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Beach Boys:
Stevens, Whitman, and Franco-American Modernism

I send these words to Paris with my love, And I guess some chansonniers there will understand them. . . .

—Walt Whitman, from “France, the 18th Year of These States”

IN THE FORTY YEARS, almost, since the publication of Harold Bloom’s Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Stevens scholarship has weathered, and indeed has often forecasted, sea-changes that have altered the contours of literary studies. Bloom’s psychopoiesis has fared less well, however. His signature swerve (or clinamen) has been superseded by other turns—spatial, transnational, historical—and as the paradigms have shifted, Bloom’s vertical model of poetic genealogy has been undermined by the transversal and mobile modalities of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome. Troping the trope à la Bloom has become, if not a proscribed activity, then a guilty pleasure. That said, and even if we move on to consider Stevens and Whitman under different rubrics, it would be downright perverse to broach the topic of this special issue of the Wallace Stevens Journal without first revisiting Bloom.

The “account of the interpoetic relation between Whitman and Stevens” in The Poems of Our Climate is, by Bloom’s own admission, “very complex” (11), but his nonetheless remains the “standard,” if not the sole, study of the subject. Diane Middlebrook’s Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens predates Bloom’s book, and although Middlebrook was Bloom’s student, her comparativist approach “is not based on [his] idea of influence” (19). Where Middlebrook treats the two poets “separately but symmetrically” in order to assess the effects of a loose analogy between Stevens’ and Whitman’s romantic conception “of the mind’s creative relation to reality” (19), Bloom anatomizes, in his own words, “overt allusions” that “conceal as much as they reveal of Whitman’s deepest and most anxiety-inducing influences upon Stevens” (15). [End Page 50]

The most overt of those allusions is the opening stanza of “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” first published in Poetry magazine in 1935, and subsequently included in Stevens’ 1936 volume Ideas of Order:

In the far South the sun of autumn is passing Like Walt Whitman walking along a ruddy shore. He is singing and chanting the things that are part of him, The worlds that were and will be, death and day. Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end. His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.

Rebutting William Carlos Williams’ suggestion that “Walt Whitman meant nothing to him” (“Comment” 238), Stevens’ lines are a paean to Whitman as the embodiment of an American sublime, the sun simile assimilating Whitman to the diurnal round, and to the seasonal cycle: beginning with “the sun of autumn,” the poem ends “in snow” (CPP 128). As part of nature, Whitman is also part of us, and of our climate. Since the “subject” of Stevens’ poem is, Helen Vender reminds us, “death and fatal chill” (Extended 66), its opening stanza may be parsed not only as a celebration of Whitman’s solar power but also as an abbreviated elegy or epitaph for a predecessor whose sun has set. Stevens’ stanza both invokes and revokes Whitman’s self-presentation in “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” in which the poet, “inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,” “wander’d alone over the beach” and “saw the sun rise” (Poetry 276). Whitman may chant that “Nothing is final,” yet the logic of Stevens’ poem’s titular conceit dictates that its stanzas are grave goods. Stevens’ agon with his precursor is hiding in plain sight in his homage to a “post mortem” Whitman (Lawrence 155).

But the Whitman who is rendered in the first stanza of “Like Decorations” in his own signature present tense is not so easily laid to rest in Stevens’ poem’s cimetière marin: as Bloom notes, Whitman’s most potent articulation of the indivisibility of birth and death, or “death and day,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” is sounded in Stevens’ own shore lyrics. It may be the case that for Stevens as for Whitman, “To say ‘sea’” is also “to say ‘death’” (Miller 281), but for both poets, to say death is also to say birth. “Death is the mother of beauty” in Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” (CPP 55), and the word “accoucheur” (i.e., obstetrician) in section 49 of “Song of Myself” (Poetry 245) captures “Whitman’s simultaneous opposition and conflation of life and death” (Leonard 27); Stevens’ adage that “French and English constitute a single language” (CPP 914) is embodied in the macaronic and near-oxymoronic phrase “Berceuse, transatlantic” in his 1939 poem “The Woman That Had More Babies Than That” (CPP 202).1 The figure of the “accoucheur” or “berceuse” returns in the poems of Whitman’s Sea-Drift, as the “old crone rocking the cradle” in “Out of the [End Page 51] Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and as “the fierce old mother [who] endlessly cries for her castaways” in “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” (Poetry 394).

Starting from Paumanok, Whitman winds up “wintering along the coasts of Florida” (Poetry 322) in “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.” The unfortunate title, prompted by the poem’s dedicatee, Judge Arthur Powell, locates it as a product of the Florida Keys, where Stevens vacationed with Powell, who was legal counsel for the southern branch of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (see L 272).2 Bloom flags the proximity, in several senses, between “Like Decorations” and “The Idea of Order at Key West,” identifying the Whitman-figure in the former poem with the female singer on the shore of the latter.3 Both are the “progeny” of Harmonium’s Hoon, whose assertion that “I was the world in which I walked” is self-defeating, since Hoon is himself a belated incarnation of Whitman’s cosmic imagination (Bloom 65; CPP 51).4 For Bloom, all three poems, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” and “The Idea of Order at Key West,” are also iterations of that ur-genre, the American “crisis-poem” (2). From its inception in Emerson’s “Seashore,” the American crisis-poem has been “a shore-lyric,” Bloom says (96), since the shore-line is the interzone of contact, of conquest, and of crossings, not only between the primary elements of water and land but also “between one kind of figurative thinking and another” (2). The Key West shore-line—where Stevens got into literal fisticuffs with Ernest Hemingway in 1936—is a figurative sparring ground in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” if we agree with Bloom that “To sing beyond the genius of the sea is to defy the poetics of Whitman” (98).5

J. Hillis Miller takes a different tack in his Topographies, where he finds that “The Idea of Order at Key West” “brings into the open a new spirit, the spirit of the world the song has made out of sea and wind sounds” (277). The poem thereby “bypasses the way American history”—like American literary theory—“is often a chronicle of (territorial) appropriation” (282). If “The Idea of Order at Key West” is read as an act of poetic worlding, the shore-lyric per se may be reconfigured in the deterritorializing and “open-ended” terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s smooth space, the “model” of which is the sea itself (xi, 556).6 After Bloom, that is, spatialized or rhizomatic models of intertextuality and of transatlantic reception history may help us gauge the extent to which the lines of poetic connection between Stevens and Whitman are enmeshed. The French connection between the two extends from their shared penchant for French words and phrases to the reception of both poets in France in the 1920s. [End Page 52]

Whitman’s use of the French he had picked up during his 1848 sojourn in New Orleans has been construed as a linguistic equivalent of nation-building (see Asselineau). Welcoming foreign words into the host language bolsters and diversifies American English, in the same way that immigrants propagate and strengthen the genetic stock on which the nation’s constitution or body politic depends. More specifically, as Betsy Erkkila notes, Whitman used French words “to reflect the French contribution to American nationality and to connect America’s experience to France’s enlightened, republican, and revolutionary heritage” (Whitman 86). That heritage, which in an 1856 article of that title Whitman called “America’s mightiest Inheritance” (see Kummings), is celebrated in “O Star of France” (1871), Whitman’s exhortation to the French ship of state, battered by the Second Empire and the Franco-Prussian war, to “continue on!” into the calmer waters of the Third Republic (Poetry 520). Whitman’s deployment of French is thus not a matter of “affectation” (Leonard 24). However, in her article “Walt Whitman and the French Language,” published in 1926, Louise Pound had proposed something very different: that Whitman used French words “for their own sake” (423). As Pound understands him, Whitman is less an honorary sans-culotte than like the Stevens who explained that “one uses French for the pleasure that it gives” (L 792); Whitman’s French is a facet of his own language experiment.

If France had contributed to the grand experiment of American democracy, then, as a modernist avant la lettre, Whitman impacted in turn on the development of proto-modernism in France. The first French translations of Whitman, published in 1886 in the symbolist magazine La Vogue, were written by Jules Laforgue, whose own verse would prove a formative influence for Stevens and for T. S. Eliot—so much so, in the latter’s case, that his most recent biographer says that in his Harvard days Eliot was “writing French American poetry” (Crawford 135). Because Whitman’s impact on symbolism and on modernism has been occluded, however, the American contribution to the transatlantic origins of modernism has also been obscured: in the 1910s, Eliot recalls, “Poe and Whitman had to be seen through French eyes”—through the eyes of Baudelaire and Laforgue (Gordon 46).

As Erkkila points out, the majority of Whitman’s French words and idioms signify “unity, bonding, and affectionate address”—salut au monde, rapport, mélange, ensemble, résumé, mon cher, mon enfant, ma femme, compagnons, ami (Whitman 86). Whitman’s French resolves antinomies; even the antinomy between life and death is resolved in his apostrophe to Death as an accoucheur. And French words also collapse the literary-historical binary that was set up in the 1910s between Whitman and Stevens as the representatives of indigenous and of imported languages of American poetry. For example, Louis Untermeyer’s anthology Modern American Poetry (1919), together with its critical companion, The New Era in American Poetry (1919), “championed the cause of an ‘unflinchingly masculine’ American [End Page 53] poetics, a native strain derived from nineteenth-century precursors such as Whitman, and free from the disabling taint of Euro-literary association” (Sharpe 92). Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg are among Whitman’s masculine camp-followers; effete Europhiles like Stevens and Eliot are not. In the case of Stevens, at least, Untermeyer’s division is specious—although, unlike “Eleves” such as Sandburg, Stevens never joined the confraternity of those Whitman called the “Poets to Come” (Poetry 231, 175), Whitman’s native strain is audible throughout Stevens—in “Ploughing on Sunday,” where we hear America singing; in the “boisterous” chants of the sun-worshipping “ring of men” in “Sunday Morning”; and in the “barbarous chanting of what is strong” in “Parochial Theme” (CPP 55–56, 177). Havelock Ellis recognized that Whitman (like Stevens) “came of a vigorous Dutch stock,” and that he celebrated the “heroic earthliness” of his ancestors in his poetry (819). In Stevens, the earthliness of the Whitmanian native strain is spliced with “Euro-literary” associations—associations that are mediated through Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Laforgue, but that derive in significant part from indigenous American sources, Poe and Whitman. Symbolist and modernist traditions work according to an import-export model in which French symbolism and American poetry alike are the products of transatlantic circuits of exchange.

Untermeyer’s foreign/domestic binary has nonetheless been perpetuated by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. As Tony Sharpe notes, whereas René Taupin’s L’Influence du symbolisme français sur la poésie américaine (1929) attempted to “annex” Stevens to a French tradition, “a half-century later [Bloom] is concerned to argue Stevens’s centrality to an American tradition” (5). In “An American Poet,” his review of the Faber and Faber edition of Stevens’ Selected Poems, William Empson complicates but also confirms the “native”/“Euro-literary” binary by contrasting the effects of Whitman’s and Stevens’ fondness for French. That “Walt Whitman also liked throwing in foreign words . . . is not offensive . . . once you realise he is trying to be all-inclusively democratic” (521). When Stevens bandies “the flashing bon-mot,” however, he is merely an American wannabe sophisticate, a sleight-of-hand man turning a “foreign-language trick” (521). Empson’s Stevens sounds like one of “the young men of These States” taken to task in Whitman’s open letter to Emerson: “putting not this land first, but always other lands first, talking of art,” these “dandies” “can never justify the strong poems of America” (Poetry 1356–57). What Vendler calls the “English incomprehension of Stevens” (Wallace Stevens 81), so evident in Empson’s rather snooty gloss on an American poet’s French, did not obtain in France itself, however, and indeed in the Paris of the 1920s, the decade in which that city superseded London as the hub of modernist experimentation, the binary between Stevens and Whitman collapses.7

Twenties Paris was not only the preserve of the expatriate Lost Generation, but also acted as a clearing house for what Hugh Kenner calls “homemade” [End Page 54] American modernism: Robert McAlmon’s Contact Press was based there, and issued Williams’ Spring and All in 1923.8 Sylvia Beach’s 12 rue de l’Odéon bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., was likewise a dissemination point for American writing. Beach, of course, was the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Stevens was a subscriber to the first, 1922, edition: his copy (no. 466 of the 1,000 printed) was brought into the U.S. for him by his friend Pitts Sanborn (see L 231). Beach’s remarkable commitment to Joyce was complemented by her commitment to American writers, in particular the Whitman she recognized as a precursor for the American modernists, including Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Williams, and Stevens, whose books Beach sold, lent out, and enthusiastically promoted.

In April 1926, Shakespeare & Co. put on a Whitman exhibition, at the opening of which the “first to pay homage to the American poet was [Paul] Valéry” (Fitch 231).9 In his remarks, one of Joyce’s French translators, Auguste Morel, compared Joyce with Whitman, calling the Irishman “the Whitman of prose—a Whitman who speaks all the languages of Whitman and then some” (qtd. in Fitch 232). For his part, Joyce would reference the Whitman exhibition in Work in Progress. As Beach’s biographer comments, “No American present at the reception would have made Morel’s comparison between Whitman and Joyce. Not acknowledging Whitman’s modernism, they [Americans] knew less about Whitman’s poetry than did the French with whom they mingled that night” (Fitch 232). Erkkila likewise makes the point that Whitman’s role as precipitant of the moderns was recognized much earlier in France than in America: “in the opening decades of the twentieth century Whitman had not been fully absorbed by ‘literary’ America [and] would be smuggled back into the country via his French connections” (Walt Whitman 231).10 In France, by contrast, Laforgue’s 1880s translations had been followed, in 1908, by Léon Bazalgette’s Le “Poème-Évangile” de Walt Whitman, and then, in 1909, by Bazalgette’s translation of Leaves of Grass in its entirety (see Fitch 228).

As Alfred Kreymborg says, “Walt Whitman was a demigod in Paris” (294), and nowhere more so than among those members of Sylvia Beach’s intellectual circle, like the poet Jules Romains, who proselytized the Whitmanian doctrine of unanisme. The year before the Shakespeare & Co. exhibition, Whitman had figured prominently in the inaugural issue of Le Navire d’Argent, a little magazine edited by Beach’s longtime companion and fellow bookseller, Adrienne Monnier. In the opening essay, Valéry Larbaud—another Joyce translator, who also published essays on Whitman’s poetry—pays tribute to Paris as the “capital of the Occident” (qtd. in Fitch 188). Quoting Whitman’s “I am a real Parisian” from his “Salut au Monde!”—“I see the cities of the earth and make myself at random a part of them, / I am a real Parisian” (Poetry 293)—Larbaud welcomes “the Parisians born outside of France, that is to say, the foreigners who have been and are able to contribute to the material activity of Paris and to its spiritual power, like Walt Whitman” (qtd. in Fitch 188). [End Page 55]

Whitman was a “real Parisian” who never visited Paris. Neither did Stevens, who told Bernard Heringman, “if I ever go to Paris the first person I meet will be myself since I have been there in one way or another for so long” (L 665). In fashioning himself a virtual boulevardier in a real Paris, Stevens differentiates himself, both from the expatriate American writers and from his French contemporary Léon-Paul Fargue, poet, sometime Joyce translator, and member of the Shakespeare & Co. set. “The trouble with Fargue,” Stevens would tell Thomas MacGreevy, is that “he substituted Paris for the imagination”—presumably in Fargue’s Le Piéton de Paris (1939) and his Paris poems (L 696). In the material form of his own books, Stevens had indeed been in Paris for a long time: volumes of his poetry were stocked in Shakespeare & Co. The English surrealist poet David Gascoyne, for example, bought his copy of Harmonium there in 1933 (see Fraser 60).

By way of their mutual friend Henry Church, to whom “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is dedicated, Stevens’ connection with Shakespeare & Co. lasted as long as the shop did (Beach closed its doors in 1940, during the German occupation of Paris). Henry and Barbara Church, who had moved to Ville d’Avray on the outskirts of Paris in 1921, had been subscribers to Shakespeare & Co. since 1927 (see Fitch 349). In 1935, Church and Jean Paulhan started the literary magazine Mesures, which was managed by Monnier and published with Beach’s assistance (see Paulhan). The July 1939 issue would be devoted to North American writers, among them Whitman and Stevens. Church wrote to Stevens to ask permission to have several Harmonium poems translated for the upcoming special issue, and “Stevens, who had subscribed to Mesures since its inception some five years earlier through his Paris book seller, A. Vidal, readily agreed” (L 338n). Mesures 3 (July 1939) included translations of “Ploughing on Sunday,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” and “Fabliau of Florida.”

The Churches returned to the United States at the outbreak of World War II. A mooted U.S. version of Mesures did not materialize (see L 357), and neither did Church’s and Stevens’ plan to bring Jean Paulhan to the U.S. to take up the Harvard Chair of Poetry that Church wanted to endow for him (see Filreis 103–06). The French connection did continue, however, with the Mesures lectures in Princeton in 1943 and 1944, and with the relocation to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts of the décade, the annual ten-day gatherings of intellectuals and writers that had been founded in 1910 in the medieval monastery at Pontigny, in Burgundy. Mount Holyoke hosted the Entretiens de Pontigny between 1942 and 1944; invited to participate by the French philosopher Jean Wahl, who had been a member of Church’s pre-war Ville d’Avray circle, Stevens delivered his lecture “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet” there in August 1943 (see Bentley and Remmier). In keeping with the theme of the 1943 conference, “the permanence of values and the renewal of methods” (qtd. in Filreis 107), [End Page 56] Stevens’ “Figure of the Youth” embodies “the intelligence that endures. It is the imagination of the son still bearing the antique imagination of the father” (CPP 675). Malcolm Woodland points to Stevens’ “use of the myth of Aeneas and Anchises as a figure of poetic tradition” (87), and in the American poetic tradition, it may indeed be that Stevens is Aeneas to Whitman’s Anchises, albeit that the “virile poet” is one of Whitman’s personae. As a figure of poetic tradition in a time of war, however, Stevens’ description of the poet as an Aeneas who carries his father on his back to escape the sack of Troy must have had a different and much more immediate resonance for his Mount Holyoke audience, many of whom were refugees from Nazi-occupied Paris.

In a reverse trajectory, Stevens and Whitman had found common ground in Paris, in the years of l’entre-deux-guerres. The American contribution to the emergence and development of transatlantic modernism itself comes into fuller focus when we locate Stevens and Whitman, not on Bloom’s beach, but in Sylvia Beach’s bookshop.

Lee M. Jenkins
University College Cork


1. Stevens’ letters to Bernard Heringman also assert a continuum between French and English: “A good many words come to me from French origins. I think we have a special relation to French and even that it can be said that English and French are a single language”; “English and French are the same language” (L 699, 792).

2. Stevens would explain to his editor at Poetry magazine, Morton Dauwen Zabel, that “The title refers to the litter that one usually finds in a nigger cemetery and is a phrase used by Judge Powell last winter in Key West” (L 272). As his biographer Joan Richardson explains, Stevens’ “relationship with Powell . . . belonged to Florida and the South” (93–94).

3. Richardson argues that “In comparing his perceptions to ‘decorations in a nigger cemetery,’ Stevens was revealing his sympathetic identification with America’s most obvious underclass,” since “Stevens’s conception of ‘an American poet,’ like Whitman’s, included an attempt to identify with all groups within his society” (117). For African-American poet Terrance Hayes, however, Stevens’ title’s use of the “n-word” “bring[s] a sentence to its knees” (57). In his response-poem, “Snow for Wallace Stevens,” Hayes calls Stevens “the emperor of whiteness” (57). Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” to which Hayes is of course alluding here, is another poem about death that in a more nuanced fashion than “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” appropriates African-American funerary rites as materia poetica. According to Elizabeth Bishop, Stevens’ poem is set in Key West and references the African-American practice of eating ice cream at funerals there (see Monteiro 146). The chapter on “Graveyards and Decorations” in John Michael Vlach’s study of the African-American decorative arts tells us that grave decorations in the American South “are containers, and most can be broken in such a way that they still retain their form” (141). Breaking the decorations, a survival of African custom, is a means of breaking the chain of death. Once broken, however, according to testimony recorded by Vlach, “it ain’t for nobody to touch ‘em” (141). [End Page 57]

4. Middlebrook, by contrast, suggests that the Whitman of “Like Decorations” is himself a progenitor, although a progenitor in rather than for Stevens, in that he is “an early type” of “the image of the ancestor or ‘bearded peer’” that recurs in Stevens’ late work (179).

5. Contrast Stevens’ “it was she and not the sea we heard” in “The Idea of Order at Key West” (CPP 105) with Whitman’s lines from “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”: “That is the whistle of the wind, it is not my voice, / That is the fluttering, the fluttering of the spray” (Poetry 391).

6. Deleuze and Guattari suggest that “America is a special case” although “it is not immune from domination by trees or the search for roots” (19).

7. In Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination, Michel Benamou points to “the double lineage, American and French, which ends in Stevens” and which questions “the very idea of literary genealogies” (xi).

8. Contact Press was an offshoot of Contact, the little magazine founded by McAlmon and Williams in 1920 on the neo-nativist premise that “If Americans are to be blessed with important work it will be through intelligent, informed contact with the locality which alone can infuse it with reality” (Williams, “Sample” 18). In light of this, it is ironic that, as McAlmon would later remark, “In America the books [issued by Contact Press] were seldom commented on and, if mentioned, they were referred to as Paris and expatriate productions even if their authors were living, and had been living, in America” (McAlmon and Boyle 304). In a letter to Williams, written in 1925, a year after the birth of his daughter, Stevens refers to McAlmon, and to a French poet who is visiting Hartford, but adds, “oh la-la: my job is not now with poets from Paris” but with keeping “the wheels of the baby’s chariot turning” (L 246). Williams was skeptical of “the French influence on [Stevens’] style or the influence he conceived to be French, though it was no more French than that of Robert Louis Stevenson” (“Comment” 234).

9. The Shakespeare & Co. Whitman exhibition was a fundraiser for Jo Davidson’s sculpture of Whitman, but the plan to erect the sculpture in Manhattan’s Battery Park would eventually be abandoned. As Lisa Goldfarb has shown, the “parallels between Stevens and Valéry are many” and include a shared interest in the relations between poetry and philosophy and in “Symbolist notions of the role of the poet” (“Music” 151). Yet, Goldfarb points out, “little work has been done to uncover the deeper, more sustained affinities” between the two (151)—a lack that her own The Figure Concealed: Wallace Stevens, Music, and Valéryan Echoes has since redressed.

10. Alan Trachtenberg likewise notes that “Given a story so resonant with implications regarding native aspects of early American modernism, it is striking that Whitman’s presence there has not yet been examined in detail” (195). One reason for the neglect of “indigenous sources of the modernist impulse,” Trachtenberg suggests, is the “notion of modernism as a foreign import, an effect of such invasions and interventions as that represented by the Armory Show of 1913” (195).

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