Between 1898 and 1900, while an undergraduate at Harvard, Wallace Stevens published eighteen poems in student publications. His next published poems did not appear until 1914. What was Stevens doing for those fourteen years? Why the long silence?
Wallace Stevens, New York, and Modernism, a collection of ten previously unpublished essays edited by Lisa Goldfarb and Bart Eeckhout, examines Stevens’s life between 1900 and 1914 and its impact on his later poetry. After graduating from Harvard in 1900, Stevens moved to [End Page 381] New York, where he lived in a variety of neighborhoods, including Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Fordham Heights (he also spent a year in East Orange, New Jersey). He worked briefly as a reporter for the New York Tribune, attended law school, and then practiced law at a series of legal offices and insurance companies. On a visit home to Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1904, he met Elsie Viola Kachel, whom he married in 1909 after a long courtship. In 1914, at the age of thirty-five, he reconnected with Walter Conrad Arensberg, a friend from Harvard, and began attending salon evenings at his apartment, meeting William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Carl Van Vechten, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp, among others. In 1916, he accepted a position at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where he lived until his death in 1955.
Contributors to this volume focus mainly on Stevens’s activities in New York before he became involved with the Arensberg circle and began to write major poems such as “Peter Quince at the Clavier” and “Sunday Morning.” How, they ask, did Stevens’s life in the city contribute to his transformation from erstwhile poet to one of the century’s most influential artists? Did Stevens contribute to the city’s culture? Is Stevens a New York poet?
Following a helpful introduction by Goldfarb and Eeckhout, George S. Lensing provides an excellent overview of Stevens’s daily life in the city (he was often unhappy) and his intellectual activities, including his reading habits (which covered Keats, Arthur Morrison, and Sully Prudhomme, among others). Lensing also discusses two books of original poems that Stevens gave to Elsie as birthday presents in 1908 and 1909. (The books are collected in the Library of America edition of Stevens’s writing.) “In poetic terms alone,” Lensing writes, “we can make little claim for the importance of these forty poems” (25); they are “less bold and experimental than the Harvard poem, ‘Ballade of the Pink Parasol’” (25). Ultimately, Lensing does not attempt to explain how Stevens-the-frustrated-professional became Stevens-the-poet, but he does illuminate important influences and provide a set of coordinates for tracking Stevens’s development.
The next four essays focus on Stevens’s interactions with particular art forms in the city. Bonnie Costello discusses Stevens’s gallery-going, arguing convincingly for the relevance of figurative art to his poetry. Goldfarb investigates the “impact of New York’s musical life on Stevens’ writings” (14). (In his letters, Stevens mentions listening to everything from Saint-Saens to ragtime, Glazunov to comic opera.) More significantly, she captures how Stevens’s own musicality incorporates the sounds and rhythms of city life. Barbara M. Fisher discusses Stevens’s relation to dance and argues that “while his contemporaries make dance or dancers the subject of poems, Stevens does something else: he dances in his poems; he makes his poems dance” (72–73). Finally, Eeckhout considers Stevens’s relation to New York’s architecture, especially its newly constructed skyscrapers. He describes how the city’s skyline appears in Stevens’s work despite his dislike for “architectural modernity” (88).
The final five essays examine a range of subjects related to Stevens’s life in the city. Alex Nesme identifies a connection between Stevens’s obsession with ephemerality and the transitory nature of modern life in New York (and his life in particular). Glen MacLeod provides a nuanced and thoughtful account of Stevens’s early engagement with Henry James, and especially with Washington Square...