Wallace Stevens was among the most revered leaders of the 20th century Modernist movement in American poetry. His stylistically precise, philosophically dense poems range widely in length and reconcile gaudy everyday life with highly abstracted journeys of thought. Stevens' body of work now ranks him as one of the greatest poets of his age, alongside T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound. Compared to these contemporaries, especially the firebrand Pound, Stevens' poetic career had a slow and quiet start, but his reputation continued to grow throughout his life. Harold Bloom, a leading Stevens scholar, has called him "the best and most representative American poet of our time" and "a vital part of the American mythology."
Stevens was born in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania to a wealthy lawyer. His childhood was characterized by access to high-quality parochial schools, and studies in Classical Greek and Latin from an early age. For a few years he studied as a non-degree student at Harvard, where he was invigorated by the literary community. Then, after doing journalism for a time in New York City, he graduated from New York Law School in 1903. He took a job with an insurance firm, the American Bonding Company, in 1908, a line of work that would be lifelong and ensure his financial stability.
Stevens married Elsie Viola Kachel in 1909, to the stern disapproval of his parents, who viewed his wife as lower class. His relationships with his father and mother were strained until their deaths in 1911 and 1912, respectively. During this time, Stevens acquainted himself with the New York literary scene and associated with Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. His first mature poetry was published by Harriet Monroe in Poetry magazine in 1914.
A defining shift in Stevens' life came in 1916, when he moved to Hartford, Connecticut to a new job with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where he would remain the rest of his life. The first few years in Connecticut proved a fruitful period out of which came his groundbreaking debut collection, Harmonium, in 1923. Harmonium contained many of what would become Stevens’ defining works: “Sunday Morning,” “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” “The Snow Man,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” among many others.
The complex, hyper-attentive observations in his poems garnered some immediate praise from fellow poets, but many critics dismissed his work and its tendency to exclude the realm of reality in favor of nuanced mental experiments. John Gould Fletcher expressed worries that Stevens “must either expand his range to take in more of human experience, or give up writing altogether,” calling Harmonium a book “which does not permit a sequel.”
Stevens indeed waited another decade to produce a second book, but more due to the birth of his daughter, Holly, in 1924. In 1933 he published Ideas of Order, perhaps an even denser and murkier rumination on reality, but one which nevertheless included one of his masterpieces, “The Idea of Order in Key West.” Key West was a locale to which Stevens first traveled in 1922, on a business trip, and where he would return many times until 1940, drawing writing ideas from his travel. Stevens’ marriage, strained during its early years due to Elsie’s mental illness, began to recover after Holly’s childhood.
Over the next two decades, Stevens produced five more poetry collections: Owl’s Clover (1936), revised as The Man with the Blue Guitar (1937); Parts of a World (1942); Transport to Summer (1947); and The Auroras of Autumn (1950), which received the National Book Award. Stevens’ interest in long poems increased steadily, beginning with “The Comedian as the Letter C” in Harmonium and continuing with poems such as Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942) and “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” in The Auroras of Autumn. His investment in complex philosophical explorations of perception and metaphysics likewise continued to deepen. His Collected Poems in 1955 was awarded his second National Book Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
After achieving a host of late-career accolades, Stevens began succumbing to cancer in 1955. A chaplain in Stevens’ hospital reported that Stevens converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, a claim staunchly rejected by his daughter, Holly, and made dubious by the lifelong theme in Stevens’ poetry of finding new rationality in what he saw as a post-theological modern age. Stevens passed away in August of 1955 and was buried in Hartford.
Study Guides on Works by Wallace Stevens
One of the most important names in the world of 20th century Modernist literature, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) is practically as famous for what he did when not writing poetry as he is for what resulted when he set to work writing verse. Stevens...