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  • Jean Stafford: A Biography
  • Mary V. Davidson
David Roberts. Jean Stafford: A Biography. Boston: Little, 1988. 494 pp. $24.95.

In this latest detailed and documented biography of Jean Stafford, David Roberts employs a smooth journalistic tone to produce a thorough account of the tragedies that beset Stafford during her entire life. Using extensive interview material gleaned specifically from Stafford's sister and from her former lover and lifelong friend Robert Hightower, Roberts reconstructs the events in the writer's life that until now have eluded other biographers. He delves into shadowy corners of Stafford's history in an attempt to ascertain why she fell victim to an unfortunate drying-up of her creative potential in the years following her early rise to literary fame in the '40s and '50s. Many critics, editors, readers, and friends fully expected Stafford to continue the remarkable pace she had set for herself at the beginning of her career (three novels, nearly two dozen short stories, and many essays published [End Page 297] within less than a single decade). But Roberts sees a "calculated avoidance of the greater demands of fiction" as the primary obstacle to Stafford's literary productivity during the last fifteen years of her life.

It is no surprise that Roberts follows the trend in current biographical writing to probe the unexplored regions of the subject's private life, including sexual behavior and preference. Contemporary biographies of many artists (most recently the lives of Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, W. Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Salvador Dali, Eric Gill, and others) dwell on sexual relationships as the single most important determining factor in the artists' works. However fascinating such details may be to the reader, one must ask whether these biographical factors do indeed produce the revisionist "key" in interpretation of an artist's oeuvre. In the case of Jean Stafford, many critics might find Roberts' exhaustive detailing of Stafford's sexual activities and the resultant battle against persistent symptoms of venereal disease unnecessary and, finally, irrelevant to a perceptive analysis of her writing. Stafford's contemporaries, friends and enemies alike, all concede that her inimitable wit and her brilliant mastery of language are the characteristics of her personality that made her work most memorable. (In a 1987 lecture, Mary McCarthy stated bluntly that Stafford was "the funniest woman I ever met.") Roberts' biography, however, most often presents Jean Stafford as a pathetic figure, a victim of her own desperate excesses and self-inflicted loneliness. Thus, although the book is rich in anecdotal material, it lacks a cogent view of Stafford as artist, independent of her admittedly tragic life.

Critics of Stafford's fiction will find no satisfaction in the abbreviated commentaries of her novels and short stories in this biography, and Roberts seems to avoid carefully any critical evaluation of her work. Too often, in exposing the events of Stafford's life, he fails to make essential links between such details and their resultant effect on her work. One particular example illustrates this point. Using material from unpublished manuscripts from the Stafford Archive at the University of Colorado, Roberts shows how Stafford used experience she and her sister shared in an early snowfall in the foothills of the Rockies in fiction. However, Roberts does not mention that "snow" as a symbolic construct appears in several of her short stories. His description of her at-once nightmarish and ecstatic childhood experience of having run naked in the cottony snow, innocently frolicking beneath the unseen vindictive gaze of her puritanical father, is provocative and tantalizing. But although Roberts blends biographical data and unpublished material to set a scene for Stafford's youth, one would hope also to find far more extensive biocritical connections between events and episodes in her published work. The fact, in this instance, that Stafford went on to use "snow" frequently as a key symbolic metaphor—and the facts that she adorned her own tombstone with a delicate single snowflake and entitled one of her major unpublished manuscripts "In the Snowfall"—would seem to make biocritical evaluation essential rather than incidental. Another telling example of the absence of critical analysis in the text appears in Roberts' sketchy...


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pp. 297-299
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