Parts of a World
Peter Brazeau’s extensive oral biography of Wallace Stevens’ years in Hartford, Connecticut (1916-1955), the product of five years spent interviewing some 150 people who knew Stevens, offers strong evidence both of the usefulness of oral history and of its severe limitations. Oral-history interviews can give great depth and vivid color to the description of a time or place or public event (the Great Depression, the Bataan death march, the assassination of a public figure), and in the hands of someone like John Toland they can add valuable information for a fuller interpretation of historical happenings. Modern biographers depend increasingly upon taped interviews with those who knew their subjects well (or even slightly), and such interviews have certainly been to the benefit of biographers as they attempt to shape a coherent understanding of their subject’s life and character.
The pure oral biography, in which the biographer stands aside, allowing the interviewees to speak in relatively unedited form, adding only glosses and footnotes and factual background, has proven to be a valuable and interesting approach to the lives of public figures. A subject such as Edie Sedgwick, whose celebrityhood was itself the sole source of her celebrity, is perfectly suited to the form of oral biography, as Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie: An American Biography (1982) showed so well. For Edie and her friends, those celebrated in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, the interview and the subject become essentially one and the same, surface and substance all surface.
When one attempts a pure oral biography of a private person, or of an artist whose public life and artistic life are quite separate, the chances for a wholly successful book are much more limited. Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee’s Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac (1978) has proved to be a very useful literary biography primarily because Jack Kerouac’s life was the substance of his fiction; to be able to read interviews with people who knew Kerouac is of great benefit to those who are interested in his work and his aesthetic use of the events and people of his life. Peter Brazeau’s serious and sincere effort to produce a pure oral biography of a poet such as Wallace Stevens, who kept his private life quite private and whose poetry grew very directly out of his life but was by no means a description of that life, must perforce result in a less immediately valuable book. The events, the opinions, the gossip, and the anecdotes are all in Brazeau’s book, but the most interesting and useful element of the book lies most often in what is not directly told, what is present in its absence: the life which the poet led on the page, alone with his readers, in the midst of the events chronicled in Brazeau’s book and, perhaps more accurately, in spite of those events.
This is not to suggest that Brazeau is unaware of the limitations of his approach or that he has done anything less than a thorough, workmanlike job. There are minor errors and curious lapses in his notes (for example, he either carelessly or coyly identifies Vladimir Nabokov in a photograph of the Henry Church circle at Ville d’Avray as “Nabokoff-Sirine”), but the bulk of the book is solid and absolutely trustworthy. In addition, the title, Parts of a World, is more than simply a clever borrowing of the title of one of Stevens’ books; it is a recognition that these interviews are only parts of a world—that, as Stevens put it in the first poem of his Parts of a World (1942), life “. . . is faster than the weather, faster than/ Any character. It is more than any scene. . . .// Piece the world together, boys, but not with your hands.”
Brazeau pieces Stevens’ world together as best he can in three sections, outlining Stevens’ identity as insurance man, as man of letters, and as family man. In each of these three sections, the central problem remains the same: that of the true poet’s isolation from and in a surrounding world that does not understand him or even want to understand him.
Charles O’Dowd, an underwriter with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and Stevens’ business associate for many years, summed up Stevens’ relationship with him by saying, “I just took him as I found him. I tried to respect his wishes, but I used to let him have it just a little bit because he was just another damn poet. In my book, he wasn’t John Keats.” Others of Stevens’ business acquaintances may not have put it so bluntly, but most admit to understanding nothing that he wrote; one even suggests that his poetry was but another of his practical jokes, meaningless and intentionally so.
The family man faced the same misunderstanding and envious disrespect. John Sauer, Stevens’ nephew, tells of talking with Wallace’s brother John about his poetry and how John would “kind of joke about his brother the poet.” When The Man with the Blue Guitar was published in 1937, “John said, ’I can’t get any of this drivel.’ We’d always make a joke about it: ’This goddam poetry.’”
Even the man of letters in the society of his fellow poets faced the same sort of misunderstanding, ridiculed in this context not for being a poet, but for living and writing for the sake of the poetry itself...
(The entire section is 2198 words.)