Stafford, Jean (July 1, 1915 – March 26, 1979), novelist and short story writer, was born in Covina, California, the youngest of four children of John Richard Stafford and Mary Ethel McKillop Stafford. Stafford’s three novels were well-received, and the first, “Boston Adventure” (1944), was a best-seller. But it was her Collected Short Stories (1969), which originally appeared in The New Yorker and other magazines, that earned her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1970. The Pulitzer jury cited the “range in subject, scene and mood” in these bleak but elegantly crafted tales, which are often highly autobiographical. Their central characters, mainly women and adolescents, inhabit a harsh, unromantic America: a place of loneliness and loss where innocence dies hard, social convention weighs on the individual, and experience is a cruel teacher.
At age five, Stafford moved with her family from California to Colorado, where her eccentric father wrote western stories for pulp magazines under the names Jack Wonder and Ben Delight, while her mother ran a boarding house near the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. Stafford’s writing weaves together the various strands of her upbringing: the natural grandeur of the West; isolation and loneliness in youth and adolescence; and her struggle against what she regarded, with a strong sense of shame, as the cramped, spiritually impoverished world of her parents. Late in her life, she would write to her sister Marjorie Pinkham: “For all practical purposes I left home when I was 7.”
A series of traumas scarred Stafford’s early adulthood. While attending the University of Colorado, where she earned concurrent bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1936, she witnessed the suicide by shooting of her friend Lucy McKee. After a year studying philology in Heidelberg, Germany, she returned to Boulder, where she met the poet Robert Lowell at a writers’ conference. And in 1938, she was severely injured in an automobile accident in which Lowell was driving, and had to undergo reconstructive facial surgery. Her only brother died in World War II. Stafford taught briefly at St. Stephens College, in Columbia, Missouri, but disliked teaching; she also worked at the Southern Review in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and lived with Lowell in New York City and Tennessee before moving to Boston, where (despite suing him in connection with the accident) she married him in 1940.
Stafford gained overnight celebrity with the publication of her first novel, “Boston Adventure,” in 1944. The book is a coldly satirical account of initiation into Boston society, as seen by the daughter of a modest immigrant family. Reviews in Boston were mixed, but H.M. Jones in the Saturday Review of Literature called it “memorable and haunting,” adding that “Miss Stafford is a commanding talent, who writes in the great tradition of the English novel.” The New Yorker compared “Boston Adventure” to the work of Proust for its “ceaseless vivisection of individual experience.” According to Thomas Lask in the New York Times, the novel was “mandarin and embroidered, yet it conveyed with claustrophobic exactness the ingrown, hothouse atmosphere” of its Brahmin setting. The book earned Stafford the Merit Award from Mademoiselle magazine in 1944. In 1945, she won a Guggenheim fellowship and a $1000 award from the American Acadamy and National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Though she spent most of her adult life in the East, Stafford never escaped the psychic tolls of her youth; literary success brought her little happiness, and her physical and emotional health remained frail. The marriage to Lowell was disastrous, and ended in divorce in 1948. In 1946-47, she spent nearly a year at the Payne Whitney clinic in New York being treated for alcoholism and depression, which would continue to plague her throughout her life. An autobiographical story in The New Yorker titled “Children Are Bored on Sunday” marked her return to writing and the beginning of a long association with that magazine, including twenty-one stories and several articles over a decade’s time, and a close, thirty-year relationship with its fiction editor, Katharine White.
Stafford’s second novel, “The Mountain Lion” (1947), was a striking departure from, and to some critics an improvement on, her first. Written in a sparer style, it treats the coming of age of a brother and sister in high-country Colorado, and the interplay of gender and nature. Orville Prescott in the New York Times called it “a sad, poignant, satiric story, definitely not an enjoyable one.” A second marriage in 1950, to Oliver Jensen, a staff photographer for Life Magazine, lasted only three years. Her third and final published novel, “The Catherine Wheel” (1952), set in Maine, was written while she was living with Jensen in New York and at her house in Damariscotta Mills, Maine. An autobiographical novel, “The Parliament of Women,” was never completed, but two chapters appeared as stories, “An Influx of Poets” in The New Yorker in November 1978, and “Woden’s Day” in Shenandoah in the summer of 1979.
During the 1950s, Stafford wrote for the New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, the Sewanee Review, and other magazines. Her 1955 story “In the Zoo” won the O. Henry Prize. That same year, she developed writer’s block. In the summer of 1956, while on a nonfiction assignment in London for The New Yorker, Stafford was introduced to the journalist A.J. Liebling, and they married in 1959. It was the third marriage for each, and the four-and-a-half years they shared in New York were the happiest of Stafford’s life. After Liebling’s death in 1963, she moved to his house in East Hampton, N.Y. Although she virtually ceased to write short stories after marrying Liebling, Stafford turned out numerous nonfiction articles, several children’s books, and A Mother in History, a nonfiction account of a three-day interview with Marguerite C. Oswald, the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald. After that, she won several grants and fellowships but wrote little. In 1976, she suffered a stroke that resulted in aphasia, impairing her speech and vision. She died March 26, 1979 in White Plains, New York.
Current Biography, 1951.
The New York Times (obituary) March 28, 1979, II:12.
Roberts, David, Jean Stafford: A Biography. Little, Brown, 1988.
Walsh, Mary-Ellen W., Jean Stafford. (series) Macmillan, 1985.
Goodman, Charlotte M., Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart. U. Texas Press, 1990.
Hulbert, A. The Interior Castle: The Art & Life of Jean Stafford. NY: Knopf, 1992.
Leary, W. “Jean Stafford: the Wound and the Bow” Sewannee Review 98:3 (Summer 1990): 333-349.
Leary, W. “Jean Stafford, Katherine White, and the New Yorker” Sewannee Review 93:4 (Fall 1985): 584-596.
Roberts, D., “Jean and Joe: the Stafford-Liebling Marriage” American Scholar 57:3 (Summer 1988): 373-391.
Twentieth-Century Western Writers. 2nd ed. Geoff Sadler, Ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991.
American Woman Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Ed. Lina Mainiero. (4 vols.) NY: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1982.
A Library of Literary Criticism: Modern American Literature. 4th Ed. (3 vols.) NY: Frederick Ungar Pub. Co., 1969.
Mann, J., “Jean Stafford,” Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. II: American Novelists Since World War II. Helterman, J., & Layman, R., eds. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978.
By Jean Stafford:
The Boston Adventure. (novel) NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1944.
The Mountain Lion. (novel) NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1947.
The Catherine Wheel. (novel) NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.
Children Are Bored on Sundays. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.
The Interior Castle. 1953. (contains Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion, and “Children are Bored on Sundays”).
The Lion and the Carpenter and Other Tales From the Arabian Nights Retold. NY: Macmillan, 1962.
Elphi, the Cat with the High IQ. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1962.
Bad Characters. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1964.
A Mother in History. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1966.
The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1969.