Christina Stead died in Australia in 1983, having created an extraordinary body of published work. Of these, "The Man Who Loved Children" is the most widely acclaimed, but all of Stead's novels command similar attention. Because of the reawakened women's movement, "The Man Who Loved Children" hit a popular nerve particularly after its reissue in the 1960s, but in all her work, Stead displays a similar originality of concept, a brilliant, almost obsessive hold on subject and character and a headlong rush of language, more like a force of nature than a literary process, which is her unique signature. She is a master novelist of our time, for whom a lasting place in the literature of the English language is assured.
What could be more exciting than the appearance of a major new work--never before published--by such an author, now posthumously issued to complete the historical record? "I'm Dying Laughing" is launched in this spirit, but the history of this fascinating work is troubling. Edited by R. G. Geering, Stead's literary executor, from a huge manuscript left behind at her death, the story both within and without that mass of papers complicates the task of evaluation.
The first sketches for "I'm Dying Laughing" go back as far as the late '40s and draw upon Stead's experiences of the 10-year period she had spent living and working in the United States, beginning in the late '30s. Those were her most prolific and successful years. She had even had a best-seller, "House of All Nations," a novel that worked the story of an international banking house into a perfect metaphor for pre-World War II Europe. With her husband, William Blake, a pseudonym for an American-born economist and writer, she moved within circles dominated by Communist party writers, contributors to the pages of the Daily Worker and New Masses as well as highly paid screenwriters for the Hollywood studios, a time in the United States, hard to imagine now, when membership in the party carried little of the stigma it does today. (Not that Stead was subject to any rules not of her own making; she was always her own woman and followed her own individualist bent. It was during this period that she wrote "The Man Who Loved Children," her first fiction to use an American setting, and "For Love Alone," strongly linked to "The Man Who Loved Children" in its powerful delineation of a young girl's emergence into full womanhood and full sexuality.) Three additional American-scene novels followed, but by the early '50s Stead and her husband had returned to Europe, a move undoubtedly triggered by the harassment of the left then in full swing.