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W I L L I A M L E A R Y La Selva, California Grafting onto Her Roots: Jean Stafford’s "Woden’s Day” While I have no objection to the use of autobiography . . . I should counsel any beginner to winnow carefully and to add a good portion of lies, the bigger the better. Too great an adherence to truth is a hindrance to any writer. After writing these words in an article fittingly titled “Truth and the Novelist,” Jean Stafford listed in slapstick fashion the kinds of lies she had in mind. Recalling, or pretending to recall, some instances from her own experience as a writer, she declared: “I had used my old tricks: had elongated people who in real life were short, had turned men into women and professors into priests, had stricken hale men with heart disease and had invested imbeciles with erudition.”1 Although this was obviously a vaudeville turn, Stafford was serious about her prescription, serious enough to follow it herself. When it suited her purposes she did invent boldly, distort deliberately, rearrange cunningly, and caricature sardonically. “Woden’s Day,” the story in which she pur­ ports to describe her parents and grandparents, contains a good portion of lies. And the narrative climax of the story depends on the biggest lie of all. It is some readers’ failure to understand the difference between fact and fiction in this story that has dismayed Stafford’s two living sisters and other relatives concerned about the family reputation. Marjorie Stafford Pinkham, who has become the family historian, has tried to set the record straight. I wrote my memoir after Jean’sdeath and after the issue of Shenan­ doah which memorialized her had come out. Some of the contribu­ tors had such false ideas of her family and her roots that I wrote it in hope of setting the record straight. . . . Her caricatures of Cora’s 130 Western American Literature parents in Woden’s Day were so unsympathetic and so acidic that I wanted my view of them to be made known if possible. She was cer­ tainly entitled to her own feelings and her right to make her opinions known but hers were at such odds with mine, with Lois’s, with Mary Lee’s, Carolyn Airy’s and friends of my parents that I felt they deserved a better image than she had given them.2 Ironically, these remarks reveal, respecting “Woden’s Day,” that Mrs. Pinkham herself is not altogether certain of her sister’s intentions. When did fact for Jean Stafford become fiction? Other ironies attended the writing of “Woden’s Day.” For one thing, this story about Stafford’s own beginnings was also her last story, published posthumously. For another, the story ends with the death of a man who has suffered a succession of strokes that threaten to rob him of his wits. During the last years of her own life Stafford also experienced several strokes. The crudest of these resulted in aphasia which left this amazingly articulate woman, for all practical purposes, unable to speak or write. Finally, and sadly, this story marks the beginning of a novel that was never completed. “Woden’s Day” came by its portentous title honestly enough. Presumably every novelist will write one avowed bildungsroman, sooner or later. Stafford chose to write hers later. In 1968, after a long dry spell in which she wrote no fiction at all, she signed a contract to produce an autobiographical novel to which she gave the arresting title, The Parlia­ ment of Women. One is right if he hears in this title an echo of Chaucer’s dream allegory, The Parlement of Fowles. Borrowing titles from favorite writers was a practice Stafford was addicted to and publicly acknowledged. Like Chaucer’s poem, her novel was intended to display a great gallery of women. But in another ironic parallel with Chaucer’s poem, the two most important characters—at least in her first chapter—are men. It is this first chapter that was later extracted from the unfinished novel by her publisher, Robert Giroux, and published posthumously in Shenandoah as “Woden’s Day.” True to the pattern of opening chapters...


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pp. 129-139
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