Wallace Stevens: Biography and Recollections by Acquaintances

Biographical Sketch

Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on October 2, 1879, and died at the age of seventy-six in Hartford, Connecticut on August 2, 1955. He attended Harvard as a special student from 1897 to 1900 but did not graduate; he graduated from New York law school in 1903 and was admitted to the New York bar in 1904, the year he met Elsie Kachel, a young woman from Reading, whom he married in 1909. They had one daughter, Holly Bight, born in 1924, conceived on a leisurely ocean voyage California via the Panama Canal that they took to celebrate the publication of his first book.

Stevens became interested in verse-writing at Harvard, submitting material to the Harvard Advocate, but he would be 36 before his first work was published in 1915. He soon was contributing to Poetry (Chicago), and his first book Harmonium was published in 1923 by the distinguished firm of Alfred A. Knopf. Though he was always much admired by his contemporaries ("There is a man whose work," Hart Crane wrote of him in 1919, "makes most the rest of us quail"), Stevens felt that the reviews of his 1923 book were less than they should be, and discouraged, wrote nothing through the 1920s. For a second edition of Harmonium, published in 1931, he added only eight new poems.

If he was not writing in the 1920s, he was steadily advancing in business. After working for several New York law firms from 1904 to 1907, he had been hired as a bonding lawyer for an insurance firm in 1908, and by 1914 was hired as the vice-president of the New York Office of the Equitable Surety Co. of St. Louis. When this job was abolished as a result of mergers in 1916, he joined the home office of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity and left New York City to live in Hartford, where he would remain the rest of his life. By 1934, he had been named Vice President of his company.

All his life Stevens collected art from abroad and saw that packages of various gourmet foods were mailed to him regularly. Although he regularly traveled in the South, most notably to Florida and the Florida Keys and Cuba, he never ventured abroad. But his cosmopolitan yearnings were amply satisfied by regular jaunts to New York City. Trains leaving Hartford on a better-than-hourly basis guaranteed that any Saturday he could be on the streets of New York City by 10 a.m. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was welcomed as a member of the exclusive set centered around the artistic and literary devotees Barbara and Henry Church.

When Stevens began to write poems with renewed fluency in the 1930s, he arranged for them to be printed in limited editions at the same time as trade editions were prepared by Knopf. Ideas of Order (1935) and Owl’s Clover (1937) were limited editions by the Alcestis Press, while The Man With the Blue Guitar (1937) and Parts of a World (1942) were printed by Knopf, and Notes toward a Supreme Fiction (1942) and Esthetique du Mal were deluxe volumes issued by the Cummington Press in 1942.

In 1939, Stevens was sixty – an age when most poets are ready to look back on what career they might have made for themselves. But Stevens’s best writing still lay before him in the form of extended meditative sequences, quasi-philosophical in their ruminative wanderings but marked always by a vivid sense of the absurd and a darting, whirling inventiveness that took delight in peculiar anecdotal examples. In the loosely connected stanzas of these sequences, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" (1942), "Esthetique du Mal" (1945), "The Auroras of Autumn" (1947) and "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" (1950), Stevens perfected what had been, in effect, the work he had been producing all along – a metapoetry that took lavish delight in commenting upon its own making. At the same time, he began to grow interested in putting his thoughts on aesthetics together in prose sentences, essays he collected in 1951 as The Necessary Angel. And there was one final, magnificent turn to his development. Entering his seventies, he began to write a poetry of late old age, in which a sense of the disembodied, the purely mental, gave rise to a discourse that had grown newly austere, solemn, and strange even to its author.

Capturing so exuberantly yet so flawlessly the mind at play with an extravagance most often associated with youthful pleasure, with the sheer delights of the sensual body, Stevens preferred to mask his very great sensual satisfactions by suggesting that his doings were in fact all a highly proper set of speculations on "the imagination." (His prose essays were useful allies in this strategy.) But the sheer verve of local moments, the sumptuous texture of outstanding passages, simply dissolves as pretense the notion that a philosophical enterprise might be underway. Few poets have so fully enjoyed not just their indulgence in their own language but also the game that elaborately insists no such indulgence is occurring.

Recollections of Stevens by Acquaintances

Robert DeVore

I first met Mr. Stevens in Philadelphia in 1928. We had a contractor who we were bonding to the Board of Education, guaranteeing the performance of his contract. The fellow went broke, and we had to contact the home office [of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity’s Insurance Department in New York] to let them know we were in trouble with this man. Mr. Stevens got on the phone and told the manager that it was important enough that he felt he ought to come down to Philadelphia. …

He wanted me to meet him at the station, take him to the attorney’s office. I stood at the gate in the station, and when he came through I didn’t have any trouble spotting him. Here was a fellow that matched the description the manager had given me: tall, austere, very dignified, an unusal-looking man. He said, "Let’s get on our way. We want to go to the attorney’s office and get into this thing right away. We don’t want to waste any time." I said, "No, sir!"

Then he said, "The attorney’s office is down on Chestnut Street, so on the way down what do you say we get some cinnamon buns." I said, "Cinnamon buns?" "Yes," he said, "I always, whenever I come to Philadelphia, buy these cinnamon buns at Lahr’s." I thought, This is strange to do before we’re going to an attorney’s office. He ordered a dozen to send to Hartford. I thought, Oh, that is it. Then he wanted a dozen more; they put them in a bag, and we started off. And I thought, My gosh, I wonder when he’s going to eat these things. Well, we got to the attorney’s office, and we went through the introductions and into the conference room. There were about seven of us. He opened up his bag, put it in the middle of the table, and said, "Let’s have a cinnamon bun." Everyone, trying to be polite, agreed with him, and we all reached in and got a handful of goo. And we started our conference."

From Peter Brazeau, ed. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 12-13.

Wilson Taylor

"I didn’t know him as anything but a lawyer and a business executive [in 1931, when Taylor, an experienced surety lawyer, began working in the Hartford Accident and Indemnity’s Insurance Department in New York] …

To him [gallery going] was just part of life. And Stevens enjoyed life. I don’t care what aspect of it, he enjoyed it. A few times we’d go over to some concert in the Times Square area: he used to like Stravinsky, and we’d go to some Stravinsky concerts over there. I don’t think we ever went to a musical. I don’t think we ever went to a play. He enjoyed things from Forty-second Street north to the Carlyle Hotel, and in between there were bistros and there were galleries; this, that and the other. This is mostly on the East Side, up and down Madison Avenue.

Sometimes he’d come down and he’d just walk around by himself. He loved to walk. [Once] he was walking down Madison Avenue, looking at the antique stores. This particular one was closed. He called me Monday morning , said he’d been [to New York from Hartford] Saturday, and he saw this lamp. He recognized it as a choice piece of pottery, porcelain I guess it was, and some kind of fancy shade on it. He wanted to know if I could go up there that day and see if I could buy it for him. So I went up and the price on this little old table lamp was two hundred dollars. That was a lot of money in the thirties. "Oh, good God!" he said, but he sent the two hundred dollars down. He said, "Make them pack it well, and they’ll have to pay the cost of the shipping." And they did; they were probably darn glad to get two hundred dollars. …"

From Peter Brazeau, ed. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 84-85.

José Rodríguez Feo

"… He said he enjoyed Havana very much, but the thing he enjoyed most was the climate, nature, the sky, the natural aspect. Not the city, the tropics. And the air. He said he thought the air in Cuba had something very special about it. And I said, "Are you saying about the air something similar to what is said in The Tempest? It’s a wonderful description of the air in the Bahamas. There’s something soft and sweet about the air." He said, "Yes, and how funny that you should talk about The Tempest," because obviously he was remembering that, too. He always talked with nostalgia about the South and south Florida. And the climate, too. Of course, this is typical of the people who live in the cold country, but to him it was not going to Florida or going to Havana to get away from the cold. It was something sensuous in his appreciation of being in Florida: what he felt in the skin. He said that [there] you live with your senses more than when you live in a cold place. This has to do with his poetry; it was part of his personality."

From Peter Brazeau, ed. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 141.

Mary Jarrell

"The next morning we were at breakfast at the Yale Club. Randall was across the table, and I was somehow next to Stevens, We were talking generally, and I said something about seeing Ninotchka in New York with Randall. Stevens came alive immediately. "Garbo!" he said. He talked about always wishing he could meet her and how beautiful she was, that she really was his favorite actress in the world. There was a pause. I knew Randall well enough to know that he was being a little audacious – here it was, a table full of people – but he had a direct question that he wanted to ask Stevens. He felt that he was not going to be able to ask him this question if he didn’t get on with it. So he just shifted the subject entirely to "Sunday Morning" and said, "I’ve noticed that you have changed some lines in "Sunday Morning." How did you happen to do that?" Stevens pulled this famous Robert Browning thing. He began to look very vague and disbelieving, as if he hadn’t remembered whether he changed them or not. He hesitated and started to say something about "I don’t know why." Then he said, "Let’s talk about Greta Garbo again!""

From Peter Brazeau, ed. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 179-180.

Florence Berkman

Every morning, like clockwork, he used to walk down Terry Road about nine o’clock, just about the time I was standing by my kitchen sink. I’d always get a thrill. I the afternoon, he’d walk back, this very slow stride of his. Usually, if it was summer or good weather, I’d be outdoors with some of the neighbors’ children. I’d make them stop and look at him, and I’d say, "I want you to remember this is a great poet."

I used to walk up and down Terry Road with our cocker spaniel; he wouldn’t even look at me, wouldn’t even talk to me. But he always talked to my husband: he used to work outdoors on Saturday and Sunday; Stevens would be going to the park. But one morning it was pouring. I drove out to the corner, and here was Wallace Stevens standing, absolutely sopping. I didn’t know whether or not to stop because he never acknowledged [my] being on this earth. But I did stop, and I said, "Mr. Stevens, would you like a ride?" He said, "Oh, I’d love it." He got in the car, and I thought I’d be very proper. "Mr. Stevens, I don’t believe you know who I am. I’m Florence Berkman." He said, "I know who you are. You live in that little house. I’ve often thought I’d love to see the inside of your house." This was a carriage house. He talked at length on that trip. He was furious at the New Statesman, the English newspaper, which was very anti-American at the time. It would have been ‘46, ‘47, ‘48. I said, "How do you get time to read? You’re a busy man, and you do so much writing." He said, "I get up every morning at six o’clock, and I read for two hours."

From Peter Brazeau, ed. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 239.

Richard Wilbur

[After introducing Stevens at a 1952 reading at Harvard, my wife and I] drove him to his hotel in our ‘36 Ford, which was very uncomfortable for him. We said we hoped he would come and see us some time. "I won’t, but you’re very kind to invite me." There was no severity in that at all. He was just being honest. In the same way, during that day he spoke, not with any animus but with a certain firmness, of two classes of people: those who bother you with letters and those who do not. He didn’t like people who wrote him letters and made him either answer them or feel guilt about not answering them. I had had a very brief postcard exchange [with him] once, and I recall him saying he thought the postcard was the ideal form, something like the sonnet, in which people could send each other signals without unnecessary pain.

Then we had another little exchange by postcard. I had been reading Gaston Bachelard, the Sorbonne philosopher and aesthetician. Bachelard says somewhere that the human imagination simply cannot cope with polar conditions, and so I shot off a postcard to Stevens. He wrote back some splendid sentence about Bachelard is wrong, most art is created out of a condition of winter."

From Peter Brazeau, ed. Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 169-170.

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