Sunday, June 27, 2021

Old Flaming Youth

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

“There’s a rhythm in Victor dance music that brings joy with every step.” Illustration for a magazine advertisement from the 1920s by Victor Talking Machine Company for Victrola phonographs “in great variety of styles from $25 to $1500.” Image: eBay.
When Jean Stafford’s third (and final) novel, The Catherine Wheel, appeared at the beginning of 1952, a staff writer for The New York Times Book Review asked if family members in Colorado had been worried by her childhood ambition to become a writer. “My father was a writer of Western stories under the name of Jack Wonder,” she responded, “and he wrote stories with titles like ‘The Transmogrified Calf’—so that I certainly didn’t shock him.” If anything, in her public statements she usually passed over or downplayed the role, both positive and negative, that her father played in her education.

John Stafford was the son of Richard Stafford, an Irish immigrant who had moved to Missouri from Kansas and built up a fortune as the proprietor of a thousand-acre cattle ranch. When his father died in 1899, John Stafford inherited a significant portion of the estate; Jean, looking through her father’s papers years later, realized the value of the bequest was close to three hundred thousand dollars. After brief posts as a reporter in New York and Chicago, John Stafford lived with his mother in Missouri until his marriage to Ethel McKillop in 1907. He published his first and only book, a Western adventure titled When Cattle Kingdom Fell, in 1910 and later wrote Western stories for pulp magazines under such names as Jack Wonder, Ben Delight, and O. B. Miles. In 1912, the Staffords moved to Covina, California, where they purchased a ten-acre walnut ranch and built an eight-room house; their fourth child, Jean, was born in 1915. Living off his inheritance, Stafford took on the role of an eccentric gentleman farmer, devoting most of his energies to his dream of becoming a successful author.

Five years later, the family’s life in Covina (later described by the children as “idyllic” and noted for its “pastoral serenity”) was disrupted when John Stafford decided to sell the ranch and move the family to San Diego to be closer to the stock exchange—where he proceeded to lose the entirety of his inheritance gambling on the market over the following year. In 1922, with an infusion of cash from John’s mother, John and Ethel Stafford decided to try their luck in Colorado, and they apparently oversold the idea to their children. In a biography of Jean Stafford, Charlotte Margolis Goodman writes that the children “had been duped about the West by their mother, whose notions of that terrain were principally derived by postcards sent by friends, and by their father, who had filled their heads with pictures of a mythical West that no longer existed.”

The reality of the twentieth-century “West” proved far more mundane. “Colorado was just as uninteresting as California and more spread out,” a Jean wrote as a teenager in an essay that appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera after winning a statewide contest. “It was monstrous that we had been tricked by Tom Mix and Zane Grey and all the others whose bloated fancies have produced such glamorous exaggerations about dashing cowpunchers on big roans defying death on landslides in order to do justice to the black-mustached villains.”

The Staffords first lived in Colorado Springs and later moved to Boulder so their oldest daughter, Mary Lee, could live at home while attending the University of Colorado. Jean’s mother took on odd jobs, eventually converting their home into a boarding house for female college students, while Jean’s father spent his days and nights in the basement writing increasingly unconventional stories and working on an equally unpublishable diatribe lamenting the American system of finance and debt. He also wrote pieces about his idea for a mysterious weapon and, after Hiroshima, ecstatically claimed that the atomic bomb was his “long-cherished dream of a Hell Ray come to life.”

On the one hand, John Stafford’s erudition, oddly formed as it was, and his enthusiasms for classics of literature, for his treasured Encyclop√¶dia Britannica (one of the few possessions he had brought from California), and for dictionaries were all shared by his young daughter, who began writing poems and stories at an early age. She found a ready audience—and an unsparing critic—in her father. On the other, as she grew older, she began to realize he was as much a liability as an asset. Unshaven, shabbily dressed, reclusive, unemployed and unemployable, John Stafford “sat in the filthy basement furnace room on an old leather seat salvaged from an abandoned car,” writes Goodman. “There he typed his manuscripts on an archaic typewriter, and the sounds of his muttering and cursing would go up the hot-air registers, much to the embarrassment of his wife and children.” None of Jean’s childhood friends could recall ever seeing the inside of her home.

In her early twenties, as she began in earnest on a career as writer, Stafford wrote to a friend, “Pa writes from five in the morning until eight at night not stopping for lunch. He asked me the other day how many words I wrote per day. I said about fifteen hundred. He gasped. He said he thought he wrote at least 5,000 which is his minimum.” The piles of unpublished, unread manuscripts accumulated more quickly than the inevitable rejection letters. “Mother said she did not understand how I could write, having witnessed Dad’s thirty-year miscarriage,” she told another friend. In yet another letter, she admitted, “Look, what consoles me is this; I am unpublished, and I hope to Christ that when I am published, he will be dead.” In letters sent in the late 1940s to her ex-husband, the poet Robert Lowell, Stafford pointed out that usually in her stories “the father is either dead or cruelly driven away,” and she recalled “my early poverty which had been needless; I remembered all the humiliation, the half-hunger, the shabby, embarrassing clothes, the continual oppression, my mother’s tears and my father’s dreadful laugh.” When she visited her father for the last time in 1951, she was horrified anew and wrote to her agent, “seeing him again, I am amazed that all of us did not commit suicide in our cradles.” He died fifteen years later, at the age of 91.

“My theory about children is my theory about writing,” she told a Boston Morning Herald reporter a little more than a year after “Old Flaming Youth,” a story about four adolescent girls, appeared in the December 1950 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. “The most important thing in writing is irony, and we find irony most clearly in children. The very innocence of a child is irony.” More than a dozen of the 46 stories published by Stafford are about children and are set either in the fictional town of Adams, a thinly disguised version of Boulder, or in other rural Western locales. While she seemed to have had little problem imagining the world through the eyes of children, “Stafford struggled to find a satisfactory portrait for a character based on her father,” writes Ann Hulbert, another of Stafford’s biographers. “Although her father was the original inspiration for her style, he was only rarely its successful subject.” His presence in her fiction is usually indirect, and “Old Flaming Youth,” Goodman points out, “abounds in father figures”: absent (the fathers in both families are dead), barely present (a doddering grandfather who mutters to himself on the porch), and intrusive (a stepfather who “every single night would fly off the handle about something”).

“Reflecting Stafford’s ambivalent feelings about her own father, this grim story, with its mixture of comedy and despair, is reminiscent not only of Mark Twain, but of the stories of Flannery O’Connor and James Purdy,” notes Goodman, who thinks “it deserves a better fate than it was granted when Stafford chose to omit it from her Collected Stories [1969].” Virtually forgotten since its publication seventy years ago, “Old Flaming Youth” is restored to print in a new Library of America volume, Jean Stafford: Collected Stories & Other Writings, and we present it here as our Story of the Week selection.
Notes: The sound recordings mentioned in the story are: “St. James Infirmary Blues,” made famous in 1928 by Louis Armstrong; “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” by James Campbell and Reginald Connelly and recorded by several artists in the late 1920s, and “Sleepy Time Gal,” released by Ben Bernie and His Orchestra in 1925, which spent 13 weeks of the following year atop the Billboard chart.

Love Nest was a brand of candy bar and Hippolyte, of marshmallow creme. Girls’ Friendly is an Episcopal social organization for girls and young women, founded in England in 1875 and in the United States in 1877. Faith Baldwin was a prolific and popular American writer of romance fiction whose novels often had working women as their protagonists.

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We knew it must have been the Ferguson twins who had stolen Janie’s gold bracelet because no one else had been in the house that day except the iceman and he had only come onto the back porch. . . . 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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