Jean Stafford, Diamond in A Rough Life

Monday, February 12, 2007

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

What a pity it is that a mere 28 years after Jean Stafford's death, only one of this superbly gifted and accomplished writer's books remains in print. That is her "Collected Stories," which won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1970 and now enjoys only an occasional sale. But her three fine novels -- "Boston Adventure" (1944), "The Mountain Lion" (1947) and "The Catherine Wheel" (1952) -- to all intents and purposes have vanished from the planet, available only in libraries and used-book stores, and doubtless in ever fewer of these as the supply of used books is depleted and as libraries mercilessly weed out their collections.

Yet from the publication of "Boston Adventure" right to her death in 1979, Stafford was a figure of genuine consequence in American literature. "Boston Adventure," a tart novel of manners, was a national bestseller, and her other two novels were enthusiastically received, though they didn't sell as well as her first. In the 1950s, Stafford published a number of stories in the New Yorker, and later she wrote nonfiction in various forms, including some splendid reviews for this newspaper's Book World; her vivisection of James Michener's "Chesapeake" was a classic of its kind, one I read a number of times (this was long before I joined the staff of The Post) and laughed out loud during each one of them.

It is "The Mountain Lion" that draws me back to Stafford, but first a bit more about her. She had a messy life. Born in California in 1915, she moved with her parents and siblings five years later to Colorado. She does not seem to have liked her parents -- mothers and fathers do not fare well in her fiction -- and she escaped to the University of Colorado as soon as she could. There she met a young poet, Robert Lowell, whom she married in 1940. The marriage brought her East and into rarefied literary circles -- over the years perhaps her closest friend was Peter Taylor -- but she was already a committed alcoholic. The tumultuous marriage ended in 1948. She had a brief second marriage, then in 1959 married A.J. Liebling, who died 4 1/2 years later.

That third marriage was happy, but Stafford's self-destructive behavior continued unabated. She wrote little fiction in the 1960s and 1970s, but she did write essays as well as reviews, and a strange work of nonfiction, "A Mother in History" (1966), an extended interview with Marguerite Oswald, the mother of John F. Kennedy's assassin. She remained active in the literary life -- she seems to have had a genuine gift for friendship -- with one especially happy consequence: In 1962, when she was a judge for the National Book Award in Fiction, Liebling urged her to read a first novel that had appeared with barely a ripple. She did, and subsequently the award went to Walker Percy for "The Moviegoer" (other finalists included Bernard Malamud's "A New Life" and Joseph Heller's "Catch-22"), starting him on what became a distinguished career.

Stafford had many friends and was capable of kindness, but she seems to have been a pretty tough cookie as well. Her book reviews could be devastating, and so for that matter could her fiction. "The Mountain Lion," for example, is a sympathetic coming-of-age story about a brother and sister, but its portraits of some of the most important adults in their lives are withering. As it opens, 10-year-old Ralph and 8-year-old Molly have recently recovered from scarlet fever, which "left them with some sort of glandular disorder which was not malignant, but which kept them half poisoned most of the time and caused them, frequently, to have such bad nosebleeds that they had to be sent home from school." Their widowed mother, Rose Fawcett, has little patience with them, is frequently short with them, and dotes, instead, on their two China-doll older sisters.

But if their mother keeps her distance, she also forbids them to do anything even remotely dangerous. As a girl she had been an avid horse-rider, but her father died of blood poisoning, "the result of a scratch from a nail in the railing of a paddock when he was watching her take her first jump," leaving her "feeling that she had been the cause of his far too early death" and certain that danger and death lurk around every corner. The children are "not allowed to climb trees because splinters had been known to get into the bloodstream and travel to the heart" and they "did not have bicycles and they were not allowed to build things." Instead they have "sets of water colors and boxes of plasticine." They play Lotto and Authors and Parchesi and I Spy, and they recite poetry.

All of which they detest. They are odd kids, "thin, pallid, and runny-nosed," with "bad, uneven teeth and nearsighted eyes so that they had to wear braces and spectacles," and "they were always getting cut and bruised and bumped," yet they also want to be out in the real world, confronting danger rather than running from it. Their hero is Grandpa Kenyon, their mother's stepfather, a wealthy rancher with spreads in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado. Their mother thoroughly loathes him -- she sneers at "his table manners, his rough and ungrammatical speech, his clothes, and his profession" -- but the kids adore this "rich old man who was different from anyone else in the world," who "had been everywhere in the world and hunted every animal indigenous to the North American continent," and "had eaten alligator and said it tasted like chicken."

So the children look forward to his annual September visits to their house in Los Angeles as much as their mother dreads them, but this year he disappoints them: He takes sick and dies. "Associated as he had been with the renewal of crowded days after the tranquil ennui of the summer, he had seemed to the children, after he had gone, half legendary like a figure known only in his identification with a particular place or a particular day of the year. He was a sort of god of September, surrounded by the gold, autumnal light."

It turns out that he has one last gift for them. His son Claude, their mother's much younger half-brother, comes to Los Angeles for the funeral. He is "a younger and slighter version of Grandpa," taciturn and outwardly unemotional, but he and the children connect. He runs Grandpa's cattle ranch in Colorado and invites them to spend the next summer there. For months they nag their mother, who finally consents, though with the stipulation that there will be no horse-riding or other perilous amusements. Mrs. Brotherman, Claude's widowed housekeeper, consents to these, but:

"The moment they met the sad, mild-mannered housekeeper, they had known that she could easily be shaken from her resolution and this, in itself, was enough to cloud their passion. Yet, though they no longer felt daring but on the contrary were afraid, there was no waning of their determination. They knew, both of them, that they would try to escape, would invent headaches, would have nosebleeds, would hide behind books, but they would not, in the end, successfully evade Uncle Claude; they were bound to learn."

Indeed they do. At first they are afraid, but Claude is patient with them and refuses to let them shirk from challenges. They learn to ride, to work with animals, and to love the "frightening" landscape, with mountains that "wore peril conspicuously on their horny faces." Stafford, who loved Colorado and animals, does not romanticize their Colorado summers -- they end up having several of them, and then an entire year while their pretentious mother takes their spoiled sisters on a world tour -- but contrasts them pointedly with the constrained, hermetic life they lead in Los Angeles. In Colorado they become healthier and they grow, both physically and psychologically.

This is thanks to Claude and, to a lesser extent, to Mrs. Brotherman's teenage daughter who at first dismisses them as little snobs but eventually comes to care about them, to take them riding into the mountains and to show them how to do chores on the ranch. Ralph is the more enthusiastic participant in these adventures. Molly tags along, but it's the life of the mind that appeals to her. She spends her time reading and writing, and her wit is adult. Once one of her sisters accuses her of "becoming an intellectual snob." Molly's immediate reply: "Becoming? I have been one ever since I was nothing going on one."

Autobiographical elements are always strong in Stafford's fiction, and there can be no question that Molly is herself, in essence if not all details. Certainly Stafford writes from the heart when she describes the feelings that Molly and Ralph have for their self-indulgent mother, for the pompous minister Mr. Follansbee (with his "cruel, smug face, his pince-nez on a black ribbon, the effeminate white piping of his vest") and for their mother's adored father, Grandfather Bonney, in whose portrait Ralph "read into his face vacuity and self-pride; he saw the plump hands as indolent and useless and believed that in a handclasp they would be flaccid."

I can't remember when I first read "The Mountain Lion," though it was at least four decades ago, and I'll leave it to you to discover the story behind the title. It's a terrific book, witty and smart as Stafford always was, and kind in its treatment of these two strangely irresistible children. If you can't find a copy, read "The Collected Stories." She was a master of that form, and everything in that quite large book is a gem.

"The Mountain Lion" is out of print, but used copies are available online. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

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