Jean Stafford’s Boston Adventure: Tradition and the Talented Individual

In 1944, Jean Stafford published her first novel, Boston Adventure, a book which became an unexpected best seller..1 From the start, it was an anomaly, “the book that Stafford wrote before one would have expected her to be able to or inclined to” (Hulbert 229). Its unusual qualities have failed to satisfy any person thoroughly, it seems. Perhaps one of Boston Adventure‘s characters best explains the impasse, in criticizing readings which seek “to find out what makes an artist and not what an artist makes.”2 Until the present, critical reaction has overlooked this distinction and greatly oversimplified Stafford’s complex fiction. Criticism overall has concentrated disproportionately upon biographical material or likened Stafford to Proust, Joyce, James and others, without assessing the poetics of Stafford’s most maverick modernism.

Boston Adventure by Jean StaffordBoston Adventure by Jean Stafford

With the growth of feminist criticism, this biographical focus diminished, and readers explored BA afresh, examining the social or psychological limitations of the female characters, looking at the book as a bildungsroman. Hence, Charlotte Goodman agrees that Boston Adventure is an example of the traditional female bildungsroman in its substitution of “inner concentration” as opposed to the “active accommodation, rebellion or withdrawal” associated with male bildungsroman (141). In contrast, other story-centered, character-interpreting readings discovered a positive psychological outcome in Stafford’s characters. For Maureen Ryan, the protagonist grows into selfhood through compromise, in a “realistic acceptance of her situation” (40). Feminist-inflected readings generally assess Stafford’s characters in terms of social or psychological developmental models. In another kind of reading, Hulbert’s 1992 biography assesses Boston Adventure first as an “artistic accomplishment.” The biography pinpoints a “strange tension at the center of Stafford’s novel . . . ” (147). It is one of the first studies to explore Stafford’s acutely ambiguous position as a woman writer central in what I call “later American modernism.” Hulbert’s aesthetic-focused reading begins to de-emphasize psychological analyses of the artist to foreground instead aesthetic tensions of Stafford’s thick, striated texts.

It is unfortunate that a writer of Stafford’s caliber–who observed firsthand the shuttering effects of New Critical poetics–has been written off as composer of modern “morality plays” and deprived thus of a response commensurate to her fiction’s subtleties. For instance, an early biographer, David Roberts, discounts such complexity altogether, dismissing Boston Adventure as “an anachronism–deliberately old-fashioned in both style and plot . . . “(218). Startlingly, novelist Joyce Carol Oates concurs, finding “no explorations beyond the Jamesian-Chekovian-Joycean model” (62). Such negative responses notwithstanding, others have intermittently praised various features of Stafford’s independent, astute prose.3 BA, however, has consistently garnered mixed critical reception: it has been variously deemed incomplete bildungsroman, puzzling kunsterlerroman, indecisive novel of manners, or flawed piece of traditional prose whose author does not make her “loyalties” clear.4 To date, few readings have identified links between Boston Adventure and modernist prose techniques, or analyzed just what Jean Stafford, “protégé who wandered from the paths of her patrons,” contributed to modernist poetics (Hulbert 143).

In intricate, lifelong struggle to write independently of models and mentors, whether Allan Tate, Robert Lowell or avant-garde novelists of her times, Stafford’s virtually unrecognized experimentation in Boston Adventure moves beyond stream of consciousness as the only method for literarily exploring characters’ thought and perception. She also steers clear of purely linguistic innovations–such as change in typeface and punctuation. Admirer of Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Henry James and Mark Twain, in BA, Stafford builds her unique way beyond both James and Proust’s aesthetics in three areas: 1) unique narrative perspective, 2) philosophical discoveries about cerebration and language, and, 3) independent ideas about memory. When read from a twenty-first century perspective, Boston Adventure becomes an intriguingly experimental novel, both for Stafford and in the traditions of American modernism, a book in which she moves beyond what she herself dismissed as “flabby” Joycean stream of consciousness.5 Accordingly, the novel demands a whole-scale rethinking both of writing and of memory, for, woven throughout Boston Adventure, the protagonist-narrator Sonia successfully grapples with the nature of memory and literary composition.

Indeed, in this, her first novel, Stafford spawns an intriguingly two-named narrator whose problem is complex: “I could not,” Sonia laments, “demonstrate the external authorship of myself. . . ” (Boston 459). The book’s unrecognized core reveals Sonia Marburg’s efforts to locate in herself that “external authorship” and also to develop and complete a memory for herself her way. Compelled by what Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God deemed “that oldest human longing–self revelation,” Sonia and the novel explore non-monologically and open-endedly a host of difficult contexts.6 A reader’s hermeneutic problem with this novel may be Sonia’s as well, as she plaintively recognizes:

Between those two astronomies, the young man’s whose earth was plural, and Miss Pride’s whose solitary world was Boston, round which the trifling planets revolved at a respectful distance, I could not choose, for both were true. (181)

A reader, like Sonia, must respect the multiple “trueness” of the novel’s multiple alternatives. A novel with a two-named (and bilingual) heroine “Sonia-Sonie,” Boston Adventure, when perceived with a fulcrum in the language, musings and structure of its narrator, is far more than a story aimed at satirizing the Boston establishment or justifying Sonia’s (or Stafford’s) atypical life as woman. In its surprisingly modern narrative matrix, Boston Adventure is an adventurous exploration into what constitutes knowing and intelligence, language, perception, memory, and authority.

Narrative Point of View

Discussions of this novel need begin with point of view, the narrative context that best illustrates the book’s importance and explains its uneasy critical reception. Readers have frequently classified Boston Adventure and Stafford alike as second-rate echoes of James and Proust.7 At one time, Stafford was apparently an avid, even “obsessive,” reader of Joyce, Proust and James and developed in response to their narrative discoveries.8 It is limiting however, to consider her writing a pale carbon copy of James or Joyce. In 1940, when writing Boston Adventure and in direct contradiction to evolving aesthetic developments of that time, Stafford avers in a letter, “my desire for anarchy has never been so passionate” (Hulbert 130). At this time, pressures were on her to be otherwise, that is, to be controlled, measured and distant. Indeed, while writing Boston Adventure, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon and Robert Lowell, her newfound compatriots and husband were urging her to tighten up her prose. It was even suggested that she abandon experiments with interior monologue altogether, give up what Whit Burnett, editor at Story Magazine, called “meandering around in the inside of these people’s minds” (Hulbert 63). Fortunately, the “desire for anarchy” prevails, permeating the innovative, intricately structured novel in which Stafford designs her independent way of presenting internal perspective as opposed to producing a book with a critically acceptable style.

Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, and Peter Taylor, 1941. Photo by Robie MacauleyRobert Lowell, Jean Stafford, and Peter Taylor, 1941. Photo by Robie Macauley, courtesy of C Macauley at Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Over the years, critics have been troubled by a perceived disjunction in the book’s internal perspective, a sensed gap between Sonia, uncultured, central protagonist and the novel’s sophisticatedly acute, astute language. The matter of diction and characterization initially unsettled Stafford’s editor, Lambert Davis, who challenged the credibility of Sonia’s being “master of a polished and intricate prose style. . . [with] a cool ironic insight into character” (Hulbert 148). Lambert Davis was, it must be remembered, the inheritor both of an already contracted manuscript and the writer whom Robert Giroux bequeathed to him when Giroux entered the Navy.

It now appears that Davis had minimal respect for Stafford’s and Sonia’s introspective turns of attention. In his resistance to this unusual book, he challenged Stafford on incidental grounds, criticizing style for details, sentences which he found “didn’t hold together grammatically.” Finally, Davis balked at what was to him and later to other readers an unanswered puzzle: “One asks to know why she is telling the story…What violent inwardness is under the cool surface of the style?” [Emphasis added] (Hulbert 148). In his uneasy dealings with Stafford, Davis would request massive cuts of some 50,000 words (Roberts 214). In spite of editorial pressures, Stafford was able nonetheless to evolve a truthfully complex narrator in Sonia. In order to appreciate this novel as it stands as published, a reader needs recognize that Sonia is not a typical narrator writing a novel on paper in elegantly acute verbal patterns. She is instead the personage in the novel whose recollections which constitute the novel are being transcribed by Stafford. In fact, it is this, Sonia’s introspective recall which constitutes the innovative inscription of external authorship/authority which she sought to “demonstrate” to herself..9

In musings about fiction, Stafford apparently tried to understand differences in writing for men and for women and speculated,

Why is it that a woman cannot write a book like A Portrait of the Artist? I mean, why is it that her experiences cannot be like those of a man. . . but in the end she will be faced with the realization that a woman’s mind can never be neatly ordered and every experience is tinged by every other one. (Hulbert 81)

It appears that Boston Adventure is Stafford’s experimental presentation of such inter-continuous awareness in the guise of an ordinary person, not an artist. This book is her independently sown version of Joyce, James and Proust, in a critically unexpected, dynamite combination of “stylistic composure” and a “profound psychic disequilibrium” (Hulbert xiv). This first novel has troubled critics because it fractures predictable stream of consciousness conventions for rendering awareness. Instead, it simultaneously activates an intertwining of domains–inner and outer; objective and subjective; verbal and preverbal; order and chaos. In a swirling of dream, nightmare, reverie and social boredom, Sonia, modern narrator, struggles to understand her experience and to demonstrate to herself that elusive “external authorship” of herself. Reading this novel with these contexts in mind abets discovery of Stafford’s continuity with and independent alternatives to conventional modernist experimentation.

Experiments with the “violent inwardness” for which editor Davis had little tolerance become more apparent upon identifying the novel’s self-enveloping structures. Rather than linear, goal-oriented bildungsroman, the retrospective recollection which constitutes the full experience of the novel both opens up and concludes as such in a position toward the end of the novel, namely, at the time of Sonia’s visit to a cemetery where Hopestill is buried. Sonia is then “violently” obsessed by her relations with Hopestill, her possible responsibility for Hopestill’s suicide, and her choice to commit her future to austere Bostonian Miss Pride. The text’s preceding pages record Sonia’s difficult recall of her history. They inscribe a densely developing “self-revelation” and execute the completion of a memory. The very emergence of this recall constitutes the unfolding of the adventure in Boston. Boston Adventure is one of many twentieth century novels whose final moments signal both the site of the beginning of a recall and also mark its conclusion. Other novels with this structure and type of recall include Janie in Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God, Meurseult in Camus’s The Stranger, Marlowe in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Kate Brown in Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark. In the final pages, Sonia-narrator looks back at her own remembering, recognizing that she had come to the cemetery where Hopestill was buried “to finish her history, in a sense” and finds with some relief that she has “completed a difficult task” (533, 536).

Such novels, structured by what I have called a “persona narrator,” are often initially difficult to identify as such.10 Persona narrators share a compelling need to review an often-oppressive trauma whose weight prompts an often reluctant recall. For Sonia-narrator, a sense of complicit guilt-responsibility obsessively encumbers her life, as she weighs her guilt over Hopestill’s suicide and grieves her complex abandonment of her mother.11 On a structural level, a variety of temporal markers identify persona narrators as decisively auto and homodiegetic, squarely involved in a story they both remember and engender.12 Overlapping temporal frameworks in this kind of novel radiate spoke-like about elusively mingled past and present concerns. In persona-narrated fiction, concretely active, common temporal markers elucidate a narrator’s often obsessive concerns. Accordingly, Boston Adventure‘s first paragraph opens into an imperfect tense, a “used to sleep,” a “sometimes had to clean” mode of attention (3). Continually, the text contains impromptu juxtapositions of present and past tense frameworks which identify the Janus-faced orientation of the narrator’s recall (109, 141).

Without overtly calling attention to its narrative subtleties, Boston Adventure mingles the contexts of experiencing and narrating “I,” of a self-deprecating Sonia and a growingly more seasoned, confident figure. Seen in these contexts, flashbacks of an older Sonia looking back emerge, such as when she retrospectively observes of her younger self, “In my ignorance, I thought its magic properties might operate to my destruction” (62). Late in the book, a future perfect tense dissolves and links these various temporal contexts: “It will be remembered [Emphasis added] that when I was a little girl I thought Miss Pride was beautiful” (518). Such temporal writeovers record Sonia-persona-narrator retrospectively constructing and reconstructing her version of things. These flashbacks are often signaled by abrupt irruptions in a vivid, grammatical present tense, “when this poor thing . . . turns up as I straighten my bureau drawers, Chichester’s long winters return, sprouting their evergreen leaves and everlasting flowers in the snow and the wind” [emphasis added]. Sonia tellingly reflects in present tense that she is still linked to her mother; “Some of her work I still have” (109).13 In addition to present tense verbs, diectic markers like “afterwards” or “for years after” quietly signal the overlapping recollections in remembering time and highlight synchronic moments in the recall (67, 61, 64). In a veritable trance of narrative absorption, Sonia notes with some dismay in the present time mode of her narrative engagement that her “self-consciousness dye[s] everything,” and that she increasingly becomes confused by a “welter of introspection” (141, 116).

One of the more intriguing features of persona narration is the appearance of a narrative doppelgänger. That is, many persona narrators project in their own reflections a narrative figure whose history parallels their own review. Marlowe in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness toys thus with the harlequin-like Russian and more torturously with Kurtz and his ever anticipated tale. In Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark, a brief inset vignette about telling a story mirrors the narrative dilemma of a narrator herself blatantly stuck between third and first person perspectives.14 Here, in Boston Adventure, in Sonia Marburg’s first view of the Red Room she has conjured, visualizes an inhabitant sitting there engaged as she is in spellbound introspection, as he “looked upon himself in leisure” (425). Exactly such extensive introspection becomes the inexplicit ur-motif in this novel. Like a pedal tone, it energizes the activity of its “remembering self,” Sonia, who later in the Red Room herself sits inside it “serenely at the writing desk” (505). Repetitions of this image in these two key scenes signal its importance and validate Sonia’s status as auto/homodiegetic narrator probing often less than consciously the question and reach of her own as, yet untested, external authority.

New readings of Boston Adventure need to rethink mid-twentieth century narration. Failures to do so with respect to fiction of the 1940’s have obscured recognition of Stafford’s autonomy, her startling independence of traditional models. No passive extender of received techniques from the past, Stafford’s Sonia, in her recall, actively writes over her past. In this writing over, Boston Adventure quietly reconfigures assumptions regarding both narrative integrity and women’s literary independence. Suzanne Lanser’s distinction between “the plot of narration” and the “story plot” can help reposition and modernize readings of this difficult, “massive first novel” which Ihab Hassan discovered (“Toward” 357, 185). Its surprising mass Stafford and Sonia achieve, apart then and in addition to “story plot” problems with her mother and Miss Pride, or with Hopestill’s tortuous sophistications. In her self-enveloping recall, that is, in the “plot of narration,” Sonia and Stafford evolve via Sonia’s obsessive issues a penetrating record of human discerning. The result is examinable in terms of 1) Sonia’s potentials for intelligence, 2) the reach of perception and language, and 3) the acuities of memory.

Philosphical Perspectives: Intelligence, Language, Perception, Intimacy

The first write-over concerns Sonia’s intelligence, or, rather, the obverse, an insidious sense of stupidity. Sonia repeatedly names herself tongue-tied and simple (178, 330). Indeed, Sonia’s adult version of herself seen as a child outright denies herself any mental powers. For instance, she finds herself thick-witted (73), an (120), dull witted (121), stupid (159, 492), ignorant (239, 482), or, simply, a dunce (370). Unflaggingly, Sonia deems herself inferior to men and their Business Relationships. Accordingly, her father’s unread, beautifully bound, classics “inscribed in a bewildering handwriting” serve as do Miss Pride’s tidy issues of Atlantic Monthly as alien and distressing emblems of an unfathomable verbal competence (41). Once, Sonia longingly remembers a stolen moment reading a glossy, attention-riveting book called Frances and the Irrepressibles at Buena Vista Farm and her father’s interruption of that independent assay in reading (47). After his desertion of the family, a friend, Nathan Kadish, introduces her to various bildungsromane, books which further exacerbated Sonia’s sense of intellectual deficiencies:

Would I not, if I were a young man, leave Chichester and my foolish mother? But I was not fitted for such a life, not only because I was a girl, but because I was an ignoramus. I nearly cried aloud thinking of the sloth . . . that had prevented me from reading less than a tenth of what Nathan had read. (120)

A central tension in the novel records Sonia’s struggles between perceived mental inferiority and activation of powerful, albeit maverick, powers.

Gradually, in her recall, Sonia initiates alternates to the “defiant intellectuality” of male models and what are to her inappropriate versions of intelligence and control (369). She remembers vacillating between unhappy self-deprecations and more useful distinctions between “brains” and mere “braininess,” being fashionably “intellectual” and productively “intelligent” (159, 169). Such distinctions gradually liberate formerly brain-locked Sonia who comes to consider herself intelligent engenderer, and not an “intellectual” follower trapped in “cataleptic tranquility” (423). The novel intricately traces Sonia’s discovery that she is acute and intelligent. In one of her new assessments, she suspects in herself,

that activating principle which set my feet upon a boulevard, and simultaneously made me love, sense loss, hear, now in Chichester, a final foghorn, that law or theorem of nature for which the term ‘Sonia’ and its variant ‘Sonie’ had arbitrarily been chosen. (159)

While traditional bildungsroman often focus on successful entry into society or romance, this novel projects a radical modification by foregrounding Sonia’s acceptance and savoring of her own, uniquely complex, mental flavors.15

In a zeal for actively sampling and knowing her world, Sonia is, to use Patricia Yeager’s productive distinction, an unrecognized bilingual heroine who “challenge[s]….in [her] multivoicedness . . . critical ordinances which limit . . . understanding of women’s relations to speech” (Yeager 35-36). Sonia insists upon initiating in matters of talking, knowing, comparing. In her groundbreaking study, Yeager has reauthorized the idea of literary work which she re-conceives as an “emancipatory activity . . . active and laborious,” not “fixed and inert” (75). In such redefined contexts, Sonia’s activity with herself, her mental reconstructions and active rewriting of her knowing similarly constitute work. Indeed, Sonia’s work in this novel involves the radical work of “recontextualizing languages . . . so as to invent for herself a language to get inside of” (Cixoux 257). Quite unexpectedly, in a period full of literary losers, victims, and elegantly self-aware sufferers, Stafford’s novel inscribes and celebrates Sonia’s coming into intelligence.

The “narrative plot” in Boston Adventure charts, then, what are tortuous efforts to trust intelligence and to live within a language. Meditative, prize-winning Spanish novelist Carmen Martín Gaite has argued that the most important thing a person can do is learn to live within herself, literally, to inhabit herself. Martín Gaite has affirmed the need for self-habitation, “the difficult job of knowing how to put up with [oneself].”16 In Boston Adventure, Sonia’s intransitive struggle to “get inside” a language and “to put up with oneself” constitutes the core of an adventure in the world of Boston and in the world of language.

Language

A sense of doubleness renders young Sonia language deaf, literally “tongue-tied” (178). Surrounded as a child by a potpourri of languages, her father’s German and heavily-accented English, her mother’s blend of Russian, often undecipherable English, and guttural, wordless soundings, early in life, Sonia often blanks out and takes refuge in “ambiguous silence” (335). In this welter of tongues spoken by parents so alienated as to be virtual strangers to one another and living in a house remote from other children, Sonia grows in a kind of linguistic no-man’s land in which much of her conceptual life consists in wordless imaging. In many ways, she shares a common tongue with nobody, her childhood being devoid of the usual child’s acceptance of a mother-tongue. On the basis of school friends’ gossip about Catholics, she images her father in the church she has never entered kneeling before a “High Necromancer” who is “chanting in an unknown language” (45). Her estrangement from a single common language takes tangible shape in a childhood nickname, Sonie-Latin for Pig-Latin, a name which itself reveals her marginal language status (77). Her early life steeps in a cultural and ethnic chaos which is palpable in radically contrasting speech nodes. Memories of language are saturated, then, with images of speechlessness, truncation, and discord, especially between two different women—Miss Pride and her mother.

In Sonia’s early experience, Miss Pride is synonymous with “linguistic singleness” and “mastery” of a thoroughly “cultured language” (22, 18). Sonia’s sense of bifurcation between the two language-cultures of her severely alienated parents, her father’s German and her mother’s Russian, will generate yet another division –between cultured and uncultured speech modes, between Miss Pride’s “elevated vocabulary” and the energy-chaos of her mother’s aphasic speech-sounds, her batteries of “childish prattle” and “howling abuses” (196 121). In contrast, Sonia’s trilingual father, deft craftsman cobbler, is highly articulate orally. However, his beautifully bound but unread books, untouched icons on their special shelves, highlight his own distance from the cultured world of writing. In contrast, Sonia’s mother, earthy, centrifugally disordered, slips in and out of intelligibility–lurching between dramatic tales of neglect by Sonia’s father and an equally dramatic aphasic sound-making. Such extremes in speech modes ultimately compel Sonia toward other alternatives.

Language crises generate among other things Sonia’s choice of the child-like “Sonie” which she calls a “variant” of “Sonia.” She will later explain to a countess that her other name, Sonie, was “my own childish corruption of Sonia” (159, 326). Such early self-naming is a barometer of her emerging mental independence. As recall develops, this verbal experimentation becomes more pervasive, more daring. Thus, in a piece of serious word play, Sonia fractures traditional notions of self,

What unbalanced the poise of quintessential self (a play on words would come to me: the eye was the proof of I, not only of my own eye or my mind’s eye, but the Cyclopean eye of the Airedale) was the protesting, bewildered cry of Miss Pride’s cat shut up in her bedroom. (460)

Other times, verbal play records an hallucinatory mis-hearing, as when Sonia one morning confuses a preacher’s ritually social “Good morning.” for a curse, a “God’s warning” (207, 525). This verbal misentendre reveals an evolvingly acute and independent sensitivity in a language world.

Childhood behind her, the two extremes, Miss Pride and her mother each fall short as linguistic models. While her father had previously teased her with Latin and German allusions, Sonia’s mother dwells in a semiotic limbo. At times, she understands nothing but Russian, then slips into English and a voluble string of tale-anecdotes before reverting into a disoriented pre-verbal state, a kind of mindless near semiotic prattle (211). Initially a linguistic orphan, Sonia once welcomed escape from the responsibilities of language into a mythical kind of “cataleptic tranquility” which would keep her from having to “make explanations to anyone not even to myself” (421). Such dreams of escape from language are, however, short-lived. In a person to whom words remain terrifyingly magnetic, compellingly needed, Sonia gradually comes to them, gets “inside” a language — her own.

Faced with her mother’s verbal unpredictability and Miss Pride’s verbal exactitude, Sonia first devises a course of her own — “experience of the most complex order” (259). For her, this complexity is co-extensive with words, writing and conceptualizing. Initially, Sonia is cast as secondhand muse, secretary to Miss Pride who plans one day to write her memoirs with Sonia’s help. This role has led most critics of BA to conclude that Sonia is a linguistic lightweight who can realistically be thought to be of as no more than a secondhand writer, scribe, copyist, an amanuensis. Much like the original editors’ response, it has been argued that Stafford does not “allow” Sonia to be a writer.22 Such an interpretation misrepresents the book’s impressive narrative breakthroughs in the contexts of the emerging literary climates in the 1940s.

Late twentieth century analyses are recasting the parameters of narrative studies; in the process, the sites of writing and textuality have been radically transformed. For instance, Celie’s letters to God in The Color Purple are now considered significant compositions as are Janie Crawford’s discourse with avidly hearing friend Phoeby in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In Hemingway’s, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” moribund Harry lies in bed introspectively writing what he had never got earlier on paper. Before dying, Harry recognizes his success, “He heard the hyena make a noise just outside the range of the fire. ‘I’ve been writing,’ he said. ‘But I got tired’” (1667). When asked if he wants food, Harry answers decisively, “I want to write” (1662). In the same introspective mode, Boston Adventure develops in the contours of Sonia’s recall while she “writes,” that is, while she visualizes, tactilizes, contextualizes and plays back in herself the living experience which has brought her to confront herself in the return visit to the cemetery where Hopestill is buried. Virginia Woolf has praised Dorothy Richardson’s contributions to the novel, saying, “[t]he method, if triumphant, should make us feel ourselves seated at the center of another mind . . . ” (Contemporary 1). In a similar experimental achievement, Stafford’s method in Boston Adventure also “seats” the reader “at the center of another mind,” in this case, Sonia’s.

Stafford’s novel was published in a period eager to codify standards for literary composition. The first code of conduct involved subject matter. Indeed, during the writing of Boston Adventure, Stafford encountered a subtle, yet pervasive, belittlement of women’s subject matter by the intellectual elite. As late as a 1989 MLA Convention talk, New Critical Dean Cleanth Brooks repeated his conviction that poetry be separated from “laundry lists and advertisements for face lotion” (qtd. in Clark 10). A second more important crosscurrent underlying 1940’s prosody involved the assumption that women’s “irrational,” “unkempt” minds were incapable of the work and rigor required to produce “significant form.” John Crowe Ransome is explicitly dubious about women’s artistic mettle. He declared, “To be intellectual is . . . . an advantage . . . largely denied women because they are not strict enough and expert enough to manage forms” (Ransome 101, 103). Poet Allen Tate, with whom Stafford as Robert Lowell’s wife experienced an extensive acquaintance, advised Stafford in August 1944 that insightful remembrances revelatory or productive of “clarity of soul might work in a lyric poem . . . but not in a story” (Hulbert 186). In Stafford’s maverick experimentation, however, just such lyrical insights, such “clarity of soul,” crystallize in prose fiction recognitions about difficultly overlapping personal worlds and contexts.

Stafford, by virtue of her marriage to Robert Lowell and her subsequent intimacy with emerging new critical kingpins such as Allen Tate, was subtly aware of and affected by aesthetically misogynist undercurrents which mined her confidence in her abilities to compose a serious novel. It appears in addition that the occasion of writing and revising BA put this matter directly and painfully to the test. At their annual retreat, Stafford was enveloped by pressures directly put upon her by Allan Tate, Caroline Gordon, and Robert Lowell. It seems they persistently urged revisions in her manuscript, the Tates in particular a “presiding influence” on the novel. Caroline Gordon went so far as to report that the novel had been “torn to pieces by fiends in the guise of friends” and that “we were all taking whacks” at the manuscript (Hulbert 160-161, 143). It seems clear now that Stafford’s evolving prose was inherently at odds with certain prevailing academic assumptions about writing which were taking shape in the 1940’s. Ironically, in writing her unique, variant version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stafford was coming to detest artistic preciosity and academic artists. She wrote cuttingly about their snobbery and lack of tolerance, denounced artistic and academic true believers as living in a “rarified atmosphere,” “lost and desolated people” in whom “there is something inimical to me” (Hulbert 167, 338).

In response to the public and private pressures upon her, Stafford seems to have quietly made of Boston Adventure a subtle combination of the focus on irony and hard, clean intellect and that lyrical, if suspect, “clarity of soul.” She infused the latter in the former in a complex piece of prose fiction which scrutinized and magnified the arena of Sonia’s perceptions. Sonia’s bildung is no “dangerous and enticing . . . avoidance” technique, no “mental retreat” (Ryan 99). Instead, it features the lively, self-enveloping recall Ihab Hassan has called “the acute reality of consciousness” (Hassan 198). Its highly concentrated brew narratively spells out what Sonia termed “unlearned knowledge of the soul” (Stafford BA 449).

Perception

Along with language and intelligence, in her recall Sonia also reviews the foundations of awareness. She finds powers of vision often turn out to be “obfuscated faculties” (413). Intuitively aware of culture’s obsessive scopophilia, Sonia’s recollections return to eyes, markers of perceptual acuity and mental ownership. In Sonia’s retrospective perceptual review, eyes exude “killing looks” (331), become “wintry,” “sulphurous,” “staring,” “glass,” “avian,” drooping.” (408, 461, 53, 115, 331, 337). Trapped by the visual, “a sliver of flawed mirror,” she is flooded with tropes of dismaying visual perceptions–of looks which wound, pierce and, more importantly, deform (41).

Swerving between illusions of visual accuracy and a warp of perceptual chaos, Sonia’s recollectings generate a spontaneous flood of images of distortion. Amorphous and unoriented fogs engender even more spatial and mental uncertainties. She dwells in “a gaseous sphere” in “blindness of the air [which] made . . . locomotion seem rotary….”(146) (emphasis added]. The familiar turns unfamiliar to Sonia in these perceptual breakdowns. Austere Miss Pride rolls “her eyes in a way. . . at once so omniscient and so repulsive that I had to look away from her” (336). Miss Pride’s “omniscient” eyes become potently emblematic of severe external authority, as impenetrable as her mother’s uncontrolled babble. At this point, Sonia is adrift in a frameless frame between two potential, yet nonviable role models–her mother and Miss Pride, neither of whom serve to help Sonia orient herself nor to formulate an independently generated sense of authority.

Boston Adventure is no tidy novel of manners. Its circumstances echo the grotesque nightmares in other unexpected first novels such as Spanish postwar novelist Carmen Laforet’s groundbreaking Nada [Nothing], a book which also inverts the categories of knowing, turning the familiar into nightmare for a young maturing woman, orphaned and alone, in post Civil War Spain.18Boston Adventure, like Nada, is a kind of modern Alice in Wonderland, a book which explores dichotomies and the grounds of authority. Such authority is first tapped in Sonia’s recollections by tenaciously disorienting visual disruption. Like Carroll’s classic, BA opens up potentials of dual perspective, of being two places at once.19 Indeed, much like Alice, at one point, Sonia finds herself “long[ing] to see from the outside these windows through which I looked. . . ” (254).

In these inner adventures, that is, in her pursuits of perspective, Sonia initially does not allow herself, cannot accept a dual perspective, cannot fathom herself both as self and observer. She is instead stuck in an observer role. In these earlier stages, she is passively caught, virtually without inner perspective. At this time, authority or authorship are synonymous with something wholly external, something outside herself. This conclusion is, however, untenable, and, in the perceptual maelstrom generated by a host of incompatibilities, Sonia undergoes an Alice-like breakdown in proprioception:

I felt that I was undergoing a radical physical transformation and was sure that if I could look at my feet ( I was prevented by the unshakeable rigidity of my neck) I would find them twice their normal size and that my hands, pendulous at my sides, had likewise doubled their proportions, while my neck and face were suffused with a rashy red. I was further certain that if I were called upon to speak, my voice would issue either croaking or inaudible. (260)

At this point in Sonia’s retrospective recollections, such distortions of perception record Sonia’s teetering disbalance in a sea of confusion generated by the violent incompatibility of potential models, Miss Pride and her mother, Hopestill and Philip, external authorities and the authority of books, Sonia and Sonie’s potential powers.

Midway through the novel and the recall, superimpositions of perception, naming and doing emerge as signal of her distressing absence of orientation and also of movements towards another orientation. Sonia’s adventures in the novel are perceptual after all, not mere physical encounters in the streets and houses of Boston. They manifest her increasingly actively discerned sense of internal division: “It was [Sonia considers] as if . . . I was the chimera, the reflection in the flawed looking glass, the misquoted doctrine” (333). This sense of being chimerical reflection in a “flawed looking glass,” a doubled creature, a “phantom of myself, projected into Boston . . . . “(339) furnishes just the shape of “the plot of narration” at this point in Boston Adventure.

Such uncertainties of orientation evidence in a series of superimpositions.20 Indeed, the keystone of Sonia’s changing perspective occurs in an unexpected, ventriloquist-like language-nexus with her mother. One day when she thinks she is talking, she senses, “it was her mother who had spoken, not I,” and then again, later in the novel, experiences the same overlaying of her own voice and that of her mother, “I heard my mother’s voice and experienced the now familiar sensation that it was actually she who was speaking” (420, 504). Sonia’s recollectings develop a montage of scenes, superimposed one on another–juxtapositions of Miss Pride’s male and female zones, contrasts between a warm fire in the next room and an impression of the night’s cold and darkness, or Miss Pride’s sudden entry into Sonia’s formerly inviolable space–the Red Room. These persistent and odd doublings underscore the two tides of influence influencing Sonia’s divided relations to external authorship or authority.

Marked increasingly by this superimposed visioning, Boston Adventure calls attention to a condition Stafford elsewhere names bilocation.21 A character in Stafford’s never completed novel “State of Grace” muses about bilocation, which according to Hulbert furnished a means of “mediating the hidden internal world and the threatening external world” (Hulbert 334). Sonia recalling herself simultaneously experiencing such capacities engraves a growing, though initially transient, sense of independence. Like Alice, Sonia’s has indeed been a life and death struggle for authority, for accord in an unknown chaos, an accord Sonia sporadically calls an “intense and total knowledge” (354). Gradually, Sonia, a Russian narrator capable of embracing chaos, is coming to supplant Sonie the frightened little girl of the novel’s beginning (213). In terms of the history of American women’s fiction, Stafford’s prose uniquely moves to compose “a novel about . . . dislocation . . . to experiment with less structured prose” (Hulbert 337). Perhaps without knowing it, Boston Adventure succeeds more than Stafford or her critics ever gave her credit for, both in the innovatively caught thought-life of Sonia and the novel’s relatively unrecognized persona shape.

The book’s end makes clear in Sonia the grounds of the “external authorship” she had earlier despaired of “demonstrating.” Critical reactions however, have uniformly targeted that ending as flawed.22 These negative responses pivot around “story plot,” in what happens to characters in the story and not “the plot of narration.” In terms of the “plot of narration,” Sonia, by the end, demonstrates a finished mental balance, a comforting homeostasis which is product of the inner perspective she has come to accept. At the end, standing in front of Miss Pride’s house, after completing what she calls Hopestill’s history, Sonia composes the scene in front of her:

saw all the details overlaid by a film, by an impalpable smoke like the twilight which presently would absorb the sun…immediately upon the full development of my feeling that Boston was a part of the past for me just as it was so completely for Hopestill, I was brought back to the present time and knew again that these realities had not diminished in size and distinctness. Years hence they would perhaps, after Miss Pride was dead, and they would be like the trees of an avenue which perspective reduces and shrouds. (537)

Here, in contrast to earlier feelings of inferiority, Sonia finally recognizes “some intelligence in my eyes” (537). Actually, in addition to completing the story of Hopestill’s life, Sonia, in the extended recollecting which is the novel, evokes her own story as well and, in so doing, is “demonstrating” to herself the validity and reach of her own inner perspective.

The late twentieth century has seen rapid fire shifts in thinking both about women writing and women characters. From focus on women characters’ exclusion and victimization and authors’ entrapment by male conceptions of art, many are locating positive contributions by women writers, identifying alternatives to standard literary histories of women authors, theory and characters.23 It is possible now to recognize Sonia as persona narrator and Stafford’s novel as integral, influential parts of twentieth century women’s literary history, efforts to redefine the issue of subjectivity, what Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse identifies as the problem of “Subject and object and the nature of reality” (23). Stafford is part of a relatively untapped line of American women writers who have also been quietly “experimenting with techniques for probing ‘feminine consciousness’” (Kaplan 11). In American literary history, the entire subject of consciousness has met with irregular interest and respect. Undeniably, presentations of inner life and its associated autonomy have been differently received than in English literary history. Additionally, it appears also that modernism in its inward experimental phases emerges later for American women writers in the United States than for British women counterparts Woolf, Richardson, Sinclair and Mansfield. In intensive “probing” of the development of inner perspective, Stafford’s Boston Adventure intimately consolidates an independent conception of woman-subject, woman-object, and the nature of writing-reality.

Closeness

By novel’s end, Sonia’s recollections spawn a widespread, though not entirely conscious, intimacy that clashes with a cold lack of intimacy in the ways of Miss Pride and Hopestill. This contrast between characters parallels a conflict between Stafford’s techniques and modernist aesthetics. The novel’s closeness of perception and emotion contrasts male modernist conceptions of artistic impersonality and distance. Some recent studies have concluded that the critical overemphasis on distance may have distorted women writers’ contributions to modern fiction. Suzanne Lanser suggested that “The absence of narrative distance in Richardson’s representation of female consciousness may help explain why her achievement was overlooked and the credit for ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative was handed over to Joyce and Proust” (Fictions 106-107). That is, the technique resulting in Miriam Henderson’s unmitigated self-presence in Pilgrimage was deemed deficient in requisite artistic distance and, as a result, argues Lanser, Richardson’s innovations in internal narrative perspective were significantly undervalued.

In another reading of the effects of aesthetic distance, Mary Gordon has introduced the term “radical closeness” as an alternative, not in style, but in the fiction’s content. “Radical closeness” would, Gordon argues, entail “an attending to the small matters of women’s lives in a literary environment where ‘masculine’ aesthetic distance alone [had the power to make] the representation of female consciousness respectable” (qtd. in Lanser, Fictions 106). In literary settings in which intellectualized aesthetic distance served as standard of excellence, Boston Adventure‘s unique narrative perspectives reside in an intimate alternative forged in both substance and style. Thus will Sonia’s hard-won inner emotional perspective contrast radically with Miss Pride’s much talked of, but never achieved, objectified and “distanced” memoirs and with Hopestill’s ultimate distancing of herself from motherhood and society in her calculated, “accidental” suicide (531).

Stafford’s novels do not merely introduce “small matters” of women’s lives. Hers is a validation of an independently generated authority which frees one for closeness. In the course of her recall and the novel, Sonia becomes simultaneously namer, definer, interpreter in her own house of memory and awareness. It is essential to recall again Stafford’s concerns that perhaps women “cannot write” a book like A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man because “her experiences are not neatly ordered.” In this unique, brilliant bildungroman, Stafford establishes that a young woman’s bildungsroman is not fatally disordered, but radically differently ordered.

Memory

Probably the place in which Boston Adventure most directly “writes over” modernist practice concerns memory–both its reach and locus. Stafford’s ostensibly “idiomatic” mixture of Proust and James (Hulbert 148) makes three theoretical shifts: 1) it quietly redefines memory, 2) it reorders the sensory hierarchies, and 3) it charts connections among memory’s contexts. The book’s wide-ranging experiments with memory are borne out by Sonia’s evolving inner authority. Boston Adventure results in what may be taken as a Stafford “theory” of memory. The theory serves as key to the evolution of Sonia’s narrative authority and develops Stafford’s independence of prevailing male modernism.

It first appears in the second half of the book in Sonia’s recall of her brother Ivan’s grave during a particularly uncomfortable present-day episode with Hopestill. Unexpectedly, Sonia identifies two kinds of memory contingent upon their relative intimacy: recollection and memory. “Memory is a sort of entrepot,” Sonia muses, “serving the busy traffic of the unreflective mind. . . . ” In contrast, “recollection . . . can be seen only at certain hours and those being far apart.” Memory is accordingly a manipulation of surfaces, while recollection achieves a closeness which “revives” the “rapture” and the “fever” in addition to recording the number on the thermometer. In memory, “the essential has been extirpated, whereas it is the essential and only the essential that recollection values” (353). The distinction tangibly affirms the intimacy and intricacy of recollection. When seen in modernism’s revitalized contexts, it is also a recognition on Stafford’s part of the living, active past and memory in which, as well as in the streets and houses of Boston, Sonia’s adventures take place. Boston Adventure and its narrator aspire to generate a resolution to problems of external authorship in terms of recollection.

Various scenes probe and bear out the importance of this distinction between abstract memory and recollection. Remembering the Red Room, Sonia observes that her “spiritual optic apparatus” was so powerful in its ability to register the details of a “room so singularly tangible . . . that she knew it was not a memory” (431). [Emphasis added] Though only half recognizing its happening, Sonia is keenly defining an orientation for herself in the otherwise unstructured sensory flow of memory, on the way to directing recollection and authoring her own orientation. After a childhood of unorienting extremes and polarized choices, Sonia looks after her own recollections, freed of the preformulated psychology and intellectuality she despises in Hopestill.24 One day, while listening to a “revenant,” that is, remembering a section from Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavichord,” she slides into visceral recollection and activates in herself an intimate mind-linked-to-body “tranquility.”

That revenant, whose single tune had joined my very blood so that its floating through the canals of my body depended for the tranquility of its progress upon the cadences of that passage of music, purling in my ungifted throat, brought back, as the sight of her grave had been powerless to do, the person of Hopestill . . . . (534)

Significantly here, sound, the perceptual mode which previously had been synesthetically smothered by sight, begins to emerge. Sonia, recalling a later occasion inside Miss Pride’s house, observes with pleasure that it was “remembered not perceived,” that is, recollected with a full directing of sensory apparatus, not only the visual (537). Stafford’s theory of recollection differs significantly from Proust’s Combray remembrance because recollection involves more than a static photographic recapture of an external scene; it generates and entails acutely synergized internal activities.

In the novel, this is a very important change. Earlier, Sonia could not author a break from the dominance of sight, “I could not,” Sonia rues, “submit the part of the mind that hears without the protection of the part that sees” (314). As Sonia’s developing authority grows, she simultaneously trusts another sense, sound: “What broke my ghastly reverie was the registration of sound on my mind. . . . My hearing re-established my spatial relation to the outer world’s complexities and immediately thereafter my judgements were restored” (460). Sonia’s Boston life is forcing her to construct her own perceptual hierarchies, something which her amorphous childhood language experience in Book One failed to help her do. In Miss Pride’s ritualistic world, Sonia is externally assuming the garb and manner of sophisticated societal balance, while in her inner world she is involved in a struggle for orientation as reflected in her restless, growing concern for perception and clarity in her authorship of herself.

A recent study of women’s experimental writing has stressed need for the “closest attention,” so as to discover “narrative spaces for female subjectivity to come endlessly to life” (Gray 7, 173, 6, 7). Such activity parallels Sonia’s ever difficult, near-kaleidoscopic recalls of an amorphous inner life gradually coming under her direction. This evolving capacity for self-direction evidences in the dynamics of her relations with the critically controversial passages with the Red Room.

The Dynamite All Important Red Room

Site of Sonia’s “closest attention,” the Red Room functions as a barometer of her evolving capacity to heed an inner emotional perspective. At first, she peremptorily controls the room as her inviolable possession. Finally, however, the five engagements with the Red Room precipitate an independent self-interlocution, as opposed to her previous reliance on external validation.

The Red Room at first is linked with external control, “an achievement of will,” as she calls it, freed both of her mother’s chaotic mind and the rigid social customs of Miss Pride and Hopestill (458). Initially, Sonia would “willfully . . . force myself downward through a red wind until the door to my imagined room was opened and I stood upon its threshold”(457). Basking in contrived, distancing control, Sonia first relishes her ownership over something: “Under my own merciful auspices, I had made for myself a tamed-down sitting-room in a dead, a voiceless, city where no one could trespass, for I was the founder, the governor, the only citizen” (449). In a swoon of control and ownership, she even brags about the exactness of her re-creations: “My memories of rooms where I had been were delineated with the perfection of detail of truthful photographs” (458). Shelved away initially beyond an invisible, sonically impenetrable, glass door, both the glass door and Sonia’s needs later give way to a new kind of inner confidence.

In keeping with the scopophilia of the earlier recall, initial figurings of the Red Room are wholly visual, “static, pictorial . . . like a projection on a screen” (424). Later, in a pivotal scene, this dominantly visual-pictorial framework disintegrates. It occurs in a ventriloquist scene with her mother when, after playfully repeating a phrase in German, her mother’s language, Sonia becomes convinced that she has heard her mother speaking in the words her own lips are repeating, “Instantaneously, upon my image of her which accompanied the sound of her voice through my lips, she vanished like the will-o’-the-wisp and what stood before me was the red room” (504). In this fortuitous apparition of the room, Sonia has ceased segregating sound and vision. In addition, in the very pitch of her own voice, distance between herself and her mother has been bridged. In a sense, here, Sonie has begun to turn into Sonia.

On this, the final occasion, even the room is unusual, flooded by superimpositions: “The apparition had never been quite like this before . . . I saw, framed by soiled and motionless curtains, in a flat opposite me, a real face but one which I could not see clearly since it appeared to be obscured by a sort of mist. It was an old woman’s face whose eyes seemed to be urged from their sockets a little, staring at me with malevolent fixity” (504). The face proves to be not her mother’s, but Miss Pride’s, who has gained access to Sonia’s would-be retreat: “Miss Pride was there, in the flat across the courtyard . . . her eyes pursued me” (504-505). In this crucial visioning of the Red Room woven with superimpositions of contexts, of sound and sight, order and chaos, Sonia literally comes into possession of both worlds, her own and Miss Pride’s. She is precipitated into a world without the divisions which had previously shielded her from potentials in herself. A dialectic between imposed control and lackluster neglect, between her mother and Miss Pride, foreign worlds and Bostonian custom, has shaped the novel, Sonia’s recall and these keystone adventures with the Red Room. In the concentric, overlapping contexts–of perception, language, intelligence and narration–Sonia’s actions with the Red Room begin to signal and validate an external authorship which gradually makes room for an inner perspective.

As artificial, imposed authority dissolves and the barriers between sound and vision erode, the Red Room ceases to be inviolate. Not only does Miss Pride threaten the room, but, ultimately, Sonia, almost involuntarily, finally also enters the room. In a hypnagogic, dreamy state at a party at Miss Pride’s, Sonia senses “something outside myself, a violent force” impel her over the threshold and into the room for the first time (505). Once inside, she fights a battle with Miss Pride’s surgeon-like eyes and tries to encounter peace in her books, a peace which she does not find. After intense unease, besieged by fears of inheriting her mother’s madness, Sonia sees Miss Pride blink her eyes, and, simultaneously, the invented room vanishes, not to appear again in the novel (505). Sonia is precipitously awakened into the public arena in the party by the sound of Miss Pride’s, “Well, what a profound slumber you’ve just had” (505). In this nexus of public and private worlds which supersedes the final appearance of the Red Room, comes a profound dis-ease in Sonia who feels her world is still divided into two parts–one an unreal inner retreat. In a veritable whirlwind of doubts, Sonia craves certainty, an external equivalence, to “find the room in the real world before the real world intruded” (504). This is the turning point in Sonia’s authority crisis. As she gains in intellectual maturity in the recollection, she recognizes the importance of an inner dimension to her quandary. The rest of the novel reveals her struggling to come to accept that internal authorship.

Even before the final apparition of the Red Room, she had confronted that inner perspective with a sense of dread, a “fear of myself,” “of my own mind” (459). Now in uneasy awareness after the barriers between the Red Room and “real” life have eroded, she hopes to find some ultimate validation of her inner perspective from an external source, so as to “demonstrate the external authorship of myself” (459). In the spell of this felt need for external authorization, she seeks acceptance for her story of the Red Room in a world outside her. Accordingly, she hurries to Nathan, old friend and former model of independent male intellect, emblem of the real, the “immediate and frenzied world” (514). She discovers, after recounting to him a long story about the Red Room, that he had not been listening. She is oddly freed by this disinterest and failure to hear, feels as a result, “wise, mature, and safe” (514). The failed external interlocution with Nathan is important; it demonstrates to Sonia that she does not have to accommodate the Red Room to the real world or vice versa. Instead, she has found, the whole inclusive reach and locus of her mind–internally and externally–is sufficient. She recognizes no need to insist upon external validation nor fear intrusions of an inner world. In coming to attend to and accept the validity of the perspectives acquired by her “remembering self” (505), Sonia-narrator of the novel now finds her confidence and articulation solidly definite and sufficiently competent.

In sharp contrast to the unreceived story she told at Nathan, Sonia’s self-directed narrative which is the novel, works. At the cemetery, a half year after Hopestill’s death, she completes her recognition that she had “come of age in knowledge of [Hopestill] and of her milieu” (519). Unlike the story told at Nathan, the recollected story—the novel—is a recognition of Sonia’s slowly having “come of age.” What she herself did not recognize in the telling of the story at Nathan is recognized in the reflective-narrator’s recollecting of the novel. In it, she encounters the most reliable of interlocutors, the interlocutor who furnishes the authorship she seeks–herself. Sonia, in drawing to the close of her reflective-narrative at the cemetery, recognizes that “she had come this long way in the cold to finish her history” and feels “energetic and as if I had completed a difficult task” (533, 536). Looking back later at the Red Room, Sonia with the advantage of an evolved inner perspective knows that it was an astute “removal from the world which was not an escape so much as it was a practiced unworldliness . . . . a removal which was also . . . a return” [emphasis added] (425), a return to a clearer sense of herself in the midst of the distracting worldly demands of society in Boston. The search for external authorship is over, replaced by the acceptance of her authorship of herself and its painfully forged but comfortably inclusive inner emotional perspective.

In spite of the observation that “there is very little that remains . . . perplexing or disturbing in terms of Stafford’s technique, structure, or style,” and an obituary concluding “Miss Stafford held to traditional forms and accepted ways” (Oates 62-63; qtd. in Roberts 416), Stafford is a key, though overlooked, twentieth century experimental writer. The novel’s massive structural and textual complexity discovers in itself an unconventional way of literarily “authorizing” contours of modern awareness. Male modernist theory to the contrary, Stafford, Glasgow, Cather, and others, are important not only because they unashamedly engage “small female matters,” but because their narrative structures delineate inner perspectives and emotional interplay often largely inaccessible to their male counterparts.

Jean Stafford A Biography by David RobertsJean Stafford. A Biography by David Roberts

Throughout her career Stafford engaged in her way the underlying materialist/positivist crosscurrents of her times, which frequently considered matters of consciousness “small matters” indeed. Correspondingly, Philip Rahv’s proposals for flamboyant, action-charged changes in the novel’s title manifest the inappropriateness of such readings.25 Rahv is thoroughly missing the point. Boston Adventure is indeed an adventure, in consciousness, in becoming articulate–in terms of intelligence, language, perception and memory–both in the world-at-large and in oneself. In it, Sonia and Stafford come to articulate the contours of that inner and outer adventure into which each willed herself into Boston.

The narrative action as a whole undermines Miss Pride’s final, patronizingly hollow challenge, “Sonie, my dear, come out of the cold. You’ll never get to be an old lady if you don’t take care of yourself” (538). Sonia’s recollection and the novel demonstrate an authority/authorship which threatens seriously to disarm Miss Pride’s final “omniscient-eye[d]” challenge (538). It is, thus, significant in Sonia’s recall that Miss Pride, emblem of tradition, is finally rendered relatively harmless, capable only of an “inarticulate” memoir (375). Sonia’s novel leaves her laughing, for a reason of which she is unsure, outside, not inside, Miss Pride’s domain (538). Like Stafford, she has not resisted but modified prevailing “authorities” and their “omniscient-eye[d]” certainties in a novel infinitely more powerful and comprehensive than any memoir. Miss Pride does not know what a reader may know here at the end: Sonia has saved herself for herself, and Miss Pride needs her more than Sonia needs Miss Pride and her idle civilities.

This novel constitutes the most concentrated achievement of Stafford’s tortured, broken writing career. Unlike Sonia, Stafford was unsure of the integrity she had earned in an often patronizing, male-aesthetically centered literary cultural environment. In spite of Boston’s Adventure resolutions, Stafford personally was, it appears, never able to complete to her final satisfaction her account of Lucy Me Gee, the woman after whom Hopestill is modelled.26 She did, however, come to “respect myself as a workman and as a human being,” to realize that “what I have done, I have done to save myself for myself” (Hulbert 233). A like recognition underlies Sonia’s veiled laughter at the end of the novel. Critically misdirected search for external authorization has obscured recognition of both Sonia’s and Stafford’s internal experimentation. Substantially under-recognized critically, Stafford’s Boston Adventure, in the light of late twentieth-century re-conceptualizations, could bring to her reputation now the honors which the novel’s recognizing and valuing of inner perspectives have courageously earned.

Notes

1 It rapidly sold 40,000 copies and then some 200,000 copies as a Book League edition and 125,000 in its Condensed Armed Services edition (Hulbert 182). Statements from letters and other unpublished materials which appear in Ann Hulbert’s biography will subsequently appear in parenthesis with Hulbert’s name.

2 Stafford, Boston Adventure, 275. Subsequent references to this edition will be parenthetically in the text as (BA).

3 Over the years, critics struggled to pinpoint Stafford’s modernity. For Al Cohn, BA was “Jamesian in what was then a modern way,” and Philip Stevick considered her a “representative, late modernist” (qtd. in Goodman 298; Ryan 145). Auchincloss praises Stafford’s “unique aesthetic appeal,” calling her “first and foremost a novelist.” (153, 160).

4 Ryan, 33; Hulbert 148; Charlotte Goodman ranks The House of Mirth superior to BA as a novel of manners in “its authenticating detail” and regrets that Stafford “fails to provide . . . any sense of how we are to view Sonie’s shortcomings” (142-143).

5 In completing Boston Adventure, Stafford feels she has broken free of her “mutation style,” a “pallid and loose-jointed introspection” (qtd. in Goodman 65, 157).

6 On the porch remembering her life aloud to Phoeby, Janie is “full of that oldest human longing–self revelation” (6). Elizabeth Meese’s commentary pinpoints a focal point of persona narration: “By transforming Janie Crawford’s orality—Hurston’s intertexts—into textuality, the writer creates both herself as a writer and her own story, while Janie creates her life through language” (44).

7 Various critics link Stafford to James and/or Proust. For Eisinger, BA is the “finest exemplar of the Jamesian tradition in her generation;” to Auchincloss, it catches “the very essence of the master’s flavor;” Walsh finds “certain superficial resemblances in style and substance to James and Proust;” Roberts locates a mingled Jamesian/Proustian flavor in the novel (Eisinger 294; Auchincloss 152; Walsh 58; Roberts 209).

8 Hulbert 96; Stafford has written extensively of James and Proust, “Having been reading them simultaneously, [she says] “I am finding Proust lengths ahead on every score. James is never a pleasure to me and P. always is.” Furthermore, Proust’s “intensity demands complementary energy which in me is limited, but I know of no intellectual exercise so rewarding as reading him carefully. . . . That is, no exercise performed with another novelist unless it is James who in a way is better. . . . But the methods, inductive and deductive, are diametrically opposed and a comparison between them is precarious” (Hulbert 134-135). Stafford is reported to have proposed that BA was “a conscious imitation of Proust” (Roberts 209).

9 Suzanne Clark in Sentimental Modernism urges readers “to reconceive the question of a feminist authority and “to take advantage of the provisional, rhetorical, and parodic element of the sentimental” as byways to an unacknowledged authority (15). In Boston Adventure, Sonia Marburg finally comes into a distinctive, still unrecognized narrative and personal authority.

10 A persona novel involves “a narrator-persona who narrates a review of her of his own experience. The persona is thus narrator in the reviewing, which is to be understood as being done wordlessly in the narrator’s visualizing memory; the persona is, also, actor, in the experience being remembered . . . In all cases, the persona’s grip on what happened morally and/or physically remains deeply unsatisfyingly incomplete as the persona comes to the review. The minute detailed review of the experience constitutes the apparent story” (Chown 127-128).

11 Sonia’s guilt surfaces and festers–regarding her mother, her brother Ivan and Hopestill. She repeatedly tries to dispel her sense of guilt with her mother, “I rationalized. I said that she did not suffer as much as I since she was barely aware of her surroundings,. I repeated to myself the doctor’s exhortation that I must not feel guilty” (238). See pp. 131, 140, 426, 534 for other encounters with guilt.

12 In narrative terminology, a homodiegetic narrator takes part in the story they narrate; an auto-diegetic narrator narrates his or her own story. Sonia is probably simultaneously both. For further commentary see, Rimmon-Kenan pp. 94-96 and 104.

13 In the light of current revalorizations of mother and daughter links by Chodorov, Kristeva and Hirsch, Boston Adventure intensely develops the mingled love-hate bonds between Sonia and her mother. At the end, Sonia learns how to put up with herself and also to reassess her mother: “For the time being,” she notes, “I had walled up my mother into the farthest recess of my mind, knowing that the time would come when I must let her out again” (525).

14 In Lessing’s novel, Kate Brown observes that when she has difficulty completing a story, “It was because she was evading something by putting in the third person. She was trying to protect herself from the force of the dream by “A woman who . . . she . . . ” (Lessing, Summer 208) After recognizing the distancing effects of the third person, Kate Brown tries out the first person.

15 Current feminist scholarship has reconfigured both the goals and structures of women’s bildungsromane so as to challenge original definitions which require successful integration into society on the part of the maturing hero. Women’s bildungsromane consistently investigate the results of incomplete, skewed or independent development (See Abel and Federer).

16 These comments about time, language and individual habitation in them appear in Martín Gaite’s Busqueda de interlocutor, a book problematizing matters of women and narration (93).

17 Hulbert concludes that “Stafford emphatically denied her character the fruitful circuit that Proust granted Marcel. Sonie was Miss Pride’s disillusioned secretary–an amanuensis charged with a hopeless project, the old lady’s memoirs–not a real writer. . . . Sonie was neither an artist nor really an heiress . . . . (148).

18 Goodman for one calls Boston Adventure, “an American Jane Eyre” (143). In its surreal scenes, parodies of family life, and bizarre love motifs, Boston Adventure foregrounds the nightmaresque development of a young woman’s integrity in modern times.

19 After swallowing the small cake, Alice’s propriaception unravels as does Sonia’s, “When she looked down at her feet, they seemed to be almost out of sight, they were getting so far off.” She too loses contact with language, “her voice sounded hoarse and strange, and the words did not come the same as they used to do . . . (Carroll 21, 24).

20 The novel develops in a series of superimpositions: Sonia’s two places, Chichester and Bay Street; two women role models: Miss Pride and her mother; two romantic possibilities: disfigured Nathan and supercilious doctor Philip; and two stances towards life: the verbally controlled and the emotionally open. The novel’s dominant superimpositions record a “tactile mingling and overlapping of scenes which conmingle in the striated substances of memory” (Chown, “Carmen Martin Gaite’s Postmodern Autobiographics,” 2).

21 Bilocation appears to have been Stafford’s partially developed and understood method for writing with a combination of inside and outside potentials which Hulbert deems a “schizophrenic perspective” (334). It may be however the seat of Stafford’s evolving complexity as a modernist writer who incorporates just such dual perspectives.

22 Reactions to the novel’s ending are consistently negative: “ominously inconclusive,” “an abdication of active accommodation,” “a compromise” (Hulberg 219; Goodman 141; Ryan 13). Such conclusions overlook Sonia’s increasing inner integrity, Mozartian capacity to laugh and modulated authority. Roberts is one of the few to concede that the power and complexity of the novel may well lie in “Sonie’s inner life” (219).

23 For some studies presenting women writers and characters who constructs shapes of understanding which endure, see in particular Gray; Kaplan; Lanser; Yaeger.

24 The novel presents the discipline and field of psychology as confining, “newfangled” and apt trap one in what Stafford called “the absorbing bear-hug of ego-centricity,” or “psychiatric cant ” (Hulbert 331, 224). Hopestill Mather succumbs to the “welter of her introspection” (116 ). Other examples of the unfavorable role of psychology abound (275, 434, 299).

25 Philip Rahv proposes alternate titles which reflect an inappropriate understanding of Sonia’s adventure: “A Boston Venture,” “The Siege of Boston,” “Late Pilgrimage,” and “Belated Pilgrimage.” Even though Rahv explains that his shift in emphasis “takes the sting out of ‘adventure,’ I mean the sting of romantic and popular appeal,” his response reveals the incompatible environment in which Stafford wrote (Hulbert 182).

26 Throughout her career, Stafford tried unsuccessfully to continue and complete the story of her Boulder friend Lucy Mc Gee’s suicide in a series of unfinished manuscripts, most specifically “In the Snowfall.” For more information about attempts to complete that story and her other unfinished manuscripts, see in particular Roberts 78-99; Goodman 34-52; Hulbert 35-38; 230 and 270.

Works Cited

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Chown, Linda E. “Carmen Martin Gaite’s Postmodern Autobiographics.” Unpublished article.

—. 1990. Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in the Novels of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. New York: Garland Publishing.

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About Linda E. Chown

Linda Chown is a poet and critic. Originally from Berkeley, she lived in the Bay Area until going to Spain and teaching there for some 15 years. Now living in Michigan, she is professor emerita at Grand Valley State University. She has published work in Signs, Numero Cinq, Foothill Quarterly, and many other journals. There is also a book comparing novelist Carmen Martín Gaite and Doris Lessing called Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Writings of Carmen Martín Gaite and Doris Lessing, as well as extensive writings on Lessing, Woolf, Martin Gaite, Willa Cather, and Coetzee. Recent reviews and poems, including “On The Other Side of Language, appear in Numero Cinq‘s archives.

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