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  • “A Reading Problem”:Margaret Lynn, Jean Stafford, and Literary Criticism of the American West
  • Cathryn Halverson

I have borrowed the main title of this essay from one of Jean Stafford’s many autobiographical short stories, “A Reading Problem.” Recasting details of Stafford’s Boulder, Colorado girlhood, the story tracks the quest of its protagonist, Emily Vanderpool, to read in peace. Emily owns many books, including Tom Sawyer Abroad, Hans Brinker, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but she has no place to read them free from the scrutiny of prying adults. A hotel lobby and the town jail prove to be only temporary solutions, and her dilemma leads to a fraught encounter with a con man and his daughter.

The story ends with Emily’s revelation that the cemetery meets her needs. However, the rather portentous final image of her reading while seated “beside the grave of an infant kinswoman of the sheriff, a late-nineteenth-century baby called Primrose Starbird,” undermines any complacent resolution (344). Emily’s proximity to another bygone Colorado girl points at once toward familial connections between generations of western women and the inaccessibility of past stories. The evocative name on the stone is the only text the “infant kinswoman” offers her.

This essay uncovers connections between western women writers by discussing Jean Stafford in concert with her literal kinswoman, Margaret Lynn. Author of the once widely known A Stepdaughter of the Prairie, Lynn was a native Missourian who preceded Stafford as an important spokeswoman of the West; she was also, not incidentally, Stafford’s first cousin once removed. The brunt of my argument is that Stafford and Lynn thematize, in their autobiographical texts, the difficulty of identifying a literary tradition shaped by western women. As critics, I posit, we experience this same difficulty—the same “reading problem” in respect to women writers and the West.

Stafford’s three novels and many short stories established her as a leading [End Page 127] literary voice of the American West and “a figure of genuine consequence” in American letters more generally (Yardley). For over twenty years Stafford published short fiction in the New Yorker, a magazine with which she remains closely associated, and she won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Collected Stories. Her oeuvre includes numerous expressions of the plight of the female intellectual coming of age in the American West—some comic, like “A Reading Problem,” and others tragic, like her best-known book, The Mountain Lion (1947). Stafford was deeply interested in the ramifications of being a western woman. She did not, however, openly explore relationships between women in the West. Women’s succor and bonds are present in her fiction only at a sedimentary level, as almost literally configured in the image of Emily Vanderpool reading beside Primrose Starbird’s grave.

Stafford’s inclination to feature “woman” over “women”—to focus, that is, on individual female characters without making larger claims about women’s experience—is mirrored in dominant trends in western literary criticism. Key figures like Willa Cather, Mary Austin, Mourning Dove, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, to take some earlier twentieth-century examples, are typically treated in single-author studies. Correlatively, we have only a scant handful of monographs on “western women’s literature” as such. It is telling that Annette Kolodny’s The Land Before Her, published over three decades ago, remains the standard reference.

In her review essay, “Big Books Wanted: Women and Western American Literature in the Twenty-First Century,” Victoria Lamont investigates the sources of this dearth. Her title references Christine Bold’s observation about the lack of major studies featuring “the explanatory patterns and causal narratives that would produce an alternative history of the literary West” (qtd. in Lamont 322). Lamont shows that the limited number of monographs is due partly to the long stretch of recovery work that had to come first, in a discipline that “emerged from the margins of a marginal field” (311). Yet the scarcity is now perpetuated by its achieved sophistication, with scholars favoring—over broad claims—the more focused arguments that case studies yield. “The increasing complexity of feminist work may have had the unintended consequence of allowing traditional master narratives to...


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