Souvenirs and Prophecies: The Young Wallace Stevens
Two years ago the Huntington Library acquired from Holly Stevens most of the papers, correspondence, journals, periodicals, and books that belonged to her father, the poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Some manuscripts are already lodged elsewhere, notably in Yale, Buffalo, and the English Manchester, but most of the material is now in the Huntington. Many of the items are extremely interesting. Stevens’s copy of Charles Mauron’s Aesthetics and Psychology, for instance, is annotated so copiously that students of Stevens must now treat it as seriously as they already treat the sourcebooks by Santayana, Wahl, Valéry, Vaihinger, and other authorities deemed to bear upon Stevens’s theory of literature. In Stevens’s copy of Walter Pater’s Appreciations the chapter on Style is heavily glossed, and the marginalia are as pointed as several of the items published as “Adagia” in Stevens’s Opus Posthumous (1957). Some of the notebooks are charming.
Stevens was a tireless reader of English magazines, especially The New Statesman, the Athenaeum, Life and Letters, and such things. “London continues to be the ultimate point of romance to me,” he confided to his journal in June 1914. The romance prompted him to transcribe into his notebooks any English prose that took his fancy: phrases, sentences, long paragraphs, especially when the themes were aesthetic. In 1934 he came across an essay by Mario Rossi in Life and Letters or perhaps The London Mercury and transcribed a few catching phrases on “the great interests of man: air and light, the joy of having a body, the voluptuousness of looking.” The phrases form the epigraph to Stevens’s poem “Evening Without Angels,” but he was not content to let them rest there. He wrote to Elizabeth Yeats, who gave him Rossi’s address: then he wrote to Rossi to inquire further about the winning phrases. Rossi’s reply, duly transcribed into a notebook, includes these sentences:
But don’t forget, there was the imperscrutable Ananke. Call it destiny, call it God, call it predestination—it comes all alike. It gives a sense to the marvelous spectacle of the world.
Stevens then commented:
Imperscrutable is Dr. Rossi’s magnificent word and Ananke is necessity or fate personified, the Necessitas of Horace, Odes, Book I No. 35 to Fortune: “Inexorable Necessity always marches before thee, holding in her brazen hand huge spikes and wedges.”
In 1935 Ananke went into Stevens’s poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” and in 1936 into “The Greenest Continent”: “Fateful Ananke is the final god.” I am sorry he never found use for “imperscrutable.”
The notebooks are rich in such episodes. There is also the correspondence. Stevens thought of letters as providing some of the pleasures of foreign travel: he loved to hear from friends in Ceylon, Cuba, France, Ireland, especially when they spoke of tea, weather, landscape, light, pictures. Some of the liveliest letters in the Huntington collection come from José Rodriguez Feo, telling of farm animals in Cuba, and from Robert McAlmon, discoursing in …