Amusing, Disturbing, Delightful: Celebrating Jean Stafford
Mary Gordon on an Under-Appreciated Author
I was invited to spend a few days in the Berkshires at the home of one of my closest friends. I wanted to bring what is known as a “hostess” gift, and I knew her well enough to know what not to offer. She loathes scented candles, she has enough linens to supply a minor Hilton, her wine cellar is so admirable that I couldn’t afford anything that it might deserve, her garden has won prizes, we are both trying to control our cravings for chocolate and other lethal carbs.
And then, in one of those cartoon lightbulb over the head moments, it came to me that I would bring a gift that would neither spoil, rot, nor molder in the e back of some closet, something that I knew would nourish her for years to come. I brought the Library America edition of the Stories of Jean Stafford.
This would not be the right gift for everyone. Stafford can be tough. In order to be pleased by her, a reader needs not only an appetite for polished, burnished prose, but also for a rich bitterness, the verbal equivalent of arugula or Campari.
Jean Stafford was born on July 1, 1915 in Covina, California but her family soon moved to Boulder Colorado, Her father wrote Western novels under the name Jack Wonder; her mother took in boarders to supplement his inadequate earnings. She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she came to the attention of Ford Madox Ford. Ford introduced her to Robert Lowell, whom she briefly and disastrously married. She married twice again, for the last time to New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling.
Her output was small: three novels, Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion, and Catherine Wheel, and forty-five stories that were collected in 1969 and belatedly won her the Pulitzer Prize. This relative sparsity was most likely related to her suffering both from depression and alcoholism, which contributed to her early death at 63. I believe that she was also the victim of a dual prejudice that made her unfashionable in the macho 50s, a period whose literary heroes were Mailer, Styron, Miller, Bellow, Roth, and whose bigger is better aesthetic relegated the short story to the back shelf of the minor.
I have been told, most unfairly, I insist, that I have a controlling nature, but I couldn’t resist including notes that directed which of the stories my friend should read first. I began with the funniest one, “Bad Characters,” which chronicles the unlikely friendship of two pre-adolescent girls, Emily Vanderpole and Lottie Birch. Emily is the outlaw outlier in a hyper respectable family. She seems cursed with the impulse to alienate any friend she happens to have made. “I would swear vilely in front of a girl I knew to be pious… I would call a Tenderfoot Scout a sissy or make fun of athletics to the daughter of the high school coach… My friend was never more surprised than I was when… this terrible talented invective came boiling out of my mouth.”
Enter Lottie, whom Emily encounters in her vey own kitchen: Lottie is in the process of stealing a chocolate cake. Stafford’s physical description of Lottie allows her to see her as clearly as if she were in our kitchen, about to steal our chocolate cake. “Clearly she did not wash much or brush her teeth, which were notched like a saw and small and brown… She made me think of one of those self-contained dogs whose home is where his handout is and who travels alone but, if it suits him to, will become the leader of a pack.” Lottie makes a point that she comes from the dangerous part of town and his seen a lot; she expresses her contempt for conventional games like Parcheesi; she loves snakes. But she also she says she loves the movies “not them Western ones or the ones with apes in it… ones about hugging and kissing. I love it when they die in that big old soft bed with the curtains on top and he comes in and says, ‘don’t leave me, Marguerite de la Mar.’”
And she wears an unforgettable hat, “it was felt; it was the color of cooked meat, it had some flowers appliqued on the front of it; it had no brim but rose straight up to a very considerable height like a monument.”
I was not so cruel as to ruin the story by letting her know the hat’s purpose, or the eventual outcome of this doomed friendship. But I knew she’d be very surprised.
I didn’t want to take any chances by telling my friend that story I marked with a number two has, as its subject, a nose operation. “The Interior Castle,” takes its title from St. Theresa of Avila’s meditation on the mystic’s union with God. It is possibly Stafford’s best-known story; it has an autobiographical source. Robert Lowell, her then husband, drunkenly crashed their car into a stone wall, disfiguring her face and necessitating several operations on Stafford’s nose.
But it is misleading to say that this is only a story about a surgery; It touches on the most profound of subjects: what is the self, what is identity, what is the mind, and what is its connection to the physical brain? Pansy Vanneman, the story’s hero, is seized by anxiety at the possibilities that could occur because the surgeon, doing his work so near her brain, will do irreparable harm. With the same attention to detail that she called upon to describe Lottie, Stafford recounts Pansy’s thoughts about her brain,
not only as the seat of consciousness, but the physical organ itself which she envisaged, romantically, now as a jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy vellum containing other envelopes, one within the other, diminishing infinitely. It was always pink and always fragile, always deeply interior and invaluable. She believed that she had reached the innermost chamber of knowledge and that perhaps her knowledge was the same as the saint’s achievement of pure love. It was only convention, she thought, that made one say “sacred heart,” and not “sacred brain.”
Before this story, when I thought of the brain, I imagined something like a cauliflower: white, with a bumpy surface of hard fleshy hills. But “The Interior Castle” has made me reimagine the brain: how could the unglamorous cauliflower stand up against this tone poem, this Whistler-like study of pink. Stafford has made me rethink everything I thought about that color, which I had dismissed as jejeune and girly… and slyly, she refers to this association when Pansy remembers a pink hat she wore, a mistake that marked her as “something out of Katherine Mansfield,” and which she threw into the sea.
When I gave this story to a friend of mine, an anesthesiologist, she said that she had never encountered a more evocative and precise description of pain:
It came usually of its own accord, running like wild fire through all the convolutions to fill with flame the small sockets and ravines, and then, at last, to withdraw, leaving behind a throbbing and an echo… At the other times the pain woke sluggishly and came toward her at a snail’s pace. Then, bit by bit, it gained speed… Each cove, each narrow inlet, every living bay was flooded and the frail brain, a little hat-shaped boat, was washed from its mooring and set adrift. The skull was as vast as the world and the brain was as small as a seashell.
Pansy’s pain is easier for the reader to bear than the pain of the animals in the story “In The Zoo.” A clever seductress, Stafford uses her genius for precise physical description to present the zoo’s residents. “There is a blustery, scoundrelly, half likable bravado in the manner of the black bear… he is a rough-and-tumble, brawling blowhard, thundering continually as he paces back and forth… If we were to be re incarnated in human form, he would be a man of action, possibly a football coach, probably a politician. One expects to see his black hat hanging from a branch of one of his trees; at any moment he will light a cigar.”
But “In the Zoo” is anything but a comic story. It is a story of evil, no less real because it’s setting is domestic. But real evil is incarnated in an ordinary old woman who, because of their dead parents failure to plan, becomes the guardian of the orphaned children Daisy and her sister, the nameless narrator. The purpose of Gran’s life is to stamp our joy, to obliterate pleasure, to keep constantly on the boil a stew of suspicion and conviction that human beings live only to do each other in, or down. Her mantra is, “I don’t care, but I just had to laugh,” the words that begin her narrative of malignity that only she is shrewd enough to recognize. “There was no stratum of society bit reeking with the effluvium of fraud and pettifoggery.”It is a great sadness to me that Jean Stafford is so unknown and insufficiently treasured.
The only consolation in the girls’ purgatorial existence is a benevolent old Irish drunk who keeps a menagerie of cherished animals: above all several monkeys whose mournful sweetness matches his own. He offers the girls a dog and at first things go well, but Gran’s dark force turns him from a cheerful feckless playmate to a vicious attack dog, who, casually let out by Gran, viciously kills one of the old man’s monkeys and then… well, I won’t tell you the worst.
What is perhaps the most terrible aspect of the story is that Daisy and her sister have, despite their best efforts, absorbed some of Gran’s suspiciousness and ill wishing. Writing a letter to her sister, our narrator suspects that the priest in the next seat and is not a real priest, and finds herself saying, to her horror, “I don’t care, but I just had to laugh.”
Stafford’s mastery allows her a terrific range of tones; she is equally adept at the lyrical and the horrifying. In “A Mountain Day” the hero recalls a lunch “at the top of the world, sitting on saddle blankets spread out upon waxy yellow glacier lilies, which grew beside a snowdrift that some exotic bacteria had made the color of raspberry sherbet.
The madwoman Ramona in “The Echo and the Nemesis” was fat to the point of parody. “Her obesity fitted her badly, like extra clothing put on in the wintertime…she had a foolish gait, which, however, was swift, as if she were a mechanical doll whose engine raced. Her face was rather pretty, but … it was covered by a thin fair skin that was subject to disfiguring affections now hives, now eczema, now impetigo and the whole was framed by fine, pale hair that was abused once a week by a Friseur who baked it with an iron into dozens of horrid little snails.” In “Beatrice Trueblood’s Story,” a daughter recounts her parents‘ marriage, “they swam in their own blood, but it was an ocean that seemed to foster and nourish them; their awful wounds were their necessities.”
It is a great sadness to me that Jean Stafford is so unknown and insufficiently treasured. When I was still teaching, I always had my students read her, and I was deeply gratified when they said how much they learned from her and how much they enjoyed her. Now, in retirement, the best I can do is, as often as I can, to give the gift of Stafford to those who have been starved of her.
I knew I had done something good in the world when I got my friend’s thank you note. “What a wonderful gift. I was amused, disturbed, delighted. She is mine now.”