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S I D J E N S O N Church College of Hawaii The Noble Wicked West of Jean Stafford Jean Stafford, California born and Colorado raised, follows a long tradition of American writers who have ambivalent attitudes about East and West, about civilization and primitive nature. Miss Stafford, like Cooper, Twain, and James, has viseral and cerebral attractions which simultaneously draw her to the city and to the country. This tension creates in her fiction a dramatic depth typical of much good W estern fiction. Jean Stafford now lives in New York City, and like Henry David Thoreau, she occasionally flees from the artificial city to the natural land (to a cabin in Maine) so that she may live deliberately. But like Thoreau, she tram ps back to the city to have some of m other’s apple pie. She loves the country, but for an artist it is too distracting. “T here are so many fine things to do,”1 she says. But the city, where she does most of her writing, is just as distracting. Even though she attempts to keep her city life simple, she doesn’t have much luck. As she says, “It’s so easy in New York to fall into the habit of going to parties. You go to one cocktail party and then find yourself making a date for another. And having lunch with someone every day. It doesn’t work.”2 Jean Stafford, like most o f us, wants the best o f two impossible worlds. W anting the best of both East and West, Jean Stafford cannot live comfortably in either. She attempts to resolve her conflict by discarding the worst and keeping the best of the two worlds. H er fiction reflects this attem pt; and consequently, many of her stories show the conflict of the two cultures. Usually East and 'N ina B. Baker, “Jean Stafford,” Wilson Library Bulletin, XXV (April 1951), 578. 2 1bid. 262 Western American Literature West clash with a jarring discord, but occasionally the civilized East and the primitive West merge to produce a new culture which surpasses either of the two. The stories which depict the cultural clash of East and West are not Miss Stafford’s best. T he central conflict, as in “The Bleed­ ing H eart,” is simply between a man and his environm ent — simply a physical clash. But in the stories which unite the best of East and West, as in “T he Tea Time of Stouthearted Ladies,” Jean Stafford shows the tension of a dramatic conflict in which a man struggles with himself, and in this way Stafford achieves both a philosophic and an artistic success. The West for Miss Stafford is a place where one has the oppor­ tunity for physical and mental catharsis, but it lacks the opportunity for aesthetic development. In the cultural East one can develop aesthetically; however, one may also become artificial and effete. In the West one can perceive directly what is honest and true, but too often the crude West so blunts m an’s aesthetic spirit that he becomes insensitive to everything except the physical. In “The Liberation” Polly Bay, a young teacher who desperate­ ly wants to escape the West, says, “I hate, I despise, I abominate the West!”3 This outburst is caused by her A unt Lacy and Uncle Francis’ attem pt to pressure her to stay in Colorado. Polly wants “culture.” She is revoted by the dogmatic provincialism o f Adams, Colorado. She fears “wasting away in these arid foothills, never knowing the cause or the name of her disease.”4 T he irony which underlies her aunt and uncle’s terror-striken pleas is that they, themselves, dread a lonely, barren life in the West. “Why, Francis,” A unt Lacy says to her husband, “we would be left altogether alone.”5 As Polly leaves, Uncle Francis says, “You need us now more than ever!” followed by Aunt Lacy’s final, desperate cry, “And we need you. Does that make no impression on you, Polly? Is your heart that cold?”6 Polly is not that cold but she 3Jean Stafford, The Collected Stories (New York...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 261-270
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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