Wallace Stevens, Imperator

Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens; drawing by David Levine

In August 1928 the literary editor of a Hartford newspaper wrote to Poetry magazine:

No doubt you know that Robert Hillyer, Wilbert Snow and Odell Shepard live here, and that Muriel Stuart’s last book was published by Mitchell’s book-shop here. The Poetry Club of Hartford meets at Mitchell’s and the poetry center here is really at that shop.

Poetry printed the item as “News Notes,” with an editorial gloss by Harriet Monroe:

Here we must remark parenthetically that in our opinion the poetry center of Hartford is in the residence of Wallace Stevens.

Stevens, as his daughter Holly remarks, was known to Mitchell’s bookshop as a regular customer, but not as a poet.

It seems, in its curious way, appropriate. Stevens tinkered with verse at Harvard, and he began sending poems to the little magazines in 1914. He left New York in 1916 when the Hartford Live Stock Insurance Company was incorporated. He published his first and most dazzling book of poems, Harmonium, in 1923. But he was an amateur loving the art almost in secret. He was not the kind of man who joins a Poetry Club. It is pleasant to think of him in Hartford, silently buying fine books in Mitchell’s while in an upper room the real poets sang. Born in 1879, he died in 1955, a classic poet in the serene air he loved. Even now, however, he is a household name only in the most poetic households.

Three thousand letters were available for the present book. Holly Stevens has chosen about a thousand to represent the years from 1895 to 1955. Many letters have been lost, and some destroyed, including those written between 1900 and 1907 to Elsie Moll, later Steven’s wife. After his death, Mrs. Stevens “copied out sections she thought might be of interest from the letters she did not want preserved in whole.” So there are many gaps. But the book is somewhat ambiguous for other reasons. The editorial procedure is not clear. The letters, in their present order and selection, imply an image of Stevens’s life, but it is difficult to take the image at its face value. Many of the letters are editorially cut. After a while we begin to wonder, perhaps needlessly, about the cuts: There is an impression that warts are being removed. Phrases hurtful to other people, notably John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, are allowed to stand, but Daughter is always looking after Father. A letter to Philip May, for instance, dated January 27, 1936, is more revealing than most of Stevens’s letters, but it is very short, presumably the result of two excisions. The topic is a trip to Florida. The letter as printed ends:

The trouble is, Phil, that every time I go down to Florida with Judge Powell, while I never do anything particularly devilish, nevertheless I invariably do a…

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