Chapter 7: Early Twentieth Century and Modernism

Wallace Stevens
1879-1955

© Paul P. Reuben
Professor Emeritus
Department of English
CSU Stanislaus
June 15, 2014
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Outside Links: | Wallace Stevens Page | Hartford Friends of Wallace Stevens |

Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 2000-Present | Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |

Site Links: | Chap. 7: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |


Source:
Gallery of Writers 

Primary Works

Harmonium, 1923, 1931; Ideas of Order, 1935; The Man with the Blue Guitar, 1937; Parts of a World, 1942; Transport to Summer, 1947; The Auroras of Autumn, 1950; The Necessary Angel, 1951; Collected Poems, 1954; Letters, 1966.

Letters of Wallace Stevens. Stevens, Holly (ed.); Howard, Richard. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996.

The Contemplated Spouse: The Letters of Wallace Stevens to Elsie. Blount, J. Donald (ed. and introd.). Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2006.

| Top | Selected Bibliography 2000-Present

Altieri, Charles. Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity: Toward a Phenomenology of Value. NY: Cornell UP, 2013.

Clarke, Edward. The Later Affluence of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Cleghorn, Angus. Wallace Stevens'Poetics: The Neglected Rhetoric. NY: Palgrave, 2000.

Cohen, Milton A. Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics: Stevens, Cummings, Frost, and Williams in the 1930s. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2010.

Cook, Eleanor. A Reader's Guide to Wallace Stevens. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007.

Deshmane, Chetan. Wallace Stevens: A Lacanian Reading. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Eeckhout, Bart. Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2002.

Holander, Stefan. Wallace Stevens and the Realities of Poetic Language. NY: Routledge, 2008.

Keenaghan, Eric. Queering Cold War Poetry: Ethics of Vulnerability in Cuba and the United States. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2009.

Mikkelsen, Ann M. Pastoral, Pragmatism, and Twentieth-Century American Poetry. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Phillips, Siobhan. The Poetics of the Everyday: Creative Repetition in Modern American Verse. NY: Columbia UP, 2010.

Renza, Louis A. Edgar Allan Poe, Wallace Stevens, and the Poetics of American Privacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2002.

Santilli, Kristine S. Poetic Gesture: Myth, Wallace Stevens, and the Motions of Poetic Language. NY: Routledge, 2002.

Vendler, Helen. Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010.

Wallace, Rob. Improvisation and the Making of American Literary Modernism. NY: Continuum, 2010.

Woodland, Malcolm. Wallace Stevens and the Apocalyptic Mode. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2005.

| Top |Wallace Stevens (1879-1955): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Stephanie Martin-Ward 

         Taciturn, yet deeply emotional, aloof, yet highly expressive; all terms which describe the American poet who embodied the union of the artistic and the practical:  Wallace Stevens. 

         Aside from the basic, verifiable facts, personal details about Steven’s life history are somewhat obscure.  What is known about his early experience was gleaned from journals, correspondence, and newspaper accounts by his daughter, Holly Stevens, for her definitive 1966 biography Souvenirs and Prophecies:  The Young Wallace Stevens.  He was born October 2, 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania (Stevens 7).  His father, Garrett Barcalow Stevens, was a schoolteacher turned attorney; his family had been in Pennsylvania for several generations (5-6).  His mother, Margaretha Catharine “Kate” Zeller was also a schoolteacher.  Kate was an industrious, independent woman who went to work to support her family after her father died when she was only 15 (6). The Stevens had either six or eight children, depending on accounts.  Five of those children survived past infancy and into productive adulthood.  The first born was Garrett Barcalow, Jr., who was called “Buck” by the family.  Next came Wallace who was nicknamed “Pat.”  John Bergen, Elizabeth, and Mary Katharine, followed in the birth order (7). 

             The Stevens clan was, according to Reading newspaper accounts, a well liked and politically involved family.  Garrett’s living as an attorney made it possible for the family to be “comfortably situated.” (6)  Because of their closeness in age, the three Stevens boys were exceptionally tight knit.  Wallace was especially close to his younger brother, John (8).  According to Reading legend, the Stevens boys engaged in mischief which sometimes bordered on criminal behavior.  They vandalized neighbors’ property, spit tobacco on townsfolk from hidden perches, and played with guns, much to their family’s dismay.  One humorous story recounted by Holly Stevens has the boys cheekily screaming “God helps those who help themselves!” as they ran away from an orchard where they had been stealing a neighbor’s fruit (8-9).

         Wallace’s relationship with his father was, at best, tentative.  Though he would later claim to be a perfect amalgamation of both his parents’ best traits, Stevens actually seems to have grown to be a carbon copy of his father (8).  Garrett Stevens’ self-discipline and ability to do many things at once was almost legendary.  Wallace himself also possessed these traits.  They allowed both men to succeed in both their professions and in their chosen avocations.  Garrett Stevens was also known to be aloof and unaffectionate with his wife and children, a characteristic Holly Stevens claims her father also unfortunately perfected.  Like his father, Wallace also was to become a powerful speaker and writer who received many awards and commendations in local oratory contests (6).   Most importantly, the elder Stevens instilled in his children a love of reading.  The entire family spent much of their indoor free time isolated from one another and buried in books.  Stevens, in adult conversations with friends, would often describe his childhood home as a “library” rather than a safe haven (8).

         The Stevens boys’ school life is somewhat of a mystery.  They initially attended a private kindergarten in Reading ran by a French woman.  They then entered the grammar school attached to St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (9).  Next, they enrolled in Reading Boys High School (10).  During high school, Wallace’s grades fluctuated wildly.  He would go from having the best marks in his class one semester to completely flunking his exams the next.  He was forced to repeat his freshman year, which put him in the same class as his younger brother John (10-11).  Wallace would later tell friends this retention was due to “too many nights out,” (10) but school records indicate that he missed almost a year of school due to an unnamed illness (10).  This illness is mentioned frequently in biographical information on Stevens, yet the exact nature of the illness is never clarified.  The roots of the poet’s contradictory nature can be seen in these early days of education.  In spite of being a miserable student, he was known to be incredibly intelligent and frequently entered and won local essay contests and competitive exams (12).

         After barely graduating from Reading Boys High School, Stevens was accepted as a special student at Harvard University (13).  While there, he served as president of the Harvard Advocate.  It was here that several of his poems first appeared.  In 1900, Stevens left Harvard without graduating.  He went to New York to pursue a writing career, working briefly at the New York Tribune.  In 1901, Stevens entered New York Law School.  He completed his degree there, and in 1904 was accepted in the New York Bar (Weston xvii).  It was also during this year that Stevens encountered Elsie Viola Kachel during a visit home.  Elsie was a lifelong Reading girl, and in 1908 they became engaged.  They married September 21, 1909 (xvii).  Their only child, Holly, was born in 1924 (xviii). 

         It was during his early thirties that Stevens started leading what might be called a “double life.”  After a series of unsuccessful, unfulfilling jobs, he was hired onto the legal staff of the American Bonding Company (xvi).  This began what would become a lifelong career in the insurance business.  In 1914, he was employed in the New York office of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (xviii).  He would retain his employment with Hartford until he died.  Later that same year, the Stevens moved to Hartford, Connecticut, which would remain their permanent home.  Since his law school graduation in 1903, Stevens had been quietly and privately writing poetry in his spare time (New York Times 1).  Later in life, he claimed to get ideas for poems on his daily walks.  He would walk about town in the morning or on lunch breaks, then return to his office and dictate to a secretary who would put his ideas down on paper (2).  In 1923, Stevens’ first collection of poetry, Harmonium, was published by Knopf.  Showing his savvy as both an artist and a businessman, Stevens had this work and most subsequent ones published first as limited editions, then mass produced; he somehow had anticipated a future demand for his work (Modern American Poetry 1-2).

         Early reviews of Harmonium were disappointing.  Critics called Stevens’ work “verbal stunts” and “unenduring.”  Percy Hutchinson, one time poetry editor of The New York Times, said of Harmonium:  “From one end of the book to the other there is not an idea that can vitally affect the mind; there is not a word that can arouse emotion.”  About Steven’s body of work, Hutchinson stated:  “Hence, unpleasant as it is to record such a conclusion, the very remarkable work of Wallace Stevens cannot endure.” (New York Times 1)  Although Stevens was, at times, discouraged by such harsh criticism, after brief periods of licking his literary wounds, he would resume his compositions. 

| Top |          After Harmonium, Stevens published Ideas of Order and Owl’s Clover.  One of his more well known collections, The Man With the Blue Guitar was published in 1937.  In the late nineteen thirties and early nineteen forties, Stevens had begun to achieve new heights of public and literary popularity.  During this decade, he was invited to lecture at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale Universities (Weston xviii).  Parts of a World was published in 1942, followed by Transport to Summer in 1947.  He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1945. In 1949, the awards began to pour in. That year, Stevens was awarded the prestigious Bollengen Prize in Poetry from Yale University (xviii).  This was followed by two National Book Awards.  Finally, Stevens received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1955 for The Collected Poems (xix). 

         Amazingly, Stevens continued to work as a Vice-President for Hartford Accident and Indemnity throughout his literary career.  According to Stevens, he was able to live two very different lives at once through “very clear discipline.” (New York Times 2)  According to a Hartford neighbor, Florence Berkman, the great poet forced himself to wake two hours earlier than he needed to each day solely to keep up on his reading (Modern American Poetry 4).  Why did this brilliant and successful man insist on perpetual work?  A few years before his death, the pragmatic Stevens gave an interviewer a very practical reason:  “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.” (New York Times 2)  This excessive activity did not seem to shorten Stevens’ life significantly.  He lived to be 75 years of age.  In 1955, intestinal surgery revealed terminal cancer.  Later that year, Stevens succumbed to it (Weston xix).

         Much of Stevens’ poetry has been described as obscure.  The meaning is not transparent; the reader has to think deeply, to make personal and literary connections in order to comprehend and find meaning in it. Like the man who composed it, the work is full of contradictions.  He was an odd combination of attorney and artist; the officious businessman who found personal solace in the most superfluous of art forms, poetry.  In spite of biographical details and even his own recollections in journals and correspondence, the man remains, like his poetry, enigmatic.  Fortunately, he chose to share just a few of his innermost reflections through his work, leaving the most private and intimate to remain a mystery.

AWARDS

1945, elected to National Institute of Arts and Letters; 1949, awarded Bollingen Prize in Poetry from Yale University; 1951, awarded National Book Award for Poetry, Gold Medal from Poetry Society of America, and honorary degree from Harvard University; 1952, honorary degree from Columbia University; 1955, second National Book Award for Poetry, and Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

WORKS CITED

Stevens, Holly.  Souvenirs and Prophecies:  The Young Wallace Stevens.  New York:  Knopf, 1966.

“Wallace Stevens.” Obituary.  New York Times.  1955. <http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Stevens/obit.html>

“Wallace Stevens:  Biography and Recollections by Acquaintances.”  Modern American Poetry. <http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/bio.html>

Weston, Susan.  Wallace Stevens:  An Introduction to the Poetry.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1974.

Study Questions

1. Apply Stevens's statement, "Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame," from A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, in close analysis of A Quiet Normal Life. What does Stevens mean by the concept of a "supreme fiction," and how does the man in A Quiet Normal Life live by it?

2. One of the most famous lines from Stevens, and one of the most enigmatic, appears in Sunday Morning: "Death is the mother of beauty." Summarize the major points in the argument by which the speaker in this poem transforms Sunday morning from a day of religious observance for the dead into a celebratory day of the sun.

3. Closely analyze the sun imagery in stanza VII of Sunday Morning. Then write an interpretation of Gubbinal that builds on what you have observed.

4. Both Anecdote of the Jar and Study of Two Pears take as their central focus some inanimate object. Analyze the meaning these two poems share and the syntactic and semantic techniques Stevens uses to create that meaning.

5. Discuss the particular kind of technical experiment Stevens uses in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. How does this poem convey meaning?

6. The Idea of Order at Key West contains two poems or singers: the woman who sings and the poem's speaker. Analyze the relationship that exists between the two of them.

7. Compare and contrast the poems of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, focusing on one of the following pairs: Frost's An Old Man's Winter Night and Stevens's A Quiet Normal Life; Frost's Desert Places and Stevens's The Snow Man; Frost's Directive and Stevens's A Postcard from the Volcano. In what ways do Frost and Stevens each contribute to the modernist's ways of knowing the world? (Alternatively, assign Richard Poirier's book on the two poets, The Way of Knowing, and ask students to critique his argument with reference to specific anthologized poems.)

8. Examine the poems in which repeated activities of (1) looking at things or (2) playing musical instruments or singing appear (see discussion of Stevens in Chapter 7 for the groups of these poems), and explore the significance of the activity for the writing of poetry in Stevens.

9. Explicate, with references to other poems by Wallace Stevens, Professor Eucalyptus's statement in An Ordinary Evening in New Haven: "'The search/For reality is as momentous as/The search for god.'"

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 7: Wallace Stevens." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap7/stevens.html (provide page date or date of your login).
 

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