Literature

Literature Review: Library of America volume of Jean Stafford

Sometimes it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. There’s the buffet one overeats at, leaving one with a terrible stomach ache. There’s the baseball game that runs to 19 innings and one wishes would just end already. And there’s the old collected stories compilation, where an author’s entire oeuvre is compiled into one sturdy hardcover, leaving one with the impression maybe a little editing would have been key.

Case in point is the new Library of America volume of Jean Stafford’s short fiction and selected non-fiction. It’s a weighty book, running some 900-plus pages (including endnotes) and collects all of her short stories for the first time. Like every volume the LOA puts out, it’s supplied with well-researched notes and everything is newly typeset, and for Stafford completists, it’ll provide a season’s worth of enjoyment. 

But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who don’t know Jean Stafford?

A short biography: Stafford was born July 1, 1915 and died in 1979. In her time, she was known both for her fiction – her Collected Stories won a Pulitizer in 1970 – and for something of a tumultuous public life: she married three times, drank and smoked to excess and generally had a rough go of things. But from 1948 to 1968 (and one more, near the end of her life, in 1978) she wrote 24 stories for the New Yorker. In a period with stiff competition – JD Salinger, John Updike, Mavis Gallant and John Cheever, among others – she carved out a place for herself with her short fiction.

When reading the Collected Stories section of this volume, it’s not hard to see how she did it. With remarkable insight into how kids behave, she recreates childhood in stories like “Bad Characters,” where a young girl is induced to shoplift by a friend. There’s “A Country Love Story,” where in a cold winter, a young woman watches her marriage fall apart as she remains fixated on an old carriage. And there’s “The Bleeding Heart” where a young woman named Rose falls for what she imagines the next-door neighbor is like, but is shocked back to reality when she actually meets him. 

In these stories, and a few others, Stafford shows remarkable insight into what makes people tick, into motivations and, perhaps most gracefully of all, what drives people to do bad things. Indeed, her characters rarely have a good day or two: they usually drink too much, spiral downward and have issues they should be seeing someone about. 

Perhaps the most impactful story of all here is “The Interior Castle,” where a woman’s on the mend after a bad accident and undergoes nasal surgery without much in the way of anesthesia. Stafford’s description of pain grabs the reader:

“… the pain woke sugglishly and came toward her at a snail’s pace. Then, bit by bit, it gained speed. Sometimes it faltered back, subsided altogether, and then it rushed like a tidal wave driven by a hurricane, lashing and roaring until she lifted her hands from the counterpane, crushed her broken teeth into her swollen lip, stared in panic at the soothing walls with her ruby eyes, stretched out her legs until she felt their bones must snap.” (pg 181)

This is Stafford at her best, with prose that’s electric and descriptions that drive home the details for the reader. It’s not hard to see why she won a Pulitzer for this collection.

It’s the uncollected stories that push this book from great to merely good. Often they touch on the same themes, just not as well. “The Scarlet Letter,” a 1959 story where a young girl is goaded into leading a rebellion by a rough classmate, feels like a less successful trip into the same territory as “Bad Characters.” Or take “A Reasonable Facsimile,” a 1957 story about a professor who’s visited by someone who writes him letters, and compare it’s themes about our private selves and who we imagine people to be with “A Bleeding Heart,” written some nine years earlier. By mixing these lesser runs into the same country, this volume dilutes the impact of Stafford at her best. 

Add to that how a couple of these uncollected stories (like “The Ordeal of Conrad Pardee”) fall flat, too. That one might be the worst of the bunch, a bougie tale about a rich investment manager who throws a party and, well, nobody shows up. It’s hard to feel any compassion for someone who lives so thoroughly above the means of the average reader.

Speaking of compassion, this volume collects A Mother In History, a journalistic profile of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mom, which is interesting, one supposes, but doesn’t really add anything to this volume; I’d have rather seen space used for her book reviews, especially since Stafford served on prize juries. A few essays are appended, too, and they’re not essential, but lend some insight into what makes her fiction work.

All in all, the LOA volume of Jean Stafford’s short fiction is a mixed bag. There’s more than a few worthy stories here, and it’s hard not to recommend her Collected Stories, which is available separately. But the sheer amount of fiction here… it all blended together after a while, into a mass of bad kids, Colorado landscapes, Cape Cod and people drinking too much. There’s a lot here for Stafford fans – or really, any fan of short fiction – to chew on. It’s too bad there’s some gristle in the meat. 

Roz Milner

Roz Milner is a journalist at Live in Limbo. They are a freelance writer and media critic who's writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, CTV.ca, The Good Point and elsewhere. @milnerwords on Twitter.

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