Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize last fall was hailed as a victory for the novel’s neglected stepsister, the short story. What struck me most about Munro’s win was how well she has fared by following a heavily beaten path. She faithfully adheres to the rules Edgar Allen Poe set out for the genre in the 1840s: singularity (every word in a story must serve one purpose), brevity, and maximum effect on the reader (remember “The Telltale Heart”?) are sine qua non. Poe thinks stories go astray when they aim to make readers conjure up a whole life or figure out how an episode fits into some unseen bigger picture. At their best, short stories are notes tossed into the ocean (like his “MS Found in a Bottle”) printed with pain, sorrow, despair, or, more rarely, with hilarity or joy.
Munro’s victory set me wondering about these conventions. Can a single set of rules have held sway over the short story for 180 years? The history of literary genres contains inflection points, moments when a long slow curve heading in one direction pauses, changes its mind, and slopes off in another. Chekhov, with his beautiful but cold commitment to the impersonal nature of art, may be one such point in the short story’s history; Kafka another. And Nick Dames has recently argued in Public Books that “online venues such as Fictionaut, Five Chapters, or 365 Tomorrows” have let “the garrulous, the bizarre, the embarrassing” flower in the short story in ways impossible in the era when “the upper-middlebrow weekly” was the genre’s home base.
If the short story’s rules went into temporary free fall for several years in the ’40s and ’50s, Jean Stafford deserves some of the credit.
Much as I admire Alice Munro’s ardent loyalty to a form that she understands perfectly and practices beautifully, her Nobel mainly makes me think about another might-have-been inflection point half a century ago, during the reign of “the New Yorker story.” If the genre’s rules went into temporary free fall for several years in the ’40s and ’50s, Jean Stafford deserves some of the credit. Going back recently to stories like “The Interior Castle” (1946), and discovering other shockers (a young lover rushing to his beloved with blood from an execution splashed all over his suit, a girl faking mortal illness to one-up a pair of snobbish bullies), I caught a brief glimpse of how different things might have been for the short story if Stafford’s ideas about sociability, intimacy, and what we need from one another had won out.
In “The Echo and the Nemesis,” (1950) Stafford writes
Ramona Dunn … always carried a pair of field glasses, in a brassbound leather case that hung over her shoulder by a plaited strap of rawhide; she looked through the wrong end of them, liking, for some reason that she did not disclose, to diminish the world she surveyed.
Why does Ramona Dunn like to diminish the world she surveys? That’s what it means to be a Jean Stafford character: to be curious about one’s surroundings but anxious not to be mistaken for an active participant in them. On the one hand, Stafford’s characters dream of a world without social anxieties; on the other, they’re persuaded no such world exists. They sneer at what they see through those field glasses, yet they keep right on spying, creeping closer and closer until they suddenly look up and realize they’ve become part of the scene. (Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy has a healthy dose of Stafford in her.)
From a certain perspective all fiction is about peering in without getting involved. Austen’s perilous courtships and Raymond Chandler’s killings let readers drop in on other people’s lives without repercussions while remaining well above the fray. Still, I can’t think of any other writer who comes close to Stafford’s exhaustive anatomy of the allures and pitfalls of social surveillance.
I have never understood why Stafford’s star sank so quickly. The world would be a poorer place without her mordant wit and beautiful periodic sentences. She is terse when epigrams are called for, but capable of sinuous expostulation at just the right moment. Like James Thurber, she worshipped Mark Twain; copying Twain’s “humorous writing” she learned to attend to quicksilver idioms and dialect words, to capture the delightfully odd phrases that are tomorrow’s clichés being born. Most of all, though, Stafford ought to be judged by characters like Ramona Dunn, who find themselves trapped in a world that they both revile and want desperately to take by storm.
Jean Stafford was born 1915 in California, raised in Colorado, and flourished as a writer in New York, especially in the pages of the New Yorker between 1940 and 1969. Today, she has nearly vanished from the shelves, while her worthy (Carson McCullers, John Cheever) and not-so-worthy (Richard Yates, really?) contemporaries are robustly republished. The trajectory of her critical reputation is painful to contemplate. Critics gushed over her debut novel Boston Adventure (1944); praised her gently when her stories were among the reliable warhorses in the New Yorker’s stable (“The Interior Castle” and “Children Are Bored on Sundays”  were her Derby winners); called her back to mind when her Collected Stories won a Pulitzer and national acclaim in 1970; turned on her caustically when she stalled over an unfinished and perhaps unfinishable novel late in life; forgot her after her lonely, alcoholic death in 1979; published six summative books about her between 1985 and 1996; and then forgot her again.
Stafford has been burdened by critical comparisons to the gentler Eudora Welty and the stranger Carson McCullers. Even when the right comparisons are made—to Twain, to short story antecedents like James Joyce and Chekhov, or to contemporaries like Cheever—the game frequently feels rigged, doomed to find Stafford wanting in comparison to the authoritative male writers whose aesthetic company she sought. Her marriages to Robert Lowell (short and miserable) and the doughty New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling (longer and happier) also sometimes make her cannon fodder for biographical accounts that reduce her work to one long roman à clef.
Stafford’s novels are sometimes taken as the measure of her art, but the short stories are her true legacy. In them she weighs herself, her world, her readers, and finds all three a terrible disappointment. As you make your way through Stafford’s Collected Stories (here’s to Farrar, Straus & Giroux for keeping it in print!) you’ll notice certain Stafford ground rules. Her stories are virtually all about childhood or old age, or young to middle-aged characters who are somehow marginalized in the same way that the old and young are. They generally open in a damaged, often drink-sodden milieu anywhere on the social spectrum—Stafford’s rich and poor are equally scarred. Most center on a child or an old crank who is scraping by despite the unpleasantness of her environment and so-called friends. Three quick examples: in “The Bleeding Heart” (1948), the shy young Rose Fabrizio begins to imagine that a dignified silent gentleman at the library will adopt her and open the world of letters to her; in “A Modest Proposal” (1949), Mrs. Fairweather, a “born victim” waiting for her divorce to come through in the Florida Keys, looks for a way to demonstrate her superiority over her loutish, bigoted host; and in “Beatrice Trueblood’s Story” (1955), a woman who has been jilted by her fiancé goes deaf and her retreat into spacey rumination is witnessed enviously by an unhappily married man.
Stafford’s novels are sometimes taken as the measure of her art, but
the short stories are
her true legacy.
Stafford’s characters dream of cutting free from a world they know they couldn’t do without. Mrs. Fairweather, proud of her enlightened Northern views, can’t believe anybody could listen to her host’s leering stories about deciding whether or not to eat a “broiled pickaninny … baby ... garnished … with parsley.” She flings down a glass (“it exploded like a shot”) and then sits down and has another drink. Which is more or less what all Stafford’s characters finally do, unable to conjure up a better world than the damned one they’re forced to occupy.
Some of Stafford’s finest stories, however, do speculate tentatively about what a real escape from society might look like. In “The Interior Castle,” the accident that leaves Pansy bandaged and immobilized produces a mystical experience of contentless tranquility. In “Beatrice Trueblood’s Story,” deafness seems to offer Beatrice a way out of a horrid engagement and an almost equally horrid set of “friends.” These retreats are odd and engaging: Beatrice seems “proud and secret-living as a flower” to an envious onlooker and Pansy “believed she had reached the innermost chamber of knowledge and that perhaps her knowledge was the same as the saint’s achievement of pure love.”
These escapes are also, however, very temporary. The bandages come off of Pansy’s “treasureless head” and the innermost chamber is empty. Beatrice learns how to read lips, regains her hearing, and marries a “research chemist”; in the story’s final paragraph he’s overheard bullying her in just the same ways her first fiancé had. In “The Maiden” (1950), an elderly German couple’s love story consists of their delight when the husband’s first client is executed in front of his eyes—delight because completing his first case, even if it ends in his client’s beheading, qualifies him to get married. In “The Bleeding Heart,” Rose discovers that the old gent she admires from a distance in the public library is in fact the horrible sadist she’s heard screaming violently at his senile mother through her bedroom wall; soon enough she finds herself trapped in his front hall listening to his obscene proposals. Stafford’s world is populated, you might say, with imaginary kindly old gents, and actual lechers. The trick is not to distinguish between the two, but simply to accept that whoever looks like the former in your dream world turns out to be the latter in our real world.
All this nastiness may make it sound as if Stafford has a higher realm in mind by way of contrast, something like the “republic of the spirit” that Lawrence Selden offers Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. In Stafford’s remarkable stories, however, those who recoil from society’s murk nonetheless come to recognize that they too (and, yes, we readers too) have been swimming in it all along. In “The Maiden,” the American ingenue’s horror at the German lawyer’s tale stems from her realization of how much she wants and needs to believe that Europe is much more civilized than her own vulgar country. And in “The Bleeding Heart,” Rose realizes that her library daydreams of a kindly old father figure were no more than a creative misdescription of the world she actually inhabits.
Though Stafford herself spoke of her stories as Western, almost all were written in New York between 1940 and 1970, and Stafford swam in the same intellectual milieu that produced Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950), David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), William Whyte’s Organization Man (1956), and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). It is tempting to read Stafford’s own work as a protest against corrosive social conformity, and to find in her fiction the same protest against the heavy, dead air of the Connecticut suburbs that runs through the stories of John Cheever.
The comparison between Stafford and Cheever is a revealing one, but the divergences are as telling as the similarities. Both successful, and both fearful of being unmasked as impostors in the dog-eat-dog New York literary scene, Cheever and Stafford made their livings anatomizing those who woke up to discover themselves outsiders to their own lives—Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is surely one of their common ancestors. But there is a real difference in scope between their works. Cheever’s characters are winners, well-fed and well-housed, yet nonetheless enveloped by some diffuse evasive misery. Every wave that jostles the limpid swimming pools, every clinking glass at cocktail hour is a dimly audible cry for help. Every train that leaves the station seems to carry hopes away with it, or to bring emptiness back home in the evening. The Stepford Wives suburbs that Lewis Mumford scathingly indicted as “a collective effort to live a private life” were Cheever’s terrain and his mortal enemies. Blessed with a clearer eye and a sharper tongue than his epigones (John Updike, Rick Moody, and Tom Perrota) Cheever sends his characters gliding down the mainstream, which serves up empty marriages, spoiled children, embittering jobs, and unrewarding affairs like so much flotsam and jetsam of the Eisenhower administration.
Though Stafford herself
spoke of her stories as Western, almost all were written in New York
between 1940 and 1970.
Stafford’s stories differ from Cheever’s in their wider social ambit, their varied settings and panoply of cripples, misfits, geezers, and oddball Florida racists. However, there is more to Stafford’s variety than that; she notices flecks and wrinkles, variations that elude Cheever, whose accomplishment consists in his ability to universalize one sort of morbid misery, to see it everywhere. The social mantras that, in a Cheever story, are a deadly monotonous hum begin, in a Stafford story, to become audible as an oddly various collection of notes—some false, some piercing. Together, these notes make her an exceptional chronicler of some of the uneasy assumptions of postwar American intellectuals as they strove to define their relationship to the common (or “middlebrow”) culture in which they had to swim but in which they feared they might drown.
Other postwar fiction writers shared Stafford’s appealing and unsettling preoccupations: think of Patricia Highsmith’s almost sociopathic chilliness or Mary McCarthy’s animosity toward a sanctimonious social world. But Highsmith lacked Stafford’s ability to depict credible interiority, and McCarthy’s social critique depended on her condescending certitude about her own superiority to the pinheads around her, which contrasts with Stafford’s glum assumption that we are all in the soup together. Stafford casts a cold eye on the mandarin revulsion at mass consumer culture, and asks whether the mandarins are really any different from the plebs. We have met the enemy—and it turns out to be us, at a cocktail party.
One final peer-to-peer comparison. I recently read a wonderful collection of Maeve Brennan’s “Talk of the Town” pieces from 1953 to 1968, Stafford’s era. “Last night, at a quarter past nine, I saw two full-grown city children—middle-aged people—walking together on Sixth Avenue,” the first recollection begins, so I was primed to expect something Stafford-like. Except that where Stafford gives us the public look of things and then the heartbreak beneath, Brennan offers only perfectly glimpsed public moments. A woman who looks at the other patrons in the University Restaurant, for example, “as though she were looking at a wallpaper painted to look like the University Restaurant, a wallpaper painted by a careful artist who had got everything just right.” Stafford would have followed that woman home after her carefully husbanded Scotch and water is drunk; Brennan simply ends the sketch ends there. A perfectly rendered account of Brennan’s first refusing, and then accepting, and then refusing again a subway seat that a slumping, glum man has offered her pulls up painfully short with a non-moral: “Sometimes it is very hard to know the right thing to do.”
Stafford would have
followed that woman home after her carefully husbanded Scotch and water is drunk; Brennan simply ends the sketch ends there.
Brennan, acid turns of phrase aside, is ultimately gentler by far than Stafford, quicker to forgive these urban passersby whom the reader never really gets to know well enough to judge. Gentler, though, because in the end Brennan doesn’t care; these strangers are fodder for her, occasions to get to work. The most unsettling thing about Stafford is the animosity she manifests toward human sociability on the whole. Yet this animosity is precisely what makes her a great writer, since that dark account of the “skull beneath the skin” ultimately leads to an admirable impulse to follow people home, to look into crevices and under covers.
Stafford doesn’t let ladies who look at her as if she were wallpaper out of her sight—not until she figures out whether they are stupefied alcoholics, malevolent artists, or just myopic. The stomach-jolting misanthropy that so often concludes a Stafford story stems from a Pandora’s box principle, a willingness to suffer misery after misery while looking for a glimmer of hope in that dark furthest corner. It’s less that Brennan knows better than the inhabitants of her sketches than that she’s capable of not knowing better, of heading home and sitting down at the typewriter. Stafford, though, will hang around in the bushes under the living room window waiting for a clue. She is a perennially disappointed explorer of unpredictable inward reaches of other people’s minds who nonetheless goes on looking. When two of her out-of-the-way failures, her middle-aged children bored on Sunday, do manage to find something to celebrate, even if it’s only the prospect of a drunken but unmistakably well-meaning carouse, the pleasure is all the sweeter for its rarity.
Another lapidary Stafford story, “The Captain’s Gift” (1946), begins with an admiring sketch of the elderly, distinguished Mrs. Chester Ramsey. In 1945 old-fashioned Mrs. Ramsey goes her solitary way in a lower Manhattan neighborhood that has become ethnically muddled and raucous. In her “impregnable” “ivory tower,” she shuts out the fuss, proclaiming “I have never liked change and now I am too old for it.” Her perfect reverie is only broken when, from “somewhere in Germany,” her grandson in the Army sends her a “braid of golden hair”: hair that was cut, the reader suddenly realizes, from the head of a gassed Jewish child.
Finally, something has reached Mrs. Ramsey:
It is thick and it seems still so vital in the light that streams through the windows that Mrs. Ramsey feels its owner is concealed from her only by a vapor, that her head is here beside her on the love seat.
Convinced as she is of her capacity to stand apart, Mrs. Ramsey is forced to admit that the world can sometimes touch her—a messiness signaled in part by the way that Stafford awkwardly piles “her head is here” next to “beside her on the love seat.”
Elizabeth Bishop ends one of her poems with the famous lines “All the untidy activity continues / awful but cheerful.” In Stafford that logic is reversed: the untidy activity turns out to be cheerful but awful. Stafford loves to overdo it in these moments of revelation. The appearance of a relic of the Holocaust, or of sudden death by beheading or accidental gunshot, the tales of roasted edible babies—these all bespeak Stafford’s effort to show that nobody can finally remain untouched by social disaster in some form and that nothing in our human world lacks that touch of the exploitative, the macabre.
Perhaps the reason that “Children Are Bored on Sundays” remains Stafford’s most anthologized story is the way it seems to offer its protagonist Emma an unlikely and unlooked-for bit of happiness. The story begins with Emma killing time in a museum for lack of anything better to do. Finally, she and a fellow sufferer head off to a bar (“the place where the bottle was, the peace pipe on Lexington”), a narcotizing analogue to the museum they flee together. If they can drink themselves into agreement, the story promises, they can achieve a happiness that need never leave that alcoholic oasis. Good luck with that, the reader thinks, but smiles nonetheless.
Many of us claim to want out of a social realm that makes us perennially unsure how to achieve what Erving Goffman calls footing. Yet something still draws us back in. Stafford’s stories give us ways of thinking about the chaotic, unpredictable complexity of the cheerful but awful social life that is our oxygen as well as our arsenic. If her stories don’t turn life with other humans into heaven, at least they sketch out a fresh hell, one where the children are not always bored on Sundays.