Prose as Precise as Poetry
Biography tells the story of an engaging writer's frustrating career
THE author of some of the most disturbing, amusing, intensely imagined, and superbly crafted stories to appear in postwar America, Jean Stafford managed to complete only three published novels: "Boston Adventure" (1944), "The Mountain Lion" (1947), and "The Catherine Wheel" (1952). This, it seems, was only one of the reasons that this gifted woman felt increasingly frustrated in her career.Skip to next paragraph
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Following a productive period in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s when her stories seemed to epitomize the urbane style of The New Yorker magazine, which featured so many of them, Stafford began finding it ever more difficult to produce short fiction, let alone the long novels that eluded her grasp. Although she continued to write reviews, interviews, and opinion pieces during the 1960s and 1970s, gaining minor notoriety for her attack on the feminist coinage "Ms.," Stafford's career as a fiction wr iter was virtually over by then. A single and sterling exception was one last, late story, "An Influx of Poets," rescued by her editor Robert Giroux from the ruins of an unfinished novel and published in 1978, the year before her death.
Stafford's troubled life, marked by feelings of insecurity, periods of hospitalization, and continuing dependence on alcohol, was previously examined in a full-length biography, "Jean Stafford," by David Roberts (Little, Brown; 1988). A vividly detailed account that drew on the testimony of many who knew her, Roberts's biography also paid tribute to her artistry: "[I]t seems unarguable," he concluded, "that some 10 or dozen of Stafford's short stories are near masterpieces."
As its subtitle suggests, Ann Hulbert's new biography, "The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford," represents a deliberate decision to focus more closely on the artist than on the woman. It is not, however, a critical study of Stafford's fiction, but an examination of the creative and self-critical mind of this particular fiction writer.
In terms of raw biographical data, Hulbert's book contains fewer details, incidents, and anecdotes than Roberts's (so much so that I often found myself referring back to his book to learn more about a given crisis in Stafford's life). Instead, Hulbert "reads" the life in terms of certain themes that seem to have emerged in the course of Stafford's quest for literary self-definition.
Born in California, but raised and educated in Colorado, Stafford had a profoundly uneasy relationship with her family. In some ways allied with her eccentric father - an unsuccessful writer who never stopped trying - against her blandly conventional mother, Stafford also found her father an embarrassing reminder of the danger of becoming a crank.