Skip to main content

“Heidelberry Braids” and Yankee Politesse: Jean Stafford and Robert Lowell Reconsidered

ISSUE:  Spring 1986

During the past several years, biographers have descended relentlessly upon the lives of major literary figures from the post-World War II generation. The lives of these writers, as well as of their mentors and predecessors, including Eliot, Pound, Berryman, Schwartz, Porter, Auden, Blackmur, Tate, and most recently Robert Lowell, have fallen under biographers’ scrutiny. Since no contemporary biography can realistically be expected to give the last word on any subject’s life, it must be anticipated that any biographer will be plagued by responses, honest or contrived, toward his mode of selectivity in shaping the biography in the first place. Thus Ian Hamilton’s “definitive biography” of Robert Lowell by its very nature opens itself to criticism about what might have been omitted or misrepresented with regard to his treatment of Jean Stafford, Lowell’s first wife. Students of Jean Stafford’s work invariably find her role in Lowell’s life repeatedly minimized in Hamilton’s work. Granted, some Lowell scholars have been known to dismiss Stafford’s significance in a page or two—in some studies she is not even mentioned. For example, in Vereen M. Bell’s Nihilist as Hero, the critic’s refusal to name the subject of such a significant poem as “The Old Flame” is unnerving to Stafford researchers. (Criticism of Lowell’s work must, of course, eventually name names.) But Hamilton’s biography, it was thought, would examine Stafford’s influence on Lowell’s life in a more than cursory manner. That, however, was not the case. Hamilton attempted to reveal precisely what was wrong with the Lowell-Stafford relationship in all too few words to suit Stafford readers. His “definitive biography,” while admirable in its treatment of Lowell’s later years, creates a most biased and unsatisfactory image of Jean Stafford during the early years of her relationship with Lowell.

One of the prime objectives of Stafford researchers is to reestablish her reputation as a significant literary voice of the age and, in the process, to detach her own literary achievements from the shadow of current overwhelming interest in Lowell’s work. A reassessment of the much-maligned Lowell-Stafford relationship can be made from materials which became available following Stafford’s death in 1979. (At Stafford’s request, after her death all her personal papers, correspondence, and manuscripts were sent to the University of Colorado library in Boulder. The Jean Stafford Collection now forms part of the Special Collections Department in Norlin Library at the University of Colorado, Boulder Campus. Unless otherwise indicated, all unpublished materials included in this article are contained in this collection.) Although a few biographies of other writers who shared close relationships with either Stafford, Lowell, or both have presented a sympathetic view toward Stafford, particularly in her lifelong battle against alcoholism, the temptation to caricature the couple as a union of the worst possible elements of the creative mind has been difficult for some biographers to resist. Critics have too often and too readily dismissed the Stafford-Lowell union as “that marriage Cal went through before he married Elizabeth Hardwick,” ignoring altogether the immense influence each writer had on the other’s work. Exceptions to this popular tendency—works that stand as remarkable biographies in their own right—include Eileen Simpson’s portrait of John Berryman, James Atlas’ volume on Delmore Schwartz, and also the biography of Stafford’s third husband, A.J. Liebling, by Raymond Sokolov. Stafford’s own sharp tongue may be partly responsible for Hamilton’s image of her as the possessive, shrewish, critical wife Lowell abandoned for another woman in 1947. But although the anguish of the breakup of the Stafford-Lowell marriage is facilely available in Stafford’s final New Yorker story, “An Influx of Poets” (upon which Hamilton depends almost exclusively in describing the separation), this fiction gives readers only the most superficial perspective from which to view the relationship between novelist and poet. Hamilton’s presentation of this story as straightforward autobiography is disconcerting; indeed, in his text he frequently quotes from the fiction without identifying it as such other than in footnotes. Stafford herself frequently chastised her New Yorker editors for suggesting to her admiring readers that her stories were based on her childhood experiences in Colorado. On at least two occasions, the editorial staff was forced to rescind responses acknowledging fan letters to Stafford because they had indicated that her stories were drawn from real life. In 1952, while Jean was attending a writers’ seminar in Boulder, she wrote to her second husband, Oliver Jensen: “Boulder is proud to have rediscovered the violet rock [a reference to her recently-published story of the same name in the New Yorker]—it is universally claimed in the town that it stands at the entrance to Boulder Canyon and this is an interesting fact to me since the violet rock, so far as I know, existed only in the mind of my sister Marjorie for a very brief time when we lived in Colorado Springs.” In short, it seems dangerous, if not basely unfair, to plumb the undercurrent of any real relationship from a single fictional source.

What is needed to elucidate Jean Stafford’s relationship with Robert Lowell, then, is an attempt to explain the sincerity of emotion and the genuine respect which both writers shared until the very time of Lowell’s death—despite their traumatic automobile accident, Jean’s conspicuous drinking, the undeniable emotional and physical domestic violence, and the mental breakdowns. The acute loneliness which characterizes the figures in nearly all of Stafford’s published fiction was, after all, an expression of her own sense of utter desolation of soul which Lowell had only briefly interrupted. In the year of their final separation, Jean penned an agonizing evaluation of her psychological isolation which became an obsessive theme in her work. “I think the stumbling block in both the novels I am writing—writing the one to escape the other—is my dislike of both my heroines who are, as they have always been, myself. I can write only of loneliness—when I don’t, I offensively attack— only of a half-mad separateness.” (Stafford’s journals and notebooks are written in an irregular, sporadic manner. Often parts of entries have been torn out, words obliterated with ink blots, and complete pages removed.) Following the divorce, Stafford’s notebook entries become more frequent and reveal a concern for Lowell’s welfare that endured throughout her life. Lowell’s gratitude for Stafford’s influence in his own life appears in a number of his poems—”The Old Flame,” “Jean Stafford: A Letter,” “Our Afterlife II,” “Departure,” “Man and Wife,” to name a few—as well as in his letter to her written from Kent, England, on Sept.4, 1976, a short time before his death. Beginning “Dearest Jean,” he expressed his ultimate debt to the wife of his youth, summing up their tempestuous years: “How can I thank you? Time, but we must call it age, they are so inextricably married, is really full of novelty, and even wisdom, never quite enough to say we have repaired our losses or smoothed our distortions. Do you see I am trying to thank you for the past?” Lowell’s attempts at poetic reconciliation, the more obvious because of their published visibility, are matched by Stafford’s own sense of reconciliation and forgiveness. Ironically, she sensed much earlier than Lowell did—even before their marriage—that their relationship, intense and tumultuous, could well prove destructive to them both.


Jean Stafford and Robert Lowell came together at the most volatile time of their early adulthood, and spectators of their relationship would have had little difficulty explaining the initial attraction which led to their marriage in 1940. Jean and “Cal” met for the first time in Boulder, Colorado, at the annual Rocky Mountain Writers’ Conference in the summer of 1937. Both were on the rebound from disappointing academic careers. Lowell, slightly younger than Stafford, had attended both Harvard and Kenyon College in Ohio, an institution whose elitist population and isolated intellectual climate had frustrated his expectations of an ideal university atmosphere. Stafford’s own college years (1933—36) had brought disillusionment and embarrassment to the “town girl” whose intellectualism was her only defense against what she viewed as the superficial values of most other students at the University of Colorado.(She relates her painful social experiences in a largely autobiographical unpublished novel, In The Snowfall. Literally dozens of drafts of chapters dealing with her first weeks at the university remain, revealing her painful insecurity and loneliness during the years in Boulder. Stafford never forgot the experiences of her youth, and even in the final decade of her life she returned to this manuscript, endlessly revising and rewriting the material which she had attempted to complete several times over the years.)

The early thirties were a strange time on American college campuses. The University of Colorado at Boulder was perhaps one of the best examples of the type of college where well-to-do students found a sheltered environment from the tension in the rest of the world. It was the era of corduroy pants and lettermen’s jackets, of flapping overcoats (“A gale could be blowing fiercely, but nothing could force us to fasten those buttons,” confesses a colleague of Jean’s), and girls whose tubelike figures revealed little feminine shape. Friends recall early impressions of Jean posing dramatically as she lounged in the student union with a companion, languorously puffing one cigarette after another, sporting the popular horn-rimmed spectacles—only hers had plain glass lenses. “It was an age of coy artifice, when girls still suffered remnants of the Victorian vapours and relied on outrageously tricky means to gain attention,” one male colleague remembers. Students then seemed unconcerned about the state of the world, and when foreign students would arrive on campus they were stunned by the Americans’ indolent lack of awareness of events beyond the foothills enclosing Boulder’s sheltered valley. Of course small pockets of intellectuals clustered in certain departments of the university—pre-med or engineering students seemed far more concerned with the process of education than did the arts-and-sciences dilettantes—but in general students enjoyed their freedom from worry in a detached, evasive way. Stafford, disgusted with the lack of intellectual stimulation from her peers, instead sought distinction in academic pursuits. Lacking the social status that many girls used to secure their position in the campus community, Jean relied on her exceptional intelligence to stake out her own territory and to combat her insecurity. Jean saw herself as a girl who was “not made in the pattern of ideal womanly beauty,” and who must then attract others by reciting “certain anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, perhaps . . .a sonnet or two from Shakespeare or a psalm or tell of the habits of termites which she had been reading about the night before in the Britannica” (In the Snowfall).

From the outset, Stafford distinguished herself as a scholar, earning a handsome scholarship that provided for tuition expenses. She earned additional income posing as a live model for life-drawing classes in the art department at CU. As one of her high school comrades recalls, “she had an interesting face, with high cheekbones and a somewhat snubby nose. I think her value as a model in art classes was her ability to concentrate and her unusual face, not her “beauty.”” (Stafford’s story “The Philosophy Lesson” vividly illustrates this characteristic.) Like Lowell, Jean had no family bonds to cushion the impact of the difficult college years. Her father John, a religious fanatic and an erstwhile writer of Western novels, remained such a source of embarrassment to Jean that she would contrive every possible excuse to prevent any of her friends from meeting him face to face. Although Jean lived only a few short blocks from the center of campus, a strange elusiveness overcame her each time anyone volunteered to walk her home from class or from the library to her mother’s boardinghouse. One college friend, Anatole Ehrenberg, writes: “We’d near her place when suddenly she’d find some pretext for running off—there must’ve been some deformity in the family she didn’t want anyone to see. I never remember her taking anyone at all home” (Ehrenberg, correspondence with the author). A friend from high school, John Ramaley, still corresponded with Jean in the seventies; in 1972 she wrote: “What a wondrous place we grew up in! I can remember that you and I, walking home from Uni Hill School together, would pause on the corner of your street. . .and talk profoundly with the solemnity of childhood, and while we talked, we would divide lilac leaves, trying to sever them precisely down the mid-rib.” Ramaley responded to her nostalgia: “Your memory is very accurate about our pausing to talk after school at the corner of Pleasant and Eleventh Streets. Professor Hunter had a hedge of Persian lilacs from which we plucked many leaves. That corner must have seemed neutral territory to both of us. I was always reluctant to invite friends to my house, and in looking back I feel you must have had similar feelings about inviting friends to your house.” Still another acquaintance recalls that not once in three years of knowing Jean did he ever see her home. Indeed, the Stafford household was no haven for Jean; she spent a minimum of time with her family. By the middle of her third year at CU, Jean had formed the habit of leaving home at daybreak to breakfast at the home of two faculty members who had become close friends. To complicate her alienation from the family, Jean despised having to live and work in her mother’s boarding-house, where she would often have to serve breakfast to a coed who might very well end up sitting next to her in Professor McKeehan’s Victorian Lit class later in the morning.

A close college friend of Jean’s, who figures prominently as “Luke Corelli” in In the Snowfall, recalls her college days. “Her single most significant characteristic was her complete fragility. You had to be very careful not to upset her—not in a frivolous way, but in a serious way that would ultimately harm her very deeply.” Edward J. “Joe” Chay remembers standing on the sidewalk in front of the Beta house on campus one late fall afternoon in 1934. A group of friends were heading home from “The Sink,” a popular coffee shop on campus. “Go on, Joe, give her a kiss. That’s all she really wants, you know. She’s been in love with you for a year!” Lucy Cooke good-naturedly pushed the two friends together, and Joe swung his muscular arms about Jean’s slender frame. “What surprised me the most,” he recalls, “was how very fragile she was.” And Jean’s memory of the incident? “I have never quite recovered from the heartbreak of Joe Chay’s never having given me so much as a peck on the cheek,” she wrote to his sister in 1972, nearly 40 years after their college days. Yet, at the time, only Jean’s friend Lucy could speak out for Jean’s true affection for Joe.

After completing both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in three years of study, Jean was eager to escape what she viewed as Boulder’s suffocating provincialism. She earned a study-abroad fellowship to Heidelberg from the Nazi government and planned to begin graduate study in philology at the university in Heidelberg in November 1936.(One specific inaccuracy found in Hamilton’s book states that Jean spent two years studying in Germany; in reality, she remained there only five months. Even Eileen Simpson, whose treatment of Jean is consistently sympathetic and basically accurate, writes that Stafford’s academic focus in Heidelberg was philosophy, when in fact her course of study was philology.) Receiving the fellowship was an event that assuaged Jean’s deep sense of inferiority and inadequacy, and it provided an opportunity to live away from the home town life she despised. But Jean had another reason, far more compelling and urgent than simply wanting to escape the constriction of living at home and fighting the home town syndrome she recognized in so many of her friends. Jean’s college years had included a relationship with Lucy McKee Cooke, a young law student whose destructive, tyrannical behavior had affected her so profoundly that she would write, several years later, “I am almost ready to write about it, although I have really written about nothing else ever” (Stafford letter to Chay, 1948). Lucy influenced Stafford’s work for years following their friendship. “Half a century ago, give or take a little, I was a graduate student in geology,” writes Anatole France Ehrenberg, who appears in In the Snowfall as “Vladimir Ehrenberg.” “It was a custom for the students to gather in front of the buildings between, before and after classes,” His memory of Lucy Cooke is extremely acute: “She was a singularly thin, freckle-faced redhead, witty, brilliant, always the center of a group of male colleagues (of course in those days there were not many coeds in the Law School). The overall impression in my mind was “the Red-Haired Queen” holding court.” As a matter of fact, Lucy was a prominent member of the Law School student body, and in 1935 she was elected judge of the Student Court, a disciplinary body on campus, where she distinguished herself by meting out novel punishments to errant freshmen. Lucy had married Andrew Cooke, a pre-law student, during their first year at the University of Colorado. The town newspaper, the Daily Camera, revealed that “Mr. Cooke and Miss Lucy McKee met at the university and were married at Raton, New Mexico. They had previously secured a marriage license at Fort Collins which Miss McKee said was taken out by a friend as a joke. She denied, as did he at the time, that they intended to get married. They made known their marriage, however, immediately after the service. They returned to Boulder to continue their work and both were making excellent grades in the law school.” Lucy, Andrew, and Jean shared long hours together, often going into the mountains to spend weekends in a cabin belonging to friends. Sometimes Lucy would engineer riotous parties which would be attended by her many followers. Always one for experimentation, Lucy was known to have engaged in behavior Jean outwardly tolerated but inwardly detested. Both Chay and Ehrenberg corroborate descriptions from the text of In the Snowfall; for example, Lucy hosted lengthy “hashish parties” where students smoked large quantities of marijuana and drank freely. Fascinated by Lucy’s rebellious actions, Jean studied her carefully, so intently that she could reconstruct the girl’s character decades later in fiction. Unwilling and perhaps unable to break from Lucy’s magnetic grasp, Jean watched powerlessly in early 1935 as Lucy’s personality began to shown strains of paranoia. The relationship permeated Jean’s entire consciousness; indeed, even in fiction Jean was unable to escape Lucy’s enigmatic shadow. Writing to Chay in 1946, Jean would admit: “I object to your saying that I can’t “run away much longer” from the past. Alas, alas, I live within it and if I could run away, it would be ever so much better for me. I daresay I have been unhappy all my life but I was never so wretched before I knew that awful girl and her terrifying modus vivendi and her limp, disreputable entourage.”

In November 1935 Lucy’s self-destructive compulsion finally engulfed her, quite without warning to all except those who knew her well. Even Ehrenberg, who had watched Lucy carefully for several months, admits: “She was a magnetic personality, outgoing, extroverted, presenting a facade that no one could predict concealed the potential for suicide.” The Boulder newspaper headlines for Armistice Day shared equal space with news of Lucy’s death. “GIRL STUDENT SHOT HERSELF LATE SATURDAY.” Shocking the town and the university community, Lucy’s final act represented what had come to be her extremist tactics. “She shot herself in the left temple with a .25 calibre revolver that she owned. The suicide occurred in the kitchen of the Cooke home, 962 Ninth Street. Mr. Cooke was in the bathroom and Miss Jean Stafford, who was at their home Saturday, was phoning a physician because she and Mr. Cooke were alarmed over Mrs. Cooke’s hysterical condition which verged on a mental collapse.” The reverberations of this event agitated Jean’s psyche for years—perhaps for her entire life. Writing again to Chay in February, 1946, Jean referred to Boston Adventure, her successful first novel, which had appeared in 1944:

Lucy, of course, is the one who killed herself, but one particular is wrong: you say, “for no reason which anyone could fathom.” After almost eleven years, I think I understand it now. It has lain in my consciousness without ever departing although it has sometimes blessedly submerged itself. I am almost ready to write about it, although I have really written about nothing else ever. Hopestill in my book is Lucy. Miss Pride (and I did not connect these things until the other day) is named Lucy. I did write a very long story about it once five or six years ago but it was a fumbling performance and I did not really understand all that was involved, nor did I understand until recently how all-pervasive an effect it has had on my life.

Beneath the haunting shadow of Lucy’s suicide, Jean departed the States for her brief sojourn in Nazi Germany.

Stafford’s months in Heidelberg increased her interest in philology and provided her with endless material for fiction she would produce during the next decade, but the loneliness of life for a young American in Nazi Germany at this time led Jean to cut short her stay, returning to New York in April 1937. She was suffering not only from homesickness but from a viral pulmonary infection that required her to spend a few weeks in the hospital before returning to Boulder. This illness may have permanently weakened her system, and her initial stay in New York Hospital was only the first of many visits she would make there during her life—as a matter of fact, she jokingly told friends that she thought of the place as a true second home. Jean had applied for and received a teaching position at Stephens College in Missouri for the fall term, putting aside her wish to continue graduate study on the advice of her college English professor, Miss Irene McKeehan. Bluntly refusing to sponsor Jean’s application for graduate study at Harvard, McKeehan said: “Why don’t you get married? Or better, why don’t you write?” The major event of the summer would be the Rocky Mountain Writers’ Conference—Jean was to act as a student assistant during the conference. One other student had also traveled a long way to attend the conference. His name was Robert Traill Spence Lowell.


Lowell had come to Boulder along with his mentor, Ford Madox Ford, to participate in the conference. Jean, visiting her close friends, energetically related stories of the events and the participants in her usual lugubrious style, mentioning as well her acquaintance with “Cal” Lowell, the young poet from the East. Jean and Cal’s companionship did not attract immediate attention, but one guest speaker at the conference did merit Jean’s confidence. Evelyn Scott, a professor from Skidmore and a published novelist, exhibited a professional status which appealed to Jean; as a woman who had succeeded in the literary world, Scott represented a goal Jean was now ready to admit she held of first importance in her own life. Only a year before, Jean was scribbling in the margins of her English Romanticism notebook frustrated comments about the scarcity of professional women in academia. “Fifteen PhDs only two of them women oh hell I am sick of Literature and also of life.” The patriarchal system in academia drove Jean to a fierce determination to make her mark despite the odds. Fighting a deep-seated insecurity (again revealed in her notebooks: “I am a dipsomaniac. I am also a hydrocephalic idiot. JWS you are a lazy worthless lacker of stick-to-it-iveness, spunk, gumption, get-up-and-go. You are a haven of bad disposition. . . .”), Stafford felt the urge to begin writing fiction which would be published.

Scott began a correspondence with Jean the year following the conference. She had expressed more than a passing interest in Stafford’s career while they met in Boulder, and she was eager to help initiate Jean’s contact with East Coast publishers. Scott wrote several letters to editors and publishers of her own acquaintance, urging them to give Stafford’s manuscripts a careful reading.

More important to the direction of Jean’s personal life, however, were Scott’s letters regarding Stafford’s relationship with Lowell. Herself once a partner in a traumatic, passionate affair, Scott gave Jean advice that seems to reflect the older woman’s own experiences. It is obvious that by the fall of 1938 Jean had revealed to Scott the depth of her feelings for Lowell and the fears she suffered because of her attraction to him, sensing the danger inherent in sharing her life with another artist. Jean had spent a frustrating year imprisoned within the intellectual confines of Stephens College, a young women’s finishing school.(Stafford’s story “Caveat Emptor” recalls this difficult year when escape remained a constant desire. She even attempted a novel describing life at “Neville College,” but the thwarting experience of that awful year refused to evolve into fiction that satisfied Stafford. She abandoned the attempt.) After her departure from Stephens in May 1938—she was genteelly fired on grounds of philosophical incompatibility—Jean found herself with two options, She could accept a fellowship to study at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or she could return to Colorado, spending the year on her sister’s cattle ranch in Hayden in the hope of finding time to write. In June 1938, Scott urged Jean to abandon all thought of teaching:

It seems to me you are very wise to consider it must be either the fellowship or the ranch rather than another year of the same [teaching]. I say this heartfeltly, and you will appreciate the irony, as . . . I am planning to get away from here next year and considering teaching possibilities; if I do come to it— teaching—it will be knowing it for what it is. I have been urgently behind getting friends out of good jobs at Smith because of having seen what Smith (better than most places) was doing to them. I want selfishly to read what you write, for your poetic sense in particular ties you up again with everything I consider “major” and now on the verge of disappearance since the extrovert is so entirely in temporary control.

Scott recognized that Jean’s “inner life” was what made her ability to write perceptive fiction so remarkable, and she eagerly encouraged her to find any possible means of engaging her creative consciousness.

As the relationship between the two women deepened, Scott became aware of Jean’s insecurity about her writing. In July 1938, Scott gratefully acknowledged Jean’s letter. “Naturally your first paragraph makes me happy, though it cannot be really I who have kept alive your desire to write. What I would like to think that meant . . .is that my conviction in respect to you saved you from some moment when the water might have seemed to close over your head. But even if it had closed over you, you would have come up just as surely, and the third time—it is a fatality of temperament.” Lifelong friends assent to Jean’s outspoken determination to survive, despite her fragility. When faced with overwhelming emotional and physical trauma, Jean would inevitably proclaim: “I am indestructible.”

Over the summer of 1938, Jean had admitted to Scott that she was considering marriage. Jean’s fears about marrying another artist were confirmed by Scott’s admonition:

One can make mistakes by accidents of blindness and survive their effects; but to make mistakes, as it were, “on purpose” really is suicidal. And the comparative ambition—isn’t that the most dangerous? If two artists marry they avoid the risks of such a combination only if each has the urge with an equal fanaticism. Otherwise, surely, the superior talent is half wasted by the need to pour into the possessor of inferior talents the conviction that comes with nature’s gifts. Even that might be done and some happiness result if it could be done; but it seens to me inferiorities cannot be mended by anybody’s conscious effort—the flatteries they demand as cure only aggravate the disease.

Friends of Lowell and Stafford may well shudder at the implication of this letter, remembering the professional competitiveness between both writers, especially in the early forties.

Scott further warned: “It seems to me the love of something has to be as proud and positive as the hatred or it is likely the hater will be discovered to hate himself, his contempt for the world turning out, in the end, only the translation into false terms of a corrosion in his own guts.” Jean well knew the danger she faced in assenting to a romantic involvement with Lowell.

But Lowell’s attractions were undeniable. He possessed an intellectual gift which Jean revered and appreciated; he came from the East, a part of the country yet unexplored and almost mythologized by Jean; he belonged to that aristocratic segment of Boston society which she found alluring. Tall and boyishly handsome, he exhibited a kind of Yankee affectation and polite mannerism which led him to call her “Miss Stafford” during the entire first year of their acquaintance. Jean, fully aware of Lowell’s wild and unpredictable behavior, was even more aware of his literary and intellectual ambition, a quality which found its double in her own determination. Scott urged Jean to be aware of the consequences of her decision: “Oh, don’t marry your man if it is as you describe, for heaven’s sake. . . . You do have to begin by presuming equality, even if you are proved wrong later.” Jean was apparently ready to take the risk of involvement with Lowell, and her behavior during the following three months proved the extent to which she was willing to shape the plan of her life to include Cal Lowell.

Jean made the decision to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she left Boulder in September for the University of Iowa in Iowa City. A scarce two months after moving there, Jean disappeared from the campus and from the writing program. She notified none of her family (not really an extraordinary fact, given her eagerness to escape her home life), and even her closest friends in Boulder learned of her disappearance secondhand. Leaving behind a cryptic note for her landlady stating that she was tired of being a “genteel pauper,” Jean headed East, ostensibly to begin work on another novel and to immerse herself in the cultural ambience of that drastically different part of the country. It is common knowledge that after the definitive break from her Western roots in 1938 Stafford never again lived in Colorado. She carried her Western heritage deep within but seemed forced to regard the land of her childhood and young adulthood from a sense-sharpening distance. Jean admitted, in 1948, that she would “rather suffer a mortal illness” than ever return to Boulder to live. In 1972, in the final decade of her career, she returned to the University of Colorado to receive an award from the University Rare Book Associates but wrote afterward to friends that she was recovering from the shock of “seeing her home town turned into a suburb of Southern California.” Still, she remained bound by the double-edged necessity of maintaining a vivid and reverent consciousness of her past but being positively unable to confront images of her past in the reality of the present.

Perhaps one of the few aware of the real reason for Jean’s precipitous departure was Evelyn Scott. Her letter to Jean dated Nov.12, 1938, shows that Stafford had placed herself in a compromising situation by her sudden flight to the East Coast, and she was experiencing a tortuous uncertainty, if not regret, about her action. Driven by the desire to escape the constrictions of her oppressive past, Jean found herself in a disturbing “double menage” which left her feeling frustrated, dependent, and worst of all, artistically unproductive. Scott’s attempt to comfort Jean, or at least to calm her distress, resulted in this letter:

You poor kid! Of course it was reckless and of course it was impractical; but thank God there are people left with enough individuality and strength of impulse to be both. . . . Do you feel the double menage as repugnant today as on the day you wrote the letter? Sometimes in untried situations one has moods of utter despair not representative of the relationship concerned. Is part of your state the result of being thrust into dependence in (probably) cramped quarters in an alien environment, you with your fund of initiative suddenly passive like a rather stupid mistress (a role off-key to the uttermost for your kind of person)?

You do know your self-respect has lost nothing, don’t you, sweet child? To be able to rebel against your own gesture is all too keen a testimony to the quickness of said self-respect. Self-respect is so entirely a state of mind, and the capacity for realizing self-respect can hardly be affected by a perceived falseness in a specific situation. . . .

The nasty sensations you feel about it must be due to having to conceal your technical position from the prudery of the mentally subnormal average who surround you (landladies, etc).

There is nothing “pathological” in your having done this, though of course it is all “unrealistic”—I mean disappearance is almost impossible as the world shrinks. Your lack of realism is to me just the volume of the reaction of a personality which emotionalizes in heroic terms and is confronted in youth with the inexorable meanness of general living. It is a hurt religions at their best have existed to cure. Those who don’t feel as you do neither see what is nor feel anything in full measure. The rest—the compromise involved in accommodation to the existant—is a matter of age and temperament. You are defying the stars and challenging the moon, and that is behind all poetry and art.

Scott’s own autobiography, Escapade, published precociously in 1923 when the author was in her twenties and which Jean had surely read, declares: “People believe in moral codes because in relation to their immediate acts, fear touches their imaginations.” Certainly Scott’s free-thinking stance encouraged Jean to act with determined, if forced, bravado in her living situation. Hamilton states that during 1938 Lowell “wooed her something fierce, presumably by post,” quoting one of his interviewees. Could it be that Lowell’s wooing took place in far closer quarters than by post in November 1938? Years later Jean would flaunt the fact that she and Lowell had had a marvelous affair before their marriage—but her flamboyant demeanor took years to develop.

Jean’s relationship with Lowell took a dreadful and bizarre turn when, on Christmas, just a month following Jean’s arrival in Cambridge from Iowa, the much-publicized accident occurred while the two were en route to a holiday celebration. Lowell, driving while intoxicated, smashed his car into a retaining wall, catapulting Jean headfirst into the windshield. A severe concussion resulted, as well as multiple facial lacerations and a horribly fractured nose. Their relationship might have followed a much different course had not such a catastrophe intervened; the trauma of Jean’s near-fatal injuries and the subsequent months of operations and convalescence affected them deeply. Hamilton suggests that the guilt imposed on Lowell as a result of his part in the accident “ran fairly deep” and that “Jean was not one to make light of her injuries.” It seems, however, that Jean made an almost superhuman effort to absolve Lowell of personal guilt, even though her contest with his lawyers over the insurance settlement lasted nearly two years. The only published fictional account of the accident, the familiar and widely-anthologized “The Interior Castle,” explores the psychological effect of the accident and surgical procedures on its victim, Pansy Vanneman, ignoring the role of the driver of the fated vehicle, who dies on impact. One unpublished story of Stafford’s exposes the result of legal processes on the relationship of two lovers, but still the victim refuses to accuse the guilty young man in any vindictive way. Months later, when describing the accident to Edward Chay, Jean pointedly understated the event: “One year I spent mostly in hospitals as the result of an automobile accident I was in with my present husband, the second mostly in law courts recovering damages from his insurance company” (Oct. 12, 1944). Jean does not even mention the fact that Lowell was driving, that he was intoxicated, or that he left her in Cambridge within a month, returning to Kenyon for the winter term before she had even begun to recover from the ordeal. She wrote to other friends simply that the accident had given her a “nasty head injury” and that she was recovering. Even in her own notes and dream-journals, Jean does not elaborate on her memories of the crash or its aftermath. The only commentary which remains describes a dream that occurred some months after the accident. Jean writes: “Blair Clark, Cal and I are in automobile, Blair driving. Slams on brakes and I am flung forward in same way as I was in accident. I get out of the car and lie down feeling exceedingly faint. Blair says in an authoritative way that he has seen this same kind of self-anaesthetizing before and it is often fatal.” While it is no secret, as Hamilton notes, that Jean developed an entire mythology of her own illnesses, what many view as mere hypochondria was recognized by other more intimate acquaintances as a genuine physical weakness which left Jean susceptible to any number of annoying and persistent ailments. To suggest, as Hamilton does, that Stafford “made Cal pay” for his carelessness and inattentiveness during this period in the face of evidence which suggests that she was, on the contrary, careful to protect his own feelings about the incident is hastily unfair and implies a cruelty in Jean that did not exist in this case.


Jean and Cal married suddenly and almost secretly in New York in April 1940—again, Jean refused to notify any of her family or friends in Colorado until after the event, when she made a rapid trip west to visit her friends in Boulder and to spend some time on her sister’s ranch. Ironically, the marriage took place in the Catholic Church just at the time when Jean’s own faith in Roman Catholicism was beginning to pale. Lowell critics and biographers seem divided in their explanation of Lowell’s conversion to Catholicism the following year, which became one of the central problems in their relationship almost as soon as Lowell embraced the faith himself. Jean had not accepted the Catholic faith as a literal force that must change the external shape of her life, as did Lowell. In an attempt to explain her laxity, Jean wrote to Chay in 1944: “I think you had left Boulder before I began instructions with Father Agatho. They did not, I’m sorry to say, have the result they should have, not through any fault of Father Agatho’s but through my own indolence.” Far from making any sort of public proclamation regarding her conversion to the Church while she was still in college, Jean chose to make her faith a private matter, so private in fact that some of her closest friends in Boulder remained unaware of her conversion. As time passed, though, Jean’s eagerness to shed the bonds of Catholicism rivaled Lowell’s determination to display his allegiance to the Church of Rome. The popular tendency among critics to lay blame for the failure of the marriage to Stafford’s excessive religiosity is unfortunate. Burton Raffel writes in his commentary on Lowell’s poem “Queen of Heaven” that it is “surely a reference to one of his ex-wives, probably Jean Stafford, of his three wives the most Catholic by far.” Even Steven Axelrod’s admirable study of Lowell’s poetry errs in this direction when he cursorily dismisses the event of the writers’ separation: “His marriage to fellow Catholic Jean Stafford, a woman with some of the force and personality of his mother, was bitterly dissolved in 1948. The following year he married the social and literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick, who was politically on the left and not religious [Emphasis mine].” Stafford herself pointedly rejected any pious stance: “On being released from the stranglehold of the Church, I had to admit that the stranglehold had been a tyrannical invention of my own” (notebook, 7/30/48); Four years later, during her marriage to writer Oliver Jensen, Stafford wrote to him: “All the time that I lived within the shadow of the Church I was living a lie and a hypocrisy that tormented me.” The philosophical difference which became more and more central to their relationship affected the first years of their marriage immensely.

Further tension arose as Stafford’s immediate success from Boston Adventure exceeded Lowell’s rather limited success with his first published volume of poetry. Stafford’s bildungsroman explored a young woman’s introduction to the labyrinthine intricacy of Boston’s aristrocratic milieu, and critics acclaimed it instantaneously. The novel sold thousands of copies in its first printing, and the Overseas Book-of the-Month program purchased and shipped thousands more to servicemen in Western Europe. As a matter of fact, several of Jean’s college friends who were serving in the armed forces were astonished to learn of her achievement. At the same time, however, Lowell’s collected poems, a slim volume entitled Land of Unlikeness, remained limited in distribution. In letters to close friends, Jean expressed her intense relief that Cal’s book had appeared the day before hers did, realizing that he would take satisfaction in that single mark of having superseded her in their common ambition.

Needless to say, the financial profit which followed the best seller was, for Jean, unlike anything she had ever experienced, A lifelong hatred of poverty had provoked her determination to achieve financial independence; in one of her diary entries made during her hospitalization at the Payne-Whitney Institute for Mental Rehabilitation in New York, Jean vowed that if she were ever to marry again, she would marry a rich man. The longing for her own home had lain close to Jean’s heart for years; ever since her college days of living in the family’s boardinghouse, Jean’s desire to have a home of her own had remained unfulfilled. During the months of work on Boston Adventure she had stayed alone in a tiny, unheated apartment while Lowell served his time as a conscientious objector in a nearby prison, Even when he was released to work in a military hospital, she still was forced to work in dingy, depressing quarters. But after royalties from Boston Adventure began to arrive, Jean could consider for the first time the prospect of buying a home, and she was overjoyed. Cal, however, still devoted to his aesthetic of Christian poverty, felt that they should eschew the trappings of success and continue to live in the slums to share the experience of destitution with the truly poor. But Jean’s longing for escape from the city won out. A notebook entry, undated, shows just how deeply she wanted to find a new home. “In writing of it, I pine for the country. I thought I heard the chirping of a band of birds and went to the window to look out and found the noise came from the hot city steam in the radiator sent up at dusk to roast us all alive. I saw the sunset yesterday from the windows of Katharine White’s high office and then I descended, once again, to the subterranean life all of us lead.” Jean and Cal spent months combing the coast of Maine for a suitable rural retreat, and finally settled in the tiny village of Damariscotta Mills in Maine, 17 miles inland, in an aging farmhouse that Jean loved from the first. “I can assure you that owning a house does wonders for one,” she wrote to Joe Chay in August 1945. “The permanence of timbers dating back to 1920, the antiquity of the parish, the oldness of our elms do release us from the terror of the flight of time. And I can spend all day pondering wall-paper and talking with the carpenter and I am even interested in the plumber’s lore.” Years later, after the breakup of her marriage, Jean mourned the loss of this first home and touchingly confessed to a friend: “I should have loved for you to see me in my nest.”

The disintegration of the relationship between Stafford and Lowell accelerated during the months in Maine. Jean had continued to drink heavily, and Lowell’s erratic, violent outbursts became public displays instead of private eruptions. While Jean’s alcoholism increased and Lowell’s brooding temperament often exploded into physical violence, the intensity of their professional competitiveness, their conflicting beliefs in the meaning of Christianity, and their growing differences in life style all contributed to the public dissolution of their marriage to which Hamilton refers as he cites passages from “An Influx of Poets.” What remained camouflaged by the dramatic displays of emotion and near-hatred between the two, however, was the true bond of love that endured between them. For years following the divorce, both Stafford and Lowell kept close ties with one another through friends, and their mutual respect for each other’s literary accomplishments continued uninterrupted. To conclude that their years together consisted of one long conjugal battle and to terminate their relationship in 1948, the year of their divorce, is to give short shrift to the depth of their feeling for one another. Lowell himself summed up his positive memories of their early years together in his last letter to Jean:

1940. Remember Chimes St. and Baton Rouge and Jamie Caffery and . . . Cinina? I got a letter last month from Vanderbilt to write for Red’s 70th festschrift. After struggling with a laborious prose compliment, I dropped it for a poem, more of the tone, the humidity, less critique. A hundred unusable things came back to me—the arrival of Gaga’s chairs, Peter’s earplug falling out at bridge, Peter and I in pajamas sick over taking out Cinina’s cat-shit, waiting still in pajamas outrageously for you to return from the office to get our lunch, Christmas with Red staring long at a sheep that looked like Cinina and saying it reminded him of someone he couldn’t place. You could toss up fifty times as much in the same number of words. How can I thank you? . . . Once we thought we could potentially imagine everything, or anything. But I couldn’t have imagined these “mellow” days, and gentle as they are—what a mercy. . . . Love, Cal

Although sordid details of the violence between Stafford and Lowell may intrigue and tantalize some readers and researchers (for neither Jean nor Cal was blameless, as both would later openly admit), it is far more worthwhile to examine the debts each owed to the other as they weathered that painful decade of artistic development beginning with their meeting at the Rocky Mountain Writers’ Conference in 1937 and ending, objectively speaking, with the divorce in 1948. In a letter written in May 1948, from the Virgin Islands, where Jean had traveled to wait out the time limit for the divorce to be granted, she admits, “I don’t feel badly about the divorce any more but there was a time when I did. My husband and I are now as loving and considerate of one another as possible. I don’t have that particular sort of hell to go through.” Although she did experience a time of intense bitterness and vindictive resentment before her exile to the Virgin Islands, she had apparently overcome this initial anger and had come to understand Lowell’s behavior more compassionately. That the relationship influenced the later work of both writers until the death of each is undeniable.

The single most important consideration that must govern any study of the relationship between these two creative writers is the degree to which each one affected, either productively or destructively, the innate talent and literary expression of the other. Friends of both Stafford and Lowell could attest that mutual concern between them endured for nearly 30 years after the dissolution of their marriage. Public opinion centering on the damage they did to one another during their youth is refuted by private expressions of their feelings of appreciation for one another as they aged.

Critic Joseph Epstein, in a recent issue of the New Criterion, berates contemporary literary biographers for giving in to the urge to divulge their subjects’ “miserable little pile of secrets” as a ploy for originality of discovery in research. Unfortunately, the domestic traumas of Jean Stafford and Robert Lowell were far from secret and often made their lives miserable. Nevertheless, both Stafford and Lowell remain seminal figures in the literature of the decade of their marriage, and, many would claim, in the literature of the century. To deny or minimize Stafford’s effect on Lowell’s poetry or to ignore his effect on her work is to obliterate a significant dimension in modern critical interpretation.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading