Morrison, Fiona. Christina Stead and the Matter of America. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2019. RRP: $45.00, 196pp, ISBN: 9781743324493.
Scholars of Australian Literature, in particular the work of Christina Stead, will find that Fiona Morrison’s Christina Stead and the Matter of America delivers a focused monograph of Stead’s American novels through a particular lens of literary transnationalism and what Morrison refers to as ‘gendered mobility, including the mobility of the colonial woman writer’ (6). Morrison explores Stead’s politics, how they relate to her view of American politics and culture, and how that view manifests in Stead’s work. Aside from its scholarly value, any reader of Stead interested in getting to grips with the drivers of her fiction will find this discussion around her American novels stimulating.
At the outset Morrison acknowledges the support she received from an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant and from the University of NSW, where she is Senior Lecturer in English, and generously points to the inspiration resulting from the influence of her colleagues’ work in Australian literature and literary cultures. The book is constructed as a series of six essays related to Stead’s American novels: The Man Who Loved Children (1940); Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946); A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948); The People with the Dogs (1952); and the posthumously published I’m Dying Laughing: The Humourist (1986).
Morrison argues that ‘Stead’s American novels reveal the work of the greatest political woman writer of the mid-twentieth century’, and that Stead produced ‘an account of American ideology and national identity that seems extraordinarily prescient, even today’ (5). The book separates Stead’s novels from the rest of her oeuvre and researches in detail the factors that informed her writing in order to offer both social and historical context. Morrison’s topics include ‘Fascist Miscellanies and the Allegory of the Domestic Front in The Man Who Loved Children’ and ‘The New York Love Market and the Picara Fortunata in Letty Fox: Her Luck’. Morrison suggests that it was Stead’s transnational movements—aged twenty-six, in 1928, she left Australia for Europe, then moved to America in 1935, returning to Australia aged seventy-two in 1974—that contributed to Stead’s ‘capacity to focus with such intention and attention on the matter of a nation that was not her own’ (153).
In erudite style Morrison forensically examines Stead’s socialist politics in The Man Who Loved Children, observing in ‘Fascist Miscellanies’ that the novelist targets ‘American exceptionalism, American imperialism and the drive for centrist economic reform’ (51). Morrison opens this essay with the argument that ‘Stead’s anatomy of America is a work of critical realism that engages and extends the genre of the domestic novel, and through this deployment, offers an allegorical critique of both house and nation’ (47), further expanding:
The family unit, so central to bourgeois identity and to liberal reformist agenda in the Roosevelt years, is portrayed by Stead to be a nightmarish prison house of oppression, interference and fascist authority. The political, economic and national life of America is viewed through the aperture of the Pollit family, with its homespun father-dictator, the vituperative mother-opponent and the children-subjects, with an especially important position given to the resistance fighter-stepdaughter who is faced with the need to engineer revolution from below. (51)
Morrison’s research also reveals that Stead was more widely read around American women’s revolutionary writing than previously thought, and that her reading of authors such as Meridel Le Sueur, Josephine Herbst, Tillie Olsen and Djuna Barnes contributed to this first American novel ‘about the very impossibility of domestic sentimentality by exploring the sentimental man as fascist’ (52).
Morrison brings a brightness to Stead’s writings through her analyses. She draws widely from essayists and theorists to illustrate each argument she makes, and delivers fully contextualised discussions that make for fascinating reading. For example, in ‘The New York Love Market’, Morrison explores Stead’s ‘emphatic horror’ surrounding the rhetoric of money in relation to romance with a discussion of the ideas of Jean-François Lyotard:
Writing, desire, appetite, talking, stories, scamming: Stead’s New York picaresques represent multiple kinds of circulation, starting with capital and moving through cognate economies of sex and story exchange. Jean-François Lyotard’s work, Libidinal Economy (1974) is usefully provocative in its insistence that every economy is libidinal and that the force of libido exceeds and contorts the circuits of capital rather than the reverse. Particularly in the shape of speech and the strong investments of certain kinds of voice, the intense aleatoric energy associated with libido seems to flood the economic system with affective intensity. (89)
In this study of Letty Fox and her ‘negotiation of the marriage market’ (101), Morrison also sees the revelation of ‘a parallel economy of quasi-prostitution as young New York girls try to find an advantageous mate’ (101). This is maybe an example of what Stead’s biographer, Hazel Rowley, observes as her subject’s practice of writing from life. In Christina Stead: A Biography, Rowley writes that Stead often said ‘she invented nothing in her fiction—neither characters nor plots’ (Rowley xi), and puts that Stead’s willingness to ‘observe ordinary lives and the extraordinary passions that propelled them along’ (xi) is the essence of her writing:
No major writer of any nationality has been more cosmopolitan than Christina Stead, with her genius for portraying disparate locals, voices and expressions. Joyce in exile remained quintessentially Irish; D.H. Lawrence abroad, grumble as he might about his homeland, remained unmistakeably English. Stead was an Australian in the sense that restlessness and travel are an Australian tradition. Culturally, she was as adaptable as a chameleon. (Rowley xi)
Rowley’s story of Stead’s lifelong engagement with socialist and communist politics chimes with Morrison’s work too. These politics made the rich and heady development of American post-Depression capitalism a fertile landscape for Stead’s novels, and in this essay the life of Letty as ‘a creature of urban and commercial ebbs and flows’ (Morrison, 101) is unpacked.
In order to uncover Stead’s chameleon qualities, Morrison’s introduction articulates the framework for her book and the territory she will explore, including the theorists, academics and writers that she intends to engage with. In her book’s title, Morrison references David Malouf’s phrase ‘matter of America’, from his piece for the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH, 32) commemorating Stead’s eightieth birthday. She declares that she extends Malouf’s phrase to ‘describe Stead’s American project’ (Morrison, 9). In Christina Stead and the Matter of America, Morrison succeeds in this ambition, and delivers an important contribution to understanding Stead’s engagement with America. She also manages to underscore the importance and relevance of Stead’s incisive observations, which continue to resonate.
Rowley, Hazel. Christina Stead: A Biography. Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, 2007.
Malouf, David. ‘Stead Is Best at Egotistical Monsters’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July 1982, p. 32.
Anne-Louse Willoughby is the author of Nora Heysen: A Portrait (Fremantle Press, 2019), an exploration of the life of an acclaimed portrait artist, the first woman to win the Archibald Prize and Australia’s first female war artist. A career journalist, Willoughby holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia where she has worked as a lecturer and tutor with a particular interest in memoir and biography.