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Wallace Stevens’s Hartford

By Harriet Staff

“In those rare moments when Hartford leaps to mind, I’m guessing that your head does not then turn to watermelon pavilions, a man with a blue guitar, an old sailor catching tigers in red weather or an emperor of ice cream,” begins Jeff Gordinier’s recent New York Times story on Wallace Stevens’ hometown.

Gordinier visited the Connecticut capital, strolled its quiet streets, visited the 25-room mansion where Mark Twain did much of his writing (because Stevens wasn’t Hartford’s only literary light), and then popped next door to the former home of Harriet Beecher Stowe:

Twain, Stowe, Stevens — does Hartford have Sedona-like cosmic rays of genius passing through it? Are there magic pyramids of Parnassus buried beneath its landlocked streets? Scholars might know all about the city’s pivotal role in the evolution of American literature, but for most of us average readers, this all comes as news.

I called Wilson H. Faude, a Hartford historian who served as the first curator for the Mark Twain House, and told him that this highway stop in the middle of Connecticut seemed to qualify, at least from a literary standpoint, as a pretty important place.

“Bingo,” he said with a jolly tone that suggested I might also soon discover that chocolate is delicious and sunshine is nice. “Hartford is where Tom and Huck were born!”

If Hartford doesn’t crow about that, Mr. Faude attributes it to the region’s taciturn Yankee tendencies. “We don’t do enough talking,” he said. “We all know that it’s here. Why do we have to go public? This is reticent Connecticut.”

But of all the city’s literary attractions, Gordinier was most charmed by the marked walk that runs from Stevens’s home on Westerly Terrace to his office at the insurance company where he worked for many years.

It would be silly to suggest that a couple of hours of walking around gave me miraculous insight into a poem like “Peter Quince at the Clavier” — yet I did come to understand something simple but crucial about Stevens. What moved me about the walk, in the end, was that he had chosen to walk at all. In a car-mad country that prides itself in being perpetually in motion, the poet made a clear and conscious decision to stop, to slow down, to burrow into his imagination. And walking had opened his eyes and ears to a place that was full of surprises. As Stevens himself put it in a poem:

“It is like a region full of intonings./It is Hartford seen in a purple light.”

Read the whole story here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.