Children Are Bored on Sunday, 1953
Bad Characters, 1964
Selected Stories of Jean Stafford, 1966
The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, 1969
Boston Adventure, 1944
The Mountain Lion, 1947
The Catherine Wheel, 1952
A Winter’s Tale, 1954
A Mother in History, 1966
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
Arabian Nights: The Lion and the Carpenter, and Other Tales from the Arabian Nights, Retold, 1959
Elephi: The Cat with the High I.Q., 1962
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 masterpiece second novel was published. Unlike the first, The Mountain Lion was written out of her own experience in the West rather than her imaginings of an East she hardly knew. It explored this geographical dichotomy as well as the complexities of childhood, themes that appear in many of Stafford’s stories. The style was also more naturally her own in this work, reflecting her ability to find the most appropriate word for her creative expression, no matter how unusual it might be.
In 1948 Stafford obtained a divorce from Lowell. In that same year, she was awarded another Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction and the National Book Club Award. In 1950 Stafford married Oliver Jensen, a second unhappy marriage that lasted only a few months. In 1952 Stafford’s third novel, The Catherine Wheel, was published. In what is considered her most carefully structured novel, Stafford again deals with psychological motivation and alienation and explores the major theme of her work: women and their situation in society. In 1953 Stafford was divorced from Jensen and, as before, experienced psychological collapse, this time complicated by physical ill health. While recuperating with friends in the Virgin Islands, she wrote “In the Zoo,” which received the First Prize O. Henry Award in 1955.
Stafford is best known for her more than fifty short stories, which, like her novels, are largely autobiographical. Almost all of her characters are girls and women; many are orphans, aged, or ill. Stafford deals with the powerlessness of women caught in social roles; for those who assert themselves in an attempt to develop identity, her stories suggest, the result is often madness. Her first collection, Children Are Bored on Sunday, appeared in 1953. In 1959 Stafford married A. J. Liebling, critic and columnist for The New Yorker. During this four-year marriage, she published no fiction, except for two juvenile books, and explained that perhaps it was because she was happy for the first time in her life. Nevertheless, Stafford and Liebling began to drift apart before Liebling’s death. They quarreled over Stafford’s drinking, which was a problem throughout her life, and they were frequently separated.
Although very much a part of the New York literary world, Stafford had often felt ill at ease with the New York intellectuals. Thus, after Liebling’s death in 1963, she made her home in Springs, Long Island. There, known locally as the Widow Liebling and in failing health, Stafford became increasingly reclusive. Her second collection of short stories, Bad Characters, was published in 1964. In 1965 she contracted for an autobiographical novel, “The Parliament of Women,” which remained unpublished at her death. Another collection, Selected Stories of Jean Stafford, was published in 1966. During the 1960’s and 1970’s Stafford wrote nonfiction for popular magazines and in 1969 her Collected Stories was published. In 1970 Stafford received the Pulitzer Prize for Collected Stories and was also made a member of the National Academy of Arts and Letters. As she aged, Stafford grew more and more to resemble the ill-tempered old women in her fiction. Her life–beset by physical and mental illness, unhappiness, lack of deserved recognition for her work, and lessening creativity–was further debilitated in 1977 when she suffered a stroke resulting in aphasia. The Jean Stafford who had read the dictionary for pleasure then found it difficult to speak even the simplest of thoughts. She died on March 26, 1979, at the Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains, New York.
Critics have suggested that Stafford’s ironic vision allows for no clear-cut perspective on her work. Her preoccupation with language is reflected in a rich and complex style, rooted both in the formal, rhetorical tradition of Henry James and the more informal and colloquial of Mark Twain, and she has been compared with both. Stafford has been praised for her nonsentimental approach but perhaps more often criticized for emotional detachment from her characters, who are seldom able to resolve feelings of alienation. Ironically, this same detachment seems to suggest that the objective, intellectual viewpoint is the only way for individuals to rise above the inevitable difficulties of life to experience realization or knowledge, however short-lived.
Most critical analyses tend to view Stafford’s treatment of women as a metaphor for the universal alienation in modern society, rather than as a commentary on the lives of women. Stafford would probably approve of the lack of attention she has received from the feminist perspective, because she expressed strong disapproval of the feminist movement in articles written toward the end of her life. At the time of Stafford’s death, her name was not familiar to most readers. Although she has to some extent been “rediscovered”–The Catherine Wheel was reissued in 1981 in a series called Neglected Books of the Twentieth Century–critics still suggest that she deserves more attention.