Saturday, August 16, 2014

`I Wish I Could Write Prose Like That'

Once I interviewed a biographer of Jean Stafford, the novelist, story writer and author of that peculiar volume A Mother in History: Three Incredible Days with Lee Harvey Oswald's Mother (1966). Together, we reviewed Stafford’s work and her knack for accumulating misery. While drunk, Stafford’s first husband, the poet Robert Lowell, crashed his father’s Packard into a brick wall, breaking Stafford’s nose and fracturing her skull. Later, he punched her in the face and broke her nose a second time. Her second marriage likewise ended in divorce. In 1959, she married A.J. Liebling, the great New Yorker reporter. Though he died four years later, their marriage, by the standards of high-strung, alcoholic writers, was a good one. They adored each other and Stafford never remarried, but now back to the biographer. 

Liebling has for thirty-five years been one of my role-models as a writer. I had also read most of Stafford’s novels, stories and non-fiction, and admired them, but the biographer, already irked that another writer was about to publish his life of Stafford, got the idea that I was exaggerating the importance of Liebling at the expense of Stafford. More than irked, she accused me of “sexism” and was close to throwing me out of her house. I left, the story ran in the newspaper a few days later, and like clockwork she called my editor, complaining of my attitude and prose style. I was already busy on another story. 

The poet Howard Moss was poetry editor of The New Yorker from 1948 until his death in 1987, and a friend to both Liebling and, even more closely, Stafford, who died in 1979. In Minor Monuments: Selected Essays (1986), he collects anecdotes of Stafford under the title “Jean: Some Fragments.” In one, she has a dream in which the home of her Scottish forebears, Arran Island, was historically connected to the Greek island of Samothrace. Stafford and Libeling visited Samothrace and she obsessively researched its history, but was unable to complete the writing project she devoted to it. She let Moss read forty pages of the work, and he says it contained “some of the most extraordinary prose I had ever read.” She never published it. Moss writes: 

“Although Joe Liebling did everything to encourage Jean to write, she was intimidated by his swiftness, versatility, and excellence as a reporter….One day, Joe and I were riding up together in the elevator at The New Yorker. I told Joe I’d read the Samothrace piece and how good I thought it was. `I know,’ he said, `I wish you’d tell her.’ `I have,’ I said. And added, `I wish I could write prose like that….’ Joe, about to get off at his floor, turned to me and said, `I wish I could….’

1 comment:

George said...

Wilfrid Sheed's collection, Essays in Disguise, has an interesting short piece on Stafford, whom he knew well.