On 13 December 1938, the young writer Jean Stafford, visiting Boston from her hometown, Boulder, Colorado, agreed to go for a ride in his father’s Packard with her 21-year-old suitor Robert Lowell. They had met the year before at a Colorado Writers’ Conference, and Lowell had been courting her intensely through the mails. When she refused to marry him, however, Lowell went into a rage and crashed the car into an embankment. He was unhurt (the court later charged him with driving while intoxicated), but Stafford sustained massive injuries to her skull, nose and jaw that required five painful operations to repair. After the accident, she would always look battered, her eyes teary and ‘permanently welled-up’. As Lowell’s friend Blair Clark remarked, ‘there was about a 25 per cent reduction of the aesthetic value in her face.’
The cruel precision of this figure reflects not so much Clark’s brutality as widely-held attitudes about the market value of female beauty and the implicit contrast with the value of women’s intelligence and art. Stafford explored this paradox in the harrowing short story she wrote about the accident. Awaiting the surgeon whose scalpel will repair her ‘crushed and splintered nose’, the heroine is in a state of near-mystical terror about the invasion and pillaging of her brain, ‘her treasure whose price he, not more than the nurses, could estimate’. In some way Stafford felt herself not only damaged but violated.
Yet she fought against understanding her own anger, diverting it as much into meanness and booze as into art; indeed, she would have been furious at any feminist interpretation of the reckless way Lowell had smashed up her life and the masochist way in which she had accepted it. Although she had resisted his advances, describing him to a friend as ‘an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet’, she married him not long after the accident, declaring: ‘he does what I have always needed to have done to me and that is that he dominates me.’ The marriage lasted eight years, during which Lowell became a fanatical convert to an ascetic and sexless Catholicism. ‘I fell in love with Caligula,’ she wrote, ‘and am living with Calvin.’ Two artists under one roof, she lamented, were likely to run into problems, even when one of them did all the housework. During their first several years together, she worked as a secretary to support them both (he had a small trust fund). When he was hired by Louisiana State University, Cleanth Brooks telegraphed on behalf of the Southern Review: ‘PLEASE ADVISE BY WESTERN UNION IF MRS LOWELL KNOWS SHORTHAND.’ At home, she had to retype his poems every time he changed a word. During the war he was in prison for several months for his own bizarre form of conscientious objection, and he possibly broke her nose at least one more time in a fight. Their last summer together, as she wrote in ‘An Influx of Poets’, a story published in the New Yorker after her death,
every poet in America came to stay with us ... bringing wives or mistresses with whom they quarrelled ... 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 – soddenly, but not too far 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.
Nevertheless, when he finally left her for another woman, Stafford had a complete breakdown and went into the Payne Whitney clinic for nearly a year. From the hospital she wrote to Lowell in anguish: ‘In your letter you say that you hope I will be recognised as the best novelist of my generation. I want you to know now and know completely that that would mean to me absolutely nothing.’ In another letter to Lowell, she explained that her therapy at Payne Whitney had helped her understand how as a child she learned to mutilate herself ‘in order to gain pity and love’. In her finest novel, The Mountain Lion (1947), written during the turbulent final year of their marriage, the young heroine Molly pours acid over her hand after quarrelling with her brother, in order to punish him. As if to punish Lowell by mutilating herself again, Stafford found her budding career as a novelist blighted after the divorce. Her first novel Boston Adventure (1944) had been a tremendous commercial success, and The Mountain Lion had won critical acclaim. But the words came more slowly after the divorce. She struggled for several years with an unfinished autobiographical work, ‘In the Snowfall’, then abandoned it and published The Catherine Wheel in 1952. Although she was only 36, it was the last novel Stafford would be able to write. For the rest of her career, she wrestled with another unfinished autobiographical fiction, ‘The Parliament of Women’, but meanwhile turned to short stories, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her collected stories in 1970. Yet even these became harder to write each year; from 1958 to her death in 1979, she published only seven, and made her living as a reviewer and journalist.
In these final years, scarred by drunkenness, sickness and self-hatred, Stafford’s chief pleasure seemed to be venomous attacks on the absurdities of what she sneeringly called ‘Fem Lib’. She despised the feminist in herself, the suspicion that growing up female in 20th-century America had anything to do with her problems. Having her treasure, her imagination, inside a woman’s body had always been a curse to Stafford. Like Molly, she must have longed to be ‘a long wooden box with a mind inside’.
Both of these biographies see Stafford as an important American writer deserving revival, but they take very different approaches to her life and work. David Roberts was mesmerised by this ‘enigmatic, thwarted writer’ and sought to unravel her story with the help of Eve Auchincloss, Stafford’s friend and editor, and her 42-year correspondence with ex-lover and friend Robert Hightower. He paints a ghoulishly fascinating picture of Stafford’s alcoholism; her phenomenal string of illnesses, from trench mouth to possible gonorrhea and syphilis; her discomfort with sexuality and inability to write about it. In his preface, Roberts notes that he had developed ‘a crush’ on Stafford, whom he had never met, and that as he wrote he imagined her cosily ‘looking over my shoulder, usually with raised eyebrow’. Stafford might have raised a fist as well as an eyebrow if she had read Roberts’s elaborate account of her alcoholic decline and wasted life. Indeed, in a celebrated review of the book in the New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates linked it with a genre she named ‘pathography’, whose ‘motifs are dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct. Its scenes are sensational, wallowing in squalor and foolishness; its dominant images are physical and deflating; its shrill theme is “failed promise”, if not outright “tragedy”.’
In contrast, Charlotte Margolis Goodman’s Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart is a respectful literary biography written from a feminist perspective, which draws extensively on Stafford’s unpublished novels and stories in the University of Colorado. Goodman sets Stafford’s fiction in the context of American writing of the period and particularly a female literary tradition. She makes little effort to persuade us or herself that she found Stafford likable, much less lovable; indeed, in a striking nightmare described in her preface, Goodman confronted a chalky-faced, crimson-lipped Stafford, a Dracula-figure who fiercely demanded, ‘What are you doing in my house?’ and then plunged out the window into a dark lake below.
Goodman’s nightmare suggests the demonic Stafford haunting the subtext of her sedate narrative, the Stafford of pathography, who, it must be confessed, is a more compelling figure than the diligent craftsman of her own academic version. The Mountain Lion is indeed a brilliant novel, a minor classic of childhood rage and bewilderment told in a superbly controlled colloquial prose, which deserves to be set alongside Lord of the Flies. But the short stories are narrow in range, driven by self-pity and the need to blame, and short on compassion. Stafford thought her muse was irony, but hatred is closer to the truth. Her best writing does indeed have a savage edge, whether in ‘An Influx of Poets’ or in her memoir of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother A Mother in History. What saves her from our horrified recoil is the sense we get from her writing of the myth of the artist as an American woman up against family, marriage and society. Neither of these biographies on its own manages to put together an account of why her life mattered both in personal and aesthetic terms. Like Louise Bogan or Sylvia Plath, Stafford played the female masquerade to the hilt, from anorexia, alcohol, drugs, shrinks, suicide attempts and hospitals, to stories full of murderous anger submitted to astonishing verbal discipline. ‘I am trying so hard to be a woman,’ she wrote to Lowell.
The youngest of four children, Stafford’s birth was unwelcome in several respects. ‘She’s alright, I guess,’ her brother Dick said, ‘but I wish she’d been a dog.’ Her father wanted another son. He was a would-be writer of Westerns who called himself ‘Jack Wonder’ or ‘Ben Delight’. He had lost the family’s considerable fortune in bad investments, and let his wife support the family while he spent his days typing obsessively and hopelessly in his basement ‘yarn factory’, writing up to five thousand words a day on an endless book on government deficit spending, and later, on stories of a ‘hell ray’ death machine. Stafford’s two older sisters were conventional girls who enjoyed growing up in Boulder, Colorado, both a stronghold of Ku Klux Klan and the site of a tubercular colony. She detested her mother’s genteel housewifeliness and for a while kept a notebook of all her pious bromides and folksy clichés. Although she adored Dick, he had little interest in playing with a girl, and was outraged when she wore his outgrown Boy Scout shirt. ‘Having that on a girl,’ he declared, ‘is like dragging the American flag in the dirt.’
Stafford once said in a letter to her sister that ‘for all practical purposes I left home when I was seven.’ Her father was always reminding her that he had wanted a boy, once subjecting her to a clumsy home-made haircut. Stafford expressed her ambivalence over her body and sexual identity first through anorexia, and then through cross-dressing and gender conflicts that remind us of Willa Cather or Carson McCullers. At 12 she had her picture taken wearing her father’s suit and hat; in high school, a friend noted, the lanky Jean ‘looked like a boy with a dress on’. In her unpublished novel In the Snowfall, the autobiographical heroine will not allow herself to think in her childhood ‘that she will not be a writer, and only occasionally does it occur to her depressingly that she is going to grow into a woman and not a man.’
The town fathers sometimes worried that there was not enough going on to amuse young people in Boulder, but once she got to the University of Colorado Stafford found plenty to keep her busy. Indeed, one has to admire the sheer amount of perversity, experiment, high drama and self-destruction she managed to wrest out of a Rocky Mountain education, along with her degrees in literature: bouts of Catholic mysticism, modelling in the nude for art students, heavy drinking, whisky enemas, and a sensational ménage à trois with lesbian undertones that ended in the suicide of its femme fatale leader, Lucy McKee Cooke. For much of her life, Stafford attempted to write about this material in unsatisfactory and unpublished books.
In college she had received encouragement for her work from one of her professors, Irene McKeehan, whose impeccable suits and medieval scholarship offered her her first adult model of the woman intellectual. It was largely McKeehan’s example which persuaded her to go to Heidelberg in 1936 as a graduate student in Anglo-Saxon and philology. Later a series of women writers and editors – Evelyn Scott, Caroline Gordon, Katherine White, Eve Auchincloss – would offer nurture and support. But Stafford never had much respect for women. The women writers she admired show up in marginal, often diminished ways in the biographies. She named her cat George Eliot, and planted references to Louisa May Alcott’s writing desk in her novels. In her correspondence with male friends from the university, Stafford began to create various self-mocking female personae – ‘Bessie Barnstable’ or ‘Florence Nightgown’ – who wrote in an exaggerated jocular backwoods slang. These rube voices would re-emerge in the Seventies in the weird lingo of her harshly anti-feminist columns in the New York Times and Esquire. For a dismal stretch after returning from Germany, she taught English composition to the young ladies at Stephens Junior College in Missouri. Feeling awkward and shabby beside the ‘pretty, featherheaded students’, Stafford reacted with disproportionate wrath, calling the college ‘the biggest Whore House west of the Mississippi’ and her students ‘loathsome little bitches who are homesick and have rumps like a kitchen stove’.
Yet Stafford also realised that scathing mockery of women would not free her from the need to confront the problems of female sexuality and creativity in her own life and work. ‘Why is it,’ she wrote to Robert Hightower, ‘that a woman cannot write a book like A Portrait of the Artist? I mean, why is it that her experiences cannot be those of a man?’ In her earlier work, she conscientiously apprenticed herself to male models, Thomas Wolfe, Joyce, Proust, and wrote in a stilted, affected prose very different from her journals and letters. It was only with The Mountain Lion, and out of her profound identification with its ugly, lonely child-heroine, that she began to create an individual voice, satirical and powerful. Molly is killed by her brother in an accident which is a rite of passage for him, a final repudiation of all that is shamefully feminine and vulnerable in himself. In The Catherine Wheel, Stafford explained, she tried to create a heroine ‘with a male mind in which there is such and such a compartment for literature and such a one for love, but in the end she will be faced with the realisation that a woman’s mind can never be neatly ordered and every experience is tinged by every other one.’
In 1947, after the break-up with Lowell, Stafford entered psychoanalysis three days a week with Dr Mary Jane Sherfey, a resident at Payne Whitney. Sherfey was then 28 years old, at the beginning of her career as a feminist analyst; she later published ground-breaking work on the female orgasm. This was a major relationship, with a transference Stafford called an ‘addiction’. Sherfey was able to get her to stop drinking for a year, but once out of the hospital Stafford returned to her old habits. Apparently no one suggested that she go to Alcoholics Anonymous, and on her own she was unable to control her drinking.
There also seems to be little evidence that Sherfey was able to help Stafford accept the contradictions of a woman’s mind. In any case, years of therapy did not enable her to come to terms with her family or with her writing blocks. A second marriage, to the editor Oliver Jensen, quickly failed; and a brief happy third marriage to the journalist A.J. Liebling did not help her drinking or writing. When he died after three years, she went into a long period of deterioration. She quarrelled with her editors and publishers; her bouts of hospitalisation increased; she flaunted her eccentricities and indulged her capacity for reactionary rudeness. Although universities like Wesleyan and Columbia came to her rescue with offers of fellowships and teaching, Stafford only blamed them for her own sterility and bitterness. Wesleyan was ‘deadly’ and ‘Middletown is the ugliest place in the United States’; her writing students were ‘cretinous’ and ‘ignorant’. ‘I have become very set in my ways, very conservative, very much down on the young ... as a social class and I take no responsibility for slavery,’ she observed during the protests of the Sixties. The rise of the women’s movement was a welcome opportunity for attacks on feminist activists and writers, culminating in a jeering blast against Susan Brownmiller’s book on rape. ‘Things grow grimmer and grimmer,’ Stafford wrote. ‘Anger alone keeps me alive.’
Amazingly, grants to finish the novel promised for decades remained plentiful; invitations to parties and readings continued to arrive; and Stafford’s friends stood by her despite defaults, insults and social disasters. Both Roberts and Goodman found many to testify that Stafford’s wonderful sense of humour, her ‘hilariously venomous’ conversation, her thinly-veiled insecurity, endeared her to friends, even to women whose devotion she valued cheaply up until the end of her life. Her appalling behaviour and utter lack of generosity had to be tolerated since it came from baffled genius. ‘When such a big talent is frustrated,’ wrote Wilfred Sheed, ‘it can rage in many directions.’ These studies, however, suggest the reverse, that Stafford had a small but genuine talent which expressed itself fully in a narrow body of work, and then ran out. It isn’t evident that marriage to Lowell had to destroy her as a writer: Stafford may have mutilated herself to get back at him or at her father or at Cleanth Brooks, for that matter, but in the end she was the one holding the acid. The worst thing Lowell may have done to her was to endorse her belief in the masculine Romantic credo that excuses all failure, cruelty and excess in the name of art. It might have been Stafford for whom Louise Bogan, another smashed-up poet, wrote her defiant response to the moralists:
Come, drunks and drug-takers, come, perverts, unnerved!
Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit,
to whom and wherever deserved.
Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners, true-blue,
Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is
deathless. And it isn’t for you.
But even the laurel has to draw the line somewhere.