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A Case for Enchantment: Re-reading Jean Stafford with “The Mountain Day”

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 340-359 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0005

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Gustave Baumann. ESTES PARK, COLORADO (MOUNTAIN LAKE). 1930. Tempera over graphite on oatmeal paper. 10¼″ × 9¼ ″. Indianapolis Museum of Art, gift of Ann Baumann. 2008.60.

Jean Stafford’s first publication was an essay titled “Disenchantment” that she submitted to a Colorado state writing competition for high school students. The text—featured in local newspapers after winning first prize—describes the crushing disappointment Jean and her siblings felt when they moved from southern California to Colorado. Primed by Tom Mix and Zane Grey, the Stafford children had been keen to go west to “that land of adventure, that storied country where life and death hung in the balance,” only to find, on arrival, “something far more stupid and dusty” than their home state (qtd. in Hulbert 17–18). A back-story of betrayal and downward class mobility drives the tale. Jean’s father, John, had lost the whole of his inherited fortune to stock speculation, and the family consequently moved to Colorado—first Pueblo, then Colorado Springs, and finally Boulder—where John Stafford continued a long, mostly fruitless struggle to establish a career as a writer of popular Westerns (growing increasingly cranky and eccentric), while his wife, Ethel, took in paying boarders. Jean’s bitter memories of serving classmates in her own home would later enter her fiction.

This early expression of “disenchantment” with the West is readily apparent in Stafford’s later work. “In the Zoo” (1953), for example, shows the perspective of two orphan sisters who experience Colorado as one huge prison. “Flight was the only thing we could think of,” the narrator recalls, “but where could we go? We stared west at the mountains and quailed at the look of the stern white glacier; we wildly scanned the prairies for escape. ‘If only we were something besides kids! Besides girls!’” (299). Stafford’s most powerful record of western disenchantment is, of course, the last scene of The Mountain Lion (1947), in which Molly, an aspiring writer, is shot dead by her brother, Ralph, an aspiring rancher, in the Rocky Mountains at the very moment when she seems to be claiming them as home. In an ending that continues to shock and dismay readers, Stafford brutally terminates Molly’s plot of coming to know and love the fierce land that had once overwhelmed her.

Texts such as these—the literary production of a near-native of Colorado who grew up feeling poor—argue for how repressive the region can be, especially for children, women, and the working classes. “I could not wait to quit my tamed-down native grounds,” Stafford announced in introducing her 1969 Collected Stories. “As soon as I could, I hot-footed it across the Rocky Mountains and across the Atlantic Ocean” (xxi). Clearly, her work counters the kind of claims made by writers such as Owen Wister, who identified the West as a “great playground of young men,” the pre-eminent site for “the romance of American adventure” (56). The affluent Philadelphian’s very different personal history fueled his portrait of the region as an expansive site of play; Wister was inspired to write his influential The Virginian (1902) by the long vacations he took at a Wyoming guest ranch.

However, if we focus too narrowly on those moments in Stafford’s fiction where she refutes portrayals like Wister’s, we risk overlooking those where she reinforces them, where in the very midst of disclosing disappointment and danger she too limns a western “playground,” albeit differently inflected by gender and class. This Colorado local was enchanted by the West as registered by people who—unburdened by money concerns, provincial mores, and family history—could revel in the region’s sublime landscapes, heady physical activity, and exhilarating air of possibility. Stafford expresses the prospect thus in the musings of the narrator—also from Colorado—of “The Liberation” (1953): “She imagined a time, after Uncle Francis and Aunt Jane were dead, when the young Bays and their wives and husbands might come back, free at last to admire the landscape, free to go swiftly through the town in the foothills without so much as a glance at the family memorials and to...

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