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 rarely in both. Since Stevens when he died was seventy-five, those who had known him in childhood and youth were no longer tape-recordable by the time Brazeau began. So this book has to begin late, in 1916, when the thirty-six-year-old Stevens has just lost one insurance company job, and found a better one. Unquestionably Peter Brazeau has performed a great service, though one not easy to define. His subtitle, “An Oral Biography,” is self-contradictory enough to give the difficulty away. The tape recorder has no conscience, nor any consciousness either. What friends saw in Stevens is always of interest, but, except for the few with public reputations, we have no way of evaluating their reliability or skill in observation or parti pris, and Brazeau, putting down what people have told him, makes no effort to interpret their raw impressions. Many of those interviewed have no distinction in phrasing, so the accumulation of detail numbs when it might illuminate.
The most sensitive witnesses are as liable to disagree about Stevens as to agree. Frank Jones thought Stevens “the most likable poet” he had ever met, while William Carlos Williams, who knew him over many years, found him too peculiar for such a compliment. Most people, casual or familiar friends, thought Stevens somewhere between reserved, standoffish, and cold. He used first names much more sparingly than was usual. Robert Frost, if a rival eminence can be quoted, regarded Stevens as “a Harvard swell” who thought himself “better than anybody.” (Frost had spent a fair amount of time at Harvard himself, and in the same category of nongraduating special student as Stevens.) Yet there is evidence of humility as well as of arrogance. Another complexity arises in Stevens’s relations with his family. On the outs with them most of his life because of their disapproval of his marriage or for other reasons, he announced in later years, “I am a little hepped on family ties. It is one of the sources of strength in life.” He expressed this spirit chiefly by spending lavishly to dig up the family history, some of it—as he learned later—faked for him by too obliging researchers.
Perhaps the most elusive ghost evoked by these reminiscences is not Stevens but his wife. Elsie Kachel or Moll (her mother had remarried) was, he said, “the prettiest girl in town” when he married her. She had certainly won a beauty contest, and her youthful image is familiar to all except the most recent generations because she modeled the woman with classical features on the old dime and half dollar. We know only a little of their long courtship: Stevens was at first dismayed to find that she liked Longfellow, but she came to like his own poetry, too, and would one day resent his making public the private love poems he had written to her. A letter from Stevens, not given here, is intense enough:
This must be Spring fever and these the visions of fever. Pray that the ground will dry and that the last pile of dirty snow will melt and that the grass will brighten—and that Elsie’s world will come back, new and beautiful. Everything is so pitiably dingy now. The birds sing a little in the morning, but not the night birds. Listen for the robins’ four and five notes. They used to sing them marvelously at Cambridge in the evenings, long before the leaves came. I long for that. How content I was to hear it! But I am no longer a poet, and only a poor lover, at least to-night. We shall soon be together again and then you must deny me nothing.
And in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” Stevens describes the tree of life, with its tip of love:
It stands gigantic, with a certain tip
To which all birds come sometime in their time.
But when they go that tip still tips the tree.
He took great pleasure in the birth of their daughter Holly in 1924.
Yet photographs of Elsie Stevens in later life show her dowdy, hair in a bun, wearing what one woman called “a long brown thing” for a dress. The announcement by Stevens that he would marry her precipitated a complete break with his father, who regarded her as a stenographer from over the tracks. Elsie Stevens labored under this cloud, and doubtless had other reasons for finding her marriage trying. Stevens, by the nature of his work, had to travel to various cities to settle claims; in later life he protracted these journeys so as to spend time with Judge Powell and other cronies, with whom he drank, swapped dirty jokes, and just talked to an extent he never allowed himself at home. Whether it was Stevens or his wife who allowed almost no one to enter their house is not clear: Stevens always blamed her, but he may have been excusing his own inhospitality. In later years the house was marked off so that one section was his, one hers, and this division may have made house guests awkward. Stevens confided to one friend, “Mrs. Stevens and I went out for a walk yesterday afternoon. We walked to the end of Westerly Terrace, and she turned left and I right.”
On the other hand, a few people who did gain access to Bluebeard’s castle (an image used by Stevens) over the years found her charming, and an excellentcock. She seems to have cooked for him even during their estrangements. She was not insensitive to his writing, and at least once comforted him by saying that his poems would probably outlive him. When Stevens was considering calling a book “The Man, That Is All One Knows,” she asked, quite aptly, how “Knows” was to be spelled. He changed the title. He treated her, says someone, “like ash.” After his death she said she would have loved to go to company parties, but didn’t because her husband didn’t want her to.
Brazeau has discovered that she was active in a number of organizations: the Bard and Sage Club, the Charter Oak Study Club, a garden club, the Musical Club of Hartford, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Berks County [Pennsylvania] Historical Society, and the Hartford chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Yet, as the cleaning women testify, Mrs. Stevens was tense and Stevens was distant. Holly Stevens thought that her mother, when widowed, had ripped pages out of her father’s journal, but John Updike suspected that Stevens may have been his own vandal. Whether we shall ever know more of Elsie Stevens is not at all clear; it seems a pity that Brazeau gives no report on her from her own friends or fellow club members.
Still, our interest must inevitably be in Stevens. There he walked and sat in Hartford, writing tawdry insurance during the day and splendid verse by night. Although he downgraded his art in every workaday conversation, it was not—contrary to later rumor—unknown to his business colleagues that he was a poet. What was unknown to them, as these interviews make clear, was what a poet was. His reticence was extraordinary. His signature may be taken as an emblem of his desired impenetrability: all the letters looked like m’s as if mum was the only word. If we were to rely on Brazeau’s interviews for Stevens’s biography, few emptier lives could be imagined.
Yet early letters and journal, which fall outside the scope of Brazeau’s book, provide some keys to the enigma. His school friend Edwin de Turck Bechtel wrote that “at high school Wallace was a whimsical, unpredictable young enthusiast, who lampooned Dido’s tearstained adventures in the cave, or wrote enigmatic couplets to gazelles.” Evidently Stevens’s earliest poems involved some jollying of romantic situations. Bechtel would appear to be confirmed by similar behavior later. In “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” another woman, tear stained as Dido, and saluted with regal conjurations (“Mother of heaven, regina of the clouds”), is reproached for her gloom, which is motivated in this case by the departure not of her Virgilian lover but of her own youth, and for her gullibility to the false romanticism of pious hereafters. And in “The Comedian as the Letter C,” Stevens would remark (in some canceled lines recently published by Louis Martz):*
They say they still scratch sonnets in the south,
The bards of Capricorn. Medica- ments
Against the weather. Useful lax- atives.
Petrarch is the academy of youth…
An artful, most affectionate emi- grant,
From Cytherea and its learned doves,
Or else nearby, become a loyal scribe.
Bechtel’s testimony is corroborated in Stevens’s correspondence. By the time he began his journal at the age of nineteen, Stevens thought of himself as a poet, not so much by choice as by necessity. I suspect that he began to write out of ebullience and self-mockery and out of a disquietude over the coexistence of both qualities in his mind. In the to-and-fro of magnified and minimized, the world might be lost; thus Stevens wrote, he said, “to relate myself to the world.” Accordingly, he wrote poetry as if he had to, as he said of himself in contrast to another poet. He needed poetry as “one of the sanctions of life.” The first of Stevens’s letters that survive, sent to his mother when he was fifteen, indicates that he already had some conception of his medley of self-canceling qualities. He had been sent to the Ephrata Mountain Springs Summer Resort, near Reading. He wrote to complain,
My Dear Mother—
I write this letter in depressed spirits. I have decided to come home. Ephrata as a summer resort is still extant [but] as a pleasure resort is dead, very dead, indeed, or has my cynicism embittered me. I can get along first rate but one feels the difference from home and Ephrata.
The word cynicism is unexpected here. His allusion to it is at once so accustomed and so distinct that we may suppose it to have been a quality that he had long noted in himself, and one with which his mother was already familiar. Such a conclusion is borne out by his journal for July 31, 1899, by which time he was nineteen:
Somehow what I do seems to increase in its artificiality. Those cynical years when I was about twelve subdued natural and easy flow of feelings. I still scoff too much, analyze too much and see, perhaps, too many sides of a thing—but not always the true sides. For instance I have been here at Wily’s almost a month, yet never noticed the pathos of their condition. The memory of one day’s visit brought tears to Livingood’s eyes. I am too cold for that.
Perhaps no one could compete with anyone named Livingood, but Stevens is severe with himself. Here his cynicism does not stand alone, as in the letter from Ephrata; it is part of a cluster of derogatory words that include artificiality, many-sidedness carried to excess, and coldness. These are qualities of which Stevens’s associates accused him, as Brazeau indicates, but what seems important is that at the age of nineteen he charged himself with them.
What he meant by cynicism is presumably what Bechtel meant by mockery. It is clarified by one of Stevens’s rare reminiscences about his childhood. “When I was a boy,” he wrote Hi Simons in 1940, “I used to think that things progressed by contrasts, that there was a law of contrasts.” The alternation, as of cynicism with enthusiasm, which in retrospect he recognized as characteristic, was at first a private habit to be reproved, as his use of the unpleasant word “cynicism” confirms; it became—and this was the way the crisis was resolved—a response to a law that applied to things generally. He would say later, “North and South are an intrinsic couple,” and in “The Glass of Water,” an object is “merely a state, / One of many, between two poles.” He appears to be thinking indulgently of the same seesaw when he says of Crispin,
Thus he conceived his voyaging to be
An up and down between two elements,
A fluctuating between sun and moon.
So his cynicism, originally a source of guilt, was gradually transformed into just a pole of thought—a necessary one—as he proceeded through a crisis into self-justifying maturity.
As Nietzsche remarks in Beyond Good and Evil, “The great epochs of our life are at the points when we gain courage to rebaptize our badness as the best in us.” I cannot fix the date when Stevens’s remorse over his qualities became an affirmation of them. But to trace the history of coldness in his writings is instructive. “Even if I’m the only Eskimo who doesn’t like snow,” he jokes in Brazeau’s book. Earlier on he returns intently to a consideration of coldness. In his journal entry the day after the previously cited one, August 1, 1899, he proposes to overcome this quality in a sonnet, for which he presents this romantic plan: “Frost in a meadow. Is there no bird to sing despite this? No song of Love to outquench the thought of Death?” But gradually Stevens began to think of a kind of song that would affirm rather than deny coldness or frost. In fact, there is a persistent lowering of the temperature in his “mind’s native land,” as Valéry called it. He did not abjure Livingood’s capacity for pity, but other perspectives, he came to see, might also have their uses. So, two years after he expressed such disquietude about his own coldness, Stevens began to preen himself on not yielding so readily to warmth:
To illustrate the change that has come over me I may mention that last night I saw from an elevated train a group of girls making flowers in a dirty factory near Bleecker-st. I hardly gave it a thought. Last summer the pathos of it would have bathed me in tears. [March 12, 1901]
It’s as if he were saying “a farewell to Florida,” and treating cold as a part of experience to be valued as highly as warmth. He does not exclude the pathos, but in a palpable hit at Livingood he overcomes it “by building his city in snow.” In Brazeau’s book Richard Wilbur tells how he informed Stevens of Gaston Bachelard’s idea that the human imagination simply cannot cope with polar conditions. Stevens replied, “The greater part of the imaginative life of people is both created and enjoyed in polar circumstances.” And in his very last poem, “As You Leave the Room,” he remarks, “Now, here, the snow I had forgotten becomes / Part of a major reality….” (Another version of this poem, “First Warmth,” speaks of “the warmth I had forgotten.”)
By this time Stevens might well feel that he had given equal play to both temperatures. Perhaps the locus classicus for his defense of polar weather is “The Snow Man,” where Stevens insists (while allowing for “misery”) that only with “a mind of winter” can one regard the snow and the frost properly.
The valorization of coldness led toward “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” The succulence of ice cream can only exist in a frame of cold. In this context the emperor of ice cream, who presides over the living as well as the dead, becomes a figure of the poet as well as of the totality of being. There is now no need to feel remorse over the quality of coldness. Stevens became suspicious of poets like Robert Frost (in spite of the latter’s name) who kept offering up humanity in their work as though warmth were the only key to the world. I suspect that Stevens felt increasingly that his recognition of cold, with its attendant and implicit images of death, nakedness, and saying no, was part of his original contribution to poetry. Whatever way one looks at a blackbird, a snowy climate is essential.
In Brazeau’s book Stevens’s father, Garrett Stevens, appears chiefly in relation to the ghastly scene when he opposed his son’s marriage and that son stomped out of the house, as he thought, forever. But Garrett Stevens, however heated in this instance, may well have encouraged his son toward the justification of coldness. In November 1897 he wrote to Wallace Stevens, then eighteen, “You have discovered I suppose, that the sun is not a ball of fire sending light and Heat—like a stove—but that radiation and reflection is the mystery—and that the higher up we get—and nearer to the sun the colder it gets….”
This is bad physics but good metaphysics, and as metaphor it recurs in Stevens’s verse. In “Credences of Summer,” he writes, “Trace the gold sun…. Look at it in its essential barrenness,” and in “The Sun This March,” we learn that “Cold is our element….” This conception of the sun as surrounded by cold, a tropic conjoined to an arctic, is one that Stevens refined with enthusiasm.
In fact, while Stevens père was only a poetaster, he was for years his son’s intellectual companion. Even the great debate between reality and the imagination seems to have been initiated, or at least greatly encouraged, by Garrett Stevens. In a letter written shortly before the one about the sun, he said:
When we try to picture what we see, the purely imaginary is transcended, like listening in the dark we seem to really hear what we are listening for—but describing real objects one can draw straight or curved lines and the thing may be mathematically demonstrated—but who does not prefer the sunlight—and the shadow reflected.
The expression is somewhat tortured, but Garrett Stevens is proposing that when we try to say what we see, we do so through our imagination, and yet that we transcend that imagination because of the strong pressure of reality. It is the same, he says, when the sense involved is hearing: listening in the dark, we conjure up and yet really hear the sounds we imaginatively crave. Finally, he contrasts the abstract patterns into which imagination can turn real objects with the greater attraction of those objects in real sunlight and shadow. After all of which his letter gruffly concludes: “Point in all this screed—Paint truth but not always in drab clothes.” This is only half the point, the other half being: Ground the imagination in the real. Between these two poles moves his son’s verse.
In the poem, “The Common Life,” Wallace Stevens contrasts the reality of man and woman with “A black line beside a white line,” as, in “The Rock,” he wryly describes a meeting of two lovers as “A theorem proposed between the two.” Or, to take another example, his poem “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch” allows the imagination to turn the actual woman into projections A, B, and C, but then accords the unprojected, living model a virtue that these fine inventions cannot claim:
The arrangement contains the desire of
The artist. But one confides in what has no
Concealed creator. One walks easily
The unpainted shore, accepts the world
As anything but sculpture. Good- bye,
Mrs. Pappadopoulos, and thanks.
While expressing gratitude to Peter Brazeau for his zeal in preserving what must otherwise have been lost, we must regret that he has conceded so much to his tape recorder. His interstitial comments indicate that he might well have done more, if he had started with other premises. What is needed is to bridge the gap between this assemblage of mostly uninformed comment, and the mind of the man on Westerly Terrace who opened up such grand boulevards in American poetry.
November 24, 1983