We gave it an A-
Along with the distinguished poetic firm of Lowell, Berryman, Jarrell, & Schwartz, Jean Stafford belonged to a literary generation that believed in the interdependence of writing and suffering and sometimes seemed more craftsmanlike about the suffering than the writing. Stafford had the standard equipment of the writers who came uneasily of age in the late 1930s: filial resentment and guilt, breakdowns, hospitalizations, suicidal urges, alcoholism, and irony. She published three novels (Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion, The Catherine Wheel) and numerous subtle and astringent short stories, but she is better known now, 13 years after her death, for two of her three marriages: her first, to the gaunt, tormented Boston Brahmin poet Robert Lowell (1940-48), and her third, to the fat, epicurean New York Jewish journalist A.J. Liebling (1959-63). (Her brief second marriage was to Oliver Jensen, an editor at Life.) Her union with Lowell was stormy but productive; the one to Liebling was placid, but she nearly stopped writing. For Stafford, who spent most of her life feeling out of place, the grass was always greener on the other side of the fence, but the writing got done on this side, amid her parched patch of estrangement.
One reason that literary biographies have become a staple of the publishing business is that they replace the sort of literary novel that is rarely written today — one that offers the complete life and times of a character bearing no resemblance to the author. It isn’t necessary for the subject to be a major writer. Stafford wasn’t, as Ann Hulbert seems willing to concede in The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford, a tactful, sensible biography. All that’s required is some emblematic misadventures, and Stafford experienced plenty — having, for instance, her face smashed when Lowell drove into a wall before they were married; having her nose broken again by Lowell during a fight after they were married; getting swept up in a Nazi rally while on a fellowship in Germany in 1936. In telling the story, Hulbert could sometimes be a little more trenchant and witty in her judgment of books and people, but she makes up for it by freely quoting Stafford’s razor-edged letters — the ”uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer- poet,” for instance, is her first description of future husband Lowell.
Stafford’s ”central subject,” as Hulbert points out, was the ”isolation of the self” — notably in the story ”The Interior Castle,” which drew on her ordeal in the hospital after the car accident. Like other unhappy ironic writers, Stafford’s unhappiness, irony, and writing all sprang from the same source: a profound and incurable self-division that flirted with self-hatred. Ambivalence is the note most often struck in this book. Growing up in Colorado, she resented and respected her father, a failed writer of Western stories who refused to quit writing and declined into cantankerous half-noble and half-savage isolation. She hated her mother’s decorous domesticity but kept trying to reinvent it in her own life. In the West she longed for the civilized East; among the New York intellectuals she mordantly inspected in her story ”Children Are Bored on Sunday,” she felt herself a ”simon-pure rube.” The New Yorker, for which she wrote most of her stories, and The New Yorker‘s chief low-life correspondent, Liebling, seem to have given her some needed comic equilibrium. But after Liebling’s premature death she stopped writing fiction altogether and sank into drink, illness, and her own embattled version of the isolated self. The theme was hers in life as in art. A-