Quotations in the biography are identified in the endnotes by page numbers and the initial words of the quotation.
Excerpt from Chapter One
Family Background and Boyhood
Wallace Stevens always refused to concede that there was anything unusual about his dual role as poet and insurance executive, but the combination has intrigued those captivated by his poetry. At the time of his death, he was not only one of the leading poets of the English-speaking world, but also the foremost American authority on surety bonds. One might wonder if Stevens’s business career in any way diminished his achievement in the field of poetry, but he himself has hinted that his work as an insurance executive may have actually enhanced his creative powers. While he was still in college, he wrote a journal entry that continues a discussion with a friend about the wide range of learning possessed by the English poets:
I think they used study as a contrast to poetry. The mind cannot always live in a “divine ether.” The lark cannot always sing at heaven’s gate. There must exist a place to spring from—a refuge from the heights, an anchorage of thought. Study gives this anchorage: study ties you down; and it is the occasional wil[l]ful release from this voluntary bond that gives the soul its occasional overpowering sense of lyric freedom and effort.
Stevens’s alternation between the worlds of poetry and insurance may in fact have periodically renewed his zeal as a businessman. In a letter written in 1928 when he was already well established as an insurance executive, he said: “But after living there [in a world of the imagination] to the degree that a poet does, the desire to get back to the everyday world becomes so keen that one turns away from the imaginative world in a most definite and determined way.”
Stevens once said that when he was young he thought that he had received his practical side from his father and his imagination from his mother. His father’s practical side is readily apparent: he became one of the leading lawyers in Reading, Pennsylvania, and also had extensive business holdings. . . .
. . . . .
In a letter written shortly after Wallace entered college, Garrett articulated for his son his own belief in a work ethic tempered by a love of art and beauty:
A little romance is essential to ecstasy. . . . The world holds an unoccupied niche only for those who climb up—work and study, study and work—are worth a decade of dreams—and romantic notions—but I do not believe in being so thoroughly practical that what is beautiful, what is artistic—what is delicate or what is grand—must always be deferred to what is useful.
These were indeed beliefs that Wallace would ultimately make his own.
Wallace Stevens once described his father as “quite a good egg; agreeable, active,” and even in the journal entries from his early twenties that record his rebellious feelings toward his father, a deep affection is also evident. Garrett loved to read, and according to his son’s memory, he “used to delight in retiring to the room called the library on a Sunday afternoon to read a five or six-hundred page novel.” Garrett was not alone in the family in this respect, however, for Wallace Stevens once wrote, “At home, our house was rather a curious place, with all of us in different parts of it, reading.”
Excerpt from Chapter Three
A Fledgling Journalist
On June 2, 1900, as his college days were coming to an end, Stevens sketched out his future plans in his journal:
I am going to New York, I think, to try my hand at journalism. If that does not pan out well, I am resolved to knock about the country—the world. Of course I am perfectly willing to do this—anxious, in fact. It seems to me to be the only way, directed as I am more or less strongly by the hopes and desires of my parents and myself, of realizing to the last degree any of the ambitions I have formed. I should be content to dream along to the end of my life—and opposing moralists be hanged. At the same time I should be quite as content to work and be practical—but I hate the conflict whether it “avails” or not. I want my powers to be put to their fullest use—to be exhausted when I am done with them. On the other hand I do not want to have to make a petty struggle for existence—physical or literary. I must try not to be a dilettante—half dream, half deed.
Stevens may well have recalled this indecisive mood four decades later when his daughter was experiencing a similar period of youthful angst about what she should do with her life. At that time, he wrote to advise her: “The uncertainty you feel should be dismissed from your mind. Everyone feels this when first confronted by himself and by the enormous complication of the world.” Like some of his other journal entries, this one is not without its difficulties for anyone attempting to unravel his psyche. It seems important to note at the outset that in an entry like this, Stevens was writing down thoughts as they occurred to him, thoughts that do not necessarily form a logically cohesive whole.
The “opposing moralists” who would object to his dreaming away his life writing poetry almost certainly included his parents, but they may also have included one of his English professors, Charles Townsend Copeland. Witter Bynner recorded a farewell conversation in which Stevens told Copeland he intended to become a poet; in response Copeland exclaimed, “A poet, Jesus Christ!” Stevens’s use of the phrase "opposing moralists" suggests the phrase “opposing law” that he later used in one of his most famous poems, “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman.” His assertion that he hated the conflict of whether work “avails” is one of the more puzzling parts of this journal entry. If he was referring to an inner conflict, then he was probably expressing his doubts about whether a life as a “bustling merchant” or “money-making lawyer” [phrases from a Stevens journal entry appearing in Chapter Two] would be a worthwhile one to lead. He may well have been asking, What’s the point of it all? It is particularly interesting to note his reluctance to engage in a petty struggle for existence. During the succeeding decade, he must have often thought that he was engaged in just such a struggle, and the uncertainties and deprivations of these years undoubtedly became key to his concerted efforts to achieve professional and financial security. At any rate, the one thing that clearly emerges from this passage is his ambition to use his abilities to the utmost, an ambition clearly nurtured by his father’s letters to him during his college years.
On June 14, 1900, shortly after finishing his Harvard exams, Stevens moved to New York. He hoped to work either for a news-paper or a publishing house and came with a letter of recommenda-tion from Charles Townsend Copeland, who referred to him as a young man of “marked literary aptitude.” It would appear that Stevens thought a job in either journalism or publishing would give him the greatest opportunity of utilizing his literary talents. This was not an unwarranted idea at the turn of the century, when several writers were following such a route to a literary career. He lost no time looking for a position: the day he arrived he presented his letter of recommendation to a fellow Harvard alumnus on the staff of the Commercial-Advertiser. That evening he went to East River Park to review a band concert for the newspaper. The next day he had an interview with Charles Scribner, who was “pleasant” and put his name on file. Arthur Goodrich of the Macmillan Company took him to lunch at the Players Club on the same day, where Stevens saw his first New York celebrities.
Stevens rented a room in a boardinghouse run by two French women. One of them had “a bosom a foot and a half thick,” which prompted him to comment, “No wonder the French are amorous with such accomodation [sic] for lovers.” The neighborhood he could afford hardly appealed to him, for when he returned in the evening, he found the streets full of residents “leaning on railings and picking their teeth,” and on the wall of his room he found two lice.
At first Stevens felt repelled by the city, where he found the faces of the buildings “hard and cruel and lifeless.” On his second day, he recorded his impressions in a memorable journal entry:
All New York, as I have seen it, is for sale—and I think the parts I have seen are the parts that make New York what it is. It is dominated by necessity. Everything has its price—from Vice to Virtue. I do not like it and unless I get some position that is unusually attractive I shall not stay. What is there to keep me, for example, in a place where all Beauty is on exhibition, all Power a tool of Selfishness, and all Generosity a source of Vanity? New York is a field of tireless and antagonistic interests—undoubtedly fascinating but horribly unreal. Everybody is looking at everybody else—a foolish crowd walking on mirrors. I am rather glad to be here for the short time that I intend to stay—it makes me appreciate the opposite of it all.
On his third day in the city, Stevens wrote in his journal, “I spent the afternoon in my room, having a rather sad time with my thoughts.” He was beginning to have doubts about the kind of employment he was seeking, as he noted in the same entry: “Have been wondering whether I am going into the right thing after all. Is literature really a profession? Can you single it out, or must you let it decide in you for itself?” The last sentence stands as a rather prescient depiction of the way Stevens did in fact become a poet by an indirect path. Although he was filled with doubts about his choice of a profession, he nevertheless resolved to write his articles to suit himself, rather than to fit the mold of any particular newspaper.
During this mood of self-doubt, Stevens attended the funeral of Stephen Crane, an event that hardly encouraged him to seek a literary career. Half of the people at the services had obviously just walked in off the street, and Stevens found that even those in attendance who appeared to be literary types were “a wretched, rag, tag, and bob-tail.” He summed up his horror of the “frightful” occasion in his journal: “But he lived a brave, aspiring, hard-working life. Certainly he deserved something better than this absolutely common-place, bare, silly service.”
Excerpt from Chapter 13
A Home of His Own
. . . . . . .
Jim Powers was another friend from the world of insurance. Stevens had met Powers, who was also a lawyer, in connection with some legal work that the Hartford had in the South, and he persuaded him to join the Hartford’s New York office. Powers’s wife Margaret later recalled in an interview that she had been “part of the fun-and-frolic side of Wallace Stevens’s life.” The first occasion she met him occurred only a couple of months after her marriage to Powers. Stevens had arranged to pick them up in their New York apartment to go out for the evening. When he arrived, Jim Powers was still in the shower, so Margaret had to meet Stevens by herself. Years later she described that memorable occasion: “There I was, this little girl absolutely in awe of this man. . . . I thought, Oh, my lord—I’m as intellectual as the Reader’s Digest. Well, he realized the situation, that here was this little girl scared to pieces, so what did that darling person do but just have me rolling on the floor telling me about somebody’s funeral. It sounds blasphemous, but he made it so funny. When Jim came out, I was just madly in love with Wallace Stevens.” Jim Powers was equally drawn to Stevens, who was about fifty when Powers started working with him. Margaret Powers recalls that Stevens “felt that Jim was his boy. . . . He felt very close to Jim, and Jim absolutely idolized him.”
During their evenings out on the town in New York, Stevens would take Jim and Margaret to speakeasies for a drink and then out to dinner or to a show or concert. He also enjoyed attending Broad-way musicals and on one occasion took them to a Bob Hope comedy review.
Even after Jim Powers transferred to the Hartford’s West Coast office, he and Margaret made a trip back to New York every year, and Stevens would always arrange a visit to the city to see them during that time. Margaret Powers recalled that on one such occasion they first visited a couple of speakeasies and then went out for dinner at a restaurant where they persuaded the singer to perform “La Paloma.” At midnight they went to the Starlight Roof Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria, where they all danced. According to Margaret Powers, Stevens “had a wonderful sense of rhythm.” It was clearly a memorable evening for all three, as Margaret later recalled: “I think he felt quite close to Jim and me that evening. He kissed me—the only time in his life—he wasn’t that type.” The evening meant so much to Stevens that he attempted to capture its magic in a poem:
A FISH-SCALE SUNRISE
[The full poem appears in the biography.]
This is one of the few poems Stevens wrote that contain any allusions to his personal life. “A Fish-Scale Sunrise” was one of eight poems that he published in October 1934 in a new magazine called Alcestis, which was edited anonymously by Ronald Lane Latimer. Latimer was a rather mysterious man who used several pseudonyms as a publisher. Stevens described him to a friend as “an extraordinary person who lives in an extraordinary world.” Because of his fascination with the Far East, in the late 1930s Latimer became a Buddhist monk in Tokyo. Until his departure, however, his frequent queries to Stevens about his poetry elicited a series of letters that add much to our knowledge of his theory of poetry.
Latimer had ambitions beyond Alcestis, however, and shortly after Stevens’s group of poems appeared in the fall of 1934, he wrote to say that he would like to publish a book of Stevens’s poetry. Latimer had set up a small private press that he used for such projects. Stevens replied enthusiastically, “I cannot imagine anything that I should like more.” He added that he was not sure that he could come up with fifty pages of poetry but wanted to try. That December he wrote to Latimer that he had ascended to his chilly attic in earmuffs and a blanket to see what poems he might have stored there. When he put everything together, it seemed to make only thirty-five to forty pages, and he wrote to Latimer: “The tone of the whole might be a bit low and colorless. . . . I might want to work on the thing, adding, say, 10 or 15 pages, in order to give a little gaiety and brightness. My mind is not ordinarily as lamentable as some of these poems suggest.”
Stevens told Latimer he would concentrate on writing poetry for the next month or two in an attempt to add enough pages to make a book of reasonable length. One result of this increased activity was an unusual poem that he had no intention of publishing but for some reason sent to Latimer, adding the comment, “Here is a poem for your particular eye”:
The cold wife lay with her husband after his death,
His ashen reliquiae contained in gold
Under her pillow, on which he had never slept.
This remarkable poem undoubtedly grew out of Stevens’s relationship with Elsie. At the time he sent it to Latimer, he and Elsie were living at Westerly Terrace, where they had separate rooms. The bitter irony with which Stevens describes a wife who will sleep with her husband only after he is dead makes it clear that the sexual failure of his marriage to Elsie continued to frustrate him.
Latimer’s requests for poetry were a major factor in Stevens’s return to poetic activity in the mid-1930s, as a letter to Latimer indicates:
One of the essential conditions to the writing of poetry is impetus. That is a reason for thinking that to be a poet at all one ought to be a poet constantly. It was a great loss to poetry when people began to think that the professional poet was an outlaw or an exile. Writing poetry is a conscious activity. While poems may very well occur, they had very much better be caused. If all this is true, then it may be that in a few weeks time my imagination will be such a furnace that I can stroll home from the office and fill the house with the most iridescent notes while I am brushing my hair, say, or changing to the slippers that are so appropriate to the proper enjoyment of Beethoven and Brahms on the gramophone.
Stevens was indeed able to devote the end of his day to personal activities like writing poetry. His last secretary, Marguerite Flynn, told Peter Brazeau, “He arrived at the office punctually at nine o’clock and left again at four-thirty.” His clear routine was to prove enormously productive. He walked to and from work every day, a distance of two miles each way. While he walked, he thought about ideas for poems and every so often he would stop to pull an envelope out of his pocket and jot down a phrase. When he arrived at the office, he would organize his notes, keeping them in his lower right-hand desk drawer, which was always slightly ajar. Richard Sunbury, the young employee Stevens had helped to attend law school, was very interested in his poetry and later recorded the details of Stevens’s writing habits. Sunbury on many occasions saw Stevens stop in the middle of dictating a business letter or studying an insurance file to reach down into his drawer and pull out his poetry notes to change something he had already written.
Stevens composed poetry not only on his walks to and from the office but also on walks over the noon-hour. He did not eat lunch during these years because he was concerned about his weight. (During the 1920s he had been denied life insurance because of high blood pressure.) He would instead use his noon break as a chance to go outside and walk around, composing poetry as always. Sunbury recalls one picturesque remark Stevens made in this context: “When he’d had a particularly tough morning he’d say, ‘Well, we’ll drop this now, and we’ll go dance around in the sunshine.’” Sometimes when Sunbury entered Stevens’s office at 1:30 P.M. to start the afternoon’s work, Stevens would say he did not want to be disturbed. After working a little while, he would give a poetry manuscript to his secretary, Mrs. Baldwin (Marguerite Flynn’s predecessor), to type. Mrs. Baldwin was a no-nonsense older woman, who according to Sunbury would bring back the typed result with a comment like “I don’t know what this is all about, but here it is.”
Herbert Schoen, a research lawyer who worked at the Hartford, recalled joking with Stevens that it was not fair to the company for him to be thinking about his poetry on the job. Stevens simply laughed and said, “I’m thinking about these things [but] I’m thinking about surety problems Saturdays and Sundays when I’m strolling through Elizabeth Park, so it all evens out.”
There is no indication that anyone at the Hartford ever objected to Stevens’s poetical activities at the office. On the contrary, his fellow executives were proud to have a colleague who was becoming increasingly important in the world of poetry. And as Peter Brazeau points out in Parts of a World, this enlightened attitude was typical of the Hartford, for the company sent one of its engineers who was also a competent linguist to Mexico for the dual purpose of handling insurance business and studying the language of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations.
Excerpt from Chapter 15
Living with a Failed Marriage
. . . . . .
Although Stevens rarely complained about his marital life, once in a great while one catches a glimpse of his regrets for what might have been. In a letter to Hi Simons written on August 27, 1940, he discussed poetic interplay by saying, “There is as much delight in this mere co-existence as a man and a woman find in each other’s company.” And on another occasion after he had attended a Harvard-Yale game, he remarked to a correspondent how touched he had been to watch a “very charming” couple a few rows ahead of him: “She kept her head on his shoulder throughout the game and every now and then he would turn towards her and they would stay that way for minutes at a time—oh boy.”
In his own way, Stevens may have arrived at a modus vivendi that he found workable for himself, odd as it may have appeared to his friends and posterity. In a letter he wrote to Barbara Church on January 28, 1953, he said, “It has, of course, been pleasant at home: lots of books, a certain amount of leisure, the warmth of one’s family.” On July 8 of the same year, he wrote to Barbara Church that he valued in his home the “sense of permanence and calm and continuity”:
Life has been such a rush and there has been such a never-ending succession of changes. But it all lets down at home, where some of the fixed things move about one, obscurely; one’s memory of summers fifty and sixty years ago, when there was no end to the possibilities of experience, before one realized that, in reality, it would finally be an achievement to come down to dinner and find a fresh bouquet on the table.
It is indeed poignant to see how little Stevens was willing to settle for in his home life when the dreams of his youth evaporated.
Excerpt from Chapter 19
Poetic Theory Explored
. . . . . .
Stevens’s desire to have more money to spend may have been one reason why he remained a confirmed Republican, unlike so many other artists and writers who favored left-wing political causes. He occasionally had second thoughts about his political position, however; such an instance occurs in a letter in which he discussed Truman’s presidential victory with Paule Vidal:
I am of two minds about the result of the election. So far as I am personally concerned his election is probably a misfortune because he is one of those politicians who keep themselves in office by taxing a small class for the benefit of a large class. If I had been able to save during recent years what I have been obliged to pay in taxes, I should be much more secure and so would my family. On the other hand, I recognize that the vast altruism of the Truman party is probably the greatest single force for good in the world today and while I regret that the situation is such that I have to think twice about buying pictures, still one could not enjoy books and pictures in a world menaced by poverty and enemies.
Excerpt from Chapter 20
Life Winding Down
. . . . . . . .
Although he avoided publicity, Stevens’s acceptance as a major poet must have contributed to a feeling of fulfillment as his seventieth birthday approached. His mood was beautifully expressed in an unusual passage in a letter to Barbara Church written on June 21, 1949:
We have a very good time here. We go upstairs at night long before dark. Nothing could be more exciting than to sit in the quiet of one’s room watching the fireflies. The garden is full of them at this time of year. Of course it isn’t fireflies that make it exciting, it is the sense of peace: the feeling that one is back again where one was as a child. Life is so much larger and more continued than it ever can be for people who break it up into incidents. In the mornings I walk in the park which, as you remember, is not very far away from the house, and then take a bus and am downtown in quite normal time.
Stevens’s walks in the park were still essential to his poetic production, as he wrote Samuel French Morse: “Most of the poems that I have written, at least in recent years, have been written in the morning on my way to the office.” Stevens was getting older, however, and found his energy somewhat reduced, as he complained in a letter to Thomas McGreevy written in July 1949: “And, now, for the first time, I begin to feel at the end of the day that I am through for that day. It is not that I grow tired but that my elan seems somewhat bent. I should much rather stroll home looking at the girls than anything else.”
. . . . . .
That spring Stevens’s left ankle continued to bother him so much that he was unable to walk as much as he would have liked. He commented to more than one correspondent that before this accident he had still felt as if he were twenty-eight or thirty, but he could no longer say the same. That year he failed to experience the sense of renewal accompanying spring, as he wrote McGreevy in June 1950: “I feel none of the brightness that a man feels at seventy when everything around him becomes young again and does what it can to include him. This year I begin to think it will soon be nice to sit more or less constantly by the fire.” A later passage in this letter shows the same feelings of lassitude: “I don’t need New York as much as I did. I am not as much interested in doing over and over things that I have already done so often.”
Despite this temporary setback, Stevens could still survey his life in a positive fashion from his vantage point of age seventy. In a letter he wrote to McGreevy in February 1950, he said, “Of course, I have had a happy and well-kept life.” He sometimes wondered, however, what the alternatives might have been, as he told McGreevy:
But I have not even begun to touch the spheres within spheres that might have been possible if, instead of devoting the principal amount of my time to making a living, I had devoted it to thought and poetry. Certainly it is as true as it ever was that whatever means most to one should receive all of one’s time and that has not been true in my case. But, then, if I had been more determined about it, I might now be looking back not with a mere sense of regret but at some actual devastation. To be cheerful about it, I am now in the happy position of being able to say that I don’t know what would have happened if I had had more time. This is very much better than to have had all the time in the world and have found oneself inadequate.
Excerpt from Chapter 21
Prizes and Honorary Degrees
. . . . . .
Stevens continued to devote his full energies to his work at the Hartford until his last illness. Even at age seventy-one he could join very actively in an anniversary party the company held in New York for one of its top executives. Coy Johnston from the New York department later described the festivities: “Everybody seemed to get pretty liquored up as the evening wore on, and then the dancing began. All men. You never saw such a sight: Jainsen dancing with Wallace Stevens, swinging him around the room to a Polish polka. Wallace Stevens would throw up one foot as he would twirl. That’s a side of Stevens nobody knew existed.”
. . . . . .
Another poem from Auroras of Autumn, “World Without Peculiarity,” sounds a particularly personal note with lines that refer to a “hating woman” who turns “cold at his light touch.” Whatever resolution Stevens may have arrived at for his problems with Elsie, these phrases offer further evidence for the emotional and sexual deprivations of his marriage.
Stevens’s pleasure at receiving the award for Auroras of Autumn undoubtedly contributed to a statement he made in a letter to Barbara Church a few days after he had accepted the National Book Award: “When the sun filled my room at half-past six this morning, it made me happy to be alive—happy again to be alive still.” Another important honor came in June 1951 when Harvard University awarded Stevens an honorary degree. He expressed his elation at the award in a letter to Barbara Church: “For me personally, this degree is the highest prize that I can ever win. . . . The whole thing has brought my morale up to an all-time high.” Stevens was particularly pleased that the degree was given during the year his Harvard class was celebrating its fiftieth reunion.
. . . . . .
Two months after his birthday, Stevens wrote a passage in a letter to Peter Lee that shows how much he was suddenly feeling his age:
Perhaps I have already said that the process of growing old accelerates the longer it continues, so that one seems to grow old faster today than one did yesterday. I know that I am much slower than I was, not so much at the office as at home. When I went home in the evening it used to be the beginning of my own day, that is to say, there were so many things that I wanted to look up, so many books to read, so many things to do. Now it seems to take an ungodly time just to read the local newspaper and instead of reading a few chapters of something worth reading before dinner my inclination is to turn off the lights, with the exception of a little lamp at my elbow, and take a nap.
Because of the great difference in age between Wallace Stevens and Peter Lee, the young Korean liked to refer to the older poet as his grandfather. In one of his last letters to Lee, Stevens gave him some advice that he admitted had a grandfatherly tone: “I hope that you have recovered your savoir-faire over the holidays and are able to face life without the slightest sense that things have not been going well. They never go well. But you have to pretend that they do.” In a letter written two weeks earlier, Stevens had told Lee, “But as long as you don’t sentimentalize or think about yourself, and most of the dark nights of the soul consist of self-pity, you could be worse off.” Stevens may well have been stating the formula that had yielded him a reasonable amount of personal happiness in the midst of marital frustrations.
Stevens’s advancing age was not a deterrent to Harvard’s interest in him. In November 1954, Archibald MacLeish wrote to offer Stevens the post of Charles Eliot Norton Professor at the university for 1955–56. Stevens declined the invitation with great regret. After stating that he believed that under ordinary circumstances the Hartford would let him continue to keep his job as long as he wanted, he wrote: “To take the greater part of a year, however, for something else would be only too likely to precipitate the retirement that I want so much to put off. . . . I can only decline your invitation with the greatest regret.” Stevens made one further remark to MacLeish that stands as a poignant final commentary upon his life, including his thwarted desire to visit Paris: “There are several things that are of the utmost interest to me from which I have had to turn away and if I have been able to reconcile myself to the necessity of doing this, it is all the easier to reconcile myself to the necessity of passing up the present opportunity.”