In This Article Wallace Stevens

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biography
  • Correspondence
  • Manuscripts and Papers
  • Recordings
  • Reception and Reputation
  • Documentaries

American Literature Wallace Stevens
by
Bart Eeckhout
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0128

Introduction

Wallace Stevens (b. 1879–d. 1955) occupies a place in American literature that is both secure and insecure. He is a poets’ poet and a self-evident staple of the curriculum in English programs. Among modern poetry scholars, he is widely studied both for his aesthetic qualities and his surprising ideas. There is a long-standing academic journal devoted solely to his work. Yet he is not a household name, even among literary readers. And he is increasingly being sidelined in critical surveys of modernism, the movement with which he is habitually associated. While his oeuvre remains central to the history of American poetry, this is perhaps less the case to that of literary modernism. Stevens’s “career” as a poet was also unusual in two ways: because of its delayed quality, and because of its development on the side while he was working full time as a lawyer in an insurance company. His life was unspectacular. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879, studied three years at Harvard (1897–1900), and tried his hand at journalism in New York before being persuaded by his father to enter New York Law School. He struggled for years to make ends meet and, after a long courtship, married a beautiful girl from Reading, though the marriage became a lifelong disappointment. Having joined the avant-garde art scene in New York, he started to publish his first distinctly modern poems in his mid-thirties. He was almost forty-four when his first book, Harmonium, was published in 1923. Partly because the book was not a success, Stevens fell silent again for several years. In 1916, he and his wife had moved to Hartford in Connecticut, where he got a job at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. Their only child, Holly, was born in 1924; she would later become a tireless promoter of his work. It took Stevens until 1934, when he was an affluent man in his mid-fifties, fully to resume his poetry writing. In the final twenty years, he published five collections—Ideas of Order (1935 in a limited edition by Alcestis Press; 1936 in Knopf’s trade edition), The Man with the Blue Guitar & Other Poems (1937), Parts of a World (1942), Transport to Summer (1947), and The Auroras of Autumn (1950)—before allowing his publisher to bring out The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens on his 75th birthday. The book won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Less than a year later, in 1955, Stevens died of cancer.

General Overviews

Stevens criticism was off to a slow start. Just as the poet hesitated a long time before publishing his first volume, fell silent again, and only resumed writing when he was in his mid-fifties, critical response to his work was delayed: by midcentury, attention began to grow, but it was frequently limited to Harmonium. Only in the final years of his life, when Stevens came to be acknowledged through various prizes and honorary degrees, did criticism start to flourish. Then it did so with a vengeance. Several of the first studies after Stevens’s death attempted general overviews of his work and poetics. Such books have not been included here because they have been superseded by later scholarly efforts. The capstone of comprehensive commentaries on all of Stevens’s major poems remains, arguably, Bloom 1977, despite its idiosyncrasies and difficulties. During the 1980s and 1990s, Stevens criticism began to pay a lot more attention to the historical context of the poet’s writings. The standard introductory overview from this era, combining biography with poetic insight, is Bates 1985. It was complemented by Longenbach 1991, offering the best overview of the entire oeuvre in relation to its sociopolitical context. Jenkins 2000 joins this tradition, but adds a critical eye from the position of an Irish-based critic. Lensing 2001 offers another encompassing view combining interpretive criticism and biography. In the 21st century, the market for comprehensive accounts by individual scholars has clearly diminished again. Instead, there have been a number of practical overviews. The most notable is Serio 2007, a collection of essays explicitly designed as the primary introductory-level entrance into Stevens’s work. Cook 2007 serves as the perfect complement; its ambition to annotate every individual poem recurs in Bacigalupo 2015, though this book is of note only to readers of Italian.

  • Bacigalupo, Massimo, ed. Wallace Stevens: Tutte le poesie. Milan: Mondadori, 2015.

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    At nearly 1500 pages, this is not just the only full translation of the 1954 Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (and parts of Opus Posthumous) in any language, it also includes valuable introductory tools, with almost eighty pages of chronology and over two hundred pages of annotations to every individual poem. For readers of Italian only.

  • Bates, Milton J. Wallace Stevens: A Mythology of Self. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

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    The most engaging single-author combination of biography and criticism. Biographical facts are treated as materials Stevens transformed into fables of identity throughout his poetry. Based on an eighteen-month research stay at the Huntington Library, it stands at the beginning of the historical turn in Stevens studies during the 1980s and 1990s.

  • Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

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    Densest, most apodictic commentary on the full Stevens canon. Still a frequently cited study, though it is only for advanced readers owing to an idiosyncratic theoretical apparatus revolving around “revisionary ratios” and a triad of ethos, logos, pathos. Places Stevens in the romantic tradition and pushes Emerson and Whitman to the front among influences.

  • Cook, Eleanor. A Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

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    Bookended by a 25-page biography and a 30-page appendix on “How to Read Poetry, Including Stevens,” the core of this practical guide is a set of laconic glosses to every individual poem from the 1954 Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens and the posthumously gathered “Late Poems.”

  • Jenkins, Lee Margaret. Wallace Stevens: Rage for Order. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2000.

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    Comprehensive account of Stevens’s poetic career from the point of view of an Irish-based critic. Explicitly intended as revisionary, wishing to return critical weight to Harmonium and offer a skeptical interrogation of Stevens’s ideas of the hero and major man. The late poems are read in comparison with W. B. Yeats.

  • Lensing, George S. Wallace Stevens and the Seasons. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

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    Vies with Bates 1985 as an elegant combination of biography and interpretive criticism, but breaks with the usual chronological organization of introductory studies by focusing on Stevens’s relation to the four seasons. Reads this omnipresent poetic trope as a psychograph for the poet’s personal loneliness.

  • Longenbach, James. Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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    The most cogent and intelligent study to read Stevens’s entire poetic career in tension with its political and social contexts: the Progressive Era, the Great War, Stevens’s work as a surety and fidelity claims lawyer, the Depression, the Second World War, and the postwar affluent society.

  • Serio, John N., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    The best introduction to Stevens for first-time readers. Fourteen chapters by specialists cover Stevens’s biography, the main stages of his poetic career, the relation to his contemporaries, to romanticism, philosophy, the seasonal cycles, the lyric speaker, linguistic structure, painting, the feminine, and belief. Contains a chronology and guide to further reading.

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