly about aspects of the feminist movement.
The thirty stories in Stafford’s The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford are unified by one pervasive theme, illness—physical, mental, and emotional—and the snobbery which she finds an accompaniment, the snobbery of aberrant behavior. Fascinated, repelled, and at times outraged by the way illness can be used to purchase power over vulnerable individuals, Stafford describes the various forms of this currency, the number of places where it can be spent, and the way it can be used by those of any age or sex willing to employ it. The emotional and physical invalids in these stories clearly think themselves superior to ordinary folk, and the tensions built up in these stories are often the result of conflicts between a protagonist (who usually appears to speak for the author) and neurotic individuals who think themselves justified in exploiting others. Sometimes there is an actual physical sickness—disease, old age—but the illness or psychological aberration frequently becomes a metaphor for moral corruption.
“Maggie Meriwether’s Rich Experience”
In “Maggie Meriwether’s Rich Experience” the protagonist is a naïve young American woman from Tennessee visiting in France, where she has been invited to spend the weekend at a fashionable country house. There she discovers a crowd of titled Europeans, rich, overdressed, and eccentric, who look down their collective nose at the simple girl from the American South. The reader, who looks through the eyes of the young American, sees how stupid and arrogant these aristocrats are and understands Maggie’s relief at escaping to Paris where she telephones the older brother of her roommate at Sweet Briar and spends the evening delighting in the wholesome provincialism of her southern American friends, regaling them with stories about her recent experience.
“The Echo and the Nemesis”
In “The Echo and the Nemesis” the combination of neurosis and snobbery becomes more convincingly sinister. The story is also set in Europe, in Heidelberg, but the two main characters are Americans. The protagonist, Sue, appears to be a rather unexceptional young woman from a family of ordinary means; the “invalid,” Ramona, is an enormously fat girl from a very rich family (so she says), living permanently in Italy. Sue is at first impressed by Ramona’s learning...
(The entire section is 1820 words.)