Jean Stafford’s triumph

If there is one thing that David Roberts’s new biography of the novelist and short-story writer Jean Stafford makes abundantly clear, it is that any essay about her should probably begin with her parents, her family, and her strangely tormenting childhood.[1] She was born in Covina, California, in 1915, the youngest of four children. Her father, John Stafford, was himself a writer of sorts—a genuine obsessive whose career peaked early with the publication of an ob scure hack Western novel, When Cattle Kingdom Fell. From there it was straight downhill: selling his Covina walnut ranch in 1921, he promptly lost the proceeds in the stock market and moved his family to Colo rado, where he spent the last forty years of his life writing and rewriting a bizarre mag num opus designed, in Roberts’s words, to “set the world straight” on the perils of the American economy. His wife, Ethel, was the practical-minded one, a pleasant former schoolteacher whom Jean resented for her conventional domestic preoccupations, and who, once the increasingly destitute family had found its way to the city of Boulder, earned her daughter’s resentment for taking in her sorority-girl classmates as boarders.

Stafford’s life with this hapless couple— and with her beloved brother, Dick, and her remoter sisters, Marjorie and Mary Lee— had deep and lasting effects. As Roberts observes, after the move to Colorado “Staf ford would never again know a day free of the fear of poverty and of social inferiority.” Forever after, her feelings about both her parents would be a heady compound of love and shame, pity and resentment; and many of her actions, during her undergraduate years at the University of Colorado and thereafter, strike one primarily as desperate attempts to remove herself from the world of her parents, and to forge a distinctive identity. For instance, the young Stafford— universally described as fragile, shy, and sexually naive—shocked her fellow students by becoming the nude model for a life-drawing class, and by idolizing, befriending, and moving in with Lucy and Andrew Cooke, a notorious artsy couple. The Cookes seem to have symbolized sex and freedom to Stafford, but their wild, bohemian demi monde was shattered when Lucy committed suicide during Jean’s senior year; long after ward, a still-devastated Stafford remarked of Lucy’s suicide that “I am almost ready to write about it, although I have really written about nothing else ever.” Indeed, though she never published anything explicitly based on her life with the Cookes, Stafford did give the names Lucy and Andrew to major characters in two of her novels, and dealt with her friends’' memory in various subtler ways throughout her fiction.

Lucy’s death did not put an end to Staf ford’s search for a separate identity. After her graduation from college, she studied philology for a year at Heidelberg, and had barely returned home before she began writ ing bitterly condescending letters about her parents and country. “I can’t stay in America next year,” she wrote a friend, “until I completely repudiate the whole past and live in some foreign quarter.” She didn’t belong here, she insisted: “I have realized suddenly to my horror that I’m an artist + have to be with my fellow beings.” Roberts describes how Stafford transcribed an affectionate letter from her mother, “underlined what she considered the more egregious American isms, and mailed it to her friends in Paris, moralizing, ‘Well, all I can say is, it shore is a pity that Pa ever got hitched up with those fat McKillop girls.’” That Stafford would commit such a heartless act—an act so offensive that it’s pathetic—points to a pro found insecurity about her own independent identity; so little sense did she have of her self apart from her family—even after col lege, the Cookes, and Heidelberg—that she felt it necessary to insist, in this brutal manner, upon her distinction from her mother.

Roberts’s book is replete with evidence of the young Stafford’s deficient sense of self (though Roberts himself seems mostly not to notice). During her time in Heidelberg, for instance, Stafford was mesmerized by the Nazis: “I was swept along on the tide of this well-organized collective conniption fit .... If a recruiter had come by and asked me to pledge myself for the rest of my life to the [Nazi Party], in all likelihood I would have done so.” A psychology professor at Boulder noted that Stafford was the most “suggestible” hypnotic subject he’d ever had. The principal reason why she didn’t want to marry, she explained to an early beau, was that marriage would turn her into a conventional wife, a philistine: “eventually we would be Mother and Dad.” So unsure was she, in short, of her identity as Jean Stafford, writer, that the only consequence of marriage she was able to envision was a gradual metamorphosis into a version of Ethel McKillop Stafford, housewife.

And yet when Stafford did take a hus band, in 1940, she assumed the role of thankless helpmeet almost immediately. Of the man in question—Robert Lowell—she wrote that he “does what I have always needed to have done to me and that is that he dominates me.” Lowell, of course, was not just any domineering man; the prep-school educated scion of a distinguished Boston family, he was the very personification of wealth, breeding, and Easternness, all of which intimidated her. He was also, alas, spoiled, irresponsible, and mentally unbalanced. In the spring of 1938, with Stafford in the passenger seat of his car and a quantity of alcohol in his blood, Lowell plowed into a wall at the end of a road in Cambridge, Massachusetts; while he escaped unscathed, Stafford’s face suffered extraordinary damage. By all accounts, Lowell was less than remorseful over the incident; ac cording to a friend, he regarded it as “just an accident, and he didn’t feel responsible par ticularly. He looked up, there was a dead end. It was not his fault.” Yet the accident was a crucial event in Stafford’s life; though surgeons managed to restore her to rela tively normal appearance, the accident had done permanent damage to both her looks and her health, and the fact of it hovered tragically over the eight-year marriage to Lowell.

That marriage was, from the start, an ambiguous enterprise. Once Stafford and Lowell had set up house together—first in Baton Rouge (where Lowell attended graduate school at LSU), then in New York, Tennessee, and Maine—she apparently lost no time in becoming, like her mother, the subservient spouse of an obsessive artist. While Lowell wrote poems, Stafford per formed secretarial work and housekeeping chores; a fanatical convert to Catholicism, Lowell insisted, during their stay in New York, that she also do “Catholic work,” and so she spent much of her free rime folding papers at the offices of the Catholic Worker. (Lowell himself had a job—as a copy editor at Sheed and Ward—for a total of nine months during the marriage.) Even when she did find a few moments to sit at her typewriter, she often had to spend it typing Lowell’s work rather than writing her own. “Lowell expected his wife to type up his poems as soon as he had written them,” notes Rob erts. “If on rereading he changed a single word, she had to type the poem over again.”

In sum, Stafford seems to have given a great deal in her marriage and received very little in return. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, in marrying such a man as Lowell and in maintaining so self-abnegating a spousal role, she was essentially forsaking, for the time being at least, the hope of an independent identity, and capitulating to her own seemingly unshakable inner sense of identity with her much-despised mother.

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