Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) won two National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, along with the Bollingen Prize and the Frost Medal. He was one of the American poets who were considered the high priests of literary modernism, along with T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Frost. He was a presence in poetry for more than four decades and had an enormous impact on poetry’s substance and direction.
Literary studies of his poetry abound. Several biographies of Stevens were written in the 1980s and a few in the 1990s. Twenty years after the last major biography, Paul Mariani has published The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens.
Mariani is especially well suited for the task. A poet himself, he has published seven collections of poetry and numerous nonfiction works. His biographies include William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (1981); Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman (1990); Lost Puritan: The Life of Robert Lowell (1996); The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane (1999); and Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (2008).
So what kind of Wallace Stevens emerges from Mariani’s biography?
First, Mariani gives us Stevens the poet and Stevens the philosopher of aesthetics. The two can’t really be separated. Stevens explored aesthetics as much as if not more than most other subjects. As a young man working in New York City after his graduation from Harvard, he was strongly influenced not only by poets but also by the contemporary art scene. He was in his early 30s when the New York Armory Show rocked the art world (and the American public) in 1913. He was friends with artists like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and poets like William Carlos Williams.
Making use of journals, letters, published articles, books, and earlier biographies (the bibliography is extensive), Mariani analyzes Stevens’s major poems, the route his poetry took to publication, and how his theories of aesthetics developed. This is Stevens and his impressive intellect.
Second, we see Wallace Stevens the businessman. He first tried his hand at journalism, turned to law school, and then took his law degree to the insurance industry. After working with a number of smaller firms, he eventually joined the Hartford Insurance Company, where he worked until his death in 1955.
His work required him to travel extensively, all over the eastern United States, the Midwest, and Texas, and he maintained a blistering travel schedule for a long time. The schedule had occasional benefits to his poetry, such as stopping by the offices of Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine when he was in Chicago. But while he was often encouraged to teach or pursue a more academic profession, he chose to stay with his insurance company, eventually reaching the office of vice president of the Surety Division.
And third, Mariani portrays Wallace Stevens the family man, and it is not an altogether flattering portrait. His parents did not attend his marriage to Elsie in their hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, as they did not consider it a suitable match. He broke with his father over it, and he didn’t see him again until his father’s funeral. He was not especially close to his two brothers or his two sisters, but he would grow closer to their children after his siblings’ deaths.
About his relationship with his wife, Mariani states the facts and lets readers draw their own conclusions. While there’s not even a wisp of a rumor of unfaithfulness, it’s clear that Stevens was unhappy in his marriage. Elsie rarely traveled with him, even for vacations; Stevens loved his trips with his drinking friends to Key West and similar points south. And his drinking often begat boorish behavior, such as when he insulted Ernest Hemingway and paid for it with black eyes.
Stevens left behind an extensive writing record: eight poetry collections published during his lifetime, including The Collected Poems, published in 1954 (which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and a collection of essays, The Necessary Angel (1951). Works published after his death include Opus Posthumous (1957), Collected Poetry and Prose published by the Library of America in 1997, and Selected Poems published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2009. His daughter Holly Stevens also edited his letters, published in 1966.
Stevens was a major presence in American poetry and letters. He was often controversial but never boring. He wrote in the flood time of literary modernism and helped shape it and channel it. In The Whole Harmonium, Paul Mariani has told his story well.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish