By Ray Schultz
The literary world rejoiced in November 1978 when The New Yorker published its first short story by Jean Stafford in a decade: An Influx of Poets. It meant Stafford was back. But it wasn’t what it seemed to be. The author, age 63, had suffered a stroke, and had only four months to live. The story had been extracted by editor Robert Giroux from Stafford’s unfinished novel, The Parliament of Women.
So ended the career of one of the premier fiction writers of 20th Century America. Today, you can’t even find most of Stafford’s books in print, and it’s unlikely that she’s taught much in college. But she left a magnificent body of work. And An Influx of Poets was a great one to go out on.
Though she resembled an Eastern intellectual and had the wit to go with it, Jean Stafford grew up in a dysfunctional family in the West, first in California, and later in Colorado. Her father wrote Western stories under the name Jack Wonder.
Stafford, unhappy young brainiac that she was, wanted out. She graduated from the University of Colorado, but not before a friend named Lucy McKee shot herself in the head right in front of her. “I am almost ready to write about it, although I have really written about nothing else ever,” Stafford later admitted, according to Mary Davidson Mcconahay. Stafford’s next stop was Nazi-era Heidelberg, where she studied philology for several months.
Returning to the States, Stafford hooked up with Robert Lowell, the mentally unbalanced Boston poet. One drunken night, he smashed his car into a retaining wall, and Stafford was badly injured, her beautiful face damaged for life. She got little sympathy from Lowell or his wealthy family.
Despite that poor start, Stafford married Lowell in 1940, and commenced her life as “the subservient spouse of an obsessive artist,” as Bruce Bawer put it. First, she had to support Lowell emotionally when he was jailed for conscientious objection during World War II. Then she had to deal with his mental illness and religious obsession.
Yet Stafford was a serious artist in her own right. Her first novel, Boston Adventure (circa 1944), about her experiences with the Boston Brahmins, was a best-seller, and with the money she earned she bought a house in Maine for Lowell and herself. That turned into a nightmare, too, though, as you can tell from the gorgeous opening paragraph of An Influx of Poets.
THAT AWFUL SUMMER! Every poet in America came to stay with us. It was the first summer after the war, when people once again had gasoline and could go where they liked, and all those poets came to our house in Maine and stayed for weeks at a stretch, bringing wives or mistresses with whom they quarreled, and complaining so vividly about the wives and mistresses they’d left, or had been left by, that the discards were real presences, swelling the ranks, stretching the house, my house (my very own, my first and very own), to its seams. At night, after supper, they’d read from their own works until four o’clock in the morning, drinking Cuba Libres. They never listened to one another; they were preoccupied with waiting for their turn. And I’d have to stay up and clear out the living room after they went soddenly to bed—sodden but not too far gone to lose their conceit. And then all day I’d cook and wash the dishes and chop the ice and weed the garden and type my husband’s poems and quarrel with him.
The year 1947 was a big one for both members of this duo. Lowell published Lord Weary’s Castle, the Pulitzer-prize winning poetry collection that made his reputation. And Stafford came out with her second novel, The Mountain Lion (published while she was in the Payne Whitney clinic, according to her biographer ). While not as big a seller as Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion is her best.
It tells the story of Ralph and Molly, siblings brought up in a stultifying atmosphere in California. Both children suffer from nosebleeds, the result of scarlet fever, and both are weird. The adults in this book are insufferable, including their widowed mother Mrs. Fawcett, and the preacher Mr. Follansbee. Ralph and Molly have a habit of rattling these authority figures by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
In one encounter, Ralph suggests that his mother has murdered her father, Grandfather Bonney, who even in death is an intolerable presence to the children.
But suddenly a mocking bird, in this broad daylight, began to sing. Mrs. Fawcett clasped her hands together and said “Oh!” as if the sound hurt her. Her large diamond ring, in the gesture, came into a ray of sunlight and two green needles shot out from the stone. Then Mr. Follansbee was across the room in one stride, shaking Ralph’s shoulder. “You little cad,” he said between his teeth, “you get down on your knees and beg your mother’s pardon. On your knees.”
For a moment he defied the minister by remaining motionless, but the long bony hand on his shoulder propelled him off the hassock and at last he knelt, not feeling sorry, feeling nothing but rage, as painful as a deep cut. He could not utter a word, though this delay was agonizing, and they were all watching him and they were all waiting. He could hear Mr. Follansbee breathing heavily. Then Molly, half under her breath said “I wish you were a fairy, Mr. Follansbee.” Rachel giggled, but Mr. Folansbee did not think this was funny and he snarled, “Why do you wish I were a fairy, young lady?” And Molly whispered with deadly hatred, ‘So you’d vanish.’
They end up in Colorado, staying with a half-uncle, growing stranger and more apart by the day.
Critics have compared The Mountain Lion to The Catcher in the Rye. Dare I say it, I think it’s even stronger. For one thing, it portrays two young people, male and female, with their different inner lives and their very complex relationship, a far more daunting task. For another, it is funnier, less whiny, more of a novel and less of a tour de force. “The Mountain Lion is written more in the vernacular mode of Mark Twain than the Jamesian mode that Stafford had adopted for her first novel,” Charlotte Margolis Goodman observes in her biography: “Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart.” Finally, there is an event so shocking that few people will have the heart to read it twice.
But this triumph was lost in personal turmoil. Stafford and Lowell went through a bitter divorce, and Stafford hated him for years. Later, though, Lowell offered this hint of reconciliation, according to Goodman:
Poor ghost, old love, speak
With your old voice
Of flaming insight
That kept us awake all night.
In one bed and apart…
Children Are Bored On Sunday
Having gone through two marriages, Stafford spent much of the 1950s living in small apartments in Westport, Conn., dreadfully isolated and poverty stricken. She was hospitalized often, her physical and psychiatric ailments exacerbated by her alcoholism.
But she heroically pushed on. After a modest reaction to her third novel, The Catherine Wheel, she came out with a collection of short fiction: Children Are Bored on Sunday. A sensation in literary circles, it showed that Stafford was a master of the short story. She had long since become a regular in The New Yorker, working with the legendary fiction editor Katherine White. It was the era of O’Hara and Cheever, and Stafford ranked with any of them.
The title story, her first in The New Yorker, is an unusually happy one for Stafford. A female intellectual, recovering from an illness and a loss of confidence, visits the Metropolitan Museum alone one Sunday. There she spies Alfred Eisenburg, an arrogant male intellectual of whom she is wary.
She feared that seeing him might very well divert her from the pictures, not only because she was reminded of her ignorance of painting by the presence of someone who was (she assumed) versed in it but because her eyesight was now bound to be impaired by memory and conjecture, by the irrelevant mind-portraits of innumerable people who belonged to Eisenburg’s milieu. And almost at once, as she had predicted, the air separating her from the schoolboys below was populated with the images of composers, of painters, of writers who pronounced judgments in their individual argot, on Hindemith, Ernst, Sartre, on Beethoven, Rubens, Baudelaire, on Stalin and Freud and Kierkegaard, on Toynbee, Frazer, Thoreau, Franco, Salazar, Roosevelt, Maimonides, Racine, Wallace, Picasso, Henry Luce, Monsignor Sheen, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the movie industry. And she saw herself moving, shaking with apprehensions and martinis, and with the belligerence of a child who feels himself laughed at, through the apartments of Alfred Eisenburg’s friends, where the shelves were filled with everyone from Aristophanes to Ring Lardner where the walls were hung with reproductions of Seurat, Titian, Vermeer, and Klee, and where the record cabinets began with Palestrina and ended with Copland.
Oh, what prose. But she then realizes that Eisenburg himself is a reduced figure, and that he, too, has seen some hard times. They connect, go out for drinks and decide that they can help each other. To mingle their pain, their handshake seemed to promise them, was to produce a separate entity, like a child that could shift for itself, and they scrambled hastily toward this profound and pastoral experience.
That last phrase always gets me.
Of course, few of Stafford’s stories were that positive (or pastoral). Take the harrowing piece titled A Summer Day. Jim, an eight year-old Native American growing up in Missouri, finds himself abandoned when his “grandmother,” the woman caring for him, dies. He is sent without ceremony to an orphanage in Oklahoma because Mr. Wilkins, the preacher, had said it would be nice out here with other Indian boys and girls.
He makes the long train journey barefoot. And there is nobody waiting for him when he arrives. At the orphanage, where many children are sick, the administrators try to engage him, if only to get him registered. Granted, the names given to these functionaries are regrettable, although one may infer that they are the names assigned them by the children.
Miss Dreadfulwater asked some more questions—whether his tonsils were out, who Mr. Wilkins was, whether Jim thought he was a full-blood or half-breed or what. She finished finally and put the card back in the drawer, and then Miss Hornet said to Jim, “What would you like to do now? You’re free to do whatever you like till suppertime. It’s perfectly clear that you have no unpacking to do.”
“Did he come just like this?” said Miss Dreadfulwater, astonished. “Really?”
Miss Hornet ignored her and said, “What would you like to do?
“I don’t know,” Jm said.
“Of course you do,” she said sharply. “Do you want to play on the slide? Or the swings? None of the other children are out, but I should think a boy of eight could find plenty of ways to amuse himself.”
“I can,” he said. “I’ll go outside.”
“He ought to go to bed,” said Miss Dreadfulwater. “You ought to put him to bed right now if you don’t want him to come down with it.”
Ask yourself: How can a discarded child amuse himself or go to bed when he has lost every shred of comfort and dignity he ever had? Other readers may choose different Stafford stories as their favorites. But A Summer Day is one of mine.
‘The New Yorker Married Us’
Stafford’s output faltered as the ‘50s went on, and she had the occasional rejection from The New Yorker. But she had one piece of good fortune: At loose ends in London, she took Katherine White’s advice to seek out A.J. Liebling, the rotund New Yorker staff journalist, who had left the States to lessen his tax burden.
White could not have foreseen what she had unleashed, as Goodman wrote. Soon Stafford was traveling to horse races with Liebling in chauffeured Rolls Royce’s while guzzling champagne, and he was having tweed suits made for her by his Saville Row tailor.
The pair soon became an item. And when work by both of them appeared in the same issue of the New Yorker. Liebling wrote to her, “The New Yorker married us.”
Yes, it did, although the formal wedding didn’t take place until April 1959. Stafford joked that Liebling was her first “entirely Jewish” husband, Lowell having had only a slight Jewish line in his family.
The literary couple moved into a dream apartment at 11th St. and Fifth Ave. in Greenwich Village, in what’s now called the Gold Coast. Stafford performed a signal service: Her tales about Earl Long, the governor of Louisiana and brother of the late Huey Long (she had spent considerable time in Louisiana with Lowell), inspired Liebling and New Yorker editor William Shawn. It led to one of Lieblng’s best books: The Earl of Louisiana.
Stafford’s writing dried up totally at this point. (Liebling’s output declined, too). But she had a reason, as quoted by Goodman: “Perhaps it’s too simple an explanation, but I was happy for the first time in my life.”
Why wouldn’t she be? Liebling could be moody, but he was benign and considerate. But this period of felicity lasted only four years. Liebling, a chronic overeater and drinker, died in 1963 at age 59, muttering in French in his final delirium. The devastated Stafford was on her own again.
There was one bit of solace: Liebling had left her his farm in the Springs of East Hampton. Later, when ill, she was able to sell some of the acreage, yet keep the house.
Sadly, Stafford couldn’t finish her fourth novel, and her short story output slowed. Perhaps emulating Liebling, she wrote A Mother in History, a non-fiction book on Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. It sold well, but drew mixed notices. She also wrote children’s books and book reviews. But money was tight.
Stafford became cranky, and intolerant of the hippie generation. In 1969, though, she published The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, and dedicated it to her now-retired mentor Katherine White. The book drew rave reviews. And early in 1970, Stafford learned that it had won her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Riding a wave of acclaim, she was offered speaking engagements and guest professorships, and recovered financially.
It was one of several grand moments Stafford had during her long career. But this, too, did not last long. Illness caught up with her, and her final decade was one of grinding struggle. In 1976, she had the stroke she’d always feared. One wonders what doctors thought when they saw this sickly woman in the emergency room: Could they have known what she had achieved?
Such is the life of a great writer. Only the strong and very talented need try it.