Disenchantment in Jean Stafford's Short Fiction
Mary Ellen Williams Walsh
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, Stafford groups ten stories under the heading, "Cowboys and Indians, and Magic Mountains." 1 The heading, which suggests a romantic, mythic West of the past filled with red men and white men in conflict, ironically comments on the contemporary, restricted lives of the characters in Stafford's stories who grow up overshadowed by that myth. For Stafford's central characters are girls and young women and a small Indian boy. They live in a modern West, most of them in one small town, a vantage point from which they get only occasional glimpses of the glorious West that was. They are, for the most part, separated both by time and by sex from the expansive Western tradition which provides a sharp contrast to their cramped and painful lives.
Seven of the stories are set in Adams, Colorado. In the "Author's Note" to The Collected Stories, Stafford writes that her "roots remain" in this semi-fictitious town. Adams, Colorado, is in an important sense Stafford's Yoknapatawpha. The stories she sets there strongly define her perception of the reality of the lives of girls and young women in the West. Adams is a quiet college town in the foothills of the Rockies. For each of Stafford's characters, however, the geography of the town is more narrowly defined than in this generalization. For most, the geography is rather bleak; for some, grotesque. The restrictions on their lives are exemplified in how they see where they live.
Nine-year-old Jessie, "The Healthiest Girl in Town", sees Adams as a place where three different classes of tuberculars live out "their static, cautious lives" (p. 197). The rich live in a re-