A Ghostly Visit to London (Enter Stevens in a 500-Year-Old Bavarian Tree)
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A Ghostly Visit to London (Enter Stevens in a 500-Year-Old Bavarian Tree)

ONE OF THE more exciting publication projects that are currently in the pipeline is Wallace Stevens in Context, a volume with thirty-seven contributions to be edited by Glen MacLeod for Cambridge University Press. Having been commissioned to write the chapter on Stevens’ international reputation, I am keeping my antennae up to catch the most interesting manifestations of Stevens’ fame outside the United States. As a result, when in early November 2014 the officers of the Wallace Stevens Society received an invitation to attend a “special event” on Stevens in London, I was naturally tempted to go. For a Belgian resident, the Eurostar train connection underneath the Channel makes a quick round trip very easy.

Two aspects of the event in particular appealed to me: the lineup of speakers and the location. The four speakers’ diverse backgrounds promised to deliver unpredictable results. There was, to be sure, the inevitable academic specializing in American literature, here in the guise of Sarah Churchwell, who is also known as a literary journalist regularly appearing on British TV and radio. But even in her case, it was hard to foresee what exactly she might say as someone who is not an expert on Stevens (her latest book is on The Great Gatsby); the program merely announced she would be “providing a Modernist context from which to view Wallace Stevens.”1 Almost as inevitably, there was a British poet on call, though the name of Lachlan Mackinnon has not been circulating much in Stevensian circles either—unless you happen to have an elephant’s memory and recall that his TLS review of Aidan Wasley’s The Age of Auden was quoted in the pages of this journal, including a not very flattering comment about “the meagreness of Stevens’s thought considered in the abstract” (26, qtd. in Eeckhout and Goldfarb 128). Given Mackinnon’s snide remark in the TLS, it was interesting to see what would happen when the same poet was invited to “explor[e] the poetic detail of Stevens’ work.” Yet the two participants to whom I was most looking forward were almost sure to shine a new light on Stevens’ afterlife in British art and letters. One was the visual artist Christopher Le Brun, President of the Royal Academy of Arts, who [End Page 1] was going to talk about “the influence of Wallace Stevens on modern and contemporary artists.” The other was one of the most celebrated and original of British novelists and short story writers today, Ali Smith, already three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, who would “discuss the influence of Stevens on her own work.” As far as I know, Stevens appears only fleetingly in contemporary fiction; I recall how he flits through Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World, Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections, and Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, but am at a loss to think of a single instance that has been the object of serious critical discussion. So I was eager to hear a leading fiction writer outside the U.S. confessing to a genuine sense of influence.

Before I report on any of the things said (and not said, as we will see) by the four illustrious speakers, I would like to take some time to reflect on the second attraction exerted by the event: its venue, which opened only in 2008 and was unknown to me before my being invited to it. One of my favorite Stevens quotations is from the 29-year-old would-be writer in New York City who had no idea yet where his literary ambitions, love life, or travels were going to take him: “I should mope in Paradise (possibly) if I were to die without first having been to London,” he wrote in a letter to Elsie (Contemplated Spouse 141). The luxury of hindsight allows us to smile at the idea that, almost fifty years later, Stevens would die without ever having crossed the Atlantic—but also at the fact that, another sixty years later, the poetry he had written is still being...