A new Wallace Stevens emerges during the course of this brilliant and irritating book: Stevens the politically aware (although perhaps not quite politically correct) realist whose major themes and most significant works grew from encounters with the world of work and war. Longenbach draws from letters, reports, and the correlation of events and poems to provide a new reading of Stevens’ works and a new distillation of his interior world. This Stevens was never a poet of the ivory tower but was as fully involved in political events as were the 1930’s leftist critics who supposedly awakened him to the Depression and the threatening national scene. Longenbach’s book traces the pressure of reality upon the poet from his days at Harvard and his first poems, through his major collection, to the few poems completed just before his death. The critic concludes that Stevens never left “the plain sense of things” as source and subject and that the apolitical Stevens of many of the reviews and earlier studies is largely a myth. The arrangement of the material is basically chronological, although the writer breaks away from this pattern when thematic contingencies make other orders more convenient.
This study of Stevens is James Longenbach’s third book. His earlier two, Modernist Poetics of History (1987) and Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism (1988), establish his credentials as an able and flexible critic whose approach is an eclectic incorporation of factual material and theory into a highly original discussion of modernist poets and poetics.
Longenbach’s arguments are very persuasive, even though the Stevens that he defines is somewhat reduced in stature. Evidence is unusual and surprising. For example, in addition to tracing early readings and influences (some of which have been unearthed here for the first time in Stevens scholarship), Longenbach looks at Stevens’ editorship of The Harvard Advocate. He attributes to the young poet articles and reviews that appeared during Stevens’ editorship, citing Stevens’ comment that as editor he had to make up most of the material for the issues himself. This kind of attribution might seem very tenuous, and in fact it sometimes drives the author to verbal gymnastics:
As the anonymous reviewer of Practical Agitation put it in the Advocate, Chapman “stands for purity, to be attained by neither the Democratic nor the Republican party, but by purity itself.” Forty-two years later, the poet whom this reviewer may have become would explain that “the first step toward a supreme fiction would be to get rid of all existing fictions.”
Nevertheless, the articles cited do indeed sound like Stevens, having the same vocabulary, sentence structure, and general perspective as his early journals, and they clearly show a political awareness not to be found in his other writings.
More convincing are the connections Longenbach makes between the events in the public mind, Stevens’ readings, and his poems. Readers and critics have had a tendency to overlook the war poems and to dismiss Stevens’ coda to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” that begins “Soldier, there is a war between the mind/ And sky” as a minor afterthought or even a superficial attempt at relevance. After reading Longenbach’s analysis, it is difficult not to conceive of this concluding section, which Stevens had asked to be placed on the cover when the poem was first issued as a privately printed book, as central. Longenbach’s Stevens turns out to be a war poet preoccupied with both world wars and with the national feeling of apocalypse that dominated literature.
Less reliable are some of the conclusions drawn from the letters. Of course, Stevens’ letters are used to support all conflicting viewpoints, and his expressed and tacit ambivalence to virtually everything leaves them open to any uses. Longenbach states, “Stevens recoiled at Hi Simons’s suggestion…that the poet was ‘on the right’”; the quotation following suggests that Stevens was claiming to be on the left. The rest of the letter, however, includes these unquoted lines: “I believe that [the workers] could...
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