Wallace Stevens: The Later Years, 1923-1955 by Joan Richardson

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Through her two-volume of Wallace Stevens’ works, Joan Richardson has pursued three aims: to provide a psychobiography of the author, to write a history of the United States between 1879 and 1955 as reflected in Stevens’ life and writings, and to analyze Stevens’ often difficult poetry. Because Stevens came late to poetry--he did not publish anything until he was thirty-five, and his first book did not appear for almost another decade--the first volume of Richardson’s biography (published in 1986) concentrates on the first two purposes. While this second volume continues to treat Stevens’ family difficulties and his relationship to his era, the poet’s work fittingly receives far more attention.

Richardson’s dissertation dealt with the sources of Stevens’ poetry, and on this topic the study is most useful. Stevens read widely in modern and classical literature; Richardson has examined his letters and library records to detect influences. She notes, too, how biography affects the poems. For example, “Red Loves Kit” responds to Elsie Stevens’ hostile, arbitrary behavior during her pregnancy. The book further considers how the poetry reflects intellectual trends such as abstract art. Richardson also makes a strong case for the centrality of Stevens in the twentieth century, arguing that his work confronts the fundamental dilemma of the age: How can one find order in a world that no longer believes in the divine?

Richardson’s research has been exhaustive. Unhappily, the burden of detail she presents can be exhausting; the biography of a man whose life was essentially uneventful runs to more than a thousand pages for the two volumes. Nor does her prose ease the task of reading; a carefully edited distillation of this study would provide the definitive work on Stevens that Richardson set out to produce and that she is clearly equipped to write.