Stafford, Jean 1915-1979
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, and author of children's books.
Stafford incorporates vivid characterization, detailed descriptions, well-crafted prose, and complex irony to examine such themes as identity, alienation, and the loss of innocence in her fiction. Frequently centering on children, adolescents, and women, her works portray the mental and physical suffering of society's most vulnerable, powerless, and marginalized members. Much of her short fiction was first published in the New Yorker magazine in the 1950s and 1960s and later collected in such volumes as Children Are Bored on Sunday (1953), Bad Characters (1964), and The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (1969), the latter of which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970. Although Stafford began her writing career as a novelist, her short fiction has achieved greater critical acclaim, with many scholars praising her mastery of the genre. Bruce Bawer, for example, has stated that "Stafford's short fiction . . . represents one of the finest moments of the American short story."
Stafford was born in Covina, California, the youngest of four children. Her father owned a successful walnut farm but was forced to move his family in 1921 after he went bankrupt playing the stock market. The family never knew financial security after leaving California and relocating to Boulder, Colorado. Stafford's father wrote a pulp Western novel and spent the rest of his life writing and revising manuscripts that were never published; her mother supported the family by taking in sorority girls as boarders. Stafford won a scholarship to the University of Colorado and, after graduating in 1936, traveled to Germany to study philology on a yearlong fellowship at the University of Heidelberg. Returning to Boulder the following summer for a writer's workshop, Stafford met her future husband, twenty-two-year-old aspiring poet Robert Lowell. Determined to become a writer but also desperately in need of a job, Stafford applied for numerous teaching positions throughout the country. She accepted her only offer from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, but was soon disappointed with the institution, which was more of a finishing school than a university. She quit after a year and moved to New York City in 1938. After being offered a contract with the Boston publishing firm Atlantic Monthly, Stafford moved to Concord, Massachusetts, and began writing a novel. Lowell was in Boston, on vacation from Kenyon College, where he was an undergraduate. During this time, the couple was involved in a serious automobile accident. Lowell, who had poor vision and was driving while intoxicated, was unhurt, but Stafford suffered massive head injuries, including a crushed nose and a fractured jaw and skull. The painful surgery and months of hospitalization she endured became the basis of her acclaimed story "The Interior Castle." Stafford married Lowell two years after the accident and went to live with him in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The relationship was stressful from the start, punctuated by clashing creative temperaments, professional jealousy, and Lowell's zealous practice of Catholicism, to which he had recently converted. He took a vow of celibacy soon after he and Stafford were married; she later told friends that the marriage was never consummated. After six years, the couple separated, and Stafford spent much of 1947 recovering from a nervous breakdown. She married two more times, briefly to Time magazine writer Oliver Jensen, and later to New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling, who died in 1963. Although Stafford's later years were spent in relative seclusion on Long Island, New York, she continued to write stories well into her sixties. Stafford died of complications following a stroke in 1979 and left her entire estate to her cleaning woman.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Many of Stafford's best known and most highly regarded short stories center on individuals who struggle to maintain a sense of identity in unpleasant situations and to cope with a variety of mental and physical traumas. For example, "In the Zoo," first collected in Children Are Bored on Sunday, tells the story of two grown sisters who recall their past as orphaned children dependent on their foster mother, a mean-spirited boardinghouse landlady. As the two recollect their childhood experiences while sitting in the Denver Zoo, they watch a caged polar bear forced to endure the summer heat: "Patient and despairing, he sits on his yellowed haunches on the central rock of his pool, his huge toy paws wearing short boots of mud." "A Modest Proposal," also in the collection, is a reworking of Irish writer Jonathan Swift's darkly satirical essay of the same name. In this story, a group of American women on a Caribbean island waiting to be divorced are forced to listen to a man describe how he has prepared a black child, found in a fire-gutted house, as dinner for his friend. In "The Philosophy Lesson," included in The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, college student Cora Savage rebels against convention by posing nude for a Life Drawing class. During one sitting, she listens to the class gossip about a fellow student's suicide and realizes it was a boy with whom she was infatuated. While remaining completely silent and immobile, Cora comes to terms with her grief, confusion, and feelings of loss. In another story in the volume, "The Liberation," Polly Bay endures her life in a similarly steadfast manner. Although she is an adult—and a college instructor—Polly lives as a veritable prisoner in the home of her aunt and uncle. Her impending marriage promises an escape, but her fiancé, a young Harvard professor, is tragically killed on the eve of her wedding. Polly still leaves, but in panic and trepidation rather than in triumph. Stafford's last story to appear in the New Yorker, "An Influx of Poets," published only a few months before her death, is a thinly disguised chronicle of her years with Lowell and a sarcastic attack on his religious affectations. This work later won an O. Henry Award for best short story.
While critical reaction to Stafford's fiction has been generally positive, scholars have lamented that her work has not yet received the widespread attention it deserves. Although most critics have praised Stafford's precise and controlled prose, complex characterization, realistic dialogue, and the psychological horror inherent in many of her works, others have faulted what they consider her overemphasis on technique, describing her style as contrived, self-conscious, and lacking in emotional intimacy. Some have also suggested that although Stafford addressed the role of women in American society, many of her female characters ultimately succumb to the restrictions and expectations of patriarchal society. Nevertheless, Stafford's short stories have been consistently lauded for their realism, powerful themes, and sometimes disturbing subject matter; they have also been compared to the works of such notable writers as Anton Chekhov, Henry James, Jane Austen, Fedor Dostoevksy, Thomas Mann, and Eudora Welty. Morris Dickstein has noted that Stafford's stories "do not primarily focus on men and events; instead an atmosphere is created, a situation explored; we are granted not a conclusive action or denouement but only the significant word, the telltale gesture. . . . She lays hold of her characters like an antique-hunter, scrutinizes them from every angle, exhibits their subtle defects and beauties." Jeanette Mann has also praised Stafford's short fiction, stating that "in each story [Stafford] creates a moment of experience, through the use of realistic settings, characters, and dialogues, so as to present, often through the device of dramatic irony, the sudden illumination or understanding, the symbolic crisis, or the unresolved glimpse into the heart of the situation."