‘A Vermeer in the Hayloft’: Christina Stead, Unjust Neglect and Transnational Improprieties of Place and Kind

Abstract

Published in New York to muted praise in 1940, The Man Who Loved Children was re-issued in 1965 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston with a long and impassioned introduction by the poet and presiding lion of American literary criticism, Randall Jarrell. Jarrell’s argument about The Man Who Loved Children was anchored in a recognisable rhetorical move – the perspicacious identification of the unjust neglect of a palpable masterpiece, with the powerful argument this supported about issues of canonicity, literary judgement and mid-century American reading. Jarrell’s deployment of the topos of unjust neglect and his concomitant call to universal value was powerfully anticipated by another great American literary critic, Elizabeth Hardwick, ten years earlier (1955). Their arguments were enough to pull Stead into the light of the canon of comparative world literature by the mid 1960s, but not to secure her place there. After repeated recuperations on the grounds of being unjustly unread, Stead’s literary fame now seems to be founded in some part on the phenomenon of being repeatedly unread or proleptically unreadable. This essay addresses the structures and outcomes of this uncanny circulation of reading and non- reading and suggests that a priori questions of category and classification might offer another way of thinking through the activity of rediscovering again the work of Christina Stead.

Christina Stead referred in many different ways to the fact of her intensely mobile life: her peripatetic life is figured in her letters interviews and novels as the ‘snake’s life’, the picaresque life, the life lived by the seawoman or the gypsy girl.1 More than eighty years after the publication of her first two books in 1934 it is possible to see Stead’s mobility as the centrally energising and centrally constraining fact of her literary production and reception. Her relentless mobility has had ambivalent effects, both constitutive of and yet in some ways strongly detrimental to her career. Mobility has made certain kinds of very interesting trouble for her literary reputation perhaps most keenly seen in the trope of delay or deferral that characterises her reception in general. The tension between enablement and impossibility wrought by gendered transnational mobility is a feature of Stead’s literary afterlives, but, as this essay…

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Published 7 December 2016 in Rediscovering Christina Stead. Subjects: Critical reception, Transnationalism, Christina Stead.

Cite as: Morrison, Fiona. ‘‘A Vermeer in the Hayloft’: Christina Stead, Unjust Neglect and Transnational Improprieties of Place and Kind.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 6, 2016. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.a746944c30.