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....
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Stevens’s lifetime search for a contemporary aesthetic, one that could satisfy the mind by filling the hole left by the lost metaphysic, sustains his poetry. His early work sets up a persuasive symbolism for the dialogue between reality and the imagination, using the repeated images of Florida and the North, summer and winter, sun and moon. His later work, in its careful analysis of experience for clues to “being,” provides a poetic parallel to phenomenology in philosophy. His eclectic use of techniques and ideas from other arts, as well as both European and American poetry, gives his work a sophistication perhaps unmatched among other American poets of his generation.
On October 2, 1879, in Reading, Pennsylvania, Wallace Stevens was born to Garrett Barcalow Stevens and the former Margaretha Catherine Zeller. Wallace Stevens’s father was a successful attorney who occasionally published poetry and prose in the local papers.
In 1897, Stevens graduated from Reading Boys High School and enrolled at Harvard as a special student with the ambition to become a writer. He published stories and poetry in the Harvard Advocate and the Harvard Monthly and became acquainted with the poet and philosopher George Santayana, whose books provided support for his belief that, in an agnostic age, poetry must assume the role of traditional religion. After completing his special three-year course in English at Harvard, he joined the staff of the New York Tribune but failed as a reporter.
In the fall of 1901, he entered the New York Law School and, after passing the bar three years later, began legal practice. He was not successful as a practicing attorney, however, and in 1908, he joined the New York office of the American Bonding Company. The next year, he married Elsie Moll.
In 1916, Stevens joined the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, which was to be his permanent residence. He now led a double life. During the day, he was a successful businessman, while at night and on weekends, he was a poet. Few of his associates in the insurance world knew of...
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