Drawing on a variety of materials—reminiscences of Wallace Stevens’ family, friends, and business and literary associates as well as on his poems, plays, and essays—Joan Richardson presents in Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879-1923 a double-faced portrait of this major American poet that divulges his divided self: the daytime public face of the prankish boy, college student, newspaper reporter, lawyer, husband, father, and superbourgeois insurance executive as contrasted with the nocturnal face of the secret bohemian, antibourgeois dreamer, aesthete, art collector, and creative artist who was one of the most sophisticated poets of the twentieth century.
This volume covers the early years of Stevens’ life from 1879, the year of his birth in Reading, Pennsylvania, to 1923, the date of the appearance of his first volume of poems, Harmonium. Although Stevens had been publishing mature poems since 1914 in magazines and anthologies, Harmonium made critics fully aware for the first time that a major poet had arrived on the American scene. In 1923, Stevens was living in Hartford, Connecticut, referred to by many as “Insurance City.” As a practicing attorney, he had joined the legal staff of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1916. In 1934, he was to become vice president of the company, and he remained with Hartford until his death in 1955. His business associates never knew that he was a poet until relatively late in his career. When at this time a colleague in the insurance company learned that Stevens was a poet—a considerable poet—he exclaimed in astonishment, “What, Wally a poet!”
Richardson intends “to mirror the consciousness” of her subject, to provide “a portrait of Stevens without. . . going into details that have been well drawn before.” At the same time, she asserts, she will “respect the sense of the man Stevens shaped himself to be. . . without the idealizing reverence given a hero.” Her account of “the development of Stevens’ consciousness,” when complete, will constitute a “biography of America from 1879 to 1955” as well as a life of this poet “who was so integrally bound to his time and place.”
Richardson recognizes that the key to an understanding of Stevens lies in considering the operation of his public, or outward, self, as opposed to his private, or inward, self. He himself was very conscious of this division, judging by his observation made in a letter to his future wife, Elsie Moll: “It seems insincere, like playing a part, to be one person on paper and another in reality. But I know that it is only because I command myself there.” Indeed, this “playacting,” Richardson suggests, was vital to his art: “Putting on his various masks, fulfilling the role of the money-making lawyer and knowing all the time that he was acting, playing, kept his eye responsive to the trembling present.”
At the time Stevens decided upon a legal career connected with commercial enterprise, he apparently understood the necessity of concealing his tendency toward hedonism and aestheticism. Outwardly he pursued the insurance business under the aspect of authenticity while inwardly living his secret, unrespectable life of a bohemian poet and social pariah, always keeping these two roles at a safe distance from each other. If by day, stuck behind a desk, he chatted of suits, claims, policies, premiums, rates, contracts, losses, risks, coverage, liabilities, interinsurers, regulations, and subtle legal mumbo jumbo, by night he dreamed of red lips on white faces shaded by purple parasols in Paris. He roamed the boulevards and climbed the streets of Montmartre to white-stoned Sacré Coeur. When he wrote “Of Hartford in a Purple Light,” it is Master Soleil, just arrived from Le Havre, who throws the purple stage light of the Paris Opera over “Insurance City.”
Stevens gave form and body to the more ethereal dreams and sentiments of the French Symbolists such as Paul Verlaine, Stephane Mallarmé, Jules Laforgue, and Paul-Jean Toulet. Other echoes or traces of texts appear in Stevens, literary and otherwise: such voices as Heraclitus, Plato, Edmund Spenser, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Heinrich Heine, George Santayana, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Henri Bergson—even Zen Buddhist koans such as are found in the Mumonkan and the Hekiganroku. Richardson reports that Stevens suffered from “artist’s guilt,” or what critic Harold Bloom has called “the anxiety of influence,” indeed that Stevens was always “consistently reticent to admit” to influence of any kind. “Artist’s guilt” frequently afflicts the strongly ethical writer who is striving to produce “original” work but who is all too conscious of the fact that his texts inevitably grow out of other texts. As C. S. Peirce contended in respect to the human mind: There is no knowledge that is not mediated by prior knowledge.
Stevens got some of his most important ideas from the German pragmatist Hans Vaihinger, expressing these ideas in his own unique manner. Learning from Vaihinger the pragmatic value of “fictions” which could not be proven “realities,” he wrote: “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Indeed, Stevens often spoke—perhaps too often—of the “Supreme Fiction.” In his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” (from Transport to Summer, 1947), he discloses its achievement as his poetic goal.
Believing that the opposition between the imagination and reality in a person is commonly out of balance, Stevens sought the precise edge where they joined together. By such a discovery he sought to accomplish their harmonious resolution. Such a poetic solution, he suggests, must include conceptualism (which he terms “abstractionism”), mutability (the recognition of change or flux), and pleasure (the ultimate object of poetry).
Vaihinger was among the first modern thinkers to point out the pragmatic value of fictions. While insisting that the concepts of science, ethics, and religion do not represent reality, he noted that in practical affairs we find it preferable, and sometimes necessary, to conform to the expectations of society and to defer to the exigencies of life. For practical purposes, then, we can treat the apparent objects of these concepts “as if” (“als ob”) they are real, but we should understand that we cannot prove their reality. It was precisely this sort of strategy that Stevens adopted in art and in life.
Bergson’s analysis of time and freedom, mind and body, memory and matter, and creation and evolution also strongly affected Stevens’ thinking in respect to his own relationship to the world. As a trained lawyer, he knew the value of reason in practical matters. Nevertheless, he questioned the primacy of the intellect in understanding reality and championed intuition. According to Bergson, there are two fundamental and opposing forces in the universe: the life-force (l’élan vital) and its resistance by matter (la résistance). We know matter by reason, but we perceive the life-force and the reality of time by intuition. Real time (la durée) differs from clock time (le temps), the kind of time we habitually use. Duration is internal, an awareness of the inner self. Intuition senses existence as change and flow.
Although the brain is an organ of the body, mind or spirit (l’esprit) is not. Man has a memory and an imagination, and thus he is free. He is not at the mercy of the present impulse, nor is he a creature of the past, for he is constantly changing and may be something different in the future. Indeed, by virtue of his imagination, he can project his mind into the future and can make something new as well as better. Just as the mind is free to create novelty, so life itself is creative. Its impulse is not merely repetitious and a response to existing forms, but it also is capable of initiating novel forms. Human beings, individually and collectively, can transcend mere adaptation to environment and can create forms expressive of their individuality as well as their collectivity. If existence requires matter, matter is imbued with a life-force whose impulse is truly creative. Reality is “becoming.” Intuition, a function of the internal self, apprehends that aspect of time called duration. Man is freed by memory and imagination. Indeed, the very process of evolution implies that something could come from nothing.
Such ideas were grist to Stevens’ mental mill: Richardson sees him as exemplifying in all of his writings Bergson’s ideas regarding the dual nature of time and our perception of it. She comments, “One of the most striking features to emerge from following the threads of Stevens’ experience was the rhythmic repetition of motifs both in his work . . . and, extraordinarily, in his life.” Bergson’s ideas made Stevens conscious of the nature of his own experience; his poems reveal a constant, a systematic perception of a changing reality.
If Stevens’ sense of duration, his...