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Influence or Affinity?

WHEN I FIRST PROPOSED an MLA roundtable discussion on Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, it seemed like a natural pairing. There was, after all, a book-length study of the subject—Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens by the respected critic Diane Middlebrook—published as long ago as 1974. And the Whitman-Stevens relation has been a central concern in the work of Harold Bloom throughout his long and productive career, from his early essay “The Central Man: Emerson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens” (1966) to his retrospective summation of his literary theory in The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (2011). A panel on this topic might prompt some fresh perspectives on a well-established case of literary influence.

The topic turned out to be more interesting and more controversial than I anticipated. Several of the short papers on the MLA program argued that—contrary to received opinion—there was no significant relation at all between the two poets. This provocative thesis inspired a broad range of responses from the audience, leading to a lively and stimulating discussion that went on long after the roundtable was officially over. This special issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal continues that discussion with expanded versions of the conference papers and contributions from several other Stevens scholars.

The first essay, by Tyler Hoffman, focuses on Whitman’s catalogues as a way of defining the essential difference between the two poets. Whitman thought of these collections of people and things as parts of actual American life and as symbolic of “that ultimate democracy for which America stands.” Stevens, however, was interested mainly in ideas and “acts of the mind,” not “large numbers of concrete things.” He found Whitman’s “Americana” unpoetic, primarily of historical interest, and “a little threadbare” at that. The two poets, in Hoffman’s view, had fundamentally different approaches to poetry.

Patrick Redding, too, questions the basic notion—derived from a critical tradition that includes Roy Harvey Pearce, Joseph N. Riddel, and James E. Miller, Jr., as well as Middlebrook and Bloom—that there is any important relation between Whitman and Stevens. Calling for “a return to [End Page 1] the facts” of documentary evidence rather than unsupported theoretical assertions, he traces the critical reception of both poets to show that no one seriously suggested such a relation between them until the 1960s. Redding argues that we should take “at face value” Stevens’ dismissive references to Whitman and makes the case that Stevens’ negative attitude toward the author of Leaves of Grass was shaped primarily by the views of two Harvard professors he knew: Barrett Wendell and George Santayana. His summary conclusion is that Whitman “failed to make a sustained impact upon Stevens’ writing and thought.”

Matt Miller, a Whitman scholar, casts an equally skeptical eye on the prevailing idea that there is “a natural, even inescapable connection between these two great poets.” He carefully traces the history of the Whitman-Stevens pairing (adding to this tradition the critics Denis Donoghue, Thomas B. Byers, and Mark Noble); challenges Bloom’s narrow reading of Whitman (his “selective preoccupation with a small group of Whitman’s poems”); and documents the surprisingly mixed reception of Middlebrook’s Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens, which originated as her dissertation under the direction of Bloom. Miller concludes that Whitman and Stevens are essentially very different poets, “better understood in opposition to one another.”

Acknowledging that Bloom’s theory of literary influence is currently out of fashion, Lee Jenkins helpfully summarizes its key assumptions about the Whitman-Stevens relation: that, for Stevens, Whitman represents an American Sublime and that such poems as “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” and “The Idea of Order at Key West” are “crisis-poems” recording his struggles with his great American precursor. She then proposes—as a more transatlantic, up-to-date approach to theorizing this literary relationship—a kind of “spatialized or rhizomatic” model of intertextuality, centering on the “French connection” between the two poets, particularly their reception in France in the 1920s.

Roger Gilbert tests the Bloomian notion that Whitman deeply influenced Stevens’ poetry by asking, “Are there moments when we can say that Stevens actually sounds like Whitman?” His answer is a qualified yes. He identifies subtle similarities in their use of vocabulary, rhetorical gestures, tone, and syntax—even finding (in contrast with Hoffman) Stevensian equivalents for Whitman’s catalogues. His carefully balanced essay makes a fitting conclusion to this reconsideration of the relation between the two poets, affirming “both the real distance between them and their underlying commonality.”

There is a distinctly American bias to these papers. All the above contributors are concerned either to support or to challenge the work of Harold Bloom, and all but one (Lee Jenkins of Ireland) are from the United States. In order to achieve better international balance, Bart Eeckhout and I decided to ask Tony Sharpe of Lancaster University to answer some questions [End Page 2] about Whitman and Stevens in the United Kingdom. Sharpe’s lively and wide-ranging response characterizes Stevens’ relation to Whitman as “a knowing and perhaps even wary adjacency” and asserts that, if we are looking for nineteenth-century American precursors for Stevens, Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau may be more likely candidates.

I want to add a few words of my own on the subject of the historical turn in scholarship. Both Redding and Miller criticize Bloom for making broad theoretical claims without regard for empirical evidence. Both advocate a return to historical scholarship based on careful documentation, what Miller terms “significant and responsible use of textual evidence” and what Redding calls “a return to the facts.” The strength of their own essays demonstrates the value of this approach. But I think we should bear in mind that the historical approach also has its limitations. Facts by themselves can be dull and unilluminating unless quickened by the free play of mind that Jenkins displays in her imaginative application of Deleuze and Guattari’s theory; or by the subtly perceptive close-reading of Gilbert; or perhaps even by the passionate enthusiasm of Bloom.

The case of Wallace Stevens presents special problems for the historical scholar, mainly because his life was so uneventful and his writing is seldom personally revealing. The paucity of documentary evidence has tempted his biographers either to dwell on trivial facts or to indulge in far-fetched speculation. Another problem is that, although one might like to take Stevens’ own words “at face value,” as Redding suggests, that is not such a simple thing to do. For instance, Stevens’ comment that neither Henry James nor Walt Whitman “means anything to me” (CPP 804) might seem to dismiss the possibility of any influence from either writer. But we know that Stevens’ attitude toward James, at least, was far more complicated than this statement suggests. I have argued elsewhere that “during his New York years, Stevens was undoubtedly aware of James as a towering literary figure; that he followed James’s career as any literary person would have at the time; that he would have known the characteristics of James’s late style whether he read his books or not; and that he would have recognized an affinity between James’s sensibility and his own” (MacLeod 12). He read James’s early novel Washington Square with pleasure and embeds a covert allusion to James’s Autobiography in his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” Although this is not a simple case of direct literary influence, it certainly shows that we cannot take at face value Stevens’ assertion that James meant nothing to him. Could the same be true of Whitman? [End Page 3]

There are other possibilities than a simple, direct line of influence from Whitman to Stevens. Sharpe makes the interesting suggestion that there might be a kind of negative influence: the “Whitmanian note” could be said “to influence the style of those who self-consciously set out to avoid it.” Another possibility is to explain the relation between Whitman and Stevens primarily in terms of their common debt to Emerson. In 1966, Bloom defined the relations among these three writers this way: “there is a powerful and direct influence of Emerson on Whitman and a subtler, less direct effect of Whitman on Stevens” (“Central” 25; my italics). Later he reversed this view, asserting that the influence of Whitman on Stevens was more direct than that of Emerson: “[Stevens’] Emersonianism was filtered mostly through Whitman” (Wallace Stevens 10). Bloom’s earlier formulation—that Stevens got his Emersonianism directly from Emerson—may be more plausible. Such an approach to the Whitman-Stevens pairing would assume a kind of triangulated relation between them, with Emerson as the third term.

The evidence for Emerson’s influence on Stevens is stronger than for that of Whitman. Stevens’ mother gave him the twelve-volume edition of Emerson’s Essays as a Christmas gift in 1898, while Stevens was a student at Harvard. His markings and notes in these volumes show that he read them with care at this crucial stage in his intellectual development. Reading Emerson’s essays today, I am struck by Stevensian parallels not so much in the realm of large ideas (like Bloom’s Emersonian triumvirate of Freedom, Fate, and Power) as in the use of particular poetic figures. Many of Stevens’ most characteristic imaginative conceptions turn out (it seems to me) to owe something to his reading of Emerson. For instance, Stevens uses figures of transparency (“the man of glass, / Who in a million diamonds sums us up”; “The vivid transparence that you bring is peace” [CPP 227, 329]) in the same sense as Emerson does: to represent a state of elevated vision in which “outlines and surfaces become transparent, and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them” (33). To give only one more example, Emerson’s metaphorical conception of the poet who “puts the world, like a ball, in our hands” (463) and who “tosses the creation like a bauble from hand to hand” (34) is unmistakably similar to Stevens’ figure of the poet as juggler in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:

He held the world upon his nose And this-a-way he gave a fling.

His robes and symbols, ai-yi-yi— And that-a-way he twirled the thing.

Such particular parallels between Emerson and Stevens, taken together with the many fundamental similarities Bloom finds in their ways of [End Page 4] thinking, seem to me convincing evidence of influence or affinity. Perhaps that is the subject for a future issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal. Clarifying Stevens’ relation to Emerson might prepare the way for a potentially very illuminating study of Stevens and Whitman that would compare and contrast the two poets on the firm ground of Emerson’s importance to each.

Glen Macleod
University of Connecticut

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. “The Central Man: Emerson, Whitman, Wallace Stevens.” Massachusetts Review 7.1 (1966): 23–42. Print.
———. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983. Print.
MacLeod, Glen. “Wallace Stevens and Henry James: The New York Connection.” Wallace Stevens Journal 34.1 (2010): 3–14. Print.
Stevens, Wallace. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1997. Print. [End Page 5]