Sunday, March 7, 2021

Children Are Bored on Sunday

Jean Stafford (1915–1979)
From Jean Stafford: Complete Stories & Other Writings

“Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius,” c. 1500, tempura on wood by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510). The painting is one in a four-panel sequence on the life of Zenobius, bishop of Florence in the fifth century. The panel, which attracts both Emma and Alfred to the same room at the opening of Stafford’s story, has been in New York’s Metropolitan Museum since 1911. (The other panels are in London and Dresden.) At left, Zenobius meets a funeral procession and restores a dead youth to life. At center, he raises a man who was killed while bringing relics (in the casket) from Saint Ambrose. At right, Saint Eugenius receives water and salt blessed by Zenobius and then hastens across the square to revive a dead relative. Image and caption courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jean Stafford’s position as a writer of note was solidified during the years immediately following World War II. After the surprise success in 1944 of her best-selling debut novel, Boston Adventure, she wrote The Mountain Lion, the book widely considered, then and now, as her masterpiece. Her short stories began to appear in national magazines, leading to a lucrative “first reader” contract with The New Yorker, which gave the editors the option to accept or refuse any story, sketch, or essay before she sent it anywhere else. “Children Are Bored on Sunday,” the first of twenty-four short stories the magazine would publish, appeared in February 1948.

The promise of these events was offset by a series of personal calamities. Stafford’s tumultuous, abusive marriage to the poet Robert Lowell was disintegrating. Before their inevitable divorce, her drinking was spinning out of control—as it was for so many other writers in her and Lowell’s social circles. In November 1946, at the advice of a psychiatrist, she checked herself into the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic at New York Hospital, which she referred to as a “high-class booby hatch.” Assured by doctors she would be released in a matter of weeks, she ended up in recovery for a full year. During her confinement in the hospital, she found out her mother was dying of cancer; granted emergency leave, she arrived in Oregon after her mother’s death. After her return to the clinic in New York, she was strapped for cash and was forced to sell her beloved home in Damariscotta Mills, Maine, which she had purchased with the windfall from Boston Adventure. “I never owned anything so beautiful,” she wrote afterward, “nothing was ever so completely mine as that house and those trees and those marvelous scenes from all the windows.” As biographer David Roberts remarks, “It is one of the eternal mysteries of art that superlative work can be accomplished in the most vexing of circumstances.” Compared to the wasteland of her marriage and friendships, however, her literary success meant little to her. “There is nothing worse than the knowledge that life holds nothing for me but being a writer,” she wrote bitterly to her future ex-husband.

Stafford and Lowell—“Cal” to his friends—had been at the center of a group of writers loosely associated with Partisan Review, and the pair straddled, often uneasily, between the “New York intellectuals” and the group of Southern writers known as the Agrarians. In addition to Lowell, members of the overlapping literary circles included Mary McCarthy, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Edmund Wilson, Clement Greenberg, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Hannah Arendt, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren. As she immersed herself among these writers, Stafford often felt like an outsider. “For all the exoticism of her studies and interests,” Louis Auchincloss wrote two decades later, “she remains firmly rooted in the western soil where she grew up.”

While Auchincloss regarded Stafford’s western background as a strength, many of her New York colleagues did not—and their assumptions about her lack of urban sophistication came to a head in November 1943 at one of the infamous all-night Partisan Review soirees. At the time, Lowell was in prison for draft evasion and Stafford determined to go alone to a gathering hosted at the apartment of the journal’s founding coeditor, Philip Rahv. Gossip about Lowell and about their marriage preceded her arrival, and several of the partygoers, well fueled by several rounds of drinks, began badgering her about her husband’s pacifist beliefs, which she didn’t entirely share and was hardly in the mood to defend. She was “told by ¾ of the men there that Cal was a fool or was hysterical,” and the philosopher Sidney Hook seemed to suggest that his refusal to enlist somehow called into question the depth of the couple’s adherence to Catholicism, to which Lowell and Stafford had converted before their marriage. “It is an un-nice thing to be told by a logical positivist that your husband is a heretic,” she wrote to Eleanor and Peter Taylor. The inebriated partygoers moved on to another apartment, where the attacks continued; Hook wandered from topic to topic, mocking her understanding of the works of Augustine she was currently reading and then baiting her with remarks on the Spanish Civil War (“I don’t know enough about it,” she demurred), at which point his wife exclaimed, “Sidney, there is no point in talking to this girl.” This dismissal proved to be the last straw, and Stafford broke down in tears.

“They are such cut-throats, such ambitious and bourgeois frights and yet I, in my stupid lack of integrity, continue to see them.” It is this contradiction—the longing to belong to a group containing many writers whose work she admired, coupled with a conviction that she will always be the alien “rube” they look down upon—that forms the basis of “Children Are Bored on Sunday,” about a recent transplant to New York who seeks solitude in a museum but notices, and then hides from, one of the “intellectuals” from the group she has been avoiding.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction was mixed when the story was first published. It was popular with readers, and she received accolades from several Southern writers, particularly Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor. But many in her New York circle scorned the story for two reasons; first, because the contributors to Partisan Review and similar publications still regarded The New Yorker as suspiciously middlebrow and, worse, because the story clearly mocked them. The response from the poet John Berryman was especially vitriolic. He “spent one entire afternoon berating me for printing it,” she wrote in a letter to the Taylors. “The cardinal sin was printing it in The New Yorker; it was, he said, the weakest story he had ever seen of mine; he said that I had no ‘right’ to print so ‘lazy’ a piece of work and that I should be perpetually ashamed of myself”—all of which served, of course, to confirm the intellectual pretensions her story skewered.

Another writer who disparaged her decision was Delmore Schwartz, a drinking buddy, a confidant, and possibly her lover—or so Lowell and several of his friends believed. (Lowell, for his part, hastened the end of his marriage to Stafford by openly having an affair with Gertrude Buckman, Schwartz’s ex-wife.) Schwartz told Stafford the story was “proof positive” she was selling out and that, as she told the Taylors, “presently I would turn into a second Fannie Hurst.” Two years after the story appeared, Schwartz published a tirade in Partisan Review arguing that The New Yorker had a “pernicious” influence on writers such as Stafford (whom he called out by name in a list that included Vladimir Nabokov and Carson McCullers), forcing them to “adopt attitudes and mannerisms which are absent from their serious writing elsewhere” and ruining writers who otherwise “manage to distinguish very well between fiction and personal history.” As Ann Hulbert notes in The Interior Castle, Schwartz probably had “Children Are Bored on Sunday” very much in mind, since he was almost certainly the inspiration for Alfred Eisenburg, the “intellectual” Emma spends much of the story avoiding.
Notes: Several of the above anecdotes and quotations, particularly those regarding the reaction to “Children Are Bored on Sunday,” are from Ann Hulbert’s The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford.

Among the pieces of art Emma examines as she walks through the Metropolitan Museum are a painting of Madonna and Child, c. 1480, by Carlo Crivelli, the portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga, 1787–88, by Francisco Goya; Rembrandt’s Man in a Turban, 1632; two of the museum’s portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger; the diptych of The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment, c. 1440–41, by Jan van Eyck; and the terra-cotta sculpture of the head of banker and philanthropist Jules Semon Bache, 1936, by Jo Davidson.

The title of the story (and of the collection in which it was included) is Stafford’s appropriation of “Les enfants s’ennuient le Dimanche,” the title of a song written and recorded by Charles Trenet in 1939. Henry A. Wallace, vice president under Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, was a left-wing third-party candidate for president in 1948. Henry Luce was the publisher of several magazines, including Time, Life, and Fortune. Fulton J. Sheen was the host of The Catholic Hour radio program from 1930 to 1952. Bounty jumper is a Civil War term for a person who volunteers for military service, collects an enlistment bounty, and then deserts.

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Through the wide doorway between two of the painting galleries, Emma saw Alfred Eisenburg standing before “The Three Miracles of Zenobius,” his lean, equine face ashen and sorrowing, his gaunt frame looking undernourished, and dressed in a way that showed he was poorer this year than he had been last. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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