Sunday, March 27, 2016

Book review: ADAM KIRSCH on Wallace Stevens, the Patron Saint of Inner Lives

Reading Mariani only confirms that Stevens was a magician, or perhaps a god: Out of what seemed like nothing, he created a universe.

The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens
By Paul Mariani
Reviewed by ADAM KIRSCH

How to live a life “unsponsored” by a deity, in which we are responsible for inventing our own meanings, was the great subject of Stevens’s poetry from beginning to end. His answer, as developed in the long, ruminative poems he wrote from the 1930s onward—in volumes like Ideas of Order (1936) and The Auroras of Autumn (1950)—was the same one Matthew Arnold had proposed in the Victorian age: The role that was once played by religion must now be filled by poetry, or more broadly by the imagination.

For the modernist poets who revolutionized American literature in the early 20th century, impersonality was a kind of mania—and a sign of how seriously they took their artistic project. The 1910s and ’20s were the palmy days of Greenwich Village, an era of free love and radical politics. But the greatest poets of that era, the ones who actually created modernism, kept this kind of bohemian playacting at arm’s length. Indeed, for most of the modernists, the more revolutionary their poetics, the more carefully they concealed themselves behind the manners and professions of the bourgeoisie. T. S. Eliot was a banker when he wrote “The Waste Land”; William Carlos Williams was a family doctor; Marianne Moore, an editor, was a devout churchgoer who lived with her mother.

And then there was Wallace Stevens. In writing The Whole Harmonium, Paul Mariani, who has given us lives of Williams, Hart Crane, and Robert Lowell, set himself his most difficult challenge yet, for if ever there was a genius with a short biography, it was Stevens. The story that Mariani tells in 400 pages could be reduced, in its essentials, to 400 words. Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879 to a family of Pennsylvania Dutch descent. He went to Harvard, where he took literature classes and became the president of the literary magazine, The Advocate. But the need for a more substantial career than writing poetry led him to New York Law School. He married his first sweetheart, Elsie, and grew to dislike her; they had one child. In time they moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where he worked in the insurance business and rose to become the vice president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity. 

He never left North America. He was casually racist and anti-Semitic. A Hoover Republican, he distrusted labor unions. He drank too much at parties, to overcome his natural shyness, and later had to apologize for his boorishness. In the depths of the Depression, he made $20,000 a year, the equivalent of $350,000 today. Each detail feels more interest-repelling than the last. If such a man were the subject of a novel, it would be Babbitt.

lace stevens is beyond fathoming,” Marianne Moore wrote, comparing him to a person with “a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose.” But the secret would out, and in his poems Stevens revealed it: The bluff American executive had a soul as baroque and fantastical as an aesthete’s, as profound and brooding as a philosopher’s. Imagine the surprise of Carl Van Vechten, the writer and literary impresario, who met Stevens for the first time in 1914, when this “big, blond, and burly” insurance man handed over the manuscript of “Peter Quince at the Clavier”:

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound
And thus it is that what I feel
Here in this room, desiring you
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk
Is music.

This scene is not nearly as famous as the scene of T. S. Eliot showing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to Ezra Pound, but the reader’s surprise must have been even greater: Stevens, like Eliot, had modernized himself. His first book,Harmonium, published in 1923, established Stevens as the patron saint of the inner life held captive by the outer life—a peculiarly American condition. His daily existence offered no scope for self-expression, but on his walks to and from work, in the evenings up in his study, he was confronting the ultimate questions of art and life. How can humanity live without God? Can religion be replaced with another kind of myth? How does art reflect and transcend reality? And he was answering in a language at once voluptuous and intellectual, elegant and eccentric—a language such as no one had spoken before.. read more:

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