- Reviewed by
Maureen Ryan has allowed her book on Jean Stafford to be infiltrated, even corrupted, by the feminist dogma and vocabulary that the novelist herself rejected. The underlying belief of the movement, that modern American society is patriarchal, and therefore inimical to a woman's achievement of "personhood" (monstrous neologism! which would have made Jean Stafford ill) is nowhere seriously questioned. Philip Wylie's savage characterization of American society as matriarchal, and its men as Momism's castrati, is now out of fashion, although the mother-bashers, as Philip Roth saw, still comfort themselves with this easy way to explain their lack of manliness—or their rejection of womanliness.
The fact that Jean Stafford was a woman who makes women a central concern in her fiction is far less important than the fact that she was acutely, brilliantly perceptive of the human predicament for either male or female. The tensions felt by her young males—Andrew Shipley and Ralph Fawcett, for instance—or by their elders—such as Ralph's Grandfather Kenyon and his Uncle Claude—are as keenly realized and depicted as the tensions of her women, whether young or old—Miss Pride, Katherine Congreve, Sonie Marburg, or Molly Fawcett. And trying to redress ancient wrongs by calling women heroes, as Professor Ryan consistently does, and rejecting the word heroine, which surely has its nobility, is to conduct an exercise in linguistic, not to say biological, fatuity. Her calling her subject throughout Stafford reminds one inevitably of Matthew Arnold's famous passage about the unfortunate Wragg—"the sex lost . . . the superfluous Christian name lopped off by the straightforward vigour . . ." of the new feminism.
As to style, about which Professor Ryan makes a few observations, compare any quotation from any feminist writer herein quoted (flaccid thought in flaccid language) with any lines quoted from Jean Stafford, in no way flaccid. Professor Ryan twice uses (seriously) the phrase "soul mate," which spirits us back to the days of Dorothy Dix; she moreover permits herself to use "parameter," a word scarcely adaptable to literary criticism; and "societal," a sociological invention; and surely "unplump" is the most curious of words.
Professor Ryan sees Jean Stafford's work as concerned with the problems of growing up as a female in American society. The problem is both simpler and more complex—that of growing up at all, anywhere. Some of Jean Stafford's characters do so; some do not. Being female or male has little to do with it. Jean Stafford did not see life for anyone as a piece of cake.
Professor Ryan is often insightful, but the heavy load of feminist dogma she has chosen to bear keeps her book from being the elated apprehension that the art of Jean Stafford deserves. She seems troubled that her "disparate visions result in a complex, ambiguous fictional world." It is the world itself, however, that is complex and ambiguous; it does not "belong to men," as Professor Ryan seems to believe—or indeed to anyone. "Disparate visions" are closer to the truth than oversimplified dogmas. [End Page 644]