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New Biography of Wallace Stevens Portrays a Modernist Poet Floating, Detached…
Adam Kirsch reviews the new Wallace Stevens biography for the Atlantic, remarking that the “story that [Paul] Mariani tells in 400 pages could be reduced, in its essentials, to 400 words.” And “But the secret would out, and in his poems Stevens revealed it: The bluff American executive had a soul as baroque and fantastical as an aesthete’s, as profound and brooding as a philosopher’s.” More:
This vision of art as an independent source of meaning was what made Stevens an authentic modernist, even as his poetry kept faith with traditions of English verse, such as the iambic-pentameter line, which other poets were throwing overboard. The problem with Stevens as a biographical subject is that, unlike many other modernists, he did not publicize either his religious or his artistic struggles. (On his deathbed, it’s worth noting, he took Communion from a Catholic priest.) If he had lived a more literary existence—if he had written essays, taken part in controversies, joined and quit movements, the way poets like Eliot and Pound so publicly did—then his life would have reflected his thought. But Stevens preferred to keep life and thought basically separate, and until he was elderly—when the honorary degrees and prizes started to roll in—he avoided most of the obligations and occupations of the professional writer. Meanwhile, he never missed the Harvard-Yale game.
As if that weren’t obstacle enough, Mariani had to cope with the inevitable difficulties of writing about a man who died in 1955. It has been almost 30 years since Joan Richardson’s two-volume biography of Stevens; there are no living witnesses to Stevens’s early life, no friends or relatives to interview. He usually didn’t even keep drafts of his poems. (An early version of a major poem, “The Comedian as the Letter C,” survives only because his landlady rescued it from the trash can.) What remains are the finished poems and a body of correspondence, and so The Whole Harmonium tends to dissolve into a summary of Stevens’s letters and an expansive running commentary on his poetry. As a critic, Mariani is less penetrating than predecessors such as Helen Vendler, and he might have delved more deeply into the background of Stevens’s intellectual life. Hefty though the biography is, the office work Stevens engaged in every day for more than four decades goes largely undescribed.
The result is a portrait of a man floating, detached—which may, in fact, be an accurate impression of how it felt to be Stevens. Certainly he was what we would now call depressed: “If only one could look in at the window when they found one’s body—one’s blood and brains all over the pillow,” he mused in 1906, when he was a young man just starting out in New York City…
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