Christina Stead in America

by Fiona McFarlane


Christina Stead was born in Rockdale, Sydney, in 1902. Rockdale is a few stations along the Illawarra line from Hurstville, the railway station closest to my parents’ house, and I traveled through it every day as I went to and from high school. Stead sailed from Sydney to England in 1928, moved to the USA in 1937, then back to England, back to America, back to England (where her husband died), and finally, after an absence of forty-one years, returned to Sydney, where she lived in a flat above her brother’s house in Hurstville. She died in 1983, which means that for the first four years of my life I lived five minutes away from Christina Stead. In 1982, my family moved to Scotland. I saw snow for the first time. By the time we returned to Sydney in 1984, Stead had died.

My family and I had no idea who Christina Stead was. Her death didn’t matter to us (our cat had run away from the people who stayed in our house while we were in Scotland – that mattered). And it doesn’t matter, of course, that for a few years I grew up in Stead’s proximity, although it does give me one of those fruitless, bookish thrills to imagine I might one day have passed her in the supermarket. And what if I had? I didn’t know, at three years old, that I would grow up to be a writer, that I would love Christina Stead, or that I, like her, would live in England and America and return years later to Sydney to live (initially at least) with my family, five minutes from Hurstville. None of this makes me a better writer or a more interesting person, no matter how optimistic I might be about these possibilities. But writing books has so often seemed such an unlikely thing to do – for anyone, and certainly for a girl from suburban Sydney – that to see proof that someone else has done it, and especially a girl from suburban Sydney, can make an enormous amount of difference.

Of course, Rockdale in 1902 was a pretty fancy place – when Stead’s family was forced to move, Watson’s Bay was considered a downgrade. Before the move, Stead lived in a large and lovely house that is now (for reasons of largeness and loveliness, rather than literariness) a museum.[1] And when she returned to Hurstville, she wrote to her friend, the American poet Stanley Burnshaw, that it was ‘dreary, dusty, hot, out of the way,’ and that she was living ‘an extremely dull suburban cut-off life’ among ‘soccer-playing fiends.’[2] So perhaps she would have been just as surprised as I am that an unremarkable three-year-old in the supermarket aisle would grow up to write books.

Stead’s main archive is in Canberra at the National Library, but I found her verdict on Hurstville in Burnshaw’s archive at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas – a city in which, somewhat improbably, I lived for three and a half years. The Ransom Center is full of talismanic objects and manuscripts, so when I first arrived and had grown somewhat accustomed to the Texanness of it all, I typed the name of every writer I loved into the search catalogue. I was delighted to find a number of Stead’s letters in other writers’ archives, and I pursued them not only because I admire Stead so much, but because I’m fascinated by the history of her readership in the United States.

When I moved to America in 2006 to take up a writing fellowship in Massachusetts, I was collected from the airport bus by a delightful and well-read man (the coordinator of my fellowship) who told me almost immediately that The Man Who Loved Children was one of his two favourite novels. This revelation didn’t come about because I’m Australian, but because I’d flown to Boston from London via Iceland and his other favourite novel was Icelandic – Independent People, by Halldór Laxness. I was surprised and happy that this man, who lived on a strange, sandy peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean, had not only heard of a female Australian writer, but considered one of her novels a favourite. It made sense to me, though, that The Man Who Loved Children would be that novel. My first introduction to Stead, in the Sydney University Australian Literature department, was For Love Alone. For Love Alone is a very Australian novel – a very Sydney novel, and of course Stead’s first wonderful, cranky, impossible novel, Seven Poor Men of Sydney, is so Sydney that I couldn’t stand it until I moved overseas, tried again, and fell in love with the way it loves Sydney. But although The Man Who Loved Children is achingly autobiographical, a version of Stead’s own family’s move from Rockdale to Watson’s Bay, it’s set in the United States – in Washington D.C. and in Maryland. (There are two versions of why this is: the first is that Stead’s publishers urged her to write about America and Americans, and the second is that she did it to protect her family.)

The result is an absurd, beautiful, thickety book that’s haunted by another version of itself in which Georgetown and Eastport are Rockdale and Watson’s Bay, and Sam Pollitt boils down a shark for oil, rather than a marlin. When The Man Who Loved Children was first published in New York in 1940, all of its critics (Mary McCarthy, for example) noticed that its characters weren’t actually American (they were usually accused of being English). And there were plenty of critics, and plenty of reviews, when the novel came out in 1940 – many of them good, and in all the right places. But The Man Who Loved Children sank out of sight after publication.

Despite studying For Love Alone at university, I knew very little about Stead herself when I first arrived in America – I didn’t know, for example, that she was reviewed by people like Mary McCarthy or that she was much better known in the US than Australia until late in her career.[3] We also have the dubious honour of being the only country ever to have banned one of her books (Letty Fox: Her Luck in 1947).[4] So the early champions of The Man Who Loved Children were almost all American, and the most notable of these is Randall Jarrell, who’s credited with resurrecting the novel with the remarkable introduction he wrote for a 1965 edition: ‘The Man Who Loved Children does a single thing better than any book has ever done. It makes you a part of one family’s immediate existence.’[5]

Jarrell actually went public with his private love of Stead’s book in a brief New York Times Book Review article in July 1955. He explained that he’d spent ten years recommending it to friends, and that these friends in turn surprised Simon & Schuster so much by ordering their own copies that one of them received a letter from the publisher asking why they’d selected this particular book. Just one month after Jarrell’s piece, Elizabeth Hardwick published an article in New Republic called ‘The Neglected Novels of Christina Stead’ in which she declared that, ‘The dust, grimly, meanly collecting, has fallen upon a work of sheer astonishment and success.’[6] The energy produced by the Jarrell-introduced reprint lead to the re-publication of Stead’s other novels and made a considerable difference to her reputation in Australia, so that by the time the Sydney Writers Walk (that strange literary monument) was created at Circular Quay in 1991, Stead was a natural addition. But by the time I arrived in Massachusetts in 2006, very few American readers – and I was meeting a lot of them – remembered Christina Stead. The man who collected me from the bus, the man who loved The Man Who Loved Children, was an anomaly.

Then, in June 2010, Jonathan Franzen published an article in the New York Times called ‘Re-reading The Man Who Loved Children’, in which he claimed to have plucked Christina Stead from obscurity in much the same way Jarrell had done forty-five years before: ‘This crazy, gorgeous family novel is one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century.’[7] By 2010, I was living in Texas – I had already found those letters with their ‘Hurstville’ return address in the Ransom Center – and all my American friends were suddenly asking me about this Australian writer they’d never heard of. To have Jonathan Franzen voice his public support of this apparently forgotten Australian novel was both galling and gratifying. I loved Stead and wanted everyone to read her, but, but, I hated the idea that Franzen claimed to have ‘discovered’ a novelist who was taught in my undergraduate classes and had loaned her name to one of my country’s most prestigious literary prizes. I was also annoyed by the way in which he talked about the ‘fine accident’ that set the book in the US rather than Australia. This seemed to imply that, had the book been more Australian, he would have been less impressed by it.

(Which leaves me wondering: if The Man Who Loved Children were set in Sydney, would Randall Jarrell and Jonathan Franzen have loved it, have championed it as much as they did? Would its other admirers – Susan Sontag, who compared Stead to Tolstoy, or Saul Bellow, who thought Stead should have won the Nobel Prize over him – have felt so strongly about it? Is there any point speculating about a book that doesn’t exist? In her letters, Stead talked about drastically re-writing the book for Australian publication and restoring Sydney to its rightful place. She never did, of course, and although I’m sort of wistfully curious about the possibility, I’m glad.)

In fact, reading the Franzen article and fielding my friends’ questions and comments about it drove me into a frenzy of irritation and possessiveness, very much as if I had read the novel back in 1940, recognised how good it was, and devoted the rest of my life to making this plain to the world. And through Franzen’s article, I discovered that he wasn’t the only American writer of his generation to love The Man Who Loved Children: Jonathan Lethem was ‘crazy for’ the novel, and David Foster Wallace taught it in his classes at Pomona College. What an odd thing: all these vigorous young American male writers loving this novel that pretends to be an American book about a man, but is really an Australian book about a woman. While I was living in Austin, the Ransom Center bought Foster Wallace’s archive, including his annotated teaching edition of The Man Who Loved Children. I spent an enjoyable few days with it, most delighted by the points at which he was moved to make exclamations in the margin like ‘Gaa!’ and ‘BOOM’ and ‘They have a special dance!’ There are also quite a few passages in the book that Foster Wallace annotated ‘ASK FEMINISTS.’

Stead was famously curmudgeonly about feminism, and in his article Franzen wrote, ‘I suspect that one reason “The Man Who Loved Children” remains exiled from the canon is that…her allegiances are too dubious for the feminists, and she’s not enough like a man for everybody else.’ I find the word ‘exiled’ interesting here, as if the canon is a beautiful kingdom from which Christina Stead has been driven by a feminist angel with a flaming sword. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Franzen that Stead’s voluntary ‘exile’ from Australia, from the cultural conditions she found there and the life she would have lived if she’d stayed, might have anything to do with this ‘not x enough, not y enough’ quality. Perhaps Christina Stead and The Man Who Loved Children belong to our history of the novel, our canon, and there’s no need for them to be annexed by anyone else. And yet all this talk of annexing and kingdoms and exile is so imperial, as if any of that really matters when there’s a book this good and people still want to read it.

In 1939, while writing The Man Who Loved Children, Stead wrote to her stepmother that she didn’t want to see Sydney or anyone from the old days. At other times she wrote longingly of ‘southerly busters’ and the Australian sky. In 1975, firmly established in Hurstville, she wrote to Burnshaw that ‘I left my life lying on the shore of other countries and I came to Australia. No question of coming back – you can’t come back…[P]eople expect, with an understanding smile, that I will say I am glad to be home, or something. I am not home.’ Those were sobering words to read while sitting in Texas and contemplating returning to Sydney after an absence of ten years. And some of my own letters, since returning, might have sounded similar – in certain moods, at certain times of day. But not all of them, or even most. Hurstville now has a large Chinese population. Its main street is lined with Chinese grocers and restaurants and butchers and I go there to buy dumplings and bok choy and char siu. It’s a much bigger place than it used to be in 1981, in those days when Christina Stead and I passed each other in the supermarket.

[1] A casual sort of museum, though, only open on Sunday afternoons:
[2] Southerly have asked me to include scholarly citations for these posts, and I wish I could, but my notes and books are currently on a container ship somewhere between Sydney and Charleston. I read this description of Hurstville in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
[3] It’s worth noting that Southerly was always a supporter of Stead’s, publishing ‘The Hotel-Keeper’s Story’, part of The Little Hotel, in volume 13, issue 2, 1952.
[4] See Nicole Moore’s ‘The Totally Incredible Obscenity of Letty Fox’:
[5] Randall Jarrell, ‘An Unread Book’, The Man Who Loved Children, New York: Rinehart & Winston, 1965.
[6] New Republic, 1 August 1955.
[7] Jonathan Franzen, ‘Rereading ‘The Man Who Loved Children’’, New York Times, June 3, 2010