Thirteen Ways of Looking: A Biography of the Poet Wallace Stevens

By Elie, Paul | International New York Times, April 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

Thirteen Ways of Looking: A Biography of the Poet Wallace Stevens


Elie, Paul, International New York Times


The poet Wallace Stevens often tinkered with drafts on his way to the insurance office.

The Whole Harmonium. The Life of Wallace Stevens. By Paul Mariani. Illustrated. 481 pages. Simon & Schuster. $30.

"The soul in paraphrase": George Herbert's apt epithet for prayer is also apt as an ideal for a certain kind of literary biography: a light-limbed, tensile book that draws nimbly on the subject's work, his writing about the work, and his letters and journals to create a vivid sense of his interior life.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is an ideal subject for such a book. Stevens was a giant of the inner life: From his desk at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Insurance Company, he gamboled in the country of the imagination, pursuing a "supreme fiction" the way Nabokov pursued butterflies.

Sixty years after his death, the materials for a biography are laid out as neatly as the vested suits he wore. The poems, essays and letters form a body of work represented twice over in Vintage and Library of America editions. Comparisons with his peers William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore come naturally, because Stevens knew them; his greatest successor (James Merrill) and exegete (Harold Bloom) met him and so figure into his story.

The rise in his stature in the three decades since Joan Richardson's two-volume biography has created the need for a fresh book, one that complicates the stereotype of the sobersided insurance man and takes up at last the lingering question of whether this "dried-up Presbyterian" became a Catholic on his deathbed.

Paul Mariani -- the author of biographies of four American poets and of the English Jesuit priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins -- would seem just the person to write such a book. So it is doubly disappointing that "The Whole Harmonium," his new biography, is an undramatic, literal-minded chronicle: essentially a long, strenuous paraphrase of Stevens's writing, with thin strips of quotation laid on the gridiron of chronology.

The idea that Stevens's outer life was dull is more true than not. Born in Reading, Pa., the second of five children, he had a childhood ordinary in all things except a spell of malaria that forced him to repeat the ninth grade. Before he was 18 (by page 9 of this book) he was off to Harvard, where he edited The Advocate, the undergraduate literary magazine. After college he moved to New York to become a newspaperman, grew discouraged, went to law school and found work as an insurance lawyer.

He fell in love with a woman from Reading, Elsie Viola Kachel, pathologically shy and "(literally) from the wrong side of the tracks," and cut ties with his disapproving father. After some relatively happy years in New York, Wallace and Elsie moved to Hartford and grew apart, hardly speaking to each other except about their daughter, Holly.

Meanwhile Stevens's poetry -- written at night, circulated in the literary journals and published by Knopf -- was recognized as exemplary modernism as early as "Harmonium" (1923). Middle-aged already, he settled into eminence as it rose around him.

Stevens frequented Greenwich Village in the teens; he knew Marcel Duchamp and Carl Van Vechten and had poems published in an issue of The Little Review that also carried an excerpt from Joyce's "Ulysses." He had plenty of chances for dramatic encounters, but avoided them. He turned down requests for new work from Williams for Contact, Moore for The Dial, Ezra Pound for Exile. Invited to join a panel at Smith College with W.H. Auden, Allen Tate and Lionel Trilling, he said no.

When he did show up for events, he was diffident. "Wallace Stevens is beyond fathoming," Moore wrote to Williams in 1944. "As if he had a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose and just as he tells it out in his sleep, he changes into an uncontradictable judiciary with a gown and a gavel and you are embarrassed to have heard anything."

A biographer can use characterization, dramatic structure and retrospective insight to bring out the significance of such observations. …

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