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.

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.

At the University of Colorado, Stafford was a disconcerting mixture of shyness and audacity: a serious-minded student who planned to become a philologist, but who also posed nude for art classes and, more disturbingly, was drawn into a bizarre circle of dissipated Bohemians that revolved around the charismatic, destructive figure of Lucy McKee, a young woman who committed suicide. "Her relationship with Lucy," writes Hulbert, "was a terrifying experience of the power of the imagination to shape life in d estructive ways, which was to be a recurrent theme of both her difficult life and her art." Stafford's attempts to turn her traumatic involvement with Lucy and her set into a novel that would crystallize the meaning of this latter-day Lost Generation were undermined by her inability to muster sufficient distance from the event and objectivity about it.

While Stafford avoided the pitfalls of directly confessional writing, her first husband, the poet Robert Lowell, would later make a career of it. Their relationship was violent and unstable, from the prolonged suffering Stafford underwent in the wake of an accident in a car driven by her reckless husband-to-be to the disastrous summer that ended their marriage and sent Stafford to a psychiatric clinic with a mental breakdown in 1946.

The bright young Western woman and the surprisingly boorish New England Brahmin (one of the Lowells famous for speaking only to Cabots) were taken up by the Southern group of Fugitives, Agrarians, and New Critics (Ransom, Tate, Brooks, Warren). They were busily taking their stand on behalf of clarity, cogency, classical form, and tradition and were doubtless flattered by the defection of an aristocratic New Englander to their side. Lowell's letters, filled with misspellings and appalling bloopers in the area of diction, reveal the extent of his profound incoherence.

Stafford's third marriage to journalist A. J. Liebling was a happier experience, but her writer's block only grew worse, both during and after it, in her widowhood. "The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford," containing most of her best work, won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Hulbert's study helps us see the timeless importance of the themes Jean Stafford engaged in her life and work: the tension between the writer's need for individual self-expression and her determination to avoid exhibition- ism, the temptation to retreat into one's "interior castle," and the dangers of isolating oneself. "... we are not entitled to be slovenly and hysterical because the world is a mess, nor to be incoherent because our governments do not make sense," she declared in 1948, not long after h er release from the psychiatric clinic.

Hulbert's book presents Stafford in a thoughtful light, but in some ways it is a little too cool and circumspect, rather as if Hulbert, like Stafford, were trying too hard to avoid the charge of exhibitionism. Yet it has the great virtue of looking at the life of a writer from a writerly perspective.

For readers who want to read Stafford for themselves, Farrar Straus Giroux has issued a new edition of the prize-winning "Collected Stories of Jean Stafford" (463 pp., $30). Whether she is finally adjudged "major" or "minor," old-fashioned or modern, it is clear that Jean Stafford wrote prose with the poise and precision of poetry and explored social nuance, psychological turmoil, and metaphysical anxieties with a rare mixture of delicacy, humor, honesty, and relentlessness.

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