Parts of a World, Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography
by Peter Brazeau
Random House, 330 pp., $19.95
Instead of relieving the mystery of Wallace Stevens, Peter Brazeau’s book deepens it. We see Stevens shuffling insurance papers from his big desk to the floor in Hartford, refusing to ride or walk with colleagues to the office, stirring genealogical ashes, fighting with Ernest Hemingway, disliking poets such as Eliot, Frost, and MacLeish while tolerating Jarrell, Schwartz, and even Sandburg. If these are all “parts of a world,” the emphasis must come on parts. They are fragments out of which “the substance in us that endures,” as Stevens called it, must be sifted out. Mr. Brazeau, it must be said, does no sifting.
The fragments are of the most disparate kinds: Stevens loved cinnamon buns, and forced them on unwilling fellow conferees. Pecan buns too. His poems declare that he loved plums; an interview adds that he liked big grapes. He stood six feet two, a point on which everyone agrees; how much he weighed is not so certain, the estimates ranging from 300 down to 200 pounds, whether because of a miller’s thumb or diet. He waddled as he walked, one witness testifies; yet majestically, says another. His shirts and underwear were all purchased from the same Park Avenue shop; his suits, invariably steel gray, were made for him by a tailor in East Orange. He smoked three cigars a day, which may account for his summoning “the roller of big cigars” with such gusto in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” At three o’clock every afternoon he drank imported Russian tea. He was a loner, but a loner who loved parties, attended the Harvard-Yale games, and was desperate to belong to the fashionable Canoe Club, an ambition he only succeeded in gratifying in 1948.
All these details may seem a feeble harvest with a poet who has been dead for almost thirty years, but Stevens is so opaque that anything is of interest. Thanks to Mr. Brazeau, we learn, via Samuel French Morse, that Stevens had a good collection of classical records, and via James Johnson Sweeney that his elaborately acquired modern French paintings were second wave rather than first. That this poet of exotic landscapes was a stay-at-home, his principal junkets no more remote than Florida, quite capable of vacationing in Atlantic City, has been known but may still astonish in the detailed itineraries here. It’s hard to gauge what to make of Mr. Brazeau’s most startling discovery, that the poet, who spent all his life in evolving a new poetry to replace the lost belief in God, had himself received on his deathbed into the Roman Catholic Church. The event went unrecorded because the local bishop was reluctant to have the Catholic hospital, in which Stevens was treated for his final illness, get a reputation for importuning the dying to change their religion.
Beginning in 1975, twenty years after Stevens’s death, Peter Brazeau interviewed more than 150 people who had known Stevens in his capacity as insurance man, or as poet, but …