From the launch of 'Christina Stead and the Matter of America'

Front cover image of Christina Stead and the Matter of America

The following is a transcript of a talk given by Brigid Rooney at the launch of Christina Stead and the Matter of America by Fiona Morrison on 6 December 2019.

By Brigid Rooney

I’m thrilled to launch Fiona’s wonderful book Christina Stead and the Matter of America, published with Sydney University Press (what an apt occasion to celebrate yet another excellent Sydney Studies in Australian Literature title).

Fiona and I have been talking about Christina Stead for the past several decades. We’re evidently mad, having taken on Stead for our respective PhD projects. The thing is, once Stead’s got you in her grip, she doesn’t let you go. Not all writers demand or sustain such long-haul, repeated engagement. But Stead’s fiction is a gift that keeps on giving. It’s more daunting, wonderful, ferocious and revelatory the more you read it. So put down your Patrick Whites and your Shirley Hazzards. Stead’s our greatest twentieth-century writer. There, I said it. Indulge me. My point is that if Fiona’s book is anything to go by, staying with Stead, living with and returning to her repeatedly, not giving up, isn’t merely maddening. It can also be more than averagely rewarding and productive.

Just look at this gorgeous cover – a pic of Stead at her trickiest. There’s a touch of the Joan Crawfords about her in this shot, don’t you reckon? Softly focused, glamorously permed, yet one dangerously arched eyebrow. This shot dates from 1938, by which time she and Bill Blake were newly settled in the States, with her epic banking novel House of All Nations due out, and her next project The Man Who Loved Children soon underway. Fiona situates The Man … as the first in this American set. The other four are Letty Fox: Her Luck, The People with the Dogs, A Little Tea, A Little Chat, and I’m Dying Laughing.

This book’s intensive focus on the five great American novels enriches the field, redressing a gap. Attention to Stead’s more obviously Australian works has arguably obscured the full scale of Stead’s fictional engagement across multiple national contexts. Fiona’s title – the matter of America – cleverly focuses on the topicality of America. ‘Matter’ proves flexible and capacious, accreting layers as the book unfolds. Fiona took the phrase from a 1982 review by David Malouf, an astute reader of Stead. We reckon his personal favourite is A Little Tea, A Little Chat, an astounding if punishing read. At a time when her Australian and feminist reputation was being established, Malouf was the first to identify the orientation and energy of Stead’s distinctively American novels. Fiona also draws on Margaret Harris’s important work on the Balzacian anatomy performed by this American sequence. And then, she’s off and running.

The matter of mid-century America is cumulatively unearthed and anatomised through Fiona’s wonderful readings. Matter is both stuff, or content, and its circulation – money, commodities and capital – the fevered busy-ness of the capital world, the determinedly materialist ideology of the United States as emergent mid-twentieth-century power and geopolitical hub. It’s a little bit genius when, via Northrop Frye, Fiona meshes socio-political matter with the structure of Balzacian anatomy (anatomy being both individual organs/texts and their relations within a circulatory system). Fiona aligns this with her method of working, moving between individual texts in sequence, and setting them within the systematic, politically oriented project of Stead’s ongoing anatomy of the social world, in this case the American world: what is the matter with America, a question Stead’s fiction relentlessly pursues. Fiona not only confidently assumes but expands on Stead’s committed Marxist views. Among other things, she does terrific work drawing on Lukacs, thinking through Stead’s sense of totalities, and her experimental realism.

But the rubric of matter extends beyond dialectical materialism to encompass the logic of Stead’s situation as colonial woman writer on the move, a writer encountering America’s contradictions – its energy, verve and obsession with money, its perpetual ‘scramble for boodle’ (a phrase of Stead’s own). America is like and unlike Australia, a great colonial world to engage. Matter resonates also with Stead’s realist concern with detailing the world, with its talkers and their voices, with the energy and profligacy of desire, and with gender, the embodied experiences of women and men. Not to forget – and here we arrive at signature Morrison – there is this book’s magisterial account of Stead’s complex deployments of mode and genre. Fiona is forever alert to the productive intersections of realist, satiric and gothic modes with various genres like domestic fiction, the picaresque, the chronicle, and tragi-comedy. Nobody does genre like Fiona. She makes it look easy but it’s completely awesome and by the end we’ve got a whole new toolkit for reading Stead.

There are two fabulous chapters on The Man Who Loved Children that newly apprehend this classic work. I couldn’t agree with Fiona more when she parts company with those who complain that Stead’s American rather than Australian settings spoil the effect. While I’d never argue with Americans who sense something amiss, Fiona rightly argues that Stead’s outsider suturing of national/narrative worlds, forging this novel’s Australia/America palimpsest, is a major source of its political charge. Stead’s transnational dislocation lets her see anew (because through each other) these American and Australian contexts – and all stuffed explosively into this novel’s domestic pressure cooker.

Fiona’s chapter titles are massive fun: her methodological second chapter is titled ‘Christina Stead’s Westward Expansion: Totality, Avant-Garde Realism and the American Folk’. And what could be better than ‘The New York Love Market and the Picara Fortunata in Letty Fox, Her Luck’? The three New York novels, in different modes, deliver their anatomy of the metropolis, its social milieu and economic circulation. In her reading of A Little Tea, A little Chat, for example, Fiona homes in on the thoroughly corrupted and empty Manhattan scammer Robbie Grant and his terrifying woman The Blondine. Robbie lacks interiority – he’s a vector for the endless circulation of the commodity, the emptying of value into exchange (wheat, gold, women), a post-truth kind of guy. In Fiona’s hands we recognise him as a mid-century precursor to Trump. Imagine what fun Stead would have had today.

There’s so much more to say, but I’m running out of time. What a wealth of observation Fiona yields from this material, and seemingly without any effort at all. Did she even raise a sweat? I think she was surprised to learn that my favourite chapter was the one on I’m Dying Laughing, Stead’s yet to be adequately recognised masterpiece, her unfinished, posthumously published monster. It’ll kill you this book, if you’re not careful. The present participles of its title, Fiona deftly points out, echo its sense of perpetual suspension, its affective load of unbearable hysteria. I find very persuasive Fiona’s claim that Marxism provided the otherwise rootless Stead and Blake with an ideological home, ‘a system ... that continued to give them a set of ideological coordinates to live by well into the Cold War years’. The very thing that Stead’s American protagonists lack is a system or theory for grasping or thinking totality. And yet her art dwells in ever deepening contradictions as the century wears on. The genres of chronicle and tragicomedy powerfully converge in I’m Dying Laughing, a novel that, Fiona argues, ‘chronicles the logic of this inability to frame the capitalist totality and draws it out as an account of illegibility and loss.’

Christina Stead and the Matter of America is a terrific book. It will make you want to read Stead’s American novels – whether again, or for the first time. It is immensely readable, packed with juicy passages and incisive observations. Fiona, you’ve done justice to the energy and fearsome intellect of Stead’s work. Huge congratulations on it. I declare this book launched.