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Everyday Nobility: Stevens and the Paradoxes of Democratic Heroism

From: Wallace Stevens Journal
Volume 36, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 23-46 | 10.1353/wsj.2012.0005

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Words like "Hero," "major man," and "nobility" appear in a variety of contexts in Wallace Stevens' body of writing, and scholars have long debated the politics of these terms since they play such an important role in the poet's lexicon. Their conclusions have been surprisingly contradictory. As early as 1942, Hi Simons noted that Stevens' hero "bore some suspicion of resemblance to a sort of fuehrer." Yet, despite these reservations, Simons went on to associate the hero with "those capacities for noble living and thinking in which the average man transcends himself" (qtd. in Doyle 208). More recently, Lee M. Jenkins has described Stevens as a "totaliser" with an "attraction to demagoguery" (194-95), while James Longenbach identifies Stevens' politics with "the attenuated liberal position" represented by Arthur Schlesinger's Cold War classic, The Vital Center (285). Milton J. Bates has written that after the Great Depression forced Stevens to engage with Marxist opponents, his "major man" became "more democratic than it would otherwise have been" (262). In a similar vein, David Bromwich notes that Stevens' hero "had much to do with a widening of his sense of the 'noble' imagination to include many rather than few" in order to prove that "the mind's powers were not necessarily involved with the pattern of high and low in a given social order" (69, 71). Yet, based on her reading of similar poems and letters, Marjorie Perloff draws precisely the opposite conclusion about "major man." To her, Stevens' poems on this theme adopt "a defensive, perhaps somewhat petulant posture," since the "real Major Men included such names as Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin" (45, 59). Depending on which poems and letters one quotes from, there is sufficient textual evidence to support each of these lines of argument and evaluation. Perhaps it is enough to say that Stevens' attitude toward heroism was inconsistent, or politically ambivalent, not unlike his ambivalence toward other crucial topics like gender and religion.

Rather than explain away the political ambivalences that haunt his poems on the hero, this essay will try to deepen our understanding of the rationale and vocabulary attached to one of the positions to which Stevens seemed most attracted: the democratic approach to heroism. For even if we acknowledge that Stevens remained remarkably conflicted about the politics of his heroes, it should come as no surprise that he entertained doubts and counterarguments in poems where he planted himself firmly on one side of the debate. That is to say, even when Stevens committed himself to articulating a democratic idea of the hero, he did not shy away from the problems and paradoxes such an account tended to generate. This essay will outline the nineteenth-century intellectual history and the psychological rationale that inform this link between democracy and heroism in Stevens' imagination.

Stevens' most extensive poetic meditation on the heroic occurs in "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War," first published in The Harvard Advocate in April 1942. His use of offbeat or oblique titles is no secret to the readers of this journal, yet the title of this poem is provocatively misleading. Contrary to expectation, "Examination" does not examine episodes of soldierly conquest or deeds of martial bravery. There are no scenes from the trenches and barely any reference to the imagery or settings of modern war. Except for the first three stanzas, "Examination" restricts its attention entirely to the nature and scope of heroism outside the context of warfare. To summarize the poem in this way begins to hint at the eccentricity of Stevens' definition of the hero. For what can it mean to sever the concept of heroism from acts of moral courage and life-preserving violence? And why would one want to do so in the first place?

To respond to these questions will require the remaining pages of this essay, so let me pause here to offer a short précis of my general argument and how it intersects with the themes of this special issue on Stevens and the everyday. While Stevens is often celebrated as a modernist or even a proto-postmodernist poet, his concern with the fate of heroism in the modern age was...

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