“To her own heart, which was shaped exactly like a valentine, there came a winglike palpitation, a delicate exigency, and all the fragrance of all the flowery springtime love affairs that ever were seemed waiting for them in the whisky bottle. To mingle their pain their handshake had promised them, was to produce a separate entity, like a child that could shift for itself, and they scrambled hastily toward this profound and pastoral experience.”
It’s been a while since the last collection of short stories I read, so I felt like I really needed to tackle one while I was reading other proper novels. If I can make progress on two books at the same time, that’s a huge win. That’s what led me to pick up the 1970 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.
Unlike the other short story collections that have also won Pulitzer Prizes (John Cheever, Jhumpa Lahiri, Robert Olen Butler, et al), this collection is divided into four sections.
So, instead of writing a response that attempts to tackle the collection as a whole, I decided to write individual responses to each section.
I. “The Innocents Abroad”
Jean Stafford has a unique draw to me. Her writing reminds me so much of John Cheever and Saul Bellow and the pseudo-Victorian authors that won the early Pulitzer Prizes (I am thinking, primarily, of Edith Wharton)—none of whom’s writings I particularly enjoyed; Stafford, on the other hand, I find appealing.
This first section of stories follows a series of Americans abroad in Europe, faking their way through aristocratic dinner parties, stuffy drawing rooms, and philosophical conversations. While the tone and the voice is very similar to Cheever and Bellow (very heady, very dense prose that makes references which only the learned and educated of her readers would understand), there is one very key difference in her stories: Stafford isn’t being as earnest.
See, if Bellow were writing these stories, he would be sincere and more than likely precious about it. Stafford, on the other hand, portrays these Americans satirically as extremely naive, as they clumsily bumble their way through the upper crust of European society. Her language is so sophisticated, too, which makes these stories all the more rewarding.
Her writing voice may sound overly-precious and sophisticated, but she’s just having a laugh.
II. “The Bostonians, and Other Manifestations of the American Scene”
There is an overwhelming sadness to these stories. An unspeakable longing.
One story after another, Stafford shows us somber, depressed, manic, troubled characters that are in one way or another looking for happiness or escape.
Doing some research on Jean Stafford’s personal life, it should come as no surprise that she, too, had an immensely troubled history. Three loveless and in some cases abusive marriages, drug use, alcoholism, a massive stroke, a rough and tumble childhood that never left her, and crippling depression of her own… it’s no wonder that her characters are so subject to hardship.
This particular set of stories was largely written during her brief marriage to Bostonian poet, Robert Lowell, so her writing reflects the Boston aristocracy that she was rubbing elbows with and the misery she endured during that failed marriage. There isn’t much hope in this section of the collection, and that is certainly reflective of that section in her life.
III. “Cowboys and Indians, and Magic Mountains”
Again, Stafford continues down a path of sadness; in a different voice, though. A different kind of sadness. Instead of focusing on longing, sickness, fear, and heartache, the stories in this third section are centered around displacement and insecurity.
Each story finds its main character struggling to fit in, struggling to survive, struggling to find their identity, even struggling against nature.
What’s most interesting about this section, though, is how her writing shifts; it’s a very slight, but it is a shift. Moving her stories from posh, Victorian-esque Europe and New England to the mountains of wild Colorado, she also moved her writing from sophisticated and flowery to something a bit more simple… and flowery.
IV. “Manhattan Island”
Stafford concludes her collection of stories with some momentary flickers of hope, but not many. She also gets slightly dark and gritty, briefly exploring the underbelly of the titled Manhattan Island – derelicts, drunks, and hobos all make appearances, but her chief focus is still the haute world that she inhabits.
Of the 30 stories in this collection, 18 first appeared in The New Yorker, which is no surprise: Stafford writes mannered tales about the empty, trivial lives of society ingenues, mavens and doyennes in New York, Boston, and Europe.
Not much happens in most of these stories, though, and her characters merely flutter about their worlds of privilege, which are cast over with an unspoken sadness, loneliness, isolation and emptiness. Her descriptions, however – of people, rooms, objects – are lush, evocative, and very occasionally witty.
Stafford was an amazing writer; I just wish I would have cared about her characters more than I did.