Wallace Stevens was born on October 2, 1879, to Garrett and Margarethe Stevens in Reading, Pennsylvania. His father’s law practice was sufficient to support the large family, which included Stevens’s older brother, younger brother, and two sisters, but not as well as Garrett Stevens would have wished. Constantly working to supply his family’s needs, he transferred to the young Wallace Stevens his sense that a man’s primary responsibility was to do well materially and support his family adequately. His mother, a strongly Christian woman who belonged to the Dutch Reformed church, provided her son with a respect for religious faith (though as a young man he rejected the practice of her religion) and a sense of the spiritual.
Growing up in Reading near the end of the nineteenth century, Stevens took part in all the activities available to the relatively privileged child. His earliest letters (home from summer camp in his teen years) show his powers of observation, his penchant for intellectual and word games, and his precocious and extensive reading. In 1897, he enrolled in Harvard College as a special student and tried to reconcile his father’s wish for him to be a lawyer with his own desire (or even compulsion) to write. The excitement of the Harvard intellectual atmosphere caught him up: He took classes from Irving Babbitt, had long conversations with George Santayana, and wrote poetry for the Harvard literary magazine. In 1900, he allowed his own inclinations to rule in defiance of paternal demands and went off to New York to become a journalist.
Although he worked both for The New York Tribune and as a freelancer, he was not able to support himself comfortably through journalism. After some months of struggle, he enrolled in New York Law School. The year he finished his law studies and was admitted to the bar, 1904, was also the year he met his future wife, Elsie Moll. Displaying his father’s prudence, he waited for years to marry her until he had enough money saved from his first position (with the legal staff of American Bonding Company) for their support. They were married on September 21, 1909.
The early years of Stevens’s marriage he spent establishing himself financially while doing some writing; living in New York gave him access to the New York literary and artistic scene, with its salons and the electrifying presence of innovative artists such as Tristan Tzara and Marcel Duchamp. His first poems were published in Trend in 1914 and were followed by others in various small journals, including the fledgling Poetry. Stevens joined the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in 1916 and spent the rest of his life with the firm; he also moved to Hartford, Connecticut, that year. Having set himself up financially, he did so artistically in 1923 with the publication by Alfred A. Knopf of Harmonium, his first collection of poetry.
The rest of Stevens’s life was a classic success story, despite the indifferent reviews of the first collection which may have contributed to the long silence following it. After his daughter, Holly Bright Stevens, was born in 1924, Stevens turned his attention to solidifying the position of his family. He was promoted to vice president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity in 1934, a position he held until his death. In 1935, his collection Ideas of Order was published by Alcestis Press; it was republished by Knopf a year later. A leftist review of Stevens which criticized him for being out of touch with the realities of the Depression resulted in two collections that attempt to justify the existence of art in hard times. Owl’s Clover was published in 1936; The Man with the Blue Guitar, and Other Poems came out in 1937.
Stevens’s later years underscored the divisions in his life between work and art, Hartford and New York, and public and private life. His daily office work continued even as he became more and more widely known as a poet. Parts of a World was...
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