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


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 will suggest, the rhetorical moves that sealed this double helix of possible and impossible were in play during her lifetime. This essay will address the terms, and long-term effects, of these critical moves, as well as the proposition that her lifetime itself contained at least one (but possibly several) internal ‘literary afterlives’. I will explore Stead’s ‘literary afterlife’ in terms of rhetorical figures of deferral, related questions of literary politics and literary value and the fundamental impact of her persistent transnational movement. In using the phrase ‘literary afterlife’, I am following Benjamin’s seminal essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923), which showcases his rich understanding of literature, temporality and modernity. Caroline Disler suggests that although Benjamin’s word for ‘afterlife’ – fortleben – does connote ‘survival’, ‘a life after’ and ‘renewal’, there are better words in German for these precise meanings. She argues that Benjamin uses fortleben because this word is suggestive of progress, separation, complementarity, supplementation, futurity and transformation (‘Benjamin’s Afterlife’ 10). These terms offer richly nuanced possibilities for the literary afterlife, but they need to be considered in the less utopian and much more resistant context of reading the work of a highly mobile Australian woman writer whose work presents such strikingly ambitious, experimental and political engagements with gender, genre and place.

The contemporary interest in questions of the transnational, in world literary writing and in globalised production and reception of literary texts would seem to promise a new round of genuinely interesting theoretical coordinates for Stead – well-fitted to advancing the cause of more precise and persuasive readings of her considerable oeuvre that spanned such significant time and dispersed space. In some senses this turns out to be true – the well-worn circuit of reading Stead anew for different times and different theoretical commitments continues to push our understanding of her work forward; the question of the transnational is no exception.2 In contemplating the ‘fit’ between theories of transnational literary production and reception and the question of Stead’s oeuvre, what emerges is something more than a routine sense that we are always reading authors in new ways for new theoretical intensities, commitments and emergences. The transnational moment and its potential for a retrospective critical purchase on the mid-twentieth century means certain questions have become clearer and may now invite more precise and persuasive answers. It is certainly a moment in which the linked questions of gendered authorship and the material cultures of print production may be posed with renewed vigour. Nevertheless, one of the cognate questions raised by this examination of Stead’s literary value, literary reputation and ongoing structures of deferral relates to the way in which the category of the nation might well operate as the primary or constitutive ground of literary recognition. This account of Stead’s reception suggests that without the ground of the nation as guarantor of literary identity, transnational literary recognition may well remain untethered and unstable.

In Stead’s case, the question of ‘reputation’ is cyclically posed yet cyclically unsecured. Since the early reviews of her earliest work, and then the first rounds of scholarly criticism from America, England and Australia, a perverse repetition and amnesia has marked the question of her reputation. The degree of insecurity with its perpetuated impetus for rediscovery is now particular and particularly notable. It seems that we are always ‘rediscovering’ Christina Stead in a structure of repetition that seems unimaginable if the author were Faulkner, White, Dreiser, Melville or even Lawrence, and the repeated need has come to connote literary neurosis rather than reasoned if always heavily freighted emphasis. Her claim to significant literary reputation seems very great, but at the same time doomed to a messianic temporality of the reputation ‘to come’ – the reputation that will emerge but just not yet. This conceptual futurity reminds us of Derrida’s characterisation of justice – elusive, mutable, undecidable propositions that are always speaking to the future, notions therefore saturated with ambiguous investments and utopian longings.

This essay will focus on the key rhetorical regime under which Stead’s re-discovery has been attempted on two significant occasions in the mid-century, which have, I would argue, dominated the terms of Stead’s literary reception and reputation ever since. ‘Recovery’ reviews of Stead’s oeuvre by the mid-century American critics Elizabeth Hardwick (1955) and Randall Jarrell (1965) solidly deploy the topos of unjust neglect in order to secure Stead during her lifetime (and her 1940 novel, The Man Who Loved Children, as her symptomatic masterpiece) in the list of twentieth century literary greats. I am interested in why this cultural and critical literary work ultimately failed, after substantial early success; Stead is still neither particularly read (though less unread at universities than is generally suspected), nor is she a well-worn feature of the map of world literature. She is, however, the redoubtable object of essays about being unread by anybody but a shadow set of ‘true readers’ and their de facto underground canon of great books (see also Jonathan Franzen in 2010).

Indeed, after repeated recuperations on the grounds of being unjustly unread, Stead’s literary fame in an abstracted sense now seems to be founded on (or at least inflected by) the ways in which she is well known for not being quite well-known enough. She is unread because, through insistent repetition, she is topologically unreadable. The cyclical recovery of Stead stages what Vilashini Cooppan suggests is an ‘otherness that repeated return injects into the place of the familiar’ (10). This uncanny mechanism of ‘repeated return’ has made Stead, or at least her putatively great work, haunted, uncanny and possibly illegible. Elizabeth Hardwick was to say of Melville in her later and very successful project to revive his work: ‘This obscurity, or neglect, was to become part of the dramaturgy of Melville’s image, even for those who hadn’t read him in the past, as well as for those, more than a few, who haven’t read him in the present’ (‘Melville in Love’ my emphasis). Hardwick’s reading, with its focus on temporality, aligns in interesting ways with Cooppan’s extended work on the uncanny in its temporal mode, which she identifies (following Derrida) in the form of the undecidability of those concepts which suggest a doubled frame of now and the future (what she terms the ‘now-future’). These concepts, of which justice and democracy are Derrida’s strongest examples, are noncoincident with themselves because they are always ‘to come’ and as a result they are spectral and elusive in the present. Cooppan argues that this uncanny undecidability of time suggests a renvoi – a deferral or referral.

This mechanism of the undecidable temporality of that which is present and also to come is played out in Andrew Bennett’s work on the Romantic poets and the thematics of posterity. Bennett argues that the attestation of genius (as the apotheosis of literary fame) is always already about deferral and delay. Greatness rests quite squarely on delayed discovery:

The institution of the aesthetic in late eighteenth century Europe may be said to be bound up with a new sense of the necessity of deferral as an element of critical reception. Once the genius has been defined in terms of originality, in terms of an inaugural break with tradition or convention, then a delay between the production of work and its reception becomes inevitable. (131)

The key role of originality in judgments of greatness means that truly great works of art can never really be appreciated in their own time, especially not by the ever-expanding popular audience. Bennett suggests that the Romantics held on to the idea that if the author’s work was recognised and appreciated in his or her own time, then the author had failed the ‘genius’ test of the new. Posterity would therefore deliver the true test of the greatness and authenticity of original work. This Romantic sense of delayed or deferred recognition is a return to a classical sense of the lasting renown granted by posterity rather than judgments in the present (perhaps the real conclusion after all of the poet-speaker in Chaucer’s House of Fame). This Romantic sense of the importance of posterity in literary judgment continued into the twentieth century, with greater technological acceleration of print media and an even bigger and scarier middle class and it is here that ‘re-discovery’ after a period of delay became even more important.

The resolution of deferred recognition through re-discovery foregrounds the importance of literary criticism and its agents. The remediation of neglect (actually the necessary delay, if we follow Bennett) was often powered by the rhetorical engine of arguments about unjust neglect – a favoured argument in the resuscitation of works of importance and/or genius. After the Romantic period and through the long nineteenth century one key job of the passionate literary critic was to be the hand of posterity. The literary critic was in a position to undertake the recuperation of neglected texts and thus bring the work of the original mind to the attention of the literary sphere. Theirs was the remediation and just redemption of neglect. The topos or argumentative ‘place’ ‘of ‘unjust neglect’ is purpose-built from Book 1 of Aristotle’s De Rhetoricae, which proposed both common and specific topics that might aid the orator’s invention of compelling arguments. These topoi were delineated positions from which arguments might unfold. The question of the good and the virtuous are two common topoi, as was the question of the just. Justice was a workable and well-understood rhetorical end, and in its forensic or judicial robes, the question of justice was always a question of past events. In literary critical contexts, however, the question of justice or its lack is also a platform for praise or the establishment of renown – a way of assessing the present state of things by assessing literary merit or value. Bennett sees deferral as being a key element of the assessment of greatness and justice and we can pick up the threads of Cooppan’s argument about uncanny time (based on Derrida) and reiterate that justice is also a question of that which is present and also ‘to come’. In the case of Christina Stead, the literary critical rhetoric that emerged as part of an effort to revive interest in her mid-career work, The Man Who Loved Children (1940), was obviously based on the topos of unjust neglect. This revivalist criticism emerged in the mid-1950s from both Randall Jarrell and Elizabeth Hardwick, only fifteen years after the publication of this book. The terms of this attempted revival were dominated by American literary politics in certain interesting ways, but also clearly participated in the kinds of argumentative structures outlined by Andrew Bennett. I will now turn to the rhetorical force of the literary critical effort to negotiate Stead’s standing as a genius and her work’s status as a masterpiece. It is the nature of this rhetoric and its lack of long-term efficacy that forms the subject of the rest of this essay, and I will go on to argue that it is not only temporality which is of interest in the question of Stead, literary reputation and literary value, but also the textured and difficult matter of gender and transnational space.

Judgments about greatness and the neglected geniuses of American literature who needed to be recovered constituted a very serious industry in the immediate post-war and Cold War American literary world. No group was more assiduous in this work than the New York intellectuals, among whom Elizabeth Hardwick was numbered, though mid twentieth-century American literary critics of all stripes were determined to find some neglected geniuses. Recovery work undertaken by a band of literary scholars and critics in the postwar period tells us a great deal about the way in which we still read the American literary history of the 1930s through the lens of the 1950s. I would suggest that this lens on the ’30s from the ’50s is a key fact in the reception of Stead and one that has dominated the work on her since Hardwick and Jarrell defined the terms in which she might or should be read. Their decision to recuperate Stead was connected to the cultural mechanism of literary recovery, but the work undertaken around them was avowedly connected to American identity.

The Man Who Loved Children was recuperated in America in the mid-1950s and early 1960s by positing Stead as a ‘neglected genius’ and the novel as a ‘world classic’. One of the many interesting aspects of Stead’s ongoing recuperation is that it has been attempted while she was well and truly alive. A similar timing has marked the recovery work on Dreiser, who has fared much better in general, it must be said. The foreshortened time of deferral between publication and true reception is important in the case of The Man Who Loved Children, emphasising the key dividing line of World War Two, but also indicating that Stead, as a left-wing woman writer surviving in the hostile Cold War years after a politically torqued 1930s, was equivalent to ‘missing, presumed dead’. This fact of political affiliation as the equivalent of literary death is part, I would argue, of the sense that one of Stead’s literary afterlives occurred in the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, while she was alive but negotiating the hard facts of existence as a left-aligned political writer attempting to survive in the Cold War in Europe and England.

In 1955, Hardwick published an essay in The New Republic called ‘The Neglected Novels of Christina Stead’ in which she registers this serious case of the missing author. She starts by suggesting that ‘there are many roads to neglect’, but that the ‘road’ in Stead’s case involved being actively sidelined: ‘set aside, misplaced, quietly and firmly left out, utterly forgotten, as the bleak phrase has it’. The ‘utterly forgotten’ – the ‘bleak phrase’ to which Hardwick refers – appears most notably in St Augustine’s Confession (Book 10): ‘For we have not as yet utterly forgotten that which we remember ourselves to have forgotten. What then we have utterly forgotten, though lost, we cannot even seek after’ (The Confessions of Saint Augustine 181). The bleakness of the ‘utterly’ references Augustine’s assessment that ‘lost’ is one thing but absolutely fallen out of memory is another kind of negation. Fifteen years after publication, The Man Who Loved Children in particular was beautifully reviewed, recovered and revived by Hardwick under the sign of neglect, and the terms of this neglect were serious – neglect amounted to not only being unread, but actively and effortfully forgotten.

Hardwick continued to flesh out the terms of Stead’s literary disappearance by figuring it as an inability to be visualized. Here she produces an elegant litany of negatives – a performance of negation that reinforces the sense of Stead being so forgotten that she cannot even be sought:

At the present time none of Christina Stead’s work is in print. Her name never appears on a critic’s or journalist’s list of novelists, she is not a ‘well-known woman writer’; she has written about finance, about Salzburg, Washington, Australia and yet neither place nor subject seem to call her image to the critical eye … She is, as they say, not in the picture, not right now at least, and therefore one cannot learn much about her past or her present. (17, my emphasis).

The visual tropes are intriguing here as formulations of negation: Stead cannot be seen because she cannot be visualized – she is a blind spot. ‘Out of the picture’ – the more common usage – can be glossed as dead, departed, irrelevant. ‘Not in the picture’ also denotes being uninvited and unwanted, but specifically connotes being blackballed – left out in the political cold – a phrase indicating Stead’s lack of political favour. The resonance of this phrase would have hardly been lost on Cold War readers – it had been in common lexicon in Hollywood and other areas of the Arts in the US from 1947 as a way of identifying the active conspiracy against suspected Communist and fellow travellers to ruin reputations to the point of unemployment and non-association. Stead’s lack of visibility – her inability to be called to the critical eye even in the context of reading her work (neither place nor subject seem to call her image to the critical eye) indicates the lack of mooring or security, a kind of disremembering that has overtaken her literary work and presence. One implication here is that the active forgetting marking Stead’s career has a political dimension. Another is that she is so unusual, so wide-ranging and international in topic that she cannot be tethered to her own work. The corollary here is that she cannot be placed in time (one cannot learn much about her past or her present) and she cannot be ‘seen’. This is indeed a testament during Stead’s lifetime (she was in her early 50s) to the nature and material effects of her unorthodox transnational movement and the ambitious and unusual nature of her work.

Hardwick, who would go on to write a monograph on the unjustly neglected Herman Melville (also neglected in his lifetime, also a pioneering and experimental realist), argues that the image of lost art treasure – ‘a Vermeer in the hayloft’ – ‘has always stirred men’s hearts’ but that the reality for Stead is that ‘the dust, grimly, meanly collecting, has fallen upon work of sheer astonishment and success’ (19). This parallel with Vermeer builds on Hardwick’s argument that Stead cannot be called to the critical eye – which extrapolates her sense of Stead as a kind of blind spot – she is ‘not in the picture’. Stead’s work is equated to the fate of a Vermeer, which here offers the formulation of a picture that is not in the picture, as it were – a doubly negative mise en abyme of an image that perhaps should be in a gallery but can’t be seen. Citing the Dutch master is a canny move, and, importantly, a European one. Vermeer was a provincial genre painter neglected in his own lifetime. After being re-discovered in the mid-nineteenth century (by the French art critic Etienne Thoré, who began buying Vermeer as early as 1860), Vermeer became posthumously renowned for his domestic interior scenes of middle-class life and his treatment of women in this space. The time of neglectful delay in the case of Thore’s recognition of Vermeer was 200 years. Hardwick’s sense of the dust collecting on Stead’s work goes to a deferred scene of recognition of fifteen years, for a work that she identifies as ‘neither old nor new’ – a complex mid-century Cold War scene of reading where the book seems to exist in a kind of categorical confusion that surrounds the untimely or non-continuous that Vilashini Cooppan declares is the sign of uncanny temporality.

The lost masterpiece is part of the fantasy (the picture in the attic) of literary capital as treasure and almost pure profit: all that is required is for expert eyes to uncover riches left through the ignorance of others. Yet, expertise is critical: if the recognition of work or works of consummate literary skill is hard enough to achieve in the general way, then deciphering the singular example of quality or type is even more so, since originality and singularity are sui generis by definition; they exceed or confound common criteria and comparison. Hardwick’s essay on Stead in the mid-1950s showcases the unjustly neglected masterpiece line of argument that positions Stead as a neglected classic of European provenance, since no other position or place will do – there is not another place to put Stead. Hardwick’s own registration of the fact that she is not held in the critical eye – and even then there is no functioning place to put Stead, much less even quite see her in the first place – is a fascinating thorn in the side of the project of revival. However, Stead’s universal greatness (her Vermeer status) should, and indeed must, carry the day, which is so striking and yet perhaps inevitable in this period for a writer so specific and politically marked in her work.

It was a further ten years before another serious and even more sustained call to revive Stead’s literary reputation would emerge, and this time the call to universal literary merit would be sounded and would stick for a considerable time. This call came in the form of a 1965 introduction to a re-issue of The Man Who Loved Children, which obscured, for a while, the ‘blind spot’ around Stead and her work articulated by Hardwick. The prestigious American poet and critic Randall Jarrell read The Man Who Loved Children as a European (really quite Russian) book that had been tragically neglected. His introductory essay, ‘An Unread Book’, is a passionate thirty-page argument for justice for the neglected masterpiece and one that has qualified general readings of the work ever since. Randall Jarrell’s powerful performance of a reading of the unread book proved so persuasive that Holt sold over twenty thousand copies in a year (1965-1966) – at least four times the novel’s original print run – and Stead’s reputation as one of the great writers of the twentieth century seemed as though it had been made overnight, though twenty-five years later and while she was still living, now in her early sixties. Only one edition of The Man Who Loved Children published since 1965 has omitted the Jarrell introduction – the Everyman’s Classics edition, which includes a wonderful introduction by Doris Lessing, who does not speculate at all on why Stead isn’t read. The Miegunyah Press edition includes an introduction by Jonathan Franzen (first published as an article in the New York Times in 2010), but includes the Jarrell essay as an afterword, as corroboration of Franzen’s overt geneaological positioning of himself in the Jarrell line of ‘recovery reading’ of the unread book by the true readers and astute fans of Christina Stead.

Building on Hardwick’s Europeanised ‘Vermeer’ citation, Randall Jarrell identified Stead directly in international canons of writing and the category of world literature familiar from American studies of comparative literature (Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy feature strongly in this rhetorical strategy), thus sidestepping thorny questions of nationality and gender. Jarrell and Hardwick’s work to insert Stead into a world literary canon of neglected geniuses worked extremely well where really nothing else would serve because they either elided or neutralised those aspects of the American literary critical field that had made the Christina Stead ‘blind spot’ virtually inevitable: the political criticisms of the New York intellectuals, the problematic insertion of Stead into any canon of modernism, the vexed issue of what to do with satirical and political women writers. They both did this through an identification of universal appeal wrought through particularity: Jarrell finally and resoundingly sees Stead as being as ‘plainly good’ as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Proust for her extraordinarily original representation of the universal experiences grounded in the portrait of a particular family (37). This universal/particular axis of appeal was nothing unusual for literary criticism of the time, of course, but it must be remembered that both Hardwick and Jarrell would have known and understood – in general terms – Stead’s political and literary milieus of radical New York in the 1930s, so the recuperation worked through a rather tacit and important set of elisions – another registration of the ‘blind spot’ created by Stead’s various challenges to categorisation.

I have written at length about the Jarrell introduction elsewhere, but in this context it is worth pointing out that Jarrell’s consciousness of literary posterity and its exigencies was exercised in the context of American novels rather than European. The dialogue with Hardwick’s account of what it is to discover a book neither old nor new, and the melodrama of discovery, abandonment and rediscovery is quite clear here:

When we think of the masterpieces that nobody praised and nobody read, back there in the past, we feel an impatient superiority to the readers of the past. If we had been there, we can’t help feeling, we’d have known that Moby Dick was a good book – why, how could anyone help knowing?

But suppose someone says to us, ‘Well, you’re here now: what’s your own Moby Dick? What’s the book that, a hundred years from now, everybody will look down on us for not having liked?’ What will we say to them?3

Despite the dramatised self-mockery and implied ironies surrounding literary taste and critical judgment suggested by Jarrell’s hypophora, the ratiocinative urgency with which he addresses the injustice of Stead’s past, present and potentially future neglect (the urgent concern with posterity) drives his introductory essay and has made it powerful, influential reading for over fifty years. Moby Dick and An American Tragedy were the American comparisons to Stead summoned by Hardwick and Jarrell in the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. When we compare the fate of The Man Who Loved Children to these works of the American literary canon, we must say that Stead has fared less well in terms of ‘stick’. By continuing to be famous for universal greatness and unjust neglect, Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and her body of work continues to suffer a kind of strange and strangely persistent erasure. In Stead’s case, it seems that the claim of unjust neglect comes to stand in for (and be read instead of) the book itself, and the rhetorical effect here is to outline a space of repeated and ambiguous negation and absence. Through repetition, the assertion of non-reading becomes marked and stabilised as negation and as stasis, too.

Despite the setting, characters and plot of The Man Who Loved Children, the American critics did not recuperate Stead’s masterpiece for the project of American national identity. The implication from both Hardwick and Jarrell is that the American material, though compelling and virtuosic, was simply not authentic, though admirably particular. It was a hybrid and maybe even failed copy of America – a counterfeit that declared its strange hybridity and transnational instability by falling considerably short of a convincing performance of the place and time it sought to depict. Stead, by the American account in general, inhabited an international kind of space (probably a bit British) since Australian identity was not being performed by either book or author, and could not be properly or fully conceived by American critics. A more diffuse milieu of the tradition of Great Books (a location which emerged from older traditions of American comparative literature courses) was put into play for the Australian Stead’s masterpiece of American life. It was a placement which did not prove to be a stable location. The neutralisation of dissident and radical textual work that complicated the boundaries of nation, gender and genre – a neutralization in which Hardwick and Jarrell participated as admiring and astute fans of Stead’s work – failed to work as well.

As effective as the topos of unjust neglect of a world masterpiece appeared to be in 1965 (and again in 2010), it must be said that it is a topos that, of course, obscures the complex material conditions of production and reception and papers over, as it was absolutely meant to do, Stead’s pressing and brilliant engagement with genre, gender and ideology, which are really the grounds for her obscurity. Why is it that the placing powers of arguments about justice and world renown – the reference to universal literary merit – did not create a ‘place’ in the literary canonical gallery for Christina Stead? Reference to the worldly text and its universal appeal was meant to vanquish the problems with reputation, political affiliation, classification and the writerly and material effects of substantial transnational restlessness. The very thing that made the unjust neglect arguments for Melville, Twain and Dreiser stick in place was the category of nation. The sense in which Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were greats of the world literary canon is grounded in the security of their undoubted Russian-ness. The primary ground of national identity and the performance of nation in their work is the original and necessary step before comparative world literary recognition. Stead was and still is, to a certain extent, left with two things instead – no places and many places.

The fact that we seem always to be rediscovering Christina Stead is, therefore, imbricated in this point about no place and many places, which arises from (among other things) the citation of the world literary scale without legible national grounds securely established. The ultimate failure of the rhetorical powers to ‘place’ promised by the topos of the unjust neglect of the world masterpiece is related to the proliferation of classification and category summoned by this ‘no place/many places’ conundrum. I have no desire to ‘solve’ this by successfully domesticating Christina Stead; I don’t want to argue for a stronger sense of national categorisation and I don’t think that the transnational turn is going to produce necessarily any startling capacity to embrace, name, or marshal Stead’s work. Instead, I want to dwell on classification itself – especially the issue of the unclassifiable that this desire for secure greatness reveals. I will now lay out the ways in which the difficulty around classification may lie at the heart of often articulated difficulties with Stead’s writing. This is because the unclassifiable is the place of the atopic – from the Greek ‘not a place’ – and that which resists the force of the placing arguments of justice and neglect, and joins runaway forces with the semiosis of originality and of the sui generis.

In spite of the fact that the citation of The Man Who Loved Children as a universal worldly text should be the most convincing it has ever been in the context of the transnational turn in literary studies, I would argue that Stead remains resolutely difficult to classify. The unclassifiable – that which cannot be included within a class or category – comes from the Greek word atopos. In a mid-century French–Greek dictionary, Bailly glosses atopos as referring to that which is not fixed in any place, as well as that which characterises what is strange, extraordinary and inopportune (Bailly 303). Twenty years later, in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (34), Roland Barthes uses the word atopos/atopie to designate ‘the unclassifiable, of a ceaselessly unforeseen originality’ – the unusual, the unclassifiable, that which resists stereotype. For this purpose, he exposes the double sense of the word ‘topos’, which in Greek means both place and discourse. By the force of the negative prefix, a, atopos would therefore mean not only what cannot be coined in a single place, but also what resists description and definition (A Lover’s Discourse 34-35). It is from his theorisation of the unclassifiable and ceaselessly original in writing that Barthes formulates his concept of écriture and his account of jouissance – that which makes the reader uncomfortable and shakes her foundations.

The unclassifiable can also be associated with the idea of heterotopia, since we can also use the work that is unclassifiable to designate what may be included (if only provisionally) in several places at once, given the often contradictory diversity of its parts. In this case, all the categories in which it might be included are insufficient to accommodate it. In each category the heterotopic maintains its troublesome difference and explicit alterity – since it moves among various topoi, it does not allow itself to be enclosed in a single one. If the atopic speaks to Stead’s originality, following Barthes, then the heterotopic (what I think of as cognate with the encyclopaedic) speaks also to her internal movement and her literary ambition. That is one reason why her work remains ‘difficult’. Christina Stead: colonial, Australian, avant-garde woman writer, and left-wing political satirist on the move in between the global north and south in the early, middle and later parts of the twentieth century – of course Hardwick and Jarrell opted for the universal and the worldly. The complication of categories and the very ambition and international range of Stead’s fiction means that the badge of ‘encyclopaedic’ works well, despite its dissonance with the received categorical features of ‘woman writer’. ‘Encyclopaedic’ would never make for a good campaign slogan to secure literary reputation for women in any literary tradition, but it is in fact the international list of the literary encyclopaedists who offer some of the most interesting parallels and comparisons with Stead: Diderot, Balzac and Rabelais, Joyce, Melville and Pynchon. Again, the inherent categorical challenge posed by ‘encyclopaedic’ is part of the architecture of Stead’s literary reputation in the twentieth century.

If there is a cause of action or a case to answer on the question of the justice of Stead’s reputation and the vagaries of her literary afterlife, then a mechanism for ‘doing justice’ might be found in the ethical and rhetorical orientation of J. Hillis Miller, who has taken up Derrida’s work on justice in the context of literary close reading. As Derrida suggests in his essay on Hillis Miller, ‘Justices’ (which speaks to the dialogue between the two men across many years), the unceasing close attention to the strangeness of literary language and particularly to patient rhetorical readings of figure is where ‘justicing’ can be found. Hillis Miller’s deconstructive rhetorical reading doesn’t collapse Derrida’s sense that justice/democracy is always ‘to come’, but, I would suggest, instead performs a wonderfully critical and readerly capacity to acknowledge, again and again, the ceaseless originality and the true avant-garde spirit of certain literary work. As my reading of figure in Hardwick’s essay suggests, the ongoing process of ‘doing justice’ relies on our openness to specificities of gender, genre, political vision and literary language. Hardwick and Jarrell’s heartfelt and invested claims for Stead’s work and reputation invite us to continue to rediscover her endlessly as we read our way through and out from under wonderful and wonderfully sympathetic claims about her universal or world literary greatness. We might participate in the continuing deferral of justice, and even the recognition of genius, but we are arriving over and over at the moment of reading the magnificently strange and productively unplaceable work of Christina Stead.


  1. I thank Gail Jones for her question to me about the idea of the literary afterlife when I first presented this work as a paper. I also thank Brigid Rooney and the anonymous peer reviewers for invaluable suggestions about this material.

  2. There have been several key moments of taking stock of Stead’s reputation and of the state of the field. Above and beyond the kind of scholarly due diligence in most monographs and introductions to edited collections on Stead, Louise Yelin has concentrated on Stead’s critical fortunes in ‘Christina Stead in 1991’, World Literature Written in English 32.1 (1992): 52-54) and ‘Fifty Years of Reading: A Reception Study of The Man Who Loved Children’ in Contemporary Literature 32.4 (1990): 472-498. A decade or so later, Margaret Harris continued some stocktaking work with ‘Christina Stead and her Critics’, the introduction to an edited collection of essays, The Magic Phrase (2000), and then ‘Christina Stead at 100’ for JASAL 2 (2003).

  3. Randall Jarrell, ‘An Unread Book’, Introduction to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (Penguin: London, 1970) 36. Subsequent page references are given in-text.

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.