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The Big Lookback: Christina Stead
Three pieces, two writers, one novelist
Assembling a list of recommended novels for the February Xgau Sez set me to thinking as I often do of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which last time I tried to play this game ranked just below Dreiser’s Sister Carrie on my favorite 20th-century novels list. One reason I think of it so often is that the same two novels are pretty much my wife Carola Dibbell’s faves too, especially if a bye is granted Ulysses (and also, she reminds me, Tinker Tailor). As it happens, both of us were introduced to Stead’s masterpiece by the guy who introduced us to each other: the lifelong leftwing activist-gadfly Fred Gardner, in my view the first ‘60s radical to perceive that not all GIs were prowar and hence a crucial figure in getting the U.S. out of Vietnam. In addition, both of us read Stead’s masterwork precisely the same way—chapter by thorny chapter one by one until we stayed up all night downing the 100-page climax. I wrote about it and Sister Carrie in my memoir, Going Into the City, and also found myself reviewing Stead’s posthumous I’m Dying Laughing (as well as more Dreiser) in an omnibus fiction column for Barnes & Noble Review. Carola, meanwhile, devoured all the Stead she could get her hands on and wrote her Village Voice obit in 1982. So I thought I’d compile all our Stead writing—edited for focus and clarity in my case and with a new final graf informed mostly by Hazel Rowley’s 1995 Stead biography in Carola’s—in And It Don’t Stop. Here goes.
Like A Horse and Carriage
The saw that The Man Who Loved Children is “one of the most truthful and terrifying horror stories ever written about family life,” to quote the Time blurb on the cover of a 1966 Avon reprint that has survived two readings due to advances in cellophane tape technology, is only creditable if you allow that few families are horrified by poverty quite so byzantine and gothic. As awful as Sam and Henny Pollit are, they might have achieved a workable truce if egotistical idealist Sam had any grasp of domestic finance or office politics and budget-fudging Henny had reined in her needs as the spoiled daughter of a moneyed wastrel or milked her over-leveraged family for funds.
Yet in a book of five thousand details, Stead’s determination to pin down the Pollits’ fall from genteel eccentricity to genteel penury is dwarfed by her facility at imagining unique voices for Sam, Henny, and Sam’s daughter by his first marriage, Louie. And her genius is to make each of these voices a mark of genius itself. The voices don’t stop there—Louie’s structurally unnecessary stopover with her dead mother’s people is only one locale where other distinct conversationalists emerge. But those three signature vernaculars dominate everyone else’s except, crucially, Stead’s. All three—Sam’s baby talk and hideous eugenic-socialist theories, Henny’s tirades and snobbish contumely, the bibliophiliac grandiosity Louie affects as she balloons into adolescence—read slowly, as prose poetry so often does, and Stead’s own prose, which it’s said she seldom revised, is poetic as well. This doesn’t mean it’s literary, however—sentences patter on past their appointed destination, crawling with stray modifiers and substantives but always hewing to a hectoring beat of their own. If you try to read her too quickly, you miss all the fun, or whatever that species of pleasure is called. But in addition to savoring descriptive patches that vie with anyone’s—the Baltimore precis that begins the chapter called “Tahoga to Spa” is a stunner—you begin to hear Stead’s own fed-up third person as a sane and welcome respite from the principals, who were nevertheless sure to fascinate the next time they opened their mouths.
Stead was Australian, the daughter of a naturalist very much like Sam Pollit who married an American Marxist economist named William Blake, an arbitrageur who turned to writing successful and then unsuccessful historical novels. The Man Who Loved Children was her fifth published book. She was persuaded to reset its story in Washington on the grounds that no one wanted to read about Sydney, but although it was well-reviewed when it appeared in 1940, no one wanted to read about Washington either, and Mary McCarthy, ever the stickler and just conceivably miffed with the Blake-Steads’ failure to condemn the Hitler-Stalin pact, complained that she got her local color wrong. But that’s not how it reads—Sam’s Artemus Ward steals, to single out one touch McCarthy bitched about, are no less plausible than the rest of his personal lingo, which is said to mimic that of Stead’s father with devastating accuracy. And although the book does make a horror story of a family’s life if not “family life” in general, the horror story is also a fairy tale, a bildungsroman, and a low comedy.
Egomaniac and shrew Sam and Henny are, but their six kids are acutely drawn individuals who are having a ball, romping more than cowering through the pseudo-scientific fantasia Sam would call nurturance and others abuse as their world never quite falls down. It’s rare for a major novel to observe children with such gimlet-eyed affection, and that achievement alone drew Carola and I to this one. Soon we were cheering the belief in her own teenaged “genius” that powers Louie’s struggle against abuse—ungainly as her verbal outpourings are, her will, appetite, productivity, and sincerity are so indomitable that the half-accidental murder she half-commits feels like a natural event and the inauspicious escape she manages feels like a denouement. And throughout the book we were laughing. Arbiters of taste looking to put a seal of approval on The Man Who Loved Children like to sum Sam up as a monster, but he’s also a comedian, which is why his kids adore him and why his unexcerptable monologues make you grin and shake your head. Henny’s tirades are appalling, with the codicil that her rhetoric puts her in a league with Pope and Celine. But that rhetoric is an amazement almost as much as a terror, and like Sam’s exerts a head-spinning comic magnetism. “Black comedy” became a thing well after 1940, but Stead was onto it.
— from Going Into the City, 2015
Excessive civility is never Christina Stead’s problem—she created or copied from life one strong woman after another. Yet she was too old and crabby to appreciate second-wave feminism, and few of her strong women were what you’d call role models. Commonly slotted either a satirist or a naturalist, she was in fact both simultaneously, with her own expressionist twist and a sense of craft many find unruly; as often happens with great writers, she was a driven original. Usually Stead manifests her research, memory, and imagination by piling up details omnisciently. In The Man Who Loved Children, where most of the detail comprises perorations by and conversations among a husband, wife, and daughter with their own grotesque and eloquent declamatory styles, the talk is what keeps you going. So now say hello to the posthumous I’m Dying Laughing, a sprawl of a tragedy assembled by Stead’s literary executor from fragments that abandon one key character midway through. It’s dominated by novelist, screenwriter, apostate Communist, and amphetamine addict Emily Wilkes, who in turn is based unashamedly on Stead’s good friend Ruth McKenney—and sometimes, probably, cribbed verbatim from McKenney’s since-destroyed letters to Stead.
Rich and famous via the frequently adapted My Sister Eileen, McKenney was also a card-carrying Communist, as was her well-born husband, whereas Stead and her Marxist economist husband were only committed fellow travelers. But all four were threatened by McCarthyism. So one of I’m Dying Laughing’s sticking points is its obsession with the Communist Party, which Emily resents and worse for many good reasons, yet can’t do without—just as she can’t do without the luxuries to which her royalties and her husband’s annuity have accustomed her. Inexhaustibly, often at one of the awful dinner parties Stead excelled at, Emily rants about and exemplifies these contradictions, both poles of which are so unattractive that many of the book’s few readers find her monstrous. But to me it’s clear that Stead finds her irresistible, not monstrous, brimming with desires, values, and ideas she lives to put into words whether they hang together or not. More naturalist than satirist in the end, Stead refuses to judge.
While the C.P.U.S.A. may be history, the Hollywood left certainly is not, imparting to I’m Dying Laughing a kind of permanent currency. And its hallucinatory feel made me wonder how come Robbe-Grillet and David Foster Wallace are experimental and this isn’t. In a suspense that typifies an aesthetic where closure is a delusion, you keep waiting for Stead to launch a denouement that finally comes lickety-split after you've grumpily concluded she left the thing unfinished.
Excerpted from Barnes & Noble Review, December 27, 2013
Christina Stead, 1902-1983
By her own report, Christina Stead almost never revised. “It just comes out like that,” she said in an interview a year before her death. Stead was then 79 years old, still writing, and the author of 12 novels and several collections, all relatively obscure until recently, at least one of them a candidate for greatness. When she died at 80, most of Stead’s work was back in print. Even so, the critical status of this Australian original is uncertain, partly because her work is difficult, partly because the claims of her partisans run so high. And partly, we must consider, because of her sex. A woman novelist is more likely to be called eccentric than original. That said, it has to be admitted that Stead was an extremely eccentric writer.
A Stead novel is shapeless, chatty, cluttered with unpruned incident. It drums, or drones, or pounds, or patters on. The voice is impatient, vaguely derisive. Many people cannot read a page of even her most likable work, The Man Who Loved Children, its great weight lightened by the gaiety and oddness of the children who make up most of the cast. I love this novel. But I haven’t finished several other Stead books; I just close them suddenly. Something there is about this woman’s prose that can stop a reader cold. In subjects, Stead had a taste for intolerable situations, intolerable people. Like her wretched antiheroine Hennie Pollit, Stead’s language preferred pickles to sweets. Like the Pollit household, it found comfort in dirt, in leavings. Her settings are seedy, her prose unshockable.
Stead had a weakness for wretches, ne’er-do-wells, idealists, bohemians, neurotics, geniuses, slatterns; misinterpretation, oversights, irritation, extremes; deftness, slop, quaintness, baroque blarney, brute directness; physical contraction, mental space. Her sense of the ridiculous was so viselike that when she eased it for a page or sentence the effect was stunning: the conclusion of Miss Herbert, the last novel published in her lifetime, six parts snide, one part pure mercy, is like a freefall in a dream. She loved the stuff between categories, and the categories. She was a realist, but her realism concerned meaning. It was a democratic realism, and leftists love her for this, I think, as well as for her ideological ambience. She cared less about the conflict between choice and the inexorables, consequence and inconsequence, pattern and disorder than she did about the mesh, and, astonishingly, she caught it. She got it in words.
Though many have considered The Man Who Loved Children a titanic achievement, Stead’s work never generated the acclaim it deserved, not to mention the royalties. She had a difficult life and became a difficult woman, especially after her husband’s death in 1968. Stead spent her last years in Australia, where she’d been denied the Australia-Britannica prize because she’d resided mostly abroad, and it was in Australia that she died. She is survived by one of the oddest and most wonderful voices in the English language and a vision of a universe governed by not just forces outside our control but a wild and implacable need for play.
Revised February 2023 from the version that appeared in the May 1983 Voice Literary Supplement.