Hulbert, a New Republic editor, here writes uphill: Like many a woman writer, Jean Stafford was defined more by the male company she kept (her failed-writer father, husbands Robert Lowell and A.J. Liebling, friends like Allen Tate and Peter Taylor and Robert Giroux) than by her own not-large opus (three novels, a few books of stories--for which she won a belated Pulitzer more than a decade after the last was written). So Stafford may never even have had a chance to be more than a minor writer--and Hulbert apparently both does and doesn't want to treat her as one. Family inconstancy and inconsistency were the basis of Stafford's fiction (which Hulbert analyzes dissertation-ishly, never giving the tang of the prose much due). And life kept providing Stafford with every reason to flee (as she would ultimately do) into loneliness and eccentricity. Weeks after she took up with Robert Lowell, while he still was in college, he crashed the car they were driving in and caused her great and long- lived injuries (his response was to write a poem about it). That Stafford didn't ditch him right then is key to the life Hulbert records: an addiction to pain and disappointment, a social existence based on hospitals, alcohol, and disdain. Like the others of her New Critic/confessional-poet early circle (see Eileen Simpson's fine Poets in Their Youth, 1982), Stafford seemed to know ambition and suffering as the only antipodes of existence. She filled the emptiness between with posture, boozy misery, and aggressive self-pity, elements that make this biography, too, seem underwhelmed and underutilized. If Stafford herself couldn't quite make art's silk purse out of life's sow's ear, neither can Hulbert's not very compelling book.